Albert Jay Nock: Forgotten Man of the Old Right
For an earlier generation of American dissidents from the prevailing ideology of left-liberalism, a rite of passage was reading Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, which appeared in 1943. William F. Buckley was hardly alone in seeing it as a seminal text crucial to his personal formation.
Here it is in one package, an illustration of the level of learning that had been lost with mass education, a picture of the way a true political dissident from our collectivist period thinks about the modern world, and a comprehensive argument for the very meaning of freedom and civility — all from a man who helped shape the Right's intellectual response to the triumph of FDR's welfare-warfare state.
It was destined to be a classic, read by many generations to come. But then the official doctrine changed. Instead of seeing war as part of the problem, as a species of socialism, National Review led the American Right down a different path. Nock's book was quickly buried with the rise of the Cold War state, which required that conservatives reject anything like radical individualism — even of Nock's aristocratic sort — and instead embrace the Wilson-FDR values of nationalism and militarism.
Instead of Nock's Memoirs, young conservatives were encouraged to read personal accounts of communists who converted to backing the Cold War (e.g., Whittaker Chambers), as if warming up to the glories of nukes represents some sort of courageous intellectual step. To the extent that Nock (1870–1947) is known at all today, it is by libertarians, and for his classic essay Our Enemy, The State (1935), and his wonderful little biography, Mr. Jefferson (1926). Both are great works. He was also the founder of The Freeman in its first incarnation (1920–1924), which held to the highest literary standards and provoked unending controversy with its sheer radicalism.
However, it is with the Memoirs, this wonderful little treatise — part autobiography, part ideological instructional — that we are given the full Nockian worldview, not just his politics but his culture, his life, and his understanding of man and his place in the universe. The book makes a very bracing read today, if only because it proves how little today's "conservative movement" has to do with its mid-century ancestor in the Old Right. It is also instructive for libertarians to discover that there is more to anarchism than childish rantings against the police power.
The phrase "Man of Letters" is thrown around casually these days, but A.J. Nock was the real thing. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he was homeschooled from the earliest age in Greek and Latin, unbelievably well read in every field, a natural aristocrat in the best sense of that term.
He combined an old-world cultural sense (he despised popular culture) and a political anarchism that saw the state as the enemy of everything that is civilized, beautiful, and true. And he applied this principle consistently in opposition to welfare, government-managed economies, consolidation, and, above all else, war.
In the introduction to my edition, Hugh MacLennan compares the Memoirs to The Education of Henry Adams, and expresses the hope that it will "one day be recognized as the minor classic it really is." Well, I can predict that this time is not coming soon. Given its contents, consistency, relentless truth telling, and, above all, its sheer persuasive power, it is a wonder that the book is in print and that we are even allowed to read it.
To follow Nock, what traits must a man of the Right have? He must be both fiercely independent and believe in the power of social authority; he must love tradition but hate the state and everything it does; he must believe in radical freedom while never doubting the immutability of human nature and natural laws; he must be antimaterialist in his own life while defending economic freedom without compromise; he must be an elitist and antidemocrat yet despise elites who hold illicit power; and he must be realistic about the dim prospects for change while still retaining a strong sense of hope and enthusiasm for life.
I'm not sure I can think of anyone but Murray Rothbard who consistently upheld the Nockian position after Nock's death, and it is his Memoirs that provides a full immersion in his genius. Consider Nock's main literary device: to take a commonplace subject, make a casual and slightly quirky observation about it, one that wins your affections, and then surprise and shock by driving the point to score a deadly blow against some great evil that is widely taken for granted:
"Another neighbor, a patriarchal old Englishman with a white beard, kept a great stand of bees. I remember his incessant drumming on a tin pan to marshal them when they were swarming, and myself as idly wondering who first discovered that this was the thing to do, and why the bees should fall in with it. It struck me that if the bees were as intelligent as bees are cracked up to be, instead of mobilizing themselves for old Reynolds' benefit, they would sting him soundly and then fly off about their business. I always think of this when I see a file of soldiers, wondering why the sound of a drum does not incite them to shoot their officers, throw away their rifles, go home, and go to work."
In the course of his 325-page narrative, he employs this casual device again and again, until you begin to get the message that there is something profoundly wrong with the world, and the biggest thing of all is the state.
In Nock's view, it is the state that crowds out all that is decent, lovely, civilized. He demonstrates this not through deduction but through calm and entertaining tales of how rich and varied and productive life can be when the state does not interfere.
