Bbc Radio Anarchism And Other Essays

"Anarchist" and "Anarchists" redirect here. For the fictional character, see Anarchist (comics). For other uses, see Anarchists (disambiguation).

Anarchism is a political philosophy that advocates self-governed societies based on voluntary institutions. These are often described as stateless societies,[1][2][3][4] although several authors have defined them more specifically as institutions based on non-hierarchical or free associations.[5][6][7][8] Anarchism holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary and harmful.[9][10]

While opposition to the state is central,[11] anarchism specifically entails opposing authority or hierarchical organisation in the conduct of all human relations.[12][13][14] Anarchism is usually considered a far-left ideology[15][16] and much of anarchist economics and anarchist legal philosophy reflects anti-authoritarian interpretations of communism, collectivism, syndicalism, mutualism or participatory economics.[17]

Anarchism does not offer a fixed body of doctrine from a single particular world view, instead fluxing and flowing as a philosophy.[18] Many types and traditions of anarchism exist, not all of which are mutually exclusive.[19]Anarchist schools of thought can differ fundamentally, supporting anything from extreme individualism to complete collectivism.[10] Strains of anarchism have often been divided into the categories of social and individualist anarchism or similar dual classifications.[20][21]

Etymology and terminology[edit]

See also: Anarchist terminology

The word "anarchism" is composed from the word "anarchy" and the suffix -ism,[22] themselves derived respectively from the Greek ἀναρχία,[23] i.e. anarchy[24][25][26] (from ἄναρχος, anarchos, meaning "one without rulers";[27] from the privative prefix ἀν- (an-, i.e. "without") and ἀρχός, archos, i.e. "leader", "ruler";[28] (cf. archon or ἀρχή, arkhē, i.e. "authority", "sovereignty", "realm", "magistracy")[29]) and the suffix -ισμός or -ισμα (-ismos, -isma, from the verbal infinitive suffix -ίζειν, -izein).[30] The first known use of this word was in 1539.[31] Various factions within the French Revolution labelled opponents as anarchists (as Maximilien Robespierre did the Hébertists)[32] although few shared many views of later anarchists. There would be many revolutionaries of the early nineteenth century who contributed to the anarchist doctrines of the next generation, such as William Godwin and Wilhelm Weitling, but they did not use the word "anarchist" or "anarchism" in describing themselves or their beliefs.[33]

The first political philosopher to call himself an anarchist was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, marking the formal birth of anarchism in the mid-nineteenth century. Since the 1890s and beginning in France,[34] the term "libertarianism" has often been used as a synonym for anarchism[35] and was used almost exclusively in this sense until the 1950s in the United States,[36] though its use as a synonym is still common outside the United States.[37] On the other hand, some use libertarianism to refer to individualistic free market philosophy only, referring to free market anarchism as libertarian anarchism.[38][39]


Main article: History of anarchism


The earliest[40] anarchist themes can be found in the 6th century BC among the works of Taoist philosopher Laozi[41] and in later centuries by Zhuangzi and Bao Jingyan.[42] Zhuangzi's philosophy has been described by various sources as anarchist.[43][44][45][46] Zhuangzi wrote: "A petty thief is put in jail. A great brigand becomes a ruler of a Nation".[47]Diogenes of Sinope and the Cynics as well as their contemporary Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, also introduced similar topics.[41][48]Jesus is sometimes considered the first anarchist in the Christian anarchist tradition. Georges Lechartier wrote: "The true founder of anarchy was Jesus Christ and [...] the first anarchist society was that of the apostles".[49] In early Islamic history, some manifestations of anarchic thought are found during the Islamic civil war over the Caliphate, where the Kharijites insisted that the imamate is a right for each individual within the Islamic society.[50]

The French renaissance political philosopher Étienne de La Boétie wrote in his most famous work the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude what some historians consider an important anarchist precedent.[51][52] The radical Protestant ChristianGerrard Winstanley and his group the Diggers are cited by various authors as proposing anarchist social measures in the 17th century in England.[53][54][55] The term "anarchist" first entered the English language in 1642 during the English Civil War as a term of abuse, used by Royalists against their Roundhead opponents.[56] By the time of the French Revolution, some such as the Enraged Ones began to use the term positively[57] in opposition to Jacobin centralisation of power, seeing "revolutionary government" as oxymoronic.[56] By the turn of the 19th century, the English word "anarchism" had lost its initial negative connotation.[56]

Modern anarchism emerged from the secular or religious thought of the Enlightenment, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau's arguments for the moral centrality of freedom.[58]

As part of the political turmoil of the 1790s in the wake of the French Revolution, William Godwin developed the first expression of modern anarchist thought.[59][60] According to Peter Kropotkin, Godwin was "the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his work"[41] while Godwin attached his anarchist ideas to an early Edmund Burke.[61]

Godwin is generally regarded as the founder of the school of thought known as philosophical anarchism. He argued in Political Justice (1793)[60][62] that government has an inherently malevolent influence on society and that it perpetuates dependency and ignorance. He thought that the spread of the use of reason to the masses would eventually cause government to wither away as an unnecessary force. Although he did not accord the state with moral legitimacy, he was against the use of revolutionary tactics for removing the government from power. Rather, he advocated for its replacement through a process of peaceful evolution.[60][63]

His aversion to the imposition of a rules-based society led him to denounce as a manifestation of the people's "mental enslavement" the foundations of law, property rights and even the institution of marriage. He considered the basic foundations of society as constraining the natural development of individuals to use their powers of reasoning to arrive at a mutually beneficial method of social organisation. In each case, government and its institutions are shown to constrain the development of our capacity to live wholly in accordance with the full and free exercise of private judgement.

