Frank Chodorov (1887–1966) late in life was a man too wise, too experienced to be surprised or professionally disoriented by the terrible fate of his career and his ideals. The war he had opposed had ended, and he was opposed to the new Cold War too. He had lost every intellectual battle he had ever taken on. But in all those years of writing and editing, he had sharpened his skill as a thinker and stylist.
By 1959, the year that The Rise & Fall of Society was written, he figured that no one was very much interested in listening to what he had to say. He was mostly correct about this. The book was dead on arrival. It came and went with no reviews, and no real public notice that I can detect from archives. Not too many years later, having earned the status of a legend but never having actually achieved it, Chodorov died.
What he had written, however, was something spectacular. It might be the greatest book you have never heard of. It is a full-scale manifesto of political economy, one that follows a systematic pattern of exposition, but never slows or sags from beginning to end. The book is not a difficult read in any sense. But there is so much wisdom in its pages that it cannot possibly be fully absorbed in one reading. It covers economic theory, ancient history, political theory, American history, social theory and political reality and has so many asides and pithy statements that you find yourself absolutely stopping as you read: I must reflect on this; I must remember this.
Chodorov had been greatly influenced by Franz Oppenheimer’s book The State, and then its follow-up by Albert Jay Nock called Our Enemy, the State. Those were two wonderful works, rare in the world of political and economic literature. Both deal with the salient point that no one wanted to talk about then or now: the state is something that exists separate from society.
Most writers in the 20th century tried to cloak its existence. They tried to pass it off as society itself or an extension of scientific planning, a realization of the idea of justice, or a mere mechanism for bringing about economic stability. In fact, the state has many guises, and they change from generation to generation. The guises can be cultural and religious. They can be about law and order, or staving off foreign threats, or ending piracy, or rebuilding after a hurricane, or improving education or physical infrastructure. The beauty of Oppenheimer and Nock is that they saw through the language and pointed straight at the enemy: the state as the monopolist of violent means in the social order.
This book from 1959 was a homage to the masters. It was designed to restate their views and extend and apply them in new times. Yet in many ways, it is a better book than the other two combined, which is why I suggest it before the others. The language is exceptionally clear. You can almost point to any passage randomly and find amazing things to quote.
Also, Chodorov had the benefit of watching the whole of the 1930s and 1940s and the postwar period, and he could see with even greater clarity how the state operates in different times and places. He poured his heart and soul into the book, yet he knew that the book would matter only after his death. Even the dedication suggests this: he signs it to his granddaughter, who he suggests will have “good, clean fun — trying to reconstruct a long-lost pattern of thought.”
It is one thing to notice the existence of the state and become aware of the how it differs from the rest of the society. It is also fine and important to come to understand its destructive effects. But it is another level entirely to truly understand its operations, to grasp its dynamics, to discern its motive force in society, to take apart its various aspects to see what is and what isn’t illusory. Here is where Chodorov’s great book excels. It’s the product of a lifetime of reading and reflection, and it bears careful study.