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Nationality and the French Revolution: From urban to national to global citizenship?

Any conceptualization of a future ‘global citizenship’ starts with how it differs from earlier forms of citizenship. In this respect, the year 1789 is usually identified as a decisive moment in history, with the French revolution representing a watershed in our thinking about citizenship. A new book by Maarten Prak entitled Citizens without Nations. Urban Citizenship in Europe and the World c. 1000-1789 now offers us greater insight into the pre-modern concept of citizenship. Before highlighting some of its findings, however, some preliminary historical observations on nationality and citizenship may be useful.

The origin of (western) citizenship is generally traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. Yet neither the Greek City State nor the Roman Empire was a State – that is, a society whose political organization corresponded to the concept of a nation. What was essential to the Greek and Roman status of citizenship were the rights of participation in the political activities of what were then small communal communities. As citizenship primarily expressed a (personal) status rather than a belonging to a territorially defined nation, the Greek and Roman ideas on citizenship – although directly relevant to current definitions of citizenship – are therefore not the direct predecessors of nationality as it is now used under international law. The modern concept of nationality is of more recent origin and is primarily related to power over territory. The concept of nationality in pre-modern times was also different from nationality as it is known today because, as noted by James Kettner, ‘the medieval notion of “allegiance” reflected the feudal sense that personal bonds between man and lord were the primary ligaments of the body politic; the modern notion of “nationality” assumed a legal tie binding individuals to a territorial state and rendering them subject to its jurisdiction. The “community of allegiance” was in essence personal, the “nation state” primarily territorial’ (our emphasis).

In the aftermath of the French Revolution the nation-state became the principal political construct. As a result, the concept of nationality gained importance and became the object of detailed legislation. At that time a rapid growth in international relations occurred, but it was also the time when strong national identities came into being and the nation’s need for ‘sacralisation’ became increasingly dependent on the emotional dimension of nationality. The debate on the definition of the nation was also aroused by the transfer of sovereignty from the king to the nation. Nonetheless, in Rogers Brubaker’s analysis, ‘the subjective “identity” of the vast majority of the population throughout Europe was no doubt largely local on the one hand and religious on the other until at least the end of the eighteenth century. For most inhabitants local and regional identities continued to be more salient than national identity until late in the nineteenth century’.

In late 18th century France, the legal divisions between different population groups – such as the various ‘estates’ with their different tax obligations, or guilds with their privileges – were abolished. The disappearance of these structures rendered the legal bond of State membership more important. At the same time, the regulation of nationality became essential because important rights and duties ensued from it. The political rights that were gained after the French Revolution were reserved for French citizens, but the status of French citizen also entailed duties like compulsory military service, which was introduced in many countries around that time.

Prak’s book, then, appears to confirm Brubaker’s thesis by stating that, ‘the implication of [Citizens without Nations] is that the contrast between pre-modern and post-revolutionary citizenship, as we find it in European textbook narratives, is first and foremost the result of a change in perspective. Before the French Revolution citizenship was overwhelmingly a local institution, whose significance has been largely overshadowed by the introduction of national citizenship after 1789’. At the same time, as national citizenship swept away urban citizenship and its institutions, many of the previous practices were lost and would only be regained decades later: ‘Modern citizenship was only properly established in the later nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, with the creation of labour unions, employers’ organisations and political parties capable of articulating citizens’ demands and helping to transform these into real policies’.

One of the strengths of the book is its global perspective. As it includes chapters on China, the Americas and the Middle East, it allows for the following comparative conclusions:

Local coordination through civic organisations was a feature of towns and cities in Asia and the New World as well as in Europe. Citizenship varied across all continents, but those variations were confined to a relatively small spectrum. From a global perspective, European citizenship had some unique features, most notably its conceptualization in political theory and in a civic ideology, but [unlike previously assumed] it was not as fundamentally different from citizenship arrangements elsewhere.

In conclusion, Prak’s main argument is that ‘urban [pre-1789] citizenship was not as bad as it was portrayed by the revolutionaries who sought to overthrow it, and that national citizenship was not as perfect as they claimed’. The book is therefore a (in)direct plea for the reintroduction of bottom up forms of urban citizenship.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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