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Albert J. Nock

In Zen Buddhism, the lineage of student to master is extremely important—it is the channel through which the Dharma is transmitted. There is a story of a Zen Master traveling at night over a bridge known to be haunted by a goryo shin—an angry ghost. When the ghost appeared, the Zen master unfurled his lineage scroll—the goryo fled in holy fear of the Dharma.

There is a school of libertarians who, however much they may love the market, are most identifiable by their fear and distrust of the state. These Austrians by way of Auburn have become increasingly politically relevant because of their close identification with Ron Paul. To affright the goryo of the state, they wield a modern lineage scroll of political theorists that can be said to begin with Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943), and carry down through Albert J. Nock (1870-1945), to Frank Chodorov (1887-1966), and then to Murray Rothbard (1926-1995).[1]

In this essay, I will describe how Albert J. Nock fits–and does not fit–into this Libertarian tradition. Nock was a journalist and social critic who lived from 1870 to 1945. He was widely published, first in The Nation, then in a short-lived magazine he co-edited called The Freeman, and finally in The Atlantic Monthly. While I will illustrate Nock’s place in the libertarian lineage I just described, I am more interested in examining what distinguishes Nock from the others: namely, that Nock’s outlook became marked by a pessimism so intense that he concluded the masses could never be convinced of the true nature of the state because the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens were ineducable.

Nock’s most important contribution to the American libertarian tradition is his short critique of the American Founding, Our Enemy, the State. To understand this work, one must turn first to one of the thinkers who most influenced Nock, the historical sociologist Franz Oppenheimer.[2] Oppenheimer contributed to the conflict theory of the origin of the state with his 1908 work, The State.[3] He rejected the idea that the state might have its origin in an outgrowing of familial, kin or clan relations. He also rejected the concept of a state formed around an implicit social contract. Neither, he argued, can the state have formed as the “executive committee of the ruling class.” Instead, Oppenheimer argued that the institution which Lincoln reckoned “of the people, by the people, for the people” had its origins at the moment nomadic raiders realized that “a murdered peasant will no longer plow, and a fruit tree hacked down will no longer bear.”[4] That is to say, the state was born when the mounted and murderous “they” came down from the hillsides to dwell permanently among the settled agriculturalists they periodically raped and plundered, and in so doing, became a ruling “we.” The state, then, was an institution that evolved to perpetuate predation in a systematic and orderly fashion.

Indeed Oppenheimer argued that there were only two ways that men could make their living. One could live by the free exchange of goods and services; Oppenheimer called this the “economic means.”[5] The alternative to the economic means was the use of force to systematically expropriate the goods or services of another; he called this the “political means.” The state, then, is “the organization of the political means.”[6]

In Our Enemy, the State, Nock boldly applied the Oppenheimerian mode of analysis to the American Founding, and most especially to the United States Constitution. Nock did not genuflect before the “miracle at Philadelphia.” He interpreted the Constitution as a document crafted by a group of men representing the merchant elite, “the great majority of them…public creditors” who “planned and executed a coup d’état, simply tossing the Articles of Confederation into the waste-basket, and drafting a constitution de novo.”[7] Nock believed that the purpose of the Constitution was to “contrive something that could pass muster as showing a good semblance of popular sovereignty, without the reality.”[8] The principal purpose of the Washington and Adams administrations, in Nock’s eyes, was to “administration” the Constitution “into such absolutist modes as would secure economic supremacy [to the elites who had designed the new government] by a free use of the political means.”[9]

No one with Nock’s view of the American state and its origins could be taken in by “democracy promotion” or “American exceptionalism.” Of the Spanish American War, Nock wrote “I was looking at our first full blown adventure in overseas imperialism, and a most amazing and repulsive sight it was. I could make nothing of the seizure of the Philippines but an unprovoked act of particularly brutal highwaymanry.”[10] But then, Nock reckoned,

it was clear to me that our acquisition of Texas was a matter of sheer brigandage, and that force and fraud played approximately equal parts in our acquisition of California. I carried on my survey of American imperialism through the Mexican War, our systematic extermination of the Indians, and so on back to the colonial period, and I emerged with the conviction that at least on this one item of imperialism, our political history from first to last was utterly disgraceful.[11]

Nock’s sharp distinction between production and predation, and his condemnation of imperialism and the state might suggest we have a “plum line libertarian” in the Von Mises Institute sense. We don’t. To make the distinction, one can contrast Nock’s view of the state and the market with that of Murray Rothbard. To Rothbard, the state was a foreign body—a bacillus in the body politic—a parasite. People only tolerate the state because they have been, in Rothbard’s words, “bamboozled.” Therefore, the job of the libertarian is the difficult, but not impossible task of alerting people to the true nature of the state. Rothbard called his program of activism, economic education, and revisionist history, “de-bamboozlement.”[12] It is a canard to suggest that Rothbard thought the market, in the absence of the state, would create a utopia. Rothbard did believe, however, that freed from the clutches of men and women who live by “the political means,” the market would likely offer all the services the state offers without the murderous coercion.

