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  • The Secret Agent: Anarchism and the Thermodynamics of Law*
  • Alex Houen


A coup d’état in the name of government; an attack on writing in the name of legislation; an act of destruction that is, in fact, carried out by no one. It is a matter of a phantom event. This paradoxical state of affairs is precisely what Mr Vladimir, First Secretary of the embassy of a “great power,” invokes as a means of sorting out the affairs of state within England in his meeting with Verloc, agent provocateur: “What is required at present is not writing, but the bringing to light of a distinct, a significant fact,” in order to exacerbate national “unrest.” 1 The central event of the novel, being based on the actual self-detonation of Martial Bourdin in Greenwich in 1894, is thus presented as state “propagande par le fait”—“propaganda by deed,” as it is translated in English—though it could equally be rendered “propaganda by fact.” 2 The term was officially introduced in 1876 at the Anarchist International to inaugurate a policy of political violence that would assert a radical materiality; attacking metaphysics and the state body-politic in one blow. 3 Yet in The Secret Agent it is to be put to wholly different ends. Provocation is necessary, Verloc is told by Wurmt, the Chancelier d’Ambassade, because of the “general leniency of the judicial procedure” (SA, 55) in England, a point Mr Vladimir reinforces: “This country is absurd with its regard for individual liberty” (SA, 64). What is referred to here is the granting of asylum to political fugitives that England extended under the Extradition Act of 1870 and the Aliens Act of 1905, both of which helped define and defend the relatively nascent legal category of political crime. 4 With the epidemic of anarchist activity in the 1880s and 1890s, this issue was a highly contentious one, and much debated in newspapers and periodicals. 5 “For the Anarchists’ benefit a monstrous contradictory contrivance is tolerated called ‘political crime,’” declared Blackwood’s Magazine.6 The Times was similarly antipathetic: “‘political’ is a question-begging epithet . . . the real grounds upon which an action must be judged have nothing to do with artificial classification.” 7

Attempting to define the phenomenon was no less problematic for the legal institution itself. Introduced first in 1820, Cesare Lombroso [End Page 995] went on to characterize it as “crime passionel,” which found the support of Lord Carnarvon at the “International Penitentiary Commission” held in London in 1872: “crimes of passion . . . mere political crimes,” he asserted, “should not be punished by ordinary imprisonment, but by simple detention in a fortress.” 8 However, while presenting it as a privileged species of criminality, just what constituted a specific act of political insurrection remained unclear. 9 Declared justifiable only in a civil war, it therefore had to bear some resemblance to state-ratified rebellion! 10 As a result, Anarchist actions were largely dismissed because they were interpreted as inherently apolitical, a view vehemently upheld in the media: “the anarchist is not a political assassin; he is merely a noxious beast,” asserted the Saturday Review: “anarchism has no politics.” 11

What this ambiguity reveals is the equivocal nature of the relation of law and politics at the time, which propitiated a definite political license in determining legal decisions. The partisan nature of the definition was evinced insofar as the granting of asylum to foreign fugitives was largely indicative of the suspicion with which other governments were viewed. The Extradition Act and the Aliens Act recognized the phenomenon of political crime only as one which took place elsewhere. 12 Maintenance of state legitimacy as regards the facts of political crime thus entailed a paradoxical procedure of placing politics outside the law to enable a classification of its outlaws.

Ironically, this is exactly what Mr Vladimir has in mind for Verloc; a series of outrages to justify and provoke a call for more stringent surveillance, one which was indeed prevalent in the media at the apogee of the Anarchist campaign. 13 The proposition is no less absurd than Mr Vladimir’s “philosophy of the bomb”: “A bomb outrage to have any influence on public...

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pp. 995-1016
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