The French Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is regarded as the first self-proclaimed anarchist, a label he adopted in his groundbreaking work What is Property?, published in 1840. It is for this reason that some claim Proudhon as the founder of modern anarchist theory.[64] He developed the theory of spontaneous order in society, where organisation emerges without a central coordinator imposing its own idea of order against the wills of individuals acting in their own interests. His famous quote on the matter is "Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order". In What is Property?, Proudhon answers with the famous accusation "Property is theft". In this work, he opposed the institution of decreed "property" (propriété), where owners have complete rights to "use and abuse" their property as they wish.[65] He contrasted this with what he called "possession", or limited ownership of resources and goods only while in more or less continuous use. However, Proudhon later added that "Property is Liberty" and argued that it was a bulwark against state power.[66] His opposition to the state, organised religion and certain capitalist practices inspired subsequent anarchists and made him one of the leading social thinkers of his time.

The anarcho-communistJoseph Déjacque was the first person to describe himself as "libertarian".[67] Unlike Proudhon, he argued that "it is not the product of his or her labour that the worker has a right to, but to the satisfaction of his or her needs, whatever may be their nature".[68] In 1844, the post-hegelian philosopher Max Stirner published in Germany the book, The Ego and Its Own, which would later be considered an influential early text of individualist anarchism.[69] French anarchists active in the 1848 Revolution included Anselme Bellegarrigue, Ernest Coeurderoy, Joseph Déjacque[67] and Proudhon himself.[70][71]

First International and the Paris Commune[edit]

Main articles: International Workingmen's Association and Paris Commune

In Europe, harsh reaction followed the revolutions of 1848, during which ten countries had experienced brief or long-term social upheaval as groups carried out nationalist uprisings. After most of these attempts at systematic change ended in failure, conservative elements took advantage of the divided groups of socialists, liberals and nationalists along with anarchists to prevent further revolt.[72] In Spain, Ramón de la Sagra established the anarchist journal El Porvenir in La Coruña in 1845 which was inspired by Proudhon's ideas.[73] The Catalan politician Francesc Pi i Margall became the principal translator of Proudhon's works into Spanish[74] and later briefly became President of Spain in 1873 while being the leader of the Federal Democratic Republican Party. According to George Woodcock: "These translations were to have a profound and lasting effect on the development of Spanish anarchism after 1870, but before that time Proudhonian ideas, as interpreted by Pi, already provided much of the inspiration for the federalist movement which sprang up in the early 1860's".[75] According to the Encyclopædia Britannica: "During the Spanish revolution of 1873, Pi y Margall attempted to establish a decentralised, or "cantonalist," political system on Proudhonian lines".[73]

In 1864, the International Workingmen's Association (sometimes called the First International) united diverse revolutionary currents including French followers of Proudhon,[76]Blanquists, Philadelphes, English trade unionists, socialists and social democrats. Due to its links to active workers' movements, the International became a significant organisation. Karl Marx became a leading figure in the International and a member of its General Council. Proudhon's followers, the mutualists, opposed Marx's state socialism, advocating political abstentionism and small property holdings.[77][78] Woodcock also reports that the American individualist anarchistsLysander Spooner and William Batchelder Greene had been members of the First International.[79] In 1868, following their unsuccessful participation in the League of Peace and Freedom (LPF), Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin and his collectivist anarchist associates joined the First International (which had decided not to get involved with the LPF).[80] They allied themselves with the federalist socialist sections of the International,[81] who advocated the revolutionary overthrow of the state and the collectivisation of property.

At first, the collectivists worked with the Marxists to push the First International in a more revolutionary socialist direction. Subsequently, the International became polarised into two camps, with Marx and Bakunin as their respective figureheads.[82] Mikhail Bakunin characterised Marx's ideas as centralist and predicted that if a Marxist party came to power, its leaders would simply take the place of the ruling class they had fought against.[83][84] Anarchist historian George Woodcock reports: "The annual Congress of the International had not taken place in 1870 owing to the outbreak of the Paris Commune, and in 1871 the General Council called only a special conference in London. One delegate was able to attend from Spain and none from Italy, while a technical excuse – that they had split away from the Fédération Romande – was used to avoid inviting Bakunin's Swiss supporters. Thus only a tiny minority of anarchists was present, and the General Council's resolutions passed almost unanimously. Most of them were clearly directed against Bakunin and his followers".[85] In 1872, the conflict climaxed with a final split between the two groups at the Hague Congress, where Bakunin and James Guillaume were expelled from the International and its headquarters were transferred to New York. In response, the federalist sections formed their own International at the St. Imier Congress, adopting a revolutionary anarchist programme.[86]