Nock took a much darker view of both the state and the market. If Rothbard saw the state as a foreign bacillus, Nock saw it as something more closely akin to a cancer. Indeed Nock saw the modern state itself as a symptom of two deeper maladies. For the first of these maladies Nock coined the term, “economism” (he found the word “materialism” insufficient to the task). Nock believed Western society was “entirely given over” to economism, a creed which “interpreted the whole of human life in terms of the production, acquisition, and distribution of wealth.”[13] Nock grappled with the corrupting power of economism in “What We All Stand For,” a February, 1913 article in the American Magazine.

To research “What We All Stand For,” Nock had visited Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of the horrific lynching of a black man, Zachariah Walker. A mob had dragged Walker out of a hospital where he lay in police custody on suspicion of shooting a security guard. Walker was

…thrown upon a pile of wood, drenched with oil, and burned alive. Other human beings to the number of several hundred looked on in approval. when Walker, with superhuman strength, burst his bonds and tried to escape, they drove him back into the flames with pitchforks and fence rails, and held him there until his body was burned to ashes. Those who could get fragments of his charred bones took them off as souvenirs.[14]

Not one person was ever convicted of the murder, even though it had been witnessed by a mob of hundreds. How could this happen? Nock eliminated most obvious motives for the attack, including (perhaps surprisingly) the victim’s race. Nock argued that Coatesville was a Northern town, where destitute blacks were only a little worse off socially than destitute immigrant whites. Instead, Nock blamed what he would later call “economism,” for creating, the “hellhole” that was Coatesville:

Civilization can only be had upon its own terms, and the first of these is a diffused, material well-being. Next (if, indeed, it is not rather a part or adjunct of the first)… a homogenous population… At Coatesville, material well-being is strictly concentrated, and the three several strata of society stand as distinct as layers in a jelly cake…. The immense strata of the exploited is composed of three thousand negroes and thirty-five hundred “foreigners… human beings who come there from Hungary and the Slavic countries to work for $1.38 a day, and live most wretchedly…. Their wages, their conditions of work and of living, preclude either happiness or decency.

Above the stratum of the exploited is another, a smug, close mouthed, unintelligent middle stratum that gets its living out of the town by trading and in other ways. This class is characterized by an extreme apprehensiveness about anything that will “hurt business” or “hurt the town”…. Above this is the stratum of the exploiting class. It is very small…. They pay their laborers less, on the average, than two dollars a day, and permit or promote for them conditions of living worse than one can find in the countries from which the “foreigners” have emigrated.[15]

In all, Nock concluded, Coatesville could burn a man alive and take his bones for souvenirs because Coatesville society was made up of “an upper class materialized, a middle class vulgarized, a lower class brutalized.”[16]

Do we have, then, a Jeffersonian—a partisan of place, a champion of the yeoman farmer against proletarinization? Ultimately, no. In Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Nock wrote admiringly of the Brooklyn of his childhood. He also recalled fondly the surprising level of culture and civility in the (unnamed) Michigan lumber town on the shore of Lake Huron where he lived from age ten to sixteen. However, neither of these places held the affections of the mature Nock. Indeed no place did, except for Brussels, Belgium. Nock had soured on America well before middle age, having given it up as a place wholly overcome by the “economism” he hated. However, he sensed this same economism creeping into his beloved Brussels. Indeed the appeal of Brussels, more than anything else, was its easy proximity to a European culture he loved, but believed was in its death throes.

Nock had at one time been sympathetic to the Jeffersonian ideal. He had even written a biography of Jefferson.[17] But in his final work, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Nock explained his break with the sage of Monticello. In large measure, the break occurred because he had come to believe that while the mass of men might be trainable, that is to say, they might be made “sagacious” or skillful at a task or trade, they were entirely ineducable; wisdom, the ability to “see things as they are” was quite beyond them.[18] Nock believed that the Jeffersonian project depended on the improvability of citizens through education, but that the ordinary mass of humans simply could not be so improved.