In a society without the state, for example, the "court of tastes and manners" would be the thing that guides the operation of society, and this "court" would have a much larger role in society than law, legislation, or religion. If such a court were not in operation, because people are too uncivilized or too ill-educated to maintain it, there was nothing the state could do to uplift people. No matter how low a civilization is, it can only be made to go lower through state activity.
Though an old-school Yankee of the purest-bred sort, he completely rejected what came to be the defining trait of his class: the impulse to try to improve others through badgering and coercion:
"One of the most offensive things about the society in which I later found myself was its monstrous itch for changing people. It seemed to me a society made up of congenital missionaries, natural-born evangelists and propagandists, bent on re-shaping, re-forming and standardizing people according to a pattern of their own devising — and what a pattern it was, good heavens! When one came to examine it. It seems to me, in short, a society fundamentally and profoundly ill-bred. A very small experience of it was enough to convince me that Cain's heresy was not altogether without reason or without merit; and that conviction quickly ripened into a great horror of every attempt to change anybody; or I should rather say, every wish to change anybody, for that is the important thing. The attempt is relatively immaterial, perhaps, for it is usually its own undoing, but the moment one wishes to change anybody, one becomes like the socialists, vegetarians, prohibitionists; and this, as Rabelais, says, 'is a terrible thing to think upon.'"
Given such views, it is hardly surprising that he had nothing but contempt for politics, which then and now seeks to manage not only society but thought as well:
"My first impression of politics was unfavorable; and my disfavor was heightened by subsequently noticing that the people around me always spoke of politics and politicians in a tone of contempt. This was understandable. If all I had casually seen … was of the essence of politics, if it was part and parcel of carrying on the country's government, then obviously a decent person could find no place in politics, not even the place of a ordinary voter, for the forces of ignorance, brutality and indecency would outnumber him ten to one."
But, with Nock's infallible flair for radicalism, his logic takes him further down the anarchist road:
"Nevertheless there was an anomaly here. We were supposed to respect our government and its laws, yet by all accounts those who were charged with the conduct of government the making of its laws were most dreadful swine; indeed, the very conditions of their tenure precluded their being anything else."
Nock is capable of surprising readers who think they might be able to anticipate the biases of a traditionalist-anarchist. Sometimes old-style, rightist aristocrats who wax eloquent on the virtues of tradition fall into strange left-wing habits of extolling the environment as something glorious and virtuous on its own, and somehow deserving of being left alone. Nock had no interest in this strange deviation. Consider his experience with the woods and nature:
"In those years [living in rural areas] I undoubtedly built up and fortified the singular immunity to infirmity and disease which has lasted all my life; but in those years also my congenital indifference to nature in the wild, natural scenery, rocks, rills, woods and templed hills, hardened into permanent distaste. Like the Goncourts, I can see nature only as an enemy; a highly respected enemy, but an enemy. 'I am a lover of knowledge,' Socrates said, 'and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country.'"
Nock was thus not an American Tory by any stretch, though his cultural outlook was as highbrow as any landed aristocrat's. What's more, unlike the socialist anarchists and most conservatives of today, Nock believed in and understood the crucial importance, even centrality, of economic liberty:
"If a regime of complete economic freedom be established, social and political freedom will follow automatically; and until it is established neither social nor political freedom can exist. Here one comes in sight of the reason why the State will never tolerate the establishment of economic freedom. In a spirit of sheer conscious fraud, the State will at any time offer its people 'four freedoms,' or six, or any number; but it will never let them have economic freedom. If it did, it would be signing its own death-warrant, for as Lenin pointed out, 'it is nonsense to make any pretence of reconciling the State and liberty.' Our economic system being what it is, and the State being what it is, all the mass verbiage about 'the free peoples' and 'the free democracies' is merely so much obscene buffoonery."
In fact, he understood even technical points of economics that are completely lost on most conservatives today. Here is Nock on the 1920s bubble economy:
"Many no doubt remember the 'new economics' hatched in the consulship of Mr. Coolidge, whereby it was demonstrated beyond question that credit could be pyramided on credit indefinitely, and all hands could become rich with no one doing any work. Then when this seductive theory blew up with a loud report in 1929, we began to hear of the economics of scarcity, the economics of plenty, and then appeared the devil-and-all of 'plans,' notions about pump-priming, and disquisitions on the practicability of a nation's spending itself rich…. Ever since 1918 people everywhere have been thinking in terms of money, not in terms of commodities; and this in spite of the most spectacular evidence that such thinking is sheer insanity. The only time I was ever a millionaire was when I spent a few weeks in Germany in 1923. I was the proud possessor of more money than one could shake a stick at, but I could buy hardly anything with it."
