Anarchy in the UK

The Secret Agent Joseph Conrad. Independently published. Paperback, 261 pages. $12

Almost Brexitian in its bristling hostility to outsiders and the underclass, The Secret Agent (1907) is an openly reactionary novel. This, even though it was written more than a century ago, and by an author whose Polish origins would have rendered him suspect to most contemporary Brexiteers. There are many secrets in Joseph Conrad’s novel, the more obvious ones involving conspiracies, investigations, agents provocateurs, anarchists, and police officers, but at least one of them hides in plain view. This is the secret of what happens when the immigrant writer comes to identify so completely with a social, political, and economic system—one that poses as a fair liberal order at home while plundering the world for profit and power—that he betrays his own earlier selves.

Written originally for serial publication in the periodical Ridgway’s (“A Militant Weekly for God and Country”), The Secret Agent is the novel that marks the end of Conrad’s voyage of assimilation: from romantic Polish exile to sailor and officer navigating the routes of global capitalism in Asia, Africa, and the Americas (on one occasion carrying coal from Newcastle to the East Indies on a vessel called the Palestine, on another journeying down the same Congo River that would become the heavily symbolic setting of Marlow’s progression toward genocide in Heart of Darkness) and finally to anxious British country gentleman, struggling with his health and bills while becoming obsessed with the outsider figures threatening God and adopted country.

There is little that is nuanced about Conrad’s portrait of a seedy London populated by anarchists, foreigners, and agents working for unnamed European police states. Among the latter is Adolf Verloc, the eponymous secret agent, who is controlled by “Mr. Vladimir,” embassy official of an unnamed country. Verloc, who runs a pornography shop in Soho with his wife, Winnie, and her mentally challenged brother, Stevie, is asked by Mr. Vladimir to instigate a plot that will provoke a harsh British police response to the anarchists gathered in London. Verloc decides to persuade Stevie to place a bomb in the astronomical observatory in Greenwich, with predictably disastrous results.

Verloc is, not surprisingly, flawed at every level, and this allows Conrad to draw a sympathetic contrast with Winnie and Stevie, perhaps the only two underclass characters in the novel to escape its author’s withering scorn. The anarchists among whom Verloc poses as a sympathizer are a despicable bunch: lazy, cowardly, obese, crippled, and seducers to boot. The one exception is the Professor, but he is depicted as a demented would-be suicide bomber, his hands ready on the detonator in his pocket should the police attempt to seize him.

On the other side of the ledger are the English upper classes, the aristocrats and the professional types, whose greatest shortcoming is their ignorance of the evils lurking in the nether reaches of their country. The characters treated with the most sympathy are the lawmen, professionals like Chief Inspector Heat, who is asked to investigate the Greenwich bombing, and his superior, an unnamed but sensitive “Assistant Commissioner” who has served as a colonial policeman in an unnamed corner of the empire. The contrast between British liberalism and the extremist politics that have crept in from European shores—from the political philosophy of anarchism to the secret-police functionaries of repressive Continental governments—could not be clearer.

In that sense, The Secret Agent is an invasion narrative, like much of the detective fiction by Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle that preceded Conrad’s own pioneering urban thriller. But unlike in works of the late nineteenth century, the secrets and machinations in Conrad’s novels are not familial so much as systemic. In The Secret Agent, there ends up being a social connection between the Assistant Commissioner and the anarchist Michaelis: Both enjoy the patronage of the same aristocratic lady, who urges the Assistant Commissioner to manipulate his investigation to protect Michaelis.

This intersection is what turns the novel around and elevates it above Conrad’s reactionary politics. The social pressure on the Assistant Commissioner to produce a fake investigation is a perfect symmetrical counterpart of the institutional pressure on Verloc to deliver a fake anarchist bombing. As these two lines meet, the novel’s virtuous English liberals become increasingly hard to distinguish from its villainous Continental authoritarians. This is the legacy that The Secret Agent passed on to the thriller in Conrad’s century and in our own, the almost anarchist truth hidden beneath its reactionary skin, a secret beyond Conrad’s overt political understanding, transmitted almost despite himself. It consists of the understanding that, underneath all regimes, even liberal parliamentary democracies, lies the police state, where neither crime nor punishment is ever truly what it seems.

Siddhartha Deb is the author of The Beautiful and the Damned (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), a work of narrative nonfiction.