The wisdom and folly in Albert Jay Nock’s anti-statism
There is a stock character in fiction, particularly science fiction, who might be called the Immortal. Whether he be vampire or angel, alien or just some everyman blessed — or cursed — with Methuselah-like longevity, certain traits define the Immortal. He is polite, generous, even kind, but also resigned to the fact that life is often none of these things. Sometimes he is dismissive or condescending, or perhaps bemusedly indulgent of men’s political or ideological passions, the way old professors relate to freshmen who insist upon the novelty of their ideas and the audacity of their fervor. He’s seen it all before, maybe done it himself when he was a younger man, and he knows deep in the subterranean reservoirs of his soul that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. His own passions are more like cultivated tastes, hard-learned lessons formed by trial and error over many decades. He is disgusted by harmful stupidity but reluctant to correct what can only be gleaned from firsthand experience. He understands Edmund Burke’s insight that “example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.”
This thought kept intruding on me while reading the works of Albert Jay Nock, whose elegant criticism of statism seems to grow more relevant with each passing day. Nock was born in 1870, which he believed was as good a year as any to mark the beginning of the end of civilization. Often compared to Henry Adams as a chronicler of his age, Nock was one of the great men of letters of the 20th century. He counted among his friends and admirers H. L. Mencken, Charles Beard, Dwight Macdonald, Oswald Garrison Villard, Frank Chodorov, William F. Buckley Jr., and William Jennings Bryan (for whom he did some work as a special envoy when Bryan was secretary of state). An ironic feature of the innumerable profiles, remembrances, odes, encyclopedia entries, and biographies about Nock is that they all go out of their way to assert that he was never famous in life, or in death. Many writers would count their blessings if they were cursed with such anonymity.
Born in Scranton, Pa., and raised in Brooklyn, Nock was an autodidact who mastered numerous languages, including French, Latin, and Greek. He spent a good deal of his youth in a small town in upstate New York, where he imbibed from the wellspring of American individualism and gained an enduring appreciation for the power and magisterially ennobling competence of what we would today call civil society (he used the word “society” or “social power” to denote the good and decent realm of life not corrupted or coerced by the state). In 1887 he went to St. Stephen’s College (now Bard), where he was later a professor.
After college he attended divinity school, and he became a minister in the Episcopal Church in 1897. A dozen years later he quit the clergy and became a full-time journalist and editor, first at American Magazine and then at The Nation (which was still a classically liberal publication). In 1920 he became the co-editor of the original Freeman magazine, which, in its four-year run, managed to inspire the men who would one day launch National Review and the second incarnation of The Freeman, run by Nock’s disciple Frank Chodorov. According to Nock, when a young writer asked if The Freeman had any “sacred cows,” Nock said: No, save that the writers must have a point, write it well, and use clear, idiomatic English. Then he dismissed the lad, saying, “Now you run along home and write us a nice piece on the irremissibility of post-baptismal sin, and if you can put it over those three jumps, you will see it in print. Or if you would rather do something on a national policy of strangling all the girl-babies at birth, you might do that — glad to have it.”
A large part of Nock’s mystique stems from the fact that he was mysterious, and deliberately so. He wore a cape, thought as well of Belgium as he did of America, knew nearly everything but pretended that he didn’t read the newspaper (William F. Buckley Jr. recounted how his father once stumbled on the proudly anti-newspaper Nock sitting on the floor poring over the Sunday papers). Nock’s memoirs say nothing about his failed marriage or neglected children and do not disclose his parents’ names or even mention that he played minor-league baseball. The joke at The Freeman was that the only way he could be contacted was to leave a note under a certain rock in Central Park.
He wrote a few books, including biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Rabelais. His most famous and successful works were Our Enemy the State and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. But he was not prolific. As Chodorov put it, he “had a rare gift of editing his ideas so that he wrote only when he had something to say and he said it with dispatch.”
There is something almost hypnotic about Nock’s prose. When the hypnotist first waves the pocket watch in front of your eyes, there’s a simplicity to the ritual that is almost insulting: The swaying of this trinket is going to bewitch me? And yet moments, or in this case pages, later you are ensorceled. Nock, observed H. L. Mencken, “thinks in charming rhythm. There is never any cacophony in his sentences as there is never any muddling in his ideas. It is accurate, it is well ordered, and above all, it is charming.”
This is not, first and foremost, an observation about his gifts as a writer. To be sure, there are greater writers with even more timeless prose. Rather, Nock’s prose conveys a sense of timelessness. His motto was “See the world as it is,” and for Nock the world is, in the most fundamental sense, unchanging. In short, Nock writes like an Immortal, a traveler who has seen it all before. And I do not mean this in the way we say “the immortal Socrates.” Nock would be the first to admit that there were few new ideas in his writing. He took pride in the fact that he was merely reminding those willing to be reminded that whatever is fashionable and new in the ideas of men is little more than a rebranding effort. We may change the wardrobe of humanity, but not its nature. And yet, to Nock’s exasperation, humanity’s innate folly is the belief that the clothes will somehow remake the man.