The Paris Commune was a government that briefly ruled Paris from 18 March (more formally, from 28 March) to 28 May 1871. The Commune was the result of an uprising in Paris after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. Anarchists participated actively in the establishment of the Paris Commune. They included Louise Michel, the Reclus brothers, and Eugene Varlin (the latter murdered in the repression afterwards). As for the reforms initiated by the Commune, such as the re-opening of workplaces as co-operatives, anarchists can see their ideas of associated labour beginning to be realised. Moreover, the Commune's ideas on federation obviously reflected the influence of Proudhon on French radical ideas. The Commune's vision of a communal France based on a federation of delegates bound by imperative mandates issued by their electors and subject to recall at any moment echoes Bakunin's and Proudhon's ideas (Proudhon, like Bakunin, had argued in favour of the "implementation of the binding mandate" in 1848 and for federation of communes). Thus both economically and politically the Paris Commune was heavily influenced by anarchist ideas.[87] George Woodcock states that "a notable contribution to the activities of the Commune and particularly to the organization of public services was made by members of various anarchist factions, including the mutualists Courbet, Longuet, and Vermorel, the libertarian collectivists Varlin, Malon, and Lefrangais, and the bakuninists Elie and Elisée Reclus and Louise Michel".[85]

Organised labour[edit]

Main articles: Anarcho-syndicalism, International Workers' Association, Anarchism in Spain, and Spanish Revolution of 1936

The anti-authoritarian sections of the First International were the precursors of the anarcho-syndicalists, seeking to "replace the privilege and authority of the State" with the "free and spontaneous organization of labour".[88] In 1886, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada unanimously set 1 May 1886 as the date by which the eight-hour work day would become standard.[89]

In response, unions across the United States prepared a general strike in support of the event.[89] On 3 May, a fight broke out in Chicago when strikebreakers attempted to cross the picket line and two workers died when police opened fire upon the crowd.[90] The next day on 4 May, anarchists staged a rally at Chicago's Haymarket Square.[91] A bomb was thrown by an unknown party near the conclusion of the rally, killing an officer.[92] In the ensuing panic, police opened fire on the crowd and each other.[93] Seven police officers and at least four workers were killed.[94] Eight anarchists directly and indirectly related to the organisers of the rally were arrested and charged with the murder of the deceased officer. The men became international political celebrities among the labour movement. Four of the men were executed and a fifth committed suicide prior to his own execution. The incident became known as the Haymarket affair and was a setback for the labour movement and the struggle for the eight-hour day. In 1890, a second attempt—this time international in scope—to organise for the eight-hour day was made. The event also had the secondary purpose of memorialising workers killed as a result of the Haymarket affair.[95] Although it had initially been conceived as a once-off event, by the following year the celebration of International Workers' Day on May Day had become firmly established as an international worker's holiday.[89]

In 1907, the International Anarchist Congress of Amsterdam gathered delegates from 14 different countries, among which were important figures of the anarchist movement, including Errico Malatesta, Pierre Monatte, Luigi Fabbri, Benoît Broutchoux, Emma Goldman, Rudolf Rocker and Christiaan Cornelissen. Various themes were treated during the Congress, in particular concerning the organisation of the anarchist movement, popular education issues, the general strike or antimilitarism. A central debate concerned the relation between anarchism and syndicalism (or trade unionism). Malatesta and Monatte were in particular disagreement themselves on this issue as the latter thought that syndicalism was revolutionary and would create the conditions of a social revolution while Malatesta did not consider syndicalism by itself sufficient.[96] He thought that the trade union movement was reformist and even conservative, citing as essentially bourgeois and anti-worker the phenomenon of professional union officials. Malatesta warned that the syndicalists aims were in perpetuating syndicalism itself, whereas anarchists must always have anarchy as their end and consequently refrain from committing to any particular method of achieving it.[97]

In 1881, the Spanish Workers Federation was the first major anarcho-syndicalist movement—anarchist trade union federations were of special importance in Spain. The most successful was the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labour, CNT), founded in 1910. Before the 1940s, the CNT was the major force in Spanish working class politics, attracting 1.58 million members at one point and playing a major role in the Spanish Civil War.[98] The CNT was affiliated with the International Workers Association, a federation of anarcho-syndicalist trade unions founded in 1922, with delegates representing two million workers from 15 countries in Europe and Latin America. In Latin America in particular, "[t]he anarchists quickly became active in organising craft and industrial workers throughout South and Central America, and until the early 1920s most of the trade unions in Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Chile, and Argentina were anarcho-syndicalist in general outlook; the prestige of the Spanish C.N.T. as a revolutionary organisation was undoubtedly to a great extent responsible for this situation. The largest and most militant of these organisations was the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina [...] it grew quickly to a membership of nearly a quarter of a million, which dwarfed the rival socialdemocratic unions".[85]

Propaganda of the deed and illegalism[edit]

