The Secret Agent

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A tale for our era

One hundred years ago, Teodor Józef Konrad Korzeniowski, a Polish exile, published The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, one of the greatest books ever penned by the genius novelist known to us as Joseph Conrad. Conrad produced great literature, and like all such great works, the story remains timeless, with themes that come off the front pages of today’s daily papers.

Conrad’s Edwardian England was part of a multipolar world, dominated by massive, mainly European empires in subtle conflict with one another, a theme that forms the background of The Secret Agent. The British Empire itself, which Conrad, along with millions of British subjects, saw as a beacon of human freedom, ruled over one-third of the planet, with the sun never setting on the Union Jack. But the power wielded from Westminster was balanced by other imperial forces: France was a power to be reckoned with in Asia and Africa, a newly-formed Germany was beginning to build an overseas presence, rapidly-modernized Japan was pushing into East Asia, and the United States was flexing its muscle, fresh from the Spanish-American War and the new colonies it gained from a diminished Spain. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires faced each other in Southeast Europe, shouldered by the enormous Russian Empire.

All of these rivalries would soon lead to a cataclysm that would end the world as it had been known up until then: barely a hundred years ago, monarchies were the governmental norm, and, in the course of the four years of the First World War, the world order would be forever changed.

But how much? Instead of the multiplicity of empires Conrad knew, today we have a unipolar world: one nation, the United States, guided by neoconservative imperialism, seeks to dictate terms to the planet in a fashion that no Emperor, Czar, Sultan, Kaiser or King would have dared in Conrad’s day. And while “democracy” has replaced “civilization” as the rallying cry of modern US imperialism, where the old mustachioed imperialists of Conrad’s day carried out successful projects like the Panama or Suez Canals or the eradication of disease across the Third World, where has modern America’s “democratic” project borne fruit? Just as today there are indigenous protest movements against the prevailing world order, so too there were similar movements in Conrad’s day, and the interplay between these dissident movements and the imperial tensions of Conrad’s era are the focus of The Secret Agent, made even more poignant today in light of the Patriot Act.

Joseph Conrad was a refugee from his native Poland, which was divided between the Czarist Russians, Germans and the Austro-Hungarians. Earlier “liberal nationalist” movements in Europe had had some success, but in Poland had made hardly any progress. Anarchists were the great bogeymen of Conrad’s era, and had gained a degree of popular support partly because of the seeming lack of success of the nationalist movements, as well as the growth of the labor movement. But where others called for basic freedoms within the context of reform, many of the anarchists preached extreme individualism, carrying out the European tradition of revolutionary violence in acts of terror that shook pre-war Europe to the core.

While anarchist violence had been known before, the idea of the “bomb-throwing anarchist” was solidified in the wake of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre, when German-American workers battled Chicago police after a bomb-blast at a rally, leaving seven  policemen and four workers dead. Seven anarchists were later condemned to death for their alleged role in the violence. The Haymarket incident gave life to a strain of anarchist theory, called “the propaganda of the deed”: instead of strikes and protests, they reasoned, strike at the sources of power, the bosses and rulers.

Before Haymarket, there had been a number of “anarchist outrages.” In 1878 there had been two attempts on the life of the Kaiser and one on the King of Spain, and a number of various functionaries had been assassinated over the years. Then early in 1881, anarchists blew up Alexander II, Czar of all the Russias, an act which sent shockwaves across the civilized world. In 1894, an anarchist stabbed Marie François Sadi Carnot, President of France, to death. Spanish Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo was next, shot dead at a spa. Barely a year later and no less than the Empress of Austria was stabbed to death by an anarchist assassin. In 1900, Italy’s King Umberto I was assassinated by anarchist Gaetano Bresci. Leon Czolgosz, a child of Polish immigrants, was to shoot and kill US President William McKinley in 1901 as McKinley stood in a Buffalo, New York receiving line. A year after that and top Russian imperial statesman Vyacheslav Konstantinovich von Plehve was blown up in his carriage. In 1905 Plehve’s friend, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, followed his father, Czar Alexander II, at the hands of an anarchist assassin.