It is hard to overstate the pessimism of the mature Nock. He had fallen under the spell of Nietzsche as regards the “mass man.”[19] Furthermore, he had become particularly impressed by a 1932 article by the American architect Ralph Adams Cram called, “Why we do not behave like human beings.”[20] Cram concluded most people don’t because—by the standards of a Jesus, a Socrates, a St. Louis—most people aren’t. That is to say, by the standard of exalted humanity most of us adopt to take the measure of what it is to be human, what Cram called the “mass man” or the “Neolithic man” falls definitively short. Nock adopted this dichotomy for his own; In his Memoirs he frequently distinguished between a small minority of people he called “psychically human” and the vast majority of people, which he labeled “psychically anthropoid,” “mass men” or “Neolithic men.”[21]

For such people, Nock argued, public education amounted to training at best, but at worst “an association pro propaganda fide for the extreme of a hidebound nationalism and of a superstitious and servile reverence for a sacrosanct state.”[22] Those trained by the state could, therefore, be relied upon to become the state’s most devoted supporters. Especially in a regime of economism, the state could never have any use for those capable of wisdom, reflection, and of “seeing things as they really are.” Nock wrote, “intelligence and wisdom would not have exempted a Socrates, Jesus, or Confucius, if of military age, from conscript service in the front line, side by side with the half witted. What other use could the state have had for his proficiencies?”[23]

In the face of all this, Nock concluded that very little could, in fact be done about the state. He retreated into a philosophy of “intelligent selfishness, intelligent egoism, intelligent hedonism.”[24] As America lurched toward involvement in World War I, Nock would listen as acquaintances, swept up in war fever, raged against the Kaiser. When their tirade ended, he would simply agree with them “and let it go with that.” After the war, Nock made no effort to join a now-chastened public in anti-war efforts, despite his abhorrence of war, because “I knew, as they apparently did not, that if you go in for education you must first make sure of having something educable to educate and second, you must have some one with a clear and competent idea of what he is about to do the educating. I saw no prospect that either condition would be met.”[25] Indeed, when confronted with any such efforts Nock was inclined to refer to them as “Uplift,” with an ironic upper-case “U.”[26] Despite his eloquent writing against the modern state and on behalf of human liberty, he concluded that most people displayed no interest in liberty at all, and indeed often displayed a “curious canine pride” in their “servitorship.”[27] Indeed he complained that “a status of permanent irresponsibility under collectivism would be most congenial and satisfactory” to the “psychically-anthropoid majority.”[28]

What do we make of the contrast between Nock’s stated pessimism and his powerful body of written work? When he wrote about war, he was capable of denouncing it with an almost prophetic urgency and clarity. His description of “Our Enemy, The State” combines learned argument with genuine moral force. His “Myth of a Guilty Nation” makes a powerful case that Germany was no more responsible for World War I than any other power, and that the Versailles Treaty was a wicked example of victor’s justice.[29] It is hard to imagine such work coming from the pen of a man who believed his efforts were pointless.

Nock answered this question himself in his 1937 essay, “Isaiah’s Job.”[30] Nock argued that no matter how ineducable the mass-man proved to be—no matter how immoveable the majority seemed to be in their invincible ignorance—there was always what he called, “a remnant.” For Nock, this remnant is the small number of men and women capable of getting wisdom and understanding. One who attempts to reach, preach to, convert the mass man wastes his time. However, if one does one’s best to do good work, the remnant will find that work out—and the remnant need all the wisdom, encouragement, reflection, philosophy that can be imparted to them if humans are to keep civilization alive through evil times.

What are we to make of all this? Surely, it is not wrong to place Nock in a chain of anti-state Libertarian intellectuals stretching from Oppenheimer, through Nock, to Chodorov and Rothbard. But Nock’s deep-seated pessimism makes him sit uncomfortably in this group. We must contrast his retreat into “intelligent selfishness” with the passionate activism of the others in that group. Franz Oppenheimer was no armchair intellectual. He was involved in “back to the land” movements in his native Germany, and has been described as a “liberal of that old, heroic, revolutionary brand.”[31] Frank Chodorov, who greatly admired Nock’s writings and spent time with the older man toward the end of his life, went on to a career of activism in the cause of liberty. Chodorov founded both the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists and Human Events, while remaining prolific as an author and pamphleteer. Murray Rothbard was a passionate activist who made it his life’s work to “de-bamboozle” the people and free them from the grip of the state. During the Viet Nam War, Rothbard made the, perhaps quixotic, attempt to bring the New Left and the Old Right together against the war; in the 1970’s, he founded the Radical Caucus of the Libertarian Party.

How could Nock, who shared the same view of the state as the other men, have chosen to retreat into “intelligent selfishness, intelligent egoism, and intelligent hedonism,” and to place his hopes only in a “remnant?” He took a sufficiently jaundiced view of his own efforts that he titled his intellectual autobiography Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. What are we to make of this notion that the majority of people are ineducable at best and “psychically anthropoid” at worst, and that, therefore, little can be done?

