Due to high-profile assassination attempts against heads of state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (like the shooting of U.S. President McKinley in 1901), anarchy was a hot topic when Conrad wrote The Secret Agent in 1906. However, anarchism wasn’t a unified political movement: it was more of a diverse collection of ideas centering on the rejection of government and authority; some anarchists (like The Professor in the novel) were violent, while many were not. In the novel, London shopkeeper Adolf Verloc is both a secret agent for a foreign embassy and an infiltrator of an anarchist group, and the anarchists he associates with are harmless and ineffective. However, in his role as a secret agent, Verloc is tasked with a terrorist attack which will implicate them (this is meant to provoke the British people into fearing anarchism). After the bombing, the people who suffer most are not anarchists after all, but ordinary Londoners who are altogether uninvolved in politics. Rather than provoking a public outcry, Verloc ends up destroying himself and his family, suggesting that political violence is meaningless and counterproductive. Through the self-sabotaging efforts of secret agent Verloc on behalf of the foreign embassy, Conrad suggests that political violence is self-defeating and senselessly destructive—especially for the everyday people whom violent political movements claim to side with.
In the novel, foreign embassy official Mr. Vladimir portrays anarchism as a menace tolerated by the English masses, though he focuses on the wrong target. According to Vladimir, the English people care too much about political freedom and have therefore become complacent about the danger that anarchists pose. Mr. Vladimir tells Verloc, “England must be brought into line. The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches. […] What they want just now is a jolly good scare.” England, he argues, has unwittingly sheltered anarchists who threaten English society’s well-being, and the middle class needs to be shocked out of its complacency.
The Professor, a lone anarchist and bomb-maker, embodies an extreme form of anarchism. Unlike the tamer anarchists Verloc associates with, The Professor constantly carries explosives; he threatens to kill himself, the authorities, and ordinary bystanders at any time. His abandonment of conventional morality makes him dangerous: “[The police’s] character is built upon conventional morality. It leans on the social order. Mine stands free from everything artificial. […] They depend on life, […] whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked.” In other words, at its extreme, anarchism is unconstrained by allegiance to everyday morality and the social order. Because conventional authorities—and for that matter, most anarchists—adhere to conventional morality, they don’t resort to indiscriminate violence, whereas the Professor can use death (terrorism) as a tool to communicate his message at any time.
Short of overt terrorism like The Professor’s, anarchism is unlikely to achieve real social change. The Professor mocks the other anarchists—like Verloc’s friends Michaelis, Ossipon, and Yundt—who remain stuck on ideas instead of terrorist action: “The [anarchist] and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality—counter moves in the same game; forms of idleness at bottom identical. He plays his little game—so do you propagandists.” Because anarchists who stick to propaganda remain tethered to conventional morality, anarchists and legal authorities are just two sides of the same coin. In other words, the more conventional anarchists whom Verloc has infiltrated aren’t a threat to the social order. Thus, Verloc’s “jolly good scare” on behalf of Vladimir and the foreign embassy, meant to implicate his friends, is destined to fall flat—it will only distract the police from dealing with truly dangerous figures like The Professor.
Political violence, whether anarchist or anti-anarchist, tends to harm those it’s allegedly meant to help. The most vulnerable characters in the novel suffer the most because of anarchist panic. In particular, the one forced to carry out the bombing for the Embassy, Verloc’s disabled brother-in-law, Stevie, is the one who suffers most because of it—not any anarchist. After Verloc gets Stevie to bomb the Greenwich Observatory to stir outrage against anarchists, Stevie stumbles and gets blown up instead. After this, Stevie’s sister, Winnie (Verloc’s wife) is so distraught that she ends up killing Verloc in revenge. Then, finding herself alone and helpless in the world, she commits suicide: “She had become a free woman with a perfection of freedom which left her nothing to desire and absolutely nothing to do, since Stevie's urgent claim on her devotion no longer existed.” When Winnie is bereaved by meaningless violence, she is freed not only of the obligation of caring for Stevie, but of loyalty to her husband. Yet, rather than feeling liberated by this, she feels empty and existentially lost. Through Winnie, the novel emphasizes that anarchist panic—and indeed an “anarchist” attitude of freedom from all ties—can actually harm those they’re intended to help. In Winnie’s case, her actions leave her without ties to her family, to London, or even to life itself.
As if to symbolize harmful rejection of ties, Winnie gets on a ferry to the Continent (mainland Europe) and jumps overboard to avoid arrest for Verloc’s stabbing—she believes she has nothing left to live for. More than the theoretical anarchism of Verloc’s friends and even more than the misguided violence of the Observatory bombing, Winnie’s crime and suicide demonstrate the self-defeating nature of political violence. And at the close of the novel, The Professor still walks free on London’s streets—showing that the Embassy’s plot has not only failed to turn public opinion against anarchism as a whole, it overlooked the most potent threat.