And on fiscal policy:
"Another strange notion pervading whole peoples is that the State has money of its own; and nowhere is this absurdity more firmly fixed than in America. The State has no money. It produces nothing. It existence is purely parasitic, maintained by taxation; that is to say, by forced levies on the production of others. 'Government money,' of which one hears so much nowadays, does not exist; there is no such thing. One is especially amused at seeing how largely a naïve ignorance of this fact underlies the pernicious measures of 'social security' which have been foisted on the American people. In various schemes of pensioning, of insurance against sickness, accident, unemployment and what-not, one notices that the government is supposed to pay so-much into the fund, the employer so-much, and the workman so-much…. But the government pays nothing, for it has nothing to pay with. What such schemes actually come to is that the workman pays his own share outright; he pays the employer's share in the enhanced price of commodities; and he pays the government's share in taxation. He pays the whole bill; and when one counts in the unconscionably swollen costs of bureaucratic brokerage and paperasserie, one sees that what the workman-beneficiary gets out the arrangement is about the most expensive form of insurance that could be devised consistently with keeping its promoters out of gaol."
A special contribution of Nock's book is his comprehensive critique of the pre–New Deal reform movements that culminated in the Progressive Era. Though he had once identified himself as a true liberal in the Jeffersonian sense, he was a close observer of the early stages of liberalism's corruption, when it came to mean not liberty but something else entirely. He saw the essential error that the liberal movement was making:
"Liberals generally — there may have been exceptions, but I do not know who they were — joined in the agitation for an income-tax, in utter disregard of the fact that it meant writing the principle of absolutism into the Constitution. Nor did they give a moment's thought to the appalling social effects of an income-tax; I never once heard this aspect of the matter discussed. Liberals were also active in promoting the 'democratic' movement for the popular election of senators. It certainly took no great perspicacity to see that these two measures would straightway ease our political systems into collectivism as soon as some Eubulus, some mass-man overgifted with sagacity, should maneuver himself into popular leadership; and in the nature of things, this would not be long."
In time, of course, the liberal reform movement began to adopt a mild version of the class-war rhetoric of the socialist Left, and the longer this went on, the more the political process came to be a struggle not between liberty and power but between two versions of state domination:
"What I was looking at was simply a tussle between two groups of mass-men, one large and poor, the other small and rich, and as judged by the standards of civilized society, neither of them any more meritorious or promising than the other. The object of the tussle was the material gains accruing from control of the State's machinery. It is easier to seize wealth than to produce it; and as long as the State makes the seizure of wealth a matter of legalized privilege, so long will the squabble for that privilege go on."
From Nock's point of view, the Great Depression and the two world wars saddled America with a new faith in the state, and along with it came a shift in people's loyalties, from themselves, their families, and communities to the Grand National Project, whatever it may be. We see the same thing today on the right and left, when questioning any aspect of the war on terrorism gets you branded as a heretic to the national religion. Nock would have nothing to do with it:
"I am profoundly thankful that during my formative years I never had contact with any institution under State control; not in school, not in college, nor yet in my three years of irregular graduate study. No attempt was ever made by anyone to indoctrinate me with State-inspired views — or any views, for that matter — of patriotism or nationalism. I was never dragooned into flag-worship or hero-worship, never was caught in any spate of verbiage about duty to one's country, never debauched by any of the routine devices hatched by scoundrels for inducing a synthetic devotion to one's native land and loyalty to its jobholders. Therefore when later the various aspects of contemporary patriotism and nationalism appeared before me, my mind was wholly unprepossessed, and my view of them was unaffected by any emotional distortion."
