Policing Anarchists: Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent

Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent

Hippolyte Taine, The French Revolution , volume 1

Today, we in the West are obsessed with the danger of islamists, not that we know what 'islamist' means, or who it is meant to describe. An islamist is scary and evil, a hobgoblin hiding among the Muslim faithful, by which we mean the good Muslims who agree with our present policies and practices. An islamist is a Muslim, but in a bad way, somehow connected with fascism, which we all know is a bad thing, though we usually have trouble defining that as well. Islamists mean us harm. The term is an unfortunate invention, a label that appears to define, but lacks all but the most vague and insubstantial content.

In the early 1900s, when Conrad published The Secret Agent , first as a serial and then as a novel (1906), the West was not afraid of Islamists. It was afraid of anarchists, of violence against the economic and political system of capitalism and industry. Anarchists threw bombs, rejected normative relationships like marriage, and made careers out of revealing not only the presence of inequality, but the extent to which social and economic injustice were required by the system in place. Injustice, oppression, and poverty were not accidental, they were not deviations--they were the very substance upon which a rising middle class and industrial power was constructed, and upon which it depended. The West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries feared a revolution by men and women who had no interest in the system, who got no benefit from it however much they lost to it.

Anarchists did not all throw bombs, but they all rejected the system, and all systems, based on hierarchy and compulsion. It was not possible that this system, built upon humiliation, poverty, and criminality, was the best possible human social design. They did not all throw bombs, however. Some relied upon a voluntary opting out of the system to destroy it. Some thought the system's destruction constructed into the system itself, along lines also developed by Karl Marx: it could not last, and after its inevitable end, a new life for humanity would dawn. Some did deploy violence to hasten this inevitable end, or to punish the masters and profiteers who benefitted from the system. Anarchists were not united by what they did, they were united by what they opposed.

Between 1881 and 1914, anarchists were responsible, not as a group, but individually, for a number of assassinations throughout the West. Leon Czolgosz, assassin of U.S. President McKinley, claimed that he was influenced by anarchism, although he probably acted more from personal psychological disturbance than under any external influence. Kaiser Wilhelm I, the tsar of Russia, industrialists like Henry Clay Frick, opera audiences, the President of France, and others, high and low, were targeted by 'propaganda of the deed'. Anarchists brought dynamite, invented in 1862, into politics, expressing their dissatisfaction, their anger, and their desperation through explosions, some against targets that seem reasonable, given their beliefs about the government and the societies in which they lived, and some of which seem ridiculous, or even malevolent.

When Hippolyte Taine wrote his history of the French Revolution in 1877, he did so in the aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871, when the people of Paris had for a brief time in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war taken control of the capital, fighting the French government once the Prussians abandoned the city to them. Anarchy, the fear of it and an educated man's bewilderment before it, fills his address of the French Revolution. Historians cannot help but carry the present into their address of the past, for it is their present concerns that determine the questions they ask and contribute to the shape of their answers. Taine is bewildered and frightened by the Commune, by the threat of international anarchism. He can see the misery produced by the system; he recognizes the injustice that affects the people. But he cannot accept the removal of all restraint, the descent into license and banditry, which he believes inevitable without the hand of government, without the distinction between rulers and ruled, between law and justice, is a viable solution. In fact, it makes things worse, for the men who rise in an angry hive are the angriest of men, the most unstable, the most fanatic, and the opportunistic criminals who seek only destruction and personal gain. There was some of this in the French Revolution of 1789, but Taine's horror is not for 1789 France, but for France in 1877, haunted by 1871.

Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent is a satire of English society, a journey into its hypocrisies and its darkness. It centers, as a good English novel of the time should, upon the home, but what a home! The husband is a man who seeks to exert himself as little as possible, and it his idleness that has made him what he is--a spy, an agent provocateur for a foreign embassy, a police informer, and a husband. This does not mean he does not love his wife. Verloc loves his wife, for she provides him with comfort, stability, and requires nothing from him but that he continue to exist, continue to come home, continue to provide a safe, stable home for her brother. Verloc's wife, Winnie, lives by this single love, for her brother, Stevie, a simple, half-mad young man who feels, but does not think. It has long been her job to protect her brother, to support him, and she constantly tries to show her husband how necessary and how good her brother is, so that Stevie's place within the household remains guaranteed and unresented. Verloc is too idle to resent Stevie; that would take more effort than he places in anything. Verloc's mother-in-law, too, thinks of Stevie's good, and thinking of it leaves their home for a charity hovel so that Stevie will not have to divide Verloc's compassion, and thereby lessen it, with an old woman. It is a household built upon deceits and secrets, some large and consuming, like Verloc's double life, and some invisibly corrupting the relationship itself, like Winnie's devotion to Stevie. Verloc is Winnie's choice because he can, and will, care for Stevie. Verloc himself is not part of her computations.

Outside this compromised household, with its appearance of stability and the continuing faith each member has in its solidity, are the demands of the foreign embassy and the police which threaten Verloc. The German embassy he has long worked for wants to awaken England to the threat of anarchism, and the only way to do this is to provide the nation with an event, an event that shows the depth of depravity of the anarchists by its very futility and target. The target Conrad gets from a real occurrence in 1894: a man exploded a bomb, and himself, approaching the Greenwich Observatory, doing no damage to the observatory. These are Verloc's instructions from his new embassy contact, Mr. Vladimir:

"Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion or bribes….I wouldn't expect from a butchery the result I want. Murder is always with us. It is almost an institution. The demonstration must be against learning--science. But not every science will do. The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy. Since bombs are your means of expression, it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics.' (67)

At the center of The Secret Agent , is a husband's difficulty: how to satisfy his masters, the Germans with their strange perception of what an effective revolutionary action is, for their purposes at least, without losing everything he has established in England. This engages Verloc in unexpected exertions in order to maintain his idleness.

What of the true anarchists, not Verloc the spy and informer? Michaelis is a man who has served time in prison, and yet remains an innocent, devoted to an ideal future in which the system, fallen by its own weight and contradictions, dissolves of its own accord. He is the project of an older woman of property, who does not think she should fear the fall of industrialism, as her wealth, her status, is independent of it, built on the 'better' grounds of land and inheritance. Yundt is an old firebrand, self-declared terrorist, burnt-out and without energy for further fight, if, indeed, he ever truly fought at all, save with words. He depends upon an old woman for his material and physical support, and will die of his own incapacities when she does. Ossipon, the young anarchist, is more interested in chasing skirts and gaining money through a good line of humanitarian and revolutionary talk than in actions that will destroy the system. But, beyond them all, on his own, is the Professor, the nihilist whose entire sense of self and status is tied up with the bomb he always carries in his pocket and his ultimate goal, the perfect detonator. The Professor is a dangerous man, but the very fact that he is dangerous keep the police away from him and concentrated on the vagaries of elderly Yundt, dreaming Michaelis, and womanizing Ossipon. No policeman wants to risk taking the Professor, and ending with him a bloody mist over London.

These are the men of whom Verloc is to create a conspiracy to bomb an observatory. It is hopeless. Yundt cannot do it. Michaelis and Ossipon will not do it. The Professor is a resource, but not in the society of Verloc's anarchists. The Professor will provide material, but he is not to be commanded. What then is Verloc to do? How is he to achieve what Vladimir demands of him? He makes use of the simple, loyal, foolish Stevie, who, knowing that Verloc is a good man, will obey him and help him, and who is easily animated by a naïve sense of injustice and compassion into rage. It is this use, with the accidental early firing of the bomb, leading to Stevie's death, that destroys Verloc's happy home. He did not mean for Stevie to die; he only meant for the boy, whose deficiencies would assure him a prison term not a death sentence, to plant the bomb, trusting to Stevie's loyalty to keep his name out of it.

