When Albert Jay Nock died in 1945, American civilization had known saner times. Having just conquered the world through the Final Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the new colossus had a growing appetite, undaunted-by expanse or expense. It was something on the order of: Today the earth, tomorrow the universe!

The author of Our Enemy, the State had not so much warned as observed what every victorious state will inevitably do; and the author of Memoirs of a Superfluous Man entertained no illusions about the implications of total victory in the last war he lived to witness. The recently terminated enemy had been hamstrung by its Weltanschauung, bound to an exclusivist racial fantasy. The new enemy had a similar weakness, with class taking the place of race. These ideologies hobbled themselves. They were parochial. Not so the victorious American empire with a vision that excluded no one and nothing from its all-devouring hopes. The mystery is how such an indiscriminate machine as 20th-century American culture could coexist with as discriminating a native son as Albert Jay Nock.

Charles Hamilton has brought together essays never before included in a book with others taken from books long out of print, as well as a number of classic essays. In the wake of the uproar produced by the publication of H.L. Mencken’s diaries several years ago, the new Nock collection arrives on the scene at an interesting time. If these two old friends could only see the America of the present day (where the most humdrum of their daily observances would be suspect, challenged, and condemned), what would they make of it?

In his time. Nock found more examples of the humane life in Europe than in America, but he drew no hard and fast conclusions concerning this. As several pieces in this collection attest, he viewed people and places sui specie aeternis. Although a single taxer, individualist, and anarchist, he was immune from the desire to torture reality into preconceived patterns. Mencken, the cynic, would sometimes allow the emotion of the moment to color his reporting; Nock, by contrast, was almost aloof The bracing, classical curriculum of which he never tired was, in his view, immunization against unrealistic expectations; but the whole of the 20th century runs against realism, and it is all too easy to begin believing in solutions in spite of oneself.

Nock could be writing about the Persian Gulf War when he excoriates “pseudo-patriotic flatulence,” “perfectionist-patriotic literature,” and “inert romanticism” in a piece entitled “The Return of the Patriots,” originally published in 1932 in Virginia Quarterly Review; he even speaks of “our glorious republic” in tones as sarcastic as those of Gore Vidal—or Henry Adams. In “The Criminality of the State,” which first appeared in the American Mercury in the terribly difficult year of 1939, he writes, “Many now believe that with the rise of the ‘totalitarian’ State the world has entered upon a new era of barbarism. It has not. The totalitarian State is only the State; the kind of thing it does is only what the State has always done with unfailing regularity, if it had the power to do it, wherever and whenever its own aggrandizement made that kind of thing expedient.” This never before anthologized essay alone is worth the price of the book.

Was there ever really a day when someone who expressed such views could be accepted as a conservative? In “A Little Conservative,” excavated by Hamilton from a 1936 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Nock considers the inadequacy of all political labels. He preferred to regard himself as a “radical” in the original sense of the word, and with characteristic prescience observed: “In the glossary of politics and journalism, the commonest, nay, the invariable connotation of ‘conservativism’ is in terms of money; a ‘conservative policy’ is one by which a larger flow of money can be turned towards one set of beneficiaries rather than towards another . . . ” (Of course, this definition works equally well to describe other political creeds, and Nock generously includes them.) One is struck again and again by how much Nock was a private person who thought the best place to be was beyond politics. Not even to advance causes in which he placed a modicum of faith would he subject himself to the necessities of political action. “My individualism,” he explained, “was a logical extension of the anarchist principle.” And if conservatism had no identity when Nock wrote (classical liberalism was a lost cause), then how pointless is today’s brouhaha over neoconservatism, a word bereft of even the shadow of meaning. Modern liberals want what neoconservatives want, and vice versa. None of them will ever relinquish their dream of free lunches, endlessly redistributed. They are all jobholders in search of a rationale.

Probably the most disturbing essay in the book is the previously uncollected “Peace the Aristocrat,” from the May 1915 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Nock points out why the common man prefers war to peace, for in war he shares his miseries and has a sense of being part of the grand purpose. Nock has it that war serves “the instinct for equality”; and that the politician realizes that war is simply more interesting and exciting than peace—”this instinctive knowledge is the primary essential qualification for his squalid trade.”

The critics of Albert Jay Nock pronounce him a dandy and a snob, but they never address the issues he raised. Today’s spokesmen for both the left and the right have a vested interest in keeping Nock out of the public eye. There is a modest attempt under way to resuscitate the Old Right with a strong emphasis on a libertarian view of foreign policy. This effort is certainly worthwhile, not least because it annoys the managerial elite, who prefer attacks from populist quarters. As for the “little conservatives” who couldn’t wait to become part of the establishment, they should be careful about the intellectual sources they strip-mine in their endless quest for self-justification. These people no longer care about Doing the Right Thing. They want to win, careless of the result. Should they happen across The State of the Union or Our Enemy, the State, they might take a moment to reflect that the “Our” in the latter title doesn’t refer to everyone who calls himself a conservative.


[The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism, by Albert Jay Nock, Edited and with a Foreword by Charles H. Hamilton (Indianapolis: Liberty Press) 340 pp., $20.00]