What, then, is patriotism, if not faith in one's government? Can patriotism be considered a virtue at all to the civilized man, and, if so, in what does it consist. Consider this passage of immense power:
"What is patriotism? Is it loyalty to a spot on a map, marked off from others spots by blue or yellow lines, the spot where one was born? But birth is a pure accident; surely one is in no way responsible for having been born on this spot or on that. Flaubert had poured a stream of corrosive irony on this idea of patriotism. Is it loyalty to a set of political jobholders, a king and his court, a president and his bureaucracy, a parliament, a congress, a Duce or Fuhrer, a camorra of commissars? I should say it depends entirely on what the jobholders are like and what they do. Certainly I had never seen any who commanded my loyalty; I should feel utterly degraded if ever once I thought they could. Does patriotism mean loyalty to a political system and its institutions, constitutional, autocratic, republican, or what-not? But if history has made anything unmistakably clear, it is that from the standpoint of the individual and his welfare, these are no more than names. The reality which in the end they are found to cover is the same for all alike. If a tree be known by its fruits, which I believe is regarded as good sound doctrine, then the peculiar merit of a system, if it has any, ought to be reflected in the qualities and conditions of the people who live under it; and looking over the peoples and systems of the world, I found no reason in the nature of things why a person should be loyal to one system rather than another. One could see at a glance that there is no saving grace in any system. Whatever merit or demerit may attach to any of them lies in the way it is administered.
"So when people speak of loyalty to one's country, one must ask them what they mean by that. What is one's country? Mr. Jefferson said contemptuously that 'merchants have no country; the mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.' But one may ask, why should I? This motive of patriotism seems to me perfectly sound, and if it should be sound for merchants, why not for others who are not merchants? If it holds good in respect of material gains, why not of spiritual gains, cultural gains, intellectual and aesthetic gains? As a general principle, I should put it that a man's country is where the things he loves are most respected. Circumstances may have prevented his ever setting foot there, but it remains his country."
In the early years of the American republic, patriotism and loyalty were primarily directed toward one's town or county, because it was very likely the place that the things one loves are most respected. Something like national patriotism was unknown. It came to be imposed under consolidation. Under today's conservative view of patriotism, that our loves must be dictated by the state, there would be no argument against the idea that we ought to be patriotic toward NATO or the United Nations. Nock had this to say about global consolidation:
"Some of the more adventurous spirits, apparently under the effects of Mr. Wilson's inspiration, went so far as to propose educating all mankind into setting up a World State which should supersede the separatist nationalist State; on the principle, so it seemed, that if a spoonful of prussic acid will kill you, a bottleful is just what you need to do you a great deal of good."
Nock would also be dissident on the Right today concerning the freedom of association, which he saw as the very essence of freedom itself.
"I know, however, that the problem of no minority anywhere can be settled unless and until two preliminaries are established. First, that the principle of equality before the law be maintained without subterfuge and with the utmost vigor. Second, that this principle be definitively understood as carrying no social implications of any kind whatever. 'I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following,' said Shylock; 'but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.' These two preliminaries demand a much clearer conception of natural as well as legal rights than I think can ever prevail in America."
Nock is sometimes presented as a brooding man who despaired for his country. There seems to be truth in that, but what's most impressive is how he managed to keep his chin up and find personal joy in fighting evil, or at least exposing it as much as possible.
"All I have done towards the achievement of a happy life, has been to follow my nose … I learned early with Thoreau that a man is rich in proportion to the numbers of things he can afford to let alone; and in view of this I have always considered myself extremely well-to-do. All I ever asked of life was the freedom to think and say exactly what I pleased, when I pleased, and as I pleased. I have always had that freedom, with an immense amount of uncovenanted lagniappe thrown in; and having had it, I always felt I could well afford to let all else alone. It is true that one can never get something for nothing; it is true that in a society like ours one who takes the course which I have taken must reconcile himself to the status of a superfluous man; but the price seems to me by no means exorbitant and I have paid it gladly, without a shadow of doubt that I was getting all the best in the bargain."
There are aspects of Nock that call for correction. His views on marriage and the family are highly unconventional, for example, and he sometimes takes his notion of the "remnant" too far, appearing to endorse passivity in the face of rising despotism. He refused to join any antiwar movements, not because he disagreed with their goal but because he didn't believe his participation would do any good.
But here is where his example is more instructive than his theory: Nock fought against the state with the most powerful weapons he had, his mind and his pen. Despite his claim, he was not superfluous at all, but essential, even indispensable, as are all great libertarian intellectuals.
Pass the Memoirs on to a twenty-year-old student and you stand a good chance of arming him against a lifetime of nonsense, whether it comes from the tedious Left that loves redistribution and collectivism or the fraudulent Right that is completely blind to the impossibility of reconciling war and nationalism with the true American spirit of freedom.
All quotations are taken from Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, now available in the Mises Store.
An earlier version of this article was published on LewRockwell.com.