Main articles: Propaganda of the deed, Illegalism, and Expropriative anarchism

Some anarchists, such as Johann Most, advocated publicising violent acts of retaliation against counter-revolutionaries because "we preach not only action in and for itself, but also action as propaganda".[99] Scholars such as Beverly Gage contend that this was not advocacy of mass murder, but targeted killings of members of the ruling class at times when such actions might garner sympathy from the population, such as during periods of heightened government repression or labor conflicts where workers were killed.[100] However, Most himself once boasted that "the existing system will be quickest and most radically overthrown by the annihilation of its exponents. Therefore, massacres of the enemies of the people must be set in motion".[101] Most is best known for a pamphlet published in 1885, The Science of Revolutionary Warfare, a how-to manual on the subject of making explosives based on knowledge he acquired while working at an explosives plant in New Jersey.[102]

By the 1880s, people inside and outside the anarchist movement began to use the slogan, "propaganda of the deed" to refer to individual bombings, regicides and tyrannicides. From 1905 onwards, the Russian counterparts of these anti-syndicalist anarchist-communists become partisans of economic terrorism and illegal "expropriations".[103]Illegalism as a practice emerged and within it "[t]he acts of the anarchist bombers and assassins ("propaganda by the deed") and the anarchist burglars ("individual reappropriation") expressed their desperation and their personal, violent rejection of an intolerable society. Moreover, they were clearly meant to be exemplary invitations to revolt".[104] France's Bonnot Gang was the most famous group to embrace illegalism.

However, as soon as 1887 important figures in the anarchist movement distanced themselves from such individual acts. Peter Kropotkin thus wrote that year in Le Révolté that "a structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of dynamite".[105]

William Godwin, "the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his work"[41]
A sympathetic engraving by Walter Crane of the executed anarchists of Chicago after the Haymarket affair, which is generally considered the most significant event for the origin of international May Day observances
Italian American anarchist Luigi Galleani whose followers, known as Galleanists, carried out a series of bombings and assassination attempts from 1914 to 1932 in what they saw as attacks on "tyrants" and "enemies of the people"

For other uses, see Secret Agent (disambiguation).

First US edition cover

AuthorJoseph Conrad
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherMethuen & Co

Publication date

September 1907
Media typePrint (hardcover)

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale is a novel by Joseph Conrad, published in 1907.[1] The story is set in London in 1886 and deals with Mr Adolf Verloc and his work as a spy for an unnamed country (presumably Russia). The Secret Agent is one of Conrad's later political novels in which he moved away from his former tales of seafaring.

The novel deals broadly with anarchism, espionage and terrorism. It also deals with exploitation of the vulnerable in Verloc's relationship with his brother-in-law Stevie, who has a learning difficulty.

Because of its terrorism theme, it was noted as "one of the three works of literature most cited in the American media" two weeks after the September 11 attacks.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

Set in London in 1886, the novel follows the life of Adolf Verloc, a secret agent. Verloc is also a businessman who owns a shop which sells pornographic material, contraceptives and bric-a-brac. He lives with his wife Winnie, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, Stevie. Stevie has a mental disability, possibly autism,[4] which causes him to be excitable; his sister, Verloc's wife, attends to him, treating him more as a son than as a brother. Verloc's friends are a group of anarchists of which Comrade Ossipon, Michaelis, and "The Professor" are the most prominent. Although largely ineffectual as terrorists, their actions are known to the police. The group produces anarchist literature in the form of pamphlets entitled F.P., an acronym for The Future of the Proletariat.

The novel begins in Verloc's home, as he and his wife discuss the trivialities of everyday life, which introduces the reader to Verloc's family. Soon after, Verloc leaves to meet Mr Vladimir, the new First Secretary in the embassy of a foreign country. Although a member of an anarchist cell, Verloc is also secretly employed by the Embassy as an agent provocateur. Vladimir informs Verloc that from reviewing his service history he is far from an exemplary model of a secret agent and, to redeem himself, must carry out an operation – the destruction of Greenwich Observatory by a bomb. Vladimir explains that Britain's lax attitude to anarchism endangers his own country, and he reasons that an attack on 'science', the current vogue amongst the public, will provide the necessary outrage for suppression. Verloc later meets his friends, who discuss politics and law, and the notion of a communist revolution. Unbeknownst to the group, Stevie, Verloc's brother-in-law, overhears the conversation, which greatly disturbs him.

The novel flashes forward to after the bombing has taken place. Comrade Ossipon meets The Professor, who discusses having given explosives to Verloc. The Professor describes the nature of the bomb he carries in his coat at all times: it allows him to press a button which will kill him and those nearest to him in twenty seconds. After The Professor leaves the meeting, he stumbles into Chief Inspector Heat, a policeman investigating a recent explosion at Greenwich, where one man was killed. Heat informs The Professor that he is not a suspect in the case, but that he is being monitored due to his terrorist inclinations and anarchist background. Heat suspects Michaelis. Knowing that Michaelis has recently moved to the countryside to write a book, the Chief Inspector informs the Assistant Commissioner that he has a contact, Verloc, who may be able to assist in the case. The Assistant Commissioner shares some of the same high society acquaintances with Michaelis and is chiefly motivated by finding the extent of Michaelis's involvement in order to assess any possible embarrassment to his connections. He later speaks to his superior, Sir Ethelred, about his intentions to solve the case alone, rather than rely on the effort of Chief Inspector Heat.

