Albert Jay Nock, Radical

Murray N. Rothbard

[Reprinted from Fragments, Srping 1995]

It has happened with every great radical in history: the moment he dies and is safely interred, interpreters and commentators leap in to dilute and bowdlerize his thought and his stature, and often succeed in transforming his public image into that of a safe and sound member of the conservative Establishment. The process almost succeeded with Thoreau: that fiery individualist, anarchist, and John Brown abolitionist, has been transmuted into a gentle and eccentric lover of nature. Only recently has Thoreau's essential radicalism been rediscovered.

This bowdlerizing process has also been at work with the remains of Albert Jay Nock: that individualist, anarchist, and "isolationist" has been rapidly transformed into a sober, conservative thinker, his shade virtually made to rest cozily on conservative mastheads. Nock, like his spiritual ancestor Thoreau, deserves better of history. Frank Chodorov once wrote that anyone who calls him a "conservative" deserves a punch in the nose, and the same fate might well be meted out to those who are trying to pin that label on Albert Jay Nock.

Nock, the author of "An Anarchist's Progress," defined the State as that institution which "claims and exercises the monopoly of crime" over its assumed territorial area. "It forbids private murder, but itself organizes murder on a colossal scale. It punishes private theft, but itself lays unscrupulous hands on anything it wants, whether the property of citizen or of alien."

Hence he favorably quoted Mencken's charge that the State is "the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men." Is this conservatism, with its theocracy, its witch-hunts and censorship, its cry of "support your local police"?

Conservatives worship at the hallowed shrine of the American Constitution. Contrast Nock's realistic and blistering critique of that document in Our Enemy the State:

"American economic interests had fallen into two grand divisions, the special interests in each having made common cause with a view to capturing control of the political means. One division comprised the speculating, industrial-commercial and creditor interests, with their natural allies of the bar and bench, the pulpit and the press. The other comprised the farmers and artisans and the debtor class generally...

"The national scheme (as put forth in the Constitution) was by far the more congenial to those interests (of the first division) because it enabled an ever-closer centralization of control over the political means. For instance... many an industrialist could see the great primary advantage of being able to extend his exploiting operations over a nationwide free-trade area walled-in by a general tariff the closer the centralization, the larger the exploitable area. Any speculator in rental-values would be quick to see the advantage of bringing this form of opportunity under unified control. Any speculator in depreciated public securities would be strongly for a system that could offer him the use of the political means to bring back their face-value. Any ship-owner or foreign trader would be quick to see that his bread was buttered on the side of a national State which, if properly approached, might lend him the use of the political means by way of a subsidy, or would be able to back up some profitable but dubious freebooting enterprise with 'diplomatic representations' or with reprisals.

"The farmers and the debtor class in general... [were not agreeable to] setting up a national replica of the British merchant-State, which they perceived was precisely what the classes grouped in the opposing grand division wished to do. These classes aimed at bringing in the British system of economics, politics and judicial control, on a nation-wide scale; and the interests grouped in the second division saw that what this would really come to was a shifting of the incidence of economic exploitation upon themselves...

"The [Constitutional] convention was made up wholly of men representing the economic interests of the first division. The great majority of them, possibly as many as four-fifths, were public creditors; one-third were land-speculators,. some were moneylenders; one-fifth were industrialists, traders, shippers; and many of them were lawyers. They planned and executed a coup d'etat, simply tossing the Articles of Confederation into the wastebasket, and drafting a constitution de novo..

Nock despised plutocratic Conservatism, and rightly saw Herbert Hoover as the embodiment of this point of view. Understanding the big business origins of statism in modem America, Nock heaped scorn upon the conservatives who joined him in opposing the New Deal which they themselves had prefigured.

Above all, Albert Jay Nock hated militarism and intervention into foreign wars, and he opposed staunchly not only World Wars I and II but also, and with particular vehemence, America's aggressive invasion of Soviet Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution.

There is no space here to discuss Albert Nock's great contributions to political thought and analysis: his use of Franz Oppenheimer's distinction between the "economic means" and the "political means," and his analysis of the State as the organization of the latter; his view of history as essentially a race between State power and social power; his opposition to compulsory mass education. Suffice it to conclude that Nock was an authentic American radical, in the great tradition stemming from Henry Thoreau. His only error was his deep-seated pessimism about any real improvement in the modern world; although considering what many of his present day epigones have made of him, his pessimism might well be justified.