Monday, 11 February 2013
Joseph Conrad's "Secret Agent" and Anarchism
Joseph Conrad wrote his novel “The Secret Agent” in 1907, following an apparently motiveless bomb attack on Greenwich Observatory, in which the bomber, described as an “idiot youth” was killed, and his sister then committed suicide. Conrad uses this as the basis for his story, trying to imagine the motives of those concerned.
Conrad’s novel centres around Mr Verloc and his family. Verloc is an agent-provocateur acting within an anarchist cell in London on behalf of a foreign embassy (obviously meant to be Russia, though it is never actually named). Verloc’s controller, Vladimir, disgusted by the tolerant attitude of the British authorities towards foreign anarchist groups, commands Verloc to commit a revolutionary outrage which will compel the police to take action and deport the foreign-born anarchists: particularly Vladimir wants to get his hands on a Russian revolutionary called Michaelis, so he can be returned to the Gulag. Verloc, much against his will, plants a bomb at the Greenwich Observatory, but owing to an accident it blows up Stevie, his severely autistic brother-in-law. In further complications it transpires that the police are well aware of Verloc’s situation, and the Assistant Commissioner has his own personal reasons for not wishing Michaelis to be deported.
The actual bombing only takes up a very small part of Conrad’s novel, which mostly focuses on Verloc himself, his wife and Stevie. Several foreign-born anarchists make an appearance: they are mostly grotesque and completely ineffective, but include one clearly psychopathic personality known as “the professor”. The only thoroughly amoral and evil character is Vladimir, the Russian official who bullies Verloc into planting the bomb. Conrad, who was Polish by birth (his real name being Korseniowski) would of course hate the Russian government.
Anarchism was much in the news at the start of the 20th century, occupying much the same place in the public mind as Islamic terrorism does today. Anarchists were seen as wild-eyed fanatics who went around committing acts of senseless violence. The Empress Elizabeth of Austria was murdered by an anarchist in 1898, and King Umberto I of Italy followed in 1900. This was reflected in the fiction of the time. An early H. G. Wells story, “The Stolen Bacillus”, concerns an anarchist who swallows what he believes is a culture of cholera germs in order to start a deadly epidemic; and in 1908 G. K. Chesterton wrote the novel, “The Man Who Was Thursday”. The hero of this very strange work joins an anarchist network as a police spy. The seven members of the anarchist central committee are all named after days of the week (hence the title), but it transpires that six of them are police agents, and the seventh is, apparently, God!
The centre of anarchism, however, was Russia; and the stock cartoon anarchist, with his spiky beard, peasant smock, cap, boots and smoking bomb, was very much a Russian figure. Russian anarchism was of two distinct kinds: those with an optimistic view of human nature, who had an idealised vision of small, peaceful communities with no need for central government, and those who believed in the necessity of revolutionary action. The first kind was exemplified by Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921); the second by Nikolai Bakunin (1814-76). Bakunin, as well as numerous arrests and escapes from captivity, translated the “Communist Manifesto” into Russian, but later fell out with Marx, whom he accused him of preparing the ground for dictatorship, and who expelled him from the First International. In 1868 Bakunin was taken in by the young Sergei Nechayev, who took his money after telling him largely fictitious stories of huge conspiracies and daring escapes. Back in Russia, Nechayev then wrote “The Catechism of a Revolutionary”, and murdered a certain Ivanov, who disagreed with him, for which he was convicted as a common criminal and died in the Peter-Paul fortress in 1882. Nechavev inspired Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Devils”. At the same time Turgenev wrote his most famous novel, “Fathers and Sons”, featuring Barazov, who sees use only in science and is otherwise a Nihilist, believing in nothing. The novel was denounced by both government and radicals.
Russian radicalism, including anarchism, was a matter for the intelligensia (a typically Russian concept). Russian universities expanded greatly; they were provided with plenty of scholarships and were open to anyone who could pass exams. They were ignored by great nobility, and instead attracted many students from poorer backgrounds: children of tradesmen, minor officials, clergy, even some peasants. Many students were virtually starving! But these educated young people (who included many women) had no official role in Russia, where there was no such thing as a legal opposition to the Tsarist regime. The intelligensia were almost by definition anti-government, and the universities always a focus of disturbances, strikes and protests; full of radical discussion groups and secret societies. Every so often the authorities moved in to arrest all concerned. Many young radicals, from Herzen onwards, fled abroad and wrote propaganda to be smuggled into Russia.
