Albert Jay Nock and the Jewish Problem

Joseph T. McKaharay

[Reprinted from Fragments, April-June, 1982]

In 1941. Albert Jay Nock published, in the Atlantic, a two-part essay entitled "The Jewish Problem in America." It stirred such controversy that some critics began to hunt through his writings for evidence that he was an anti-Semite. Nock stated that Jews were basically exiles sojourning in America. Because of Nock's romantic attachment to pluralism, he meant that remark to be a compliment, not a slur.

It is with repugnance that I revive the specter of anti-Semitism which haunts the reputation of Albert Jay Nock. This ghost, however, can be exorcised in the clear light of understanding. Nock was no anti-Semite. His detractors could not bear what he actually was, and, therefore, had to create a smoke screen of fabrication to obscure him.

In order to understand Twentieth Century anti-Semitism, one must go back to its European origins. In 1439, the Council of Florence was organized by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. From this Council emerged the Filioque doctrine which, as Cusa understood it, asserted the primacy of the individual creative soul. This doctrine was rejected by the Eastern Church, which fell back upon a corps of pagan beliefs that it derived from the Byzantine Empire. From the Magna Mater cult, the Orthodox Church substituted for the individual creative soul the idea of a collective soul mystically united to its Great Mother, in this case the Russian land and its sacred soil.

The social ideology of the ethnically pure people wedded to Mother Earth has fueled all past and present Fascist movements, including Naziism. Through Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazis took over the Slavophile beliefs which initiated and maintained the pogroms.

That Nock was totally dedicated to the culture of individualism is not to be denied, nor even questioned. It is odd, then to conclude that he would be a partisan of a dogma extolling the pure people of one spirit. When Nock examined "the Jewish problem in America," he noticed the trend toward Orientalism among many of the Jews in America.

This was the effect of a collapse of Judaic development within the Jewish Pale of Czarist Russia. In Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Bessarabia, and parts of Austria, the Kahal (the governing assembly of elders) was replaced by fanatic observance analogous to the frenzy of the Russian Raskolniks ("Old Believers"). The oppressed community became a mirror of the oppressor. A new Jewish "collective " soul began to emerge. (This was Heine's report in On Poland. Heine, of course, represented a different tradition, the enlightened Haskalah of Moses Mendelssohn.) Nock saw the tendency toward collectivism, as the core of the Jewish problem. He did not attack Jews as Jews, nor Judaism as Judaism, but, rather, he lamented the abrogation of individualism which compelled the formation of a Jewish collective soul. If Nock was anti-Semitic, then so was Heinrich Heine. If Nock was anti-Semitic, then so was Mendele Moicher Sforim, who made the same criticisms in his allegorical novel, The Nag. If Nock was anti-Semitic, then so was Moses Mendelssohn, who proclaimed that the significant thing about the God of the Jews was not His exclusiveness but His universality. As opposed to an ethnic tribal God, the God of the Old Testament is the God of all people.

The real reason for the attacks on Nock was not his alleged anti-Semitism. (There was no basis for such a charge.) What Albert Jay Nock's critics and detractors could not tolerate was that one man should believe himself important, and, what is worse, that he should demonstrate his importance. Nock's detractors could not accept his love of diversity and individualism. All Marxists and Fascists basically are reactionaries, yearning for the Oriental despotisms of pre-Hellenic times, the neolithic culture that preceded the rise of self-consciousness and egoism. Nock proved through his writing to be a bard of the recalcitrant individualists. Such individualists do not arise in pre-Homeric cultures, and are not allowed in Marxist cultures. They are oracles of what we must become if we are to survive.