Book Review: The Nation's Tortured Body


    Canovan, Margaret. Nationhood and Political Theory. Cheltenham, UK and Northfield, MA, Edward Elgar, 1996.

This book, as Shakespeare might have said, is brave.1 Its task is twofold. Firstly, it sets out generally to clarify the importance of "nationhood" for political theory. Secondly, it attempts to challenge, at the level of social ontology, (liberal) political theorists’ understandings of the conditions necessary to the existence of political communities. Compare Canovan’s forthright and early statement of her aims: "The purpose of this book is to argue that questions of nationhood are not an optional extra for political theory, but should actually be at the heart of the discipline. The reason for this is that … nationhood is actually a tacit premise in almost all contemporary political thinking" (1).

Of the three blurbs on the back of the 1998 paperback edition of the book, only one alludes to the boldness of Canovan’s theses. Perhaps this is not surprising, because Canovan does not make a great show of the sweep of her all-encompassing critique. The skimmer might well miss it. But that would be a mistake.

Canovan, it seems to me, is trying to reawaken our sense of wonder at the fact that political communities can even exist on their current massive scale. This reawakening will, of course, challenge many of the assumptions made by contemporary (and especially liberal) political theory. Indeed, "challenge" is probably too weak a verb, as witness this passage: "the thesis proposed here is that contemporary political theory is saved from complete utopianism and linked to the tangled world of empirical politics only because the community it presupposes is an idealized version of a political community that really does exist in some places, namely the nation" (46).

By now, the reader will doubtless be asking, "What, according to Canovan, is a nation?" I can only respond, "I don’t know, and I don’t think Canovan cares to ‘know,’ either." This response is not the result of obtuseness on my part (I hope), or of indolence on hers: it is instead the consequence of an interesting gambit used by Canovan: she wants to claim that the essential thing about the concept "nation" is precisely that it admits of so many different definitions—theoretical and otherwise. Hence, Canovan never attempts to definitely answer Ernest Renan’s notorious question, because she thinks no definite answer to it can be valid; she opts instead to analyze—though she does not define—the concept of nationhood. She argues "firstly, that the key to nationhood as a political phenomenon is mediation, mediation between different aspects of experience and between the members of the nation; secondly, that this mediation enables nations to act as batteries generating popular power, and thirdly that in doing so, nations present an appearance of naturalness that is profoundly misleading, especially for political theory" (68, emphasis in original).

The most fascinating part of the book is the transition between the second and third of those arguments. That nationhood is, on Canovan’s appropriately mixed metaphors, "a battery, a reservoir of power that can slumber for decades and still be available for rapid mobilization," is not a claim that will shatter the earth (73). Nor, though she frames the problem with unusual skill, will the question, "Given the instability inherent in the human condition, how does any political entity come to have enough unity to be able to generate the power to act and maintain itself" (73)? The truly original question that Canovan’s analysis seems implicitly to urge upon us (though unfortunately, she herself does not pose it) is, "What happens if (a) the battery is revealed to be artificial, and (b) the citizenry of the nation then accepts this revelation as true?" Now, (a) happens all the time in scholarly writings, but (b), to my knowledge, has never happened. If in fact it were to happen, the logic of Canovan’s argument seems to suggest that the political community in question would fall apart.

However that may be, Canovan goes on to examine nationhood’s "mediating" role through a study of English and British nationhood. She then considers the attempts of some political theorists to save liberalism from association with nationhood by arguing that a liberal political community does rely on affective relationships, notably patriotic ones. Canovan finds these patriotic-republican arguments unpersuasive, mostly for reasons outlined above.

Canovan’s final chapter draws the implications that her analysis holds for political theory. She argues that political theorists must not underestimate (i) the importance of nations for generating collective power, (ii) the "Machiavellian reality of national claims and border-changes, (iii) the tension within liberalism between universal principles and loyalties to the local (124). She concludes the book by arguing that "nationalist realism," "universalist utopianism," and "neo-Hobbesian realism" are none of them sufficient for dealing with the national dilemmas she has revealed for political theory, and that we must therefore prepare ourselves for a long, laborious bout of muddling through.

My major complaint against the book is that the distinction between the concepts of nation and nationhood is not drawn with sufficient sharpness. Canovan seems to want to avoid the intrinsic problems associated with using the nation-concept by using instead the concept of nationhood. This is fine, and so is her defense of her decision not to offer a firm definition of nationhood. But it was not clear to me in what ways Canovan’s conception of nationhood differed from the concept of the nation. The suffix "-hood" means something like "the state or condition of being"; our understanding is not much improved if, when (c) is problematic, we then start talking about (c)-hood.

But this is all by the way. Canovan’s arguments are admirably bold, and are plausible and challenging. No political theorist interested in nationalism studies can afford to ignore this book.

1) Falstaff: "O rare! By the lord, I’ll be a brave judge." –Henry IV, Part 1, I.ii.61.