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
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
"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.