“I have been thinking,” Nock wrote in 1932, “of how old some of our brand-new economic nostrums really are. Price-regulation by State authority (through State purchase, like our Farm Board) was tried in China about 350 b.c. It did not work. It was tried again, with State distribution, in the first century a.d., and it did not work. Private trading was suppressed in the second century b.c., and regional planning was tried a little later. They did not work; the costs were too high. In the eleventh century a.d., a plan like the R.F.C. [Reconstruction Finance Corporation] was tried, but again cost too much. State monopolies are very old; there were two in China in the seventh century b.c. I suppose there is not a single item on the modern politician’s agenda that was not tried and found wanting ages ago.” Among virtually all of the political writers of the Left and the Right in the 1920s and 1930s, Nock shines brightest for seeing from the outset that the differences between the various collectivist schemes then circulating amounted to differences in branding. “Communism, the New Deal, Fascism, Nazism,” he wrote in his Memoirs, “are merely so-many trade-names for collectivist Statism, like the trade-names for tooth-pastes which are all exactly alike except for the flavouring.”
Nock understood that man is lazy, which is not quite the same as slothful. He called this “Epstean’s Law” after a friend who’d said to him over lunch: “I tell you, if self-preservation is the first law of human conduct, exploitation is the second.” Or as Nock rephrased it: “Man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion.” And for Nock, the state is the foremost instrument of Epstean’s Law, allowing powerful men to feed off the creativity, productivity, and labor of others under the veneer of legalisms. Every state, according to Nock, was born in conquest and exploitation. In other words, the state “claims and exercises the monopoly of crime.” This is why Nock had such contempt for businessmen claiming the language of free enterprise even as they petitioned and cajoled the state into rigging the system in their favor: “The simple truth is that our businessmen do not want a government that will let business alone. They want a government they can use.” This perspective informs virtually all of his discussions of economic matters, including his very Beardian understanding of the American founding of what he called a “merchant state”: “We all know pretty well, probably, that the primary reason for a tariff is that it enables the exploitation of the domestic consumer by a process indistinguishable from sheer robbery.”
A cold river of anarchism runs across the landscape of Nock’s work, but as Robert M. Thornton wrote a few years ago in a brilliant introduction to Nockianism for Modern Age, he was not an anarchist, as many fans claim (nor was he a home-grown fascist, as one biographer absurdly suggests). Nock’s conception of the state was a decidedly German one, and he distinguished it from the American notion of government, which the Progressives worked assiduously to destroy. The state sees itself as the master of society, its author and its spirit, and the means for wholesale redemption. There’s a reason the 19th-century progressives referred to it as the “God-State” (a term borrowed from Hegel): They believed that it was the sole agency for material and spiritual redemption. But Nock understood that the state is not the “proper agency for social welfare, and never will be, for exactly the same reason that an ivory paper-knife is nothing to shave with.” Government intrusions “on the individual should be purely negative in character. It should attend to national defense, safeguard the individual in his civil rights, maintain outward order and decency, enforce the obligations of contract, punish crimes belonging in the order of malum in se [evil in itself] and make justice cheap and easily available.” Such a regime would amount to a government by and for the people, not a state in which the citizens are mere instruments of the statists.
But here is the odd, or wonderful, thing about Nock. For all his clarity and passion, he professed no interest whatsoever in trying to persuade anybody. “The wise social philosophers,” he wrote, “were those who merely hung up their ideas and left them hanging, for men to look at or to pass by, as they chose. Jesus and Socrates did not even trouble to write theirs out, and Marcus Aurelius wrote his only in crabbed memoranda for his own use, never thinking anyone else would see them.” Indeed, Nock struck a pose of bemused disdain for the self-proclaimed prophets of the New Age — the Father Coughlins, the Huey Longs, the Upton Sinclairs, and even the Liberty Leaguers. Surveying the landscape of demagogues, mountebanks, and experts sucking the oxygen out of democratic discourse in the 1930s, he wrote, “I cannot remember a time when so many energumens were so variously proclaiming the Word to the multitude and telling them what they must do to be saved.”
