Practising the Virtues

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The dramatic opening line of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, first published in 1762, is oft-quoted and much debated. What, exactly, did the Genevan writer, philosopher and composer mean? The same goes for many other aspects of Rousseau’s political thought, especially his belief that sovereignty – the power to make laws – should be vested in the people. How does that play out in reality? And how relevant is it to the modern world?

Dr Karma Nabulsi, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations and Fellow in Politics at St Edmund Hall, is well placed to answer these questions. After spending her early adult life as a political cadre, Dr Nabulsi’s academic work sees her retain a tangible connection to the real world. Taking Palestine as her key subject, she shows how Rousseau’s thinking – so radical in its era – still resonates in contemporary society and in the struggles for freedom, democracy, and justice.

“Rousseau was a fascinating man with many talents in a multitude of arenas,” says Dr. Nabulsi. “But he was never an isolated, lofty figure in an ivory tower. While he may have found it impossible to turn off the thoughts in his head or to resist the urge to write, as W. G. Sebald captures in his essay J’aurais voulu que ce lac eût été l’Océan, [in Sebald’s A Place in the Country], but he was just as ceaselessly practical and remained deeply engaged in current affairs. He was determined to see his ideas applied in practice or, as he and his fellow-minded republican contemporaries put it, to ‘practise the virtues’.”

In 2000 Nabulsi established ‘Republicans Without Republics: National and International Networks’, a dedicated research project sponsored by the British Academy.  By the time of the project’s closing workshop in 2008, she had critically examined the writings and ideas of Rousseau and of other 18th and 19th Century revolutionary republicans,  a body of work which she drew upon in her keynote address at the 17th international colloquium of the Rousseau Association in 2012. Though enthralled by what she calls ‘the energy and brilliance’ of Rousseau’s ideas, Dr. Nabulsi soon arrived at a clear belief of her own: not only are the foundational ideals and aims behind democratic revolutions universal (ideas such as liberty, equality, justice and popular sovereignty), but so too are the organisational tools and practices employed by those creating democratic revolutions.

The reason for this, says Dr. Nabulsi, goes to the heart of Rousseau’s thinking. “Rousseau believed that the people are sovereign – that they’re the authors of the laws that govern them, and it is from this principle that all legitimate political power emanates. When we look at democratic revolutions we see people taking charge of their own destiny. Yet these moments are the result of years of practising a careful craft of organisation and mobilising, based on common principles. This was a central theme amongst republicans, and it continues to be borne out around the world today.”

Dr. Nabulsi attests to what she calls “the brilliance and ingenuity of people themselves working to advance their rights”, having worked extensively with collective civic organisations in the ground-breaking research project Civitas: Foundations for the Participation of Palestinian Refugees and Exile Communities’. That project provided a forum for Palestinian refugees to identify the methods best suited for them to achieve popular democratic representation, and it has had tangible effects.

Using a participatory method that was designed at collective meetings and relied on extensive refugee mobilisation, this grassroots work involved thousands of Palestinian refugees in some twenty five countries between 2003 and 2006. It resulted in a register (‘Palestinians Register: Laying Foundations and Setting Directions, which is now the standard reference on Palestinian refugees, their popular organising, their civic, social and economic status, and their aspirations for freedom and representation. The report documents the collective voice of Palestinian refugees on issues of political representation and the connections that they have (and do not have) with their national representative body, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

“The Palestinians today are a people without their own sovereign country,” says Dr. Nabulsi. “As a result of the 1948 war over 750,000 Palestinians - the majority of people - became refugees. Today this refugee population has grown to five million, and Palestinians live scattered across the Arab world or further away in Europe or America. About half of the Palestinian people still live inside the area of historic Palestine, either inside Israel, or in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The Civitas project enabled Palestinians across the world, both in enforced exile and at home, to raise their voices clearly and collectively.”

Another strand of Dr. Nabulsi’s Civitas work led to the registration, as citizens and voters, of a large number of the Palestinians living outside Palestine. This represents a significant step forward in renewal along popular democratic lines. As Dr. Nabulsi puts it: “One of the recurring themes during the meetings that took place from 2003- 2006 was the demand for democratic elections to the Palestine National Council (PNC), for all Palestinians to be able to participate in their national affairs, and contribute to them. The PNC is the supreme legislative body of the PLO and the PLO Charter states that representatives for the PNC should be democratically elected. There is a national consensus on holding democratic elections, but they are yet to take place. The voter registration system means that fully fledged democratic elections are that bit closer.”

More recently, Dr. Nabulsi worked on another British Academy sponsored programme, ‘Teaching Contemporary Palestinian Political History’. Launched in October 2009, the programme is a collaboration between the University of Oxford and universities in Palestine and the Arab world. It created an online curriculum for university students in Arabic and English on the Palestinian political history of the revolutionary decades, with a focus on civic and popular organisational practices in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. The platform relies on primary documents, oral history interviews with key protagonists and other rare materials. It became available online for students, teachers and the general public in 2014.

Mobilising and engaging the people - particularly the younger generation – is key to Dr. Nabulsi’s British Academy work at Oxford. And while her core focus is Palestine, her research and the ideals it invokes have universal applicability – just like those of their most articulate philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

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Karma Nabulsi