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption ThemeTracker
Anarchy, Terrorism, and Corruption Quotes in The Secret Agent
England lags. This country is absurd with its sentimental regard for individual liberty. […] England must be brought into line. The imbecile bourgeoisie of this country make themselves the accomplices of the very people whose aim is to drive them out of their houses to starve in ditches. And they have the political power still, if they only had the sense to use it for their preservation. I suppose you agree that the middle classes are stupid? […] What they want just now is a jolly good scare. This is the psychological moment to set your friends to work.
And Mr Vladimir developed his idea from on high, with scorn and condescension, displaying at the same time an amount of ignorance as to the real aims, thoughts, and methods of the revolutionary world which filled the silent Mr Verloc with inward consternation. He confounded causes with effects more than was excusable; the most distinguished propagandists with impulsive bomb throwers; assumed organisation where in the nature of things it could not exist; spoke of the social revolutionary party one moment as of a perfectly disciplined army, where the word of chiefs was supreme, and at another as if it had been the loosest association of desperate brigands that ever camped in a mountain gorge.
Madness alone is truly terrifying, inasmuch as you cannot placate it either by threats, persuasion, or bribes. Moreover, I am a civilised man. I would never dream of directing you to organise a mere butchery, even if I expected the best results from it. But 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. […] The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy.
"I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. […] Therefore I am deadly […] Their character is built upon conventional morality. It leans on the social order. Mine stands free from everything artificial. They are bound in all sorts of conventions. They depend on life, which, in this connection, is a historical fact surrounded by all sorts of restraints and considerations, a complex organised fact open to attack at every point; whereas I depend on death, which knows no restraint and cannot be attacked. My superiority is evident."
"You revolutionists," the other continued, with leisurely self-confidence, "are the slaves of the social convention, which is afraid of you; slaves of it as much as the very police that stands up in the defence of that convention. Clearly you are, since you want to revolutionise it. It governs your thought, of course, and your action too, and thus neither your thought nor your action can ever be conclusive […] The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket. Revolution, legality—counter moves in the same game […] at bottom identical.”
The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds. The Professor's indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin of turning to destruction as the agent of his ambition. […] By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige. That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness. It pacified its unrest; and in their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind—the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.
[Inspector Heat] could understand the mind of a burglar, because, as a matter of fact, the mind and the instincts of a burglar are of the same kind as the mind and the instincts of a police officer. Both recognise the same conventions, and have a working knowledge of each other's methods and of the routine of their respective trades. […] Products of the same machine, one classed as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways, but with a seriousness essentially the same. The mind of Chief Inspector Heat was inaccessible to ideas of revolt. But his thieves were not rebels.
The Chief Inspector lost himself suddenly in a discreet reflective mood; and the Assistant Commissioner repressed a smile at the fleeting thought that the reputation of Chief Inspector Heat might possibly have been made in a great part by the Secret Agent Verloc.
"In a more general way of being of use, all our men of the Special Crimes section on duty […] have orders to take careful notice of anybody they may see with him. He meets the new arrivals frequently, and afterwards keeps track of them. […] When I want an address in a hurry, I can always get it from him. Of course, I know how to manage our relations. I haven't seen him to speak to three times in the last two years. I drop him a line, unsigned, and he answers me in the same way at my private address."
There is a peculiar stupidity and feebleness in the conduct of this affair which gives me excellent hopes of getting behind it and finding there something else than an individual freak of fanaticism. For it is a planned thing, undoubtedly. The actual perpetrator seems to have been led by the hand to the spot, and then abandoned hurriedly to his own devices. The inference is that he was imported from abroad for the purpose of committing this outrage. At the same time one is forced to the conclusion that he did not know enough English to ask his way, unless one were to accept the fantastic theory that he was a deaf mute. […] But an extraordinary little fact remains: the address on his clothing discovered by the merest accident, too.
"A genuine wife and a genuinely, respectably, marital relation. He told me that after his interview at the Embassy he would have thrown everything up, would have tried to sell his shop, and leave the country, only he felt certain that his wife would not even hear of going abroad. Nothing could be more characteristic of the respectable bond than that," went on, with a touch of grimness, the Assistant Commissioner […] "Yes, a genuine wife. And the victim was a genuine brother-in-law. From a certain point of view we are here in the presence of a domestic drama."
Like a peripatetic philosopher, Mr Verloc, strolling along the streets of London, had modified Stevie's view of the police by conversations full of subtle reasonings. Never had a sage a more attentive and admiring disciple. The submission and worship were so apparent that Mr Verloc had come to feel something like a liking for the boy. In any case, he had not foreseen the swift bringing home of his connection. That his wife should hit upon the precaution of sewing the boy's address inside his overcoat was the last thing Mr Verloc would have thought of. […] That was what she meant when she said that he need not worry if he lost Stevie during their walks. She had assured him that the boy would turn up all right. Well, he had turned up with a vengeance!
The vast world created for the glory of man was only a vast blank to Mrs Verloc. She did not know which way to turn. Murderers had friends, relations, helpers—they had knowledge. She had nothing. She was the most lonely of murderers that ever struck a mortal blow. She was alone in London: and the whole town of marvels and mud, with its maze of streets and its mass of lights, was sunk in a hopeless night, rested at the bottom of a black abyss from which no unaided woman could hope to scramble out.