The novel flashes back to before the explosion, taking the perspective of Winnie Verloc and her mother. At home, Mrs Verloc's mother informs the family that she intends to move out of the house. Mrs Verloc's mother and Stevie use a hansom driven by a man with a hook for a hand. The driver's tales of hardship, whipping of his horse, and menacing hook scare Stevie to the point where Mrs Verloc must calm him. On Verloc's return from a business trip to the continent, his wife tells him of the high regard that Stevie has for him and she implores her husband to spend more time with Stevie. Verloc eventually agrees to go for a walk with Stevie. After this walk, Mrs Verloc notes that her husband's relationship with her brother has improved. Verloc tells his wife that he has taken Stevie to go and visit Michaelis, and that Stevie would stay with him in the countryside for a few days.

As Verloc is talking to his wife about the possibility of emigrating to the continent, he is paid a visit by the Assistant Commissioner. Shortly thereafter, Chief Inspector Heat arrives to speak with Verloc, without knowing that the Assistant Commissioner had left with Verloc earlier that evening. The Chief Inspector tells Mrs Verloc that he had recovered an overcoat at the scene of the bombing which had the shop's address written on a label. Mrs Verloc confirms that it was Stevie's overcoat, and that she had written the address. On Verloc's return, he realises that his wife knows that his bomb killed her brother, and confesses what truly happened. A stunned Mrs Verloc, in her anguish, fatally stabs her husband.

After the murder, Mrs Verloc flees her home, where she chances upon Comrade Ossipon, and begs him to help her. Ossipon assists her while confessing romantic feelings but secretly with a view to possess Mr Verloc's bank account savings. They plan to run away and he aids her in taking a boat to the continent. However, her instability and the revelation of Verloc's murder increasingly worry him, and he abandons her, taking Mr Verloc's savings with him. He later discovers in a newspaper that a woman matching Mrs Verloc's description disappeared from the ferry, leaving behind her a wedding ring, before drowning herself in the English Channel.


  • Adolf Verloc: a secret agent who owns a shop in Soho in London. His primary characteristic, as described by Conrad, is indolence. He has been employed by an unnamed embassy to spy on revolutionary groups, which then orders him to instigate a terrorist act against the Greenwich Observatory. Their belief is that the resulting public outrage will force the British government to act more forcibly against émigré socialist and anarchist activists. He is part of an anarchist organisation that creates pamphlets under the heading The Future of the Proletariat. He is married to Winnie, and lives with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law, Stevie.
  • Winnie Verloc: Verloc's wife. She cares deeply for her brother Stevie, who has the mental age of a young child. Of working class origins, her father was the owner of a pub. She is younger than her husband and married him not for love but to provide a home for her mother and brother. A loyal wife, she is disturbed upon learning of the death of her brother due to her husband's plotting, and kills him with a knife in the heart. She dies, presumably by drowning herself to avoid the gallows.
  • Stevie: Winnie's brother has the mental age of a young child. He is sensitive and is disturbed by notions of violence or hardship. His sister cares for him, and Stevie passes most of his time drawing numerous circles on pieces of paper. Verloc, exploiting both Stevie's childlike simplicity and his outrage at suffering, employs him to carry out the bombing of Greenwich Observatory. Stevie stumbles and the bomb explodes prematurely.
  • Mrs Verloc's mother: Old and infirm, Mrs Verloc's mother leaves the household to live in an almshouse, believing that two disabled people (herself and Stevie) are too much for Mr Verloc's generosity. The widow of a publican, she spent most of her life working hard in her husband's pub and believes Mr Verloc to be a gentleman because she thinks he resembles patrons of business houses (pubs with higher prices, consequently frequented by the upper classes).
  • Chief Inspector Heat: a policeman who is dealing with the explosion at Greenwich. An astute, practical man who uses a clue found at the scene of the crime to trace events back to Verloc's home. Although he informs his superior what he is planning to do with regards to the case, he is initially not aware that the Assistant Commissioner is acting without his knowledge. Heat knew Verloc before the bombing as Verloc had supplied information to Heat through the Embassy. Heat despises anarchists, whom he regards as amateurs, as opposed to burglars, whom he regards as professionals.
  • The Assistant Commissioner: of a higher rank than the Chief Inspector, he uses the knowledge gained from Heat to pursue matters personally, for reasons of his own. The Assistant Commissioner is married to a lady with influential connections. He informs his superior, Sir Ethelred, of his intentions, and tracks down Verloc before Heat can.
  • Sir Ethelred: Secretary of State (Home Secretary), to whom the Assistant Commissioner reports. At the time of the bombing he is busy trying to pass a bill regarding the nationalisation of fisheries through the House of Commons against strong opposition. He is briefed by the Assistant Commissioner throughout the novel and often admonishes him not to go into detail.
  • Mr Vladimir: First Secretary of the embassy of an unnamed country. Though his name might suggest that this is the Russian embassy, the name of the previous first secretary, Baron Stott-Wartenheim, is Germanic, as is that of Privy Councillor Wurmt, another official of this embassy. There is also the suggestion that Vladimir is not from Europe but Central Asia. Vladimir thinks that the 'English' police are far too soft on émigré socialists and anarchists, who are a real problem in his home country. He orders Verloc to instigate a terrorist act, hoping that the resulting public outrage will force the British government to adopt repressive measures.
  • Michaelis: a member of Verloc's group, and another anarchist. The most philosophical member of the group, his theories resemble those of Peter Kropotkin while some of his other attributes resemble Mikhail Bakunin.
  • Comrade Alexander Ossipon: an ex-medical student, anarchist and member of Verloc's group. He survives on the savings of women he seduces, mostly working-class women. He is influenced by the theories on degeneracy of Cesare Lombroso. After Verloc's murder he initially helps, but afterwards abandons Winnie, leaving her penniless on a train. He is later disturbed when he reads of her suicide and wonders if he will be able to seduce a woman again.
  • Karl Yundt: a member of Verloc's group, commonly referred to as an "old terrorist".
  • The Professor: another anarchist, who specialises in explosives. The Professor carries a flask of explosives in his coat, which can be detonated within twenty seconds of him squeezing an indiarubber ball in his pocket. The police know this and keep their distance. The most nihilistic member of the anarchists, the Professor feels oppressed and disgusted by the rest of humanity and has particular contempt for the weak. He dreams of a world where the weak are freely exterminated so that the strong can thrive. He supplies to Verloc the bomb that kills Stevie.