What of the police, the other side of this social coin? Inspector Heat also makes use of Verloc, just as the German government does. Verloc provides him with information, and from this information Heat has formed a career based on a reputation for intelligence and effective action. Heat's superior is an unhappy man, comforted by an occasional game of whist, separated from the colonies in which he had been happy by a 'successful' marriage that has resulted in his confinement to a desk. His pursuit of the clue that leads him to Verloc, Verloc's confession of his German contacts, and an understanding of the entire matter is motivated by the need to get away from his desk, to play the real policeman once again, and simultaneously please Michaelis's patroness, a friend to him and his wife whose anger he does not wish to arouse by following Heat's plan. Heat's plan is to pin the crime on Michaelis, who as an anarchist and former prisoner, certainly belongs in prison, whatever the degree of his personal involvement might be. Heat and the Commissioner are not bad men, but they, like Verloc and his friends, are concerned primarily with their private comfort, with getting maximum benefit from minimal exertion. They want peace, happiness, and security in themselves. They are no different, in the end, from the anarchists they struggle against.

Conrad exhibits compassion within the bounds of his satire for almost all involved in this drama between the law and the anarchists. Ossipon, of all the characters, and his opposite, Vladimir, are not spared, but there are touches of humanity, of real virtue, or in the Professor's case of real vice and weakness, in all these men and women. Winnie's murder of Verloc is completely comprehensible, as is Verloc's inability to see it coming, to recognize the depths of feeling she is capable of when she has never exhibited depth before. Her inability to live with what she has done, her fear and her flight, are also understandable, though tragic in their result.

You will not find in The Secret Agent a denial of everything in anarchism. Conrad was too aware of the injustices in English society to completely condemn all anarchists as individuals: "I remember, however, remarking on the criminal futility of the whole thing, doctrine, action, mentality; and on the contemptible aspect of the half-crazy pose of a brazen cheat exploiting the poignant miseries and passionate credulities of a mankind always so tragically eager for self-destruction. That was what made for me its philosophical pretenses so unpardonable" (39). It is that anarchism is not a solution, that it is a cheat that brings men of good intentions and true misery into destructive, both self-destructive and socially destructive, acts for which the speech-makers, like Yundt and Ossipon, will not pay, that disturbs Conrad. The misery, the faults in the system by which he benefits and within which he lives, are not denied, ignored, or dismissed. There are vices in the service of law and order, deceptions and corruptions in its service that are also shams, produce not solutions, but corruptions--like the use of agent provocateurs and informers.

Conrad's The Secret Agent is worth a read. It is not demanding, but it is not shallow in intent or meaning It is entertaining, witty, with a stark architecture of form and movement. Taine's The French Revolution touches on the same fears and ambiguities, that tension between real misery and the difficulty of identifying its solution, but is a more difficult read. First, Taine's is a history written for educated Frenchmen of the 19th century, and therefore alluding to some figures and events which the modern, non-French reader will have to look up, a process made much quicker by the ubiquity of the Internet. Second, he does get lost in his own horror at the power of mobs and the violence of men released from restraint, so that portions of the history turn into a repetitive listing of all mobs may do with their opponents heads, ears, and innards. It is also worth a read, though, if the French Revolution interests you, or the anarchy of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. The fear anarchism aroused in respectable men is palpable in the pages of Taine in a way that it is not at the ironic distance Conrad maintains in The Secret Agent .

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Comments 3 comments

maxoxam41 profile image

maxoxam41 4 years ago from USA

Nice piece! I always voted according to my socialist believes by default, I guess I would be closer to the anarchists.

I will read him.


mewlhouse 4 years ago

Fantastic piece. Thank you.


Ed Michaels profile image

Ed Michaels 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

I have only recently returned to Conrad, having read him last some years ago when assigned "Lord Jim" in a college course. I really support returning to old texts you were instructed how to read when younger, and reading them without instruction, to discover for yourself what they say to you, if they have anything to say at all.

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