In 1874 came the astonishing phenomenon called “Going to the people”. Inspired by anarchist and populist writings, 2-3000 young men and women, mostly from the upper classes, set out on foot to live amongst the peasants and instruct them. It led to severe disillusionment. Inevitably they found the peasants unreceptive and suspicious, and were soon caught by police. Kropotkin called this episode “The mad summer of ‘74”. 1876 saw the formation of the movement “Land & Liberty” envisaging “peasant socialism” and the communal ownership of land. But it soon came under control of Bakuninites, controlled by a small central group of dedicated revolutionaries. There were big demonstrations, violently broken up by police, and massive political trials with many students receiving long terms of imprisonment or forced labour.
In 1878, after an imprisoned student was flogged for refusing to take off his cap, a young woman named Vera Zasulich visited the police chief Trepov in office, and shot and wounded him. Amazingly, she was acquitted at her trial and escaped abroad. Other assassination attempts followed, to be met with executions, and the organisation ceased to exist. One of its leading members, Plekhanov, went to Switzerland and became Russia’s first Marxist.
Out of the ruins of “Land and Liberty” rose “People’s Will”, a small circle of conspirators whose aim was to kill the Tsar, Alexander II. After a number of failures, they eventually succeeded, with two bombs thrown in St Petersburg in March 1881. Alexander’s legs were blown off, and he died a few hours later. The terrible scene was witnessed by the Tsar’s grandson, aged 12, who later became Tsar Nicholas II. The conspirators made little attempt to flee, and five of them, including the 26-year-old Sofia Perovskaya, the daughter of a leading general, were paraded through the streets and hanged in public that April. A band played loud music to prevent any of their last words from reaching the crowd. Their place in history was summed up in the words, “They insisted on murdering a liberal intelligent Tsar to give the throne to a stupid and reactionary one”. (Alexander III)
“People’s Will” was broken, and the powers of the secret police greatly increased, together with clampdowns on the universities (One attempted remedy was to teach less science and more Latin. Another cunning plan was to recruit rebellious students into the army; which might have kept the students quiet, but would hardly have improved army morale), but assassination plots continued. In early 1887 a group of students planned to throw a bomb at the Tsar, but the police were onto them and no bomb was actually thrown. Fifteen young people were arrested and five condemned to death. Some names which would become famous in the future were involved. A Pole, Bronislaw Pilsudski, was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour, though his brother Josef, who was only slightly involved, escaped with no more than exile. Josef Pilsudski later became president of independent Poland. Amongst those hanged was a chemistry student called Alexander Ulyanov. He had a teenage brother who was later to be better known as Lenin.
In 1901 a new political group was formed, the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). They included Alexander Kerensky, a lawyer, who became Prime Minister of Russia after the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917; but the party also had a terrorist wing, the “SR Combat Organisation”, which carried out assassinations by gun or bomb. The Minister of Education was murdered in 1901, and this was countered by 13 deaths when Cossacks charged a student demonstration. Sipiagin, the Minister of the Interior, was murdered in early 1903, and his successor Pleve followed in July. It transpired later that Pleve’s murder was organised by a certain Azev, a police agent within the terrorist cell. The most famous murder of this period occurred in summer 1911, when the Prime Minister, Peter Stolypin, was gunned down in a theatre in Kiev. The gunman, a student called Bogrov, was a revolutionary who was also a police informer. Exactly who was behind this murder has never been proved.
The Socialist Revolutionaries were never an organised, disciplined political party. Some SRs supported Lenin’s Bolshevik coup in November 1917, but they quickly became disillusioned with Lenin’s methods. Within a few months the SRs started to turn their guns on Russia’s new leaders. Lenin himself was shot and badly wounded by Fanny Kaplan, a young Jewish Socialist Revolutionary woman, in summer 1918. The Bolsheviks then turned on the SRs much as the Tsars had done, but far more effectively. Within a few years all surviving Socialist Revolutionaries were languishing in exile or in the Gulag, or were desperately trying to conceal their past heresies.
After the revolution, the venerable apostle of peaceful anarchism, Prince Peter Kropotkin, was able to return to his homeland after half a lifetime in prison and foreign exile. He did not approve of what Lenin was doing, and was not afraid to say so; but he was such a respected figure that he was left alone, and died peacefully in 1921. Anarchism in Russia died with him.