For an earlier generation of American dissidents from the prevailing ideology of left-liberalism, a rite of passage was reading Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, which appeared in 1943. William F. Buckley was hardly alone in seeing it as a seminal text crucial to his personal formation.
Here it is in one package, an illustration of the level of learning that had been lost with mass education, a picture of the way a true political dissident from our collectivist period thinks about the modern world, and a comprehensive argument for the very meaning of freedom and civility — all from a man who helped shape the Right’s intellectual response to the triumph of FDR’s welfare-warfare state.
It was destined to be a classic, read by many generations to come. But then the official doctrine changed. Instead of seeing war as part of the problem — as a species of socialism — National Review led the American Right down a different path. Nock’s book was quickly buried with the rise of the Cold War state, which required that conservatives reject anything like radical individualism — even of Nock’s aristocratic sort — and instead embrace the Wilson-FDR values of nationalism and militarism.
Instead of Nock’s Memoirs, young conservatives were encouraged to read personal accounts of communists who converted to backing the Cold War (e.g., Whittaker Chambers), as if warming up to the glories of nukes represents some sort of courageous intellectual step. To the extent that Nock (1870–1947) is known at all today, it is by libertarians for his classic essay Our Enemy, The State (1935), and his wonderful little biography, Mr. Jefferson (1926). Both are great works. He was also the founder of the Freeman in its first incarnation (1920–1924), which held to the highest literary standards and provoked unending controversy with its sheer radicalism.
However, it is with the Memoirs, this wonderful little treatise — part autobiography, part ideological instructional — that we are given the full Nockian worldview, not just his politics but his culture, his life, and his understanding of man and his place in the universe. The book makes a very bracing read today, if only because it proves how little today’s “conservative movement” has to do with its mid-century ancestor in the Old Right. It is also instructive for libertarians to discover that there is more to anarchism than childish rantings against the police power.
The phrase “man of letters” is thrown around casually these days, but A.J. Nock was the real thing. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he was homeschooled from the earliest age in Greek and Latin, unbelievably well read in every field, a natural aristocrat in the best sense of that term.
He combined an old-world cultural sense (he despised popular culture) and a political anarchism that saw the state as the enemy of everything that is civilized, beautiful, and true. And he applied this principle consistently in opposition to welfare, government-managed economies, consolidation, and, above all else, war.
In the introduction to my edition, Hugh MacLennan compares Memoirs to The Education of Henry Adams, and expresses the hope that it will “one day be recognized as the minor classic it really is.” Well, I can predict that this time is not coming soon. Given its contents, consistency, relentless truth telling, and, above all, its sheer persuasive power, it is a wonder that the book is in print and that we are even allowed to read it.
To follow Nock, what traits must a man of the Right have? He must be both fiercely independent and believe in the power of social authority; he must love tradition but hate the state and everything it does; he must believe in radical freedom while never doubting the immutability of human nature and natural laws; he must be antimaterialist in his own life while defending economic freedom without compromise; he must be an elitist and antidemocrat yet despise elites who hold illicit power; and he must be realistic about the dim prospects for change while still retaining a strong sense of hope and enthusiasm for life.
I’m not sure I can think of anyone but Murray Rothbard who consistently upheld the Nockian position after Nock’s death, and it is Memoirs of a Superfluous Man that provides a full immersion in Nock’s genius. Consider his main literary device: to take a commonplace subject, make a casual and slightly quirky observation about it (one that wins your affections), and then surprise and shock by driving the point to score a deadly blow against some great evil that is widely taken for granted:
Another neighbor, a patriarchal old Englishman with a white beard, kept a great stand of bees. I remember his incessant drumming on a tin pan to marshal them when they were swarming, and myself as idly wondering who first discovered that this was the thing to do, and why the bees should fall in with it. It struck me that if the bees were as intelligent as bees are cracked up to be, instead of mobilizing themselves for old Reynolds’ benefit, they would sting him soundly and then fly off about their business. I always think of this when I see a file of soldiers, wondering why the sound of a drum does not incite them to shoot their officers, throw away their rifles, go home, and go to work.
In the course of his 325-page narrative, he employs this casual device again and again, until you begin to get the message that there is something profoundly wrong with the world, and the biggest thing of all is the state.
In Nock’s view, it is the state that crowds out all that is decent, lovely, civilized. He demonstrates this not through deduction but through calm and entertaining tales of how rich and varied and productive life can be when the state does not interfere.
In a society without the state, for example, the “court of tastes and manners” would be the thing that guides the operation of society, and this “court” would have a much larger role in society than law, legislation, or religion. If such a court were not in operation, because people are too uncivilized or too ill-educated to maintain it, there was nothing the state could do to uplift people. No matter how low a civilization is, it can only be made to go lower through state activity.
Although an old-school Yankee of the purest-bred sort, he completely rejected what came to be the defining trait of his class: the impulse to try to improve others through badgering and coercion. But, with Nock’s infallible flair for radicalism, his logic takes him further down the anarchist road:
Nevertheless there was an anomaly here. We were supposed to respect our government and its laws, yet by all accounts those who were charged with the conduct of government the making of its laws were most dreadful swine; indeed, the very conditions of their tenure precluded their being anything else.
Nock is capable of surprising readers who think they might be able to anticipate the biases of a traditionalist-anarchist. Sometimes old-style rightist aristocrats who wax eloquent on the virtues of tradition fall into strange left-wing habits of extolling the environment as something glorious and virtuous on its own, and somehow deserving of being left alone. Nock had no interest in this strange deviation.
Nock was thus not an American Tory by any stretch, though his cultural outlook was as highbrow as any landed aristocrat’s. What’s more, unlike the socialist anarchists and most conservatives of today, Nock believed in and understood the crucial importance, even centrality, of economic liberty.
In fact, he understood even technical points of economics that are completely lost on most conservatives today. A special contribution of Nock’s book is his comprehensive critique of the pre–New Deal reform movements that culminated in the Progressive Era. Though he had once identified himself as a true liberal in the Jeffersonian sense, he was a close observer of the early stages of liberalism’s corruption, when it came to stand not for liberty but something else entirely. He saw the essential error that the liberal movement was making:
In time, of course, the liberal reform movement began to adopt a mild version of the class-war rhetoric of the socialist Left, and the longer this went on, the more the political process came to be a struggle not between liberty and power but between two versions of state domination.
From Nock’s point of view, the Great Depression and the two world wars saddled America with a new faith in the state, and along with it came a shift in people’s loyalties, from themselves, their families, and communities to the Grand National Project, whatever it may be. We see the same thing today on the Right and Left, when questioning any aspect of the war on terrorism gets you branded as a heretic to the national religion. Nock would have nothing to do with it.
Nock fought against the state with the most powerful weapons he had, his mind and his pen. Despite his claim, he was not superfluous at all, but essential, even indispensable, as are all great libertarian intellectuals.
Pass the Memoirs on to a twenty-year-old student and you stand a good chance of arming him or her against a lifetime of nonsense, whether it comes from the tedious Left that loves redistribution and collectivism or the fraudulent Right that is completely blind to the impossibility of reconciling war and nationalism with the true American spirit of freedom.