Background: Greenwich Bombing of 1894[edit]

Conrad's character Stevie is based on the French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, who died gruesomely in Greenwich Park when the explosives he carried detonated prematurely.[6] Bourdin's motives remain a mystery as does his intended target, which may have been the Greenwich Observatory.[7] In the 1920 Author's Note to the novel, Conrad recalls a discussion with Ford Madox Ford about the bombing:[8]

[...] we recalled the already old story of the attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical processes. But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory it did not show as much as the faintest crack. I pointed all this out to my friend, who remained silent for a while and then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: "Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards." These were absolutely the only words that passed between us [...].[9]

Major themes[edit]

Terrorism and anarchism[edit]

Terrorism and anarchism are intrinsic aspects of the novel, and are central to the plot. Verloc is employed by an agency which requires him to orchestrate terrorist activities, and several of the characters deal with terrorism in some way: Verloc's friends are all interested in an anarchistic political revolution, and the police are investigating anarchist motives behind the bombing of Greenwich.

The novel was written at a time when terrorist activity was increasing. There had been numerous dynamite attacks in both Europe and the US, as well as several assassinations of heads of state. Conrad also drew upon two persons specifically: Mikhail Bakunin and Prince Peter Kropotkin. Conrad used these two men in his "portrayal of the novel's anarchists". However, according to Conrad's Author's Note, only one character was a true anarchist: Winnie Verloc. In The Secret Agent, she is "the only character who performs a serious act of violence against another", despite the F.P.'s intentions of radical change, and The Professor's inclination to keep a bomb on his person.

Critics have analysed the role of terrorism in the novel. Patrick Reilly calls the novel "a terrorist text as well as a text about terrorism" due to Conrad's manipulation of chronology to allow the reader to comprehend the outcome of the bombing before the characters, thereby corrupting the traditional conception of time. The morality which is implicit in these acts of terrorism has also been explored: is Verloc evil because his negligence leads to the death of his brother-in-law? Although Winnie evidently thinks so, the issue is not clear, as Verloc attempted to carry out the act with no fatalities, and as simply as possible to retain his job, and care for his family.


The role of politics is paramount in the novel, as the main character, Verloc, works for a quasi-political organisation. The role of politics is seen in several places in the novel: in the revolutionary ideas of the F.P.; in the characters' personal beliefs; and in Verloc's own private life. Conrad's depiction of anarchism has an "enduring political relevance", although the focus is now largely concerned with the terrorist aspects that this entails.[15] The discussions of the F.P. are expositions on the role of anarchism and its relation to contemporary life. The threat of these thoughts is evident, as Chief Inspector Heat knows F.P. members because of their anarchist views. Moreover, Michaelis' actions are monitored by the police to such an extent that he must notify the police station that he is moving to the country.

The plot to destroy Greenwich is in itself anarchistic. Vladimir asserts that the bombing "must be purely destructive" and that the anarchists who will be implicated as the architects of the explosion "should make it clear that [they] are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation."[16] However, the political form of anarchism is ultimately controlled in the novel: the only supposed politically motivated act is orchestrated by a secret government agency.