Nock would have no use for today’s tea parties or talk-radio Jeremiahs of the Right, but he would also scoff at Paul Krugman and roll his eyes at Barack Obama’s talk of hope and change, for he denied that the state was the proper object of hope or a worthwhile agent of change. Moreover, he had contempt for the vast bulk of humanity, the “Neolithic mass” and those who spoke to them. In the dark, or at least darkening, age in which he believed himself to live (Nock died two weeks after Hiroshima), he cared only for the Remnant — a tiny slice of humanity he could describe but not locate. The best way to grasp this idea is to read his 1936 Atlantic essay “Isaiah’s Job” (easily found on the Web). It is one of the oddest and most powerful essays in the history of conservatism. At the end of King Uzziah’s reign in 740 b.c., the prophet Isaiah was tasked with warning the Jews of God’s wrath. But, in Nock’s rephrasing of the Biblical text, God gave this disclaimer: “I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you that it won’t do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”
Isaiah asked why he should even bother, then? “Ah,” the Lord said, “you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.” For Nock, the Remnant was his audience. At times, the idea of the Remnant is unapologetically elitist, but in a thoroughly Jeffersonian way. The Remnant were not the “best and brightest,” the most successful, the richest. Rather, they were those occupying the “substratum of right thinking and well doing” (in Matthew Arnold’s words). “Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness.”
And it is here that we find an explanation for why Nock is so admired by liberals such as The New Republic’s Franklin Foer and the New York Times’s Sam Tanenhaus: He openly embraced the idea that he couldn’t change anything. History was driven by forces too large to be affected by politics or punditry. Any revolution would result only in a new crop of exploiters and scoundrels eager to pick up where the deposed ones left off. So, Nock figured, why bother with politics? Now what more could today’s liberals ask for from a conservative pundit?
Nock was charming, eccentric, cosmopolitan, and very, very interesting. But his Immortal’s cynicism left him with a self-absorption that amounted to a personal philosophy of muddling through. “Taking his inspiration from those Russians who seemed superfluous to their autocratic nineteenth-century society and sought inspiration in the private sphere, even to the point of writing largely for their desk drawers,” writes Robert Crunden, Nock’s best biographer, “Nock made the essential point: ransack the past for your values, establish a coherent worldview, depend neither on society nor on government insofar as circumstances permitted, keep your tastes simple and inexpensive, and do what you have to do to remain true to yourself.”
Still, he was wrong about many things, and his formulations were often too simple. For example: Yes, the New Deal, Bolshevism, and Nazism were different trade names for collectivism, but their differences were vastly greater than those between flavors of toothpaste. Only when viewed from a very high altitude — precisely where Nock’s mind resided — could the differences be seen as trivial. Likewise, only an Immortal’s detachment could allow him to be torn between Belgium and the United States. But Nock’s greatest mistake lay in his fatalism and, perhaps, his misreading of the times he lived in.
Nock’s lifespan connected two high-water marks in the tidal floods of American collectivism. He was born amidst the post–Civil War Radical Republican fever, lived through the dementia of World War I (as an anti-war ideologue, no less), and closed out his life watching the New Deal unfold and World War II seemingly accelerate the slide to statism. Before the New Deal, nothing in America had ever truly resembled the German concept of the state, and everything he knew told him that statism’s grip would only tighten. He bravely dissented from the overwhelming consensus that collectivism was the most desirable form of social organization. But he in effect surrendered to the same consensus that it was the “wave of the future.” It’s little surprise that Nock thought the string would need to play out.
But he was wrong that statism was inevitable, partly because he was right about the need to speak to the Remnant. Buckley, Chodorov, and countless others took inspiration from Nock or from Nockian ideas, but they did not write for their desk drawers. They shared Nock’s fatalism at times — standing athwart history yelling Stop, and all that — but they actually yelled Stop. Nock did not believe in anything so crude as yelling, even in purely literary terms. His successors did, because they shared Burke’s understanding that “when bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Likewise, when bad ideas seem good, men who know otherwise must say so, lest society slip under their spell. That was the key lesson the disparate righteous took from Nock the Prophet as they associated to form the modern conservative and libertarian movements — even if, as Nock fully understood, they didn’t know where their ideas came from, or that Nock’s fingerprints were upon many of them.
And that is why the Right is in so much better shape than it was during Nock’s time, even as liberals are mounting a statist revival. Yes, statism is on the march again, but anti-statism isn’t an amusing pursuit for cape-wearing exotics like Nock anymore; it is the animating spirit of institutions launched and nourished by lovers of liberty. Retreating into the Nockian cocoon of the good life may be appealing, but it is morally defensible only if creeping collectivism is impervious to resistance. Moreover, the American people are not nearly as Neolithic as Nock believed, proof of which can be found in the slow and uneven unraveling of statism since his death, as with the still-unfinished Reagan Revolution. This, again, explains why liberals can be nostalgic for Nock while lamenting what has become of his successors: Nock was content with failure, his heirs are not.
As a personal philosophy, there’s everything to love about Nock’s approach to life. As political prescription, it is folly, for it exempts the Remnant from any obligation to expand the ranks of the righteous. And that is why the greatest tragedy of all would be for Nock’s mortal heirs to follow his Immortal example.