The Secret Agent appeared when anarchist assassination was a red-hot issue, exactly as if a similar literary genius were to take on the issue of Muslim violence today, in the wake of 9/11, Beslan, Madrid,  London and so many other places. And after The Secret Agent appeared, the anarchist hits kept on coming.

Understandably, the reaction to anarchism that Conrad saw in 1907 was similar to what we see towards al-Qaeda in 2007. But unlike Islamism, which has a demographic support component enplaced behind enemy lines, the anarchists had to rely on a loose network of fellow crackpots. Yet the reaction to the anarchists was very similar to what we see today with the “War on Terror.” Handy targets were picked off, with special interests taking advantage of the panic: the labor movement, which the individualist violent anarchists scorned as a hopelessly reformist enterprise, was hit especially hard. All across the Western world people’s rights were curtailed in the name of fighting terrorism. Sound familar? Plus ça change…

The anarchists even had their own Osama. François Claudius Koeningstein had the romantic codename of Ravachol, and, like Osama, was thought to be pulling the strings of nihilist chaos across the world. And just as the “mainstream” media refuses to examine the underlying themes behind Islamism, so too in Conrad’s day the anarchists were seen as a set of charicatures: mad professors, demented philosophers, psychotic madmen who, unable to fit into any system, sought to destroy them all.

What Conrad did in The Secret Agent was to demystify the anarchists, pointing out what they really stood for. According to Conrad’s analysis, the threat the anarchists posed wasn’t in their own program, for their vision was absolutely opposite to the laws of nature. Conrad points this out in the mission of the terror cell in The Secret Agent: they plan to strike at the Greenwich Observatory, from which all time and distance is measured by modern science. The goal? To blast civilization itself, to destroy the concept of time… A perfect encapsulation of the extreme egalitarian and anti-civilization ethos represented by the violent anarchists.

So what threat did the anarchists represent? The Secret Agent makes it clear that their ideology was bankrupt, and that, while they were violent, they were void of support and effectively hamstrung. Instead, the threat they represented was the opposite of what they claimed: instead of increasing human freedom, their actions served the purpose of their purported enemies in the ruling class. These totalitarians were prepared to sponsor the anarchist violence as part of a larger plan to roll back concessions made to the people as a whole in the name of what we would call “national security” today.

The Secret Agent tells the story of a snitch. Verloc owns a London shop specializing in French pornography and foreign leftist material, and is also a militant leader of an anarchist cell. But he also reports to an (unnamed, but clearly Russian) embassy official who wants the British freedoms won with the Magna Carta amended in the name of stamping out the emergency ideology that is setting Europe aflame. Why should people in England enjoy freedom of speech and association when crowned heads were dying? What Verloc is tasked with is an act that is so profound, so unsettling and so world-toppling that British freedom will come to an end. An attack on time itself… For more, you’ll have to read this amazing book for yourself.

According to urban legend, The Secret Agent inspired the infamous Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, like Conrad of Polish descent. However, Kaczynski would have had to be unutterably stupid if this is so: The Secret Agent is an indictment of the secret state and anarchism alike.

The importance of The Secret Agent today is immense: the use of terror fears for ulterior ends, the demonization of dissent, the hijacking of legitimate dissent by unprincipled and possibly manipulated forces, the denial of legitimate concerns because some dangerous people also claim to believe in them: all these and so much more is to be found in this amazing, prophetic novel. And while what mainly passes for “anarchism” today has little to do with historical anarchism, the masked thuglets with circled As on their jackets attacking racialists for thought crimes serve the same objective pro-state interests their alleged forebears did in 1907.

To celebrate the Centennial of the publication of The Secret Agent, the Western Culture Institute is making available a special edition, available http://stores.lulu.com/wci.

2008-02-09