Let us be fair to Nock. Imagine being a critic of the modern state who had to endure the domination of both American political parties by the Progressives from Taft Administration through the Wilson Administration and World War I. After a mere eight-year interval from Uplift, Nock then endured Hoover, thirteen years of Franklin Roosevelt, and a war so deadly it made the Great War appear small. Surely it must have seemed to Nock that a small remnant was the best he could ever hope for in a time when statism seemed everywhere to triumph so utterly that the only question left unsettled appeared to be which form of statism should rule.

However, I think it unfair simply to historicize Nock’s pessimism. Nock may have viewed the state the same way as Rothbard and Chodorov, but I am not sure he viewed the world as they did. Anyone who has read Memoirs of a Superfluous Man understands that Nock did not find supreme political value in liberty. Indeed, this fallen-away Episcopal cleric did not find supreme value in any abstraction. Instead, for Nock the greatest human value was simply to “see things as they really are.” If Nock, having observed his fellow men, concluded that the vast majority were ineducable and therefore unlikely to achieve or maintain any semblance of genuine self-government, his own creed required that he admit as much. For Nock to pretend to Jeffersonian Republicanism after having lost the Jeffersonian faith would have been to betray his own highest value: the philosophic virtue of seeing things as they really are. Indeed, I think that we can infer that Nock did not believe his beloved remnant would be activists, either, but rather men and women with philosophic souls, who could find some balm in the company of those like themselves. While Nock is justly celebrated by contemporary libertarians, I think the author of Our Enemy, The State was simply describing the American political system as he thought it really was, and in so doing discharging his duty not so much to the Republic, as to Philosophy.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[1] Of course the economic thought of the Austrian School is indispensable to this school of Libertarianism, but this essay will be narrowly focused on political theory.

[2] In the interests of keeping the length of this article manageable, I will not address the considerable influence of Henry George and Georgism on the young Albert Nock. The influence of Georgism waned, I would argue, as Nock grew older but it never fully subsided and is detectable in “Land Monopoly and American Independence,” Chapter Four of Our Enemy, the State.

[3] Franz Oppenheimer, The State trans. John Gitterman (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975)

[4] Oppenheimer, 26.

[5] Oppenheimer, 12.

[6] Oppenheimer, 13.

[7] Albert J. Nock, Our Enemy, the State (Wisconsin: Hallberg Publishing, 1994), p. 90.

[8] Nock, Our Enemy, the State, 91.

[9] Nock, Our Enemy, the State 91.

[10] Albert J. Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (Wisconsin: Hallberg Publishing, 1994), p. 102.

[11] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 103-104.

[12] A brief, powerful introduction to the Rothbardian view of the state is: Murray N. Rothbard, Anatomy of the State (Auburn: Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2009). For “debamboozlement,” see Rothbard’s 1976 article for the Libertarian Forum, “Revisionism and Libertarianism.”

[13] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 111.

[14] Albert J. Nock, “What We All Stand For” in The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism ed. by Charles H. Hamilton (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), p. 139.

[15] Nock, “What We All Stand For” 139.

[16] Nock, “What We All Stand For” 147.

[17] Albert J. Nock, Jefferson (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1926)

[18] Indeed, Nock believed that most of the wealthy were simply “mass men” with greater skill. Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 120.

[19] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 120.

[20] Ralph Adams Cram, “Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings,” The American Mercury, September, 1932.

[21] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, pp. 233; 237; 277; 319 et al.

[22] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 263-4.

[23] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 274.

[24] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 304.

[25] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 266.

[26] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 44; 67.

[27] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 314.

[28] Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 319.

[29] The Mises Institute has made this 1922 work available online.

[30] Albert J. Nock, “Isaiah’s Job” in The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism ed. By Charles H. Hamilton (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 124-138.

[31] Eduard Heimann, quoted by Chuck Hamilton in his Introduction. Franz Oppenheimer, The State trans. John Gitterman (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975) vii.

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4 replies to this post
  1. To run through the names of these men is to remind us of the gradual erasure of their work, what had been a nucleus of enlightened men and their writings, something always to repair to now almost gone, except perhaps for Nock. Goldwater I suppose was the last representative of national stature and we observed what happened to him. At least we have their work on our bookshelves. Thanks for the article.

  2. In this foul year, it is hard not to sympathize muchly with Nock’s diagnosis – perhaps not of the Founding (I don’t share his cynicism in this regard), but certainly of my fellow men.

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