Some critics, such as Fredrick R Karl,[17] think that the main political phenomenon in this novel is the modern age, as symbolised by the teeming, pullulating foggy streets of London (most notably in the cab ride taken by Winnie and Stevie Verloc). This modern age distorts everything, including politics (Verloc is motivated by the need to keep his remunerative position, the Professor to some extent by pride); the family (symbolised by the Verloc household, in which all roles are distorted, with the husband being like a father to the wife, who is like a mother to her brother); even the human body (Michaelis and Verloc are hugely obese, while the Professor and Yundt are preternaturally thin). This extended metaphor, using London as a centre of darkness much like Kurtz's headquarters in Heart of Darkness,[18] presents "a dark vision of moral and spiritual inertia" and a condemnation of those who, like Mrs Verloc, think it a mistake to think too deeply.[19]

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Initially, the novel fared poorly in the United Kingdom and the United States, selling only 3,076 copies between 1907 and 1914. The book fared slightly better in Britain, yet no more than 6,500 copies were printed before 1914. Although sales increased after 1914, it never sold more than modestly during Conrad's life. It was published to favourable reviews, most agreeing with the view of The Times Literary Supplement that it "increase[d] Conrad's reputation, already of the highest". However, there were detractors who criticised the novel's "unpleasant characters and subject". Country Life magazine called the story "indecent" and criticised Conrad's "often dense and elliptical style".

The Secret Agent has come to be considered one of Conrad's finest novels. The Independent calls it "[o]ne of Conrad's great city novels"[21] whilst The New York Times insists that it is "the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism".[22] It is considered to be a "prescient" view of the 20th century, foretelling the rise of terrorism, anarchism, and the growth of spy agencies, such as MI5. The novel is on reading lists for both secondary school pupils and university students.[23][24][25]

Influence on Ted Kaczynski[edit]

The Secret Agent is said to have influenced the Unabomber—Ted Kaczynski; he was a great fan and as an adolescent kept a copy at his bedside. He identified strongly with the character of "The Professor" and advised his family to read The Secret Agent to understand the character with whom he felt such an affinity. David Foster, the literary attributionist who assisted the FBI, said that Kaczynski "seem[ed] to have felt that his family could not understand him without reading Conrad".[27]

Kaczynski's idolisation of the character was due to the traits that they shared: disaffection, hostility toward the world, and being an aspiring anarchist. However, it did not stop at mere idolisation. Kaczynski used "The Professor" as a source of inspiration, and "fabricated sixteen exploding packages that detonated in various locations". After his capture, Kaczynski revealed to FBI agents that he had read the novel a dozen times, and had sometimes used "Conrad" as an alias.[30] It was discovered that Kaczynski had used various formulations of Conrad's name – Conrad, Konrad, and Korzeniowski, Conrad's original surname – to sign himself into several hotels in Sacramento. As in his youth, Kaczynski retained a copy of The Secret Agent, and kept it with him while living as a recluse in a hut in Montana.



  • In 1923 Conrad adapted the novel as a three-act drama of the same title.
  • On 23 May 2006 the Feldkirch Festival premiered an opera based on the novel. Simon Wills wrote the music and libretto and Peter Kajlinger sang the main character, Adolf Verloc.
  • A theatrical adaptation was produced in 2007 by Alexander Gelman, Artistic Director of Organic Theater Company in Chicago, IL, premiering on 18 April 2008.
  • In January 2008, the play was staged in Italian by the Teatro Stabile di Genova of Genoa, under the direction of Marco Sciaccaluga.
  • The Center for Contemporary Opera in New York presented the world premiere of a new opera by Michael Dellaira (music) and J D McClatchy (libretto), at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College on 18 March 2011. Amy Burton sang Winnie, Scott Bearden sang Verloc. It had its European premiere at the Armel International Opera Festival on 14 October 2011 in Szeged, Hungary, where the opera was broadcast live on the Arte Channel, and named the festival's "Laureat". Adrienn Miksch sang Winnie, Nicolas Rigas sang Verloc. The same production was reprised on 18 April 2012 at L'Opéra-Théâtre d'Avignon in Avignon, France. All productions were directed by Sam Helfrich and conducted by Sara Jobin.
  • The Capitol City Opera Company of Atlanta presented the world premiere of The Secret Agent, an opera in two acts with music by Curtis Bryant and libretto by Allen Reichman at the Conant Center for Performing Arts at Oglethorpe University on 15 March 2013. Directed by Michael Nutter, the production featured soprano Elizabeth Claxton in the role of Winnie, baritone Wade Thomas as Verloc and tenor Timothy Miller as Ossipon. In this operatic treatment, originally completed in 2007 under the title The Anarchist, Winnie, discovering that she has been abandoned on the train, sings a final aria "Fooled Again." Bryant quotes one measure from Puccini's Tosca before Winnie leaps into the path of an oncoming train, ending her life and the opera.



  • The BBC adapted The Secret Agent in two 45-minute episodes in 1967, with Nigel Green as Adolph Verloc, Mary Webster as Winnie, Dennis Waterman as Stevie, David Collings as Mr Vladimir, Edwin Richfield as Chief Inspector Heat, and John Cater as The Professor.
  • A second BBC version, a single 95-minute play, was screened in 1975, with Paul Rogers as Verloc, Frances White as Winnie, Peter Clough as Stevie, Anton Rodgers as Mr Vladimir, Peter Sallis as Chief Inspector Heat, and John Cater reprising as The Professor.
  • A third BBC version, in three 55-minute episodes, appeared in 1992, with David Suchet as Adolf Verloc, Cheryl Campbell as his wife Winnie, and Peter Capaldi as Mr Vladimir. Verloc was transformed into a more sympathetic character for this work, in which he deeply grieved for Stevie's death.
  • In July 2016 the BBC broadcast a fourth version,[31][32] starring Toby Jones, Vicky McClure and Stephen Graham.[33]


See also[edit]


  1. ^Conrad 1994, p. 5.
  2. ^Shulevitz, Judith (27 September 2001), "Chasing After Conrad's Secret Agent", Slate .
  3. ^Farrell, G Patrick (1 December 1985), "Autism in literature", Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Springer, 15 (4): 441, doi:10.1007/BF01531790, ISSN 1573-3432, retrieved 18 March 2012 
  4. ^Mulry, David (2000), "Popular Accounts of the Greenwich Bombing and Conrad's 'The Secret Agent'", Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 54 (2): 43–64 .
  5. ^"Propaganda by Deed – the Greenwich Observatory Bomb of 1894". Greenwich, ENG, UK: NMM. 15 August 2005. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. 
  6. ^Karl, Frederick R, ed. (1983), "Introduction", The Secret Agent, Signet, pp. 5–6 
  7. ^Conrad, Joseph (1920). "The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale". Author's note. Read print. 
  8. ^Mulry, David, The Anarchist in the House: The Politics of Conrad's The Secret Agent  in Simmons & Stape 2007, p. 2.
  9. ^Conrad, Joseph (1993), The Secret Agent, London: Penguin, p. 35 .
  10. ^Conrad, Joseph (1983). "Introduction". The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale(Google Books). Signet. pp. 5–21. Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  11. ^Hamner, R (1990). Joseph Conrad: Third World Perspectives(Google Books). Lynne Rienner. p. 176. Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  12. ^Panichas, George Andrew (2005). Joseph Conrad: his moral vision(Google Books). Mercer University Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-86554-936-4. Retrieved 18 March 2012. 
  13. ^Brown, Jonathan (3 December 2007), "Conrad, the literary outsider ignored by his adopted country", Independent, retrieved 4 May 2008 , documenting the 150th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Conrad.
  14. ^Reiss, Tom (11 September 2005), "The True Classic of Terrorism", The NY times, retrieved 4 May 2008 , describing Conrad's works concerning terrorism.
  15. ^"Q3019, 1919–Present: Reading list"(MS Word Doc). UK: Sussex. Retrieved 4 May 2008. [permanent dead link]
  16. ^"Reading Lists"(MS Word Doc). UK: Kent. Retrieved 4 May 2008. [dead link]
  17. ^"Recommended Reading List for A-Level"(PDF). UK: Teach it. Retrieved 4 May 2008.  Subscription required.
  18. ^Foster, David cited in Oswell 2007, p. 140.
  19. ^Jackson, Lisa Ann; Dougall, Courtney (Fall 1998). "English Grad Student Plays Detective in Unabomber Case". BYU today. Brigham Young university. Retrieved 4 May 2008. 
  20. ^Conlan, Tara (20 November 2014). "BBC to film new adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent". 
  21. ^"World Productions on Twitter". 
  22. ^"BBC - Toby Jones, Vicky McClure and Stephen Graham star in BBC One's The Secret Agent - Media Centre". 


  • Caplan, Carola M; Mallios, Peter Lancelot; White, Andrea, eds. (2004), Conrad in the Twentieth Century: Contemporary Approaches and Perspectives, Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-97164-0 .
  • Conrad, Joseph (1969), The Secret Agent, Penguin .
  • ——— (1990). Seymour-Smith, Martin, ed. The Secret Agent. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-018096-6. .
  • ——— (1994), The Secret Agent, London: Penguin, ISBN 0-14-062056-7 .
  • ——— (2004), Lyon, John, ed., The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-280169-4 .
  • Houen, Alex (2002), Terrorism and Modern Literature: From Joseph Conrad to Ciaran Carson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-818770-X .
  • Lawrence, John Shelton; Jewett, Robert (2002), The Myth of the American Superhero, Grand Rapids, MI, US: Eerdmans, ISBN 0-8028-2573-7 .
  • Orr, Leonard; Billy, Ted; Billy, Theodore (1999), A Joseph Conrad Companion, New Haven, CT, US: Greenwood, ISBN 0-313-29289-2 .
  • Oswell, Douglas Evander (2007), The Unabomber and the Zodiac, Lulu, ISBN 0-615-14569-8 .
  • Paulson, Ronald (2007), Sin and Evil: Moral Values in Literature, New Haven, US: Yale University Press .
  • Reilly, Patrick (2003), The Dark Landscape of Modern Fiction, London: Ashgate, ISBN 0-7546-3370-5 .
  • Simmons, Allan H; Stape, JH (2007), The Secret Agent: Centennial Essays, Amsterdam: Rodopi, ISBN 90-420-2176-4 .
  • Woodard, J David (2006), The America that Reagan Built, New Haven, CT, US: Greenwood, ISBN 0-275-98609-8 .

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