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I came to literary fiction late. For the first quarter-century of my life, it rarely occurred to me to read a novel. I was in my mid-twenties before I wrestled with literary fiction, and even now I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I raced through War and Peace, forced myself through Ulysses but my battle with Recherche is ongoing, the frontline stuck for three years now, somewhere on The Guermantes Way. I understand that fiction writers have different obligations to pamphleteers: to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, if a writer could summarise her point then she wouldn’t need to write a story about it. But nevertheless, it still seems to me that writing is necessarily a political act.

One way to look at this is to consider the role of anarchism in fiction. Those writers who’ve read and sympathised with anarchist ideas have largely eschewed propagandist fiction, leaving us with complex, artistic texts that give us new ways of thinking about our society and each other (a talent by no means limited to authors of one political persuasion). In contrast, those who’ve written about anarchists have made little attempt to disguise their ideological commitments. Of course, Joseph Conrad and Henry James are rarely discussed as ‘political authors’, because their work is politically conservative. On the question of radical social change, they side with the establishment, and in our culture that’s what it means to be apolitical.

Virginia Woolf wrote that one could ‘Take away all that the working class has given to English literature and that literature would scarcely suffer.’ (She also wrote that Ulysses was ‘An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me; the book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egoistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating.’) Well, take away all that anarchist-influenced writers have given to western literature and that literature would suffer a lot: no Tolstoy, Wilde, Kafka, Joyce, or Camus (not to mention no Anthony Burgess, J.M. Coetzee, Dario Fo, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, William Godwin, Jaroslav Hašek, Aldous Huxley, Henrik Ibsen, James Kelman, Ursula Le Guin, Octave Mirbeau, Alan Moore, William Morris, George Orwell, Grace Paley, Percy Shelley, or Kurt Vonnegut).

And yet the anarchists you read about in canonical fiction are a gruesome mob of criminal degenerates whose antics are intentionally or unintentionally hilarious. Joseph Conrad satirises Verloc, Michaelis, Ossipon, Yundt, and ‘The Professor’: ‘the incorruptible Professor walked, too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction,’ etc. But The Secret Agent’s exploitation of the death of Martial Bourdin ensures that the laughter it produces is disquieting and choked. As for Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima, I agree with the Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review that ‘To describe and comment upon the actual plot of the novel would be to dignify it quite unjustifiably.’ Even Zola, who insisted it was neither artistically nor scientifically acceptable to create exaggerated characters, who claimed to base his novels on objective research, could not resist the allure of a sinister anarchist; after destroying the mine shaft, flooding the pit, and threatening widespread loss of life, Zola’s anarchist, Souvarine, exits Germinal in appropriately sinister style: ‘He threw away his last cigarette and walked off into darkness without so much as a glance behind. His shadowy form dwindled and merged into the night. He was bound for the unknown, over yonder, calmly going to deal violent destruction wherever dynamite could be found to blow up cities and men.’

None of the above authors intended to create believable, psychologically complex anarchist characters, or to write about anarchists in any realistic sense; unlike the authors mentioned in the third paragraph, they had no particular interest in anarchism or in the men and women who professed such politics. Of course, to different degrees and for different motives they and their readers wanted to denounce or ridicule a social movement that they dimly understood to be hostile to their interests – it’s not irrelevant that Conrad’s story was originally published in Ridgway’s: A Militant Weekly for God and Country – but this was hardly a primary objective. (Zola was a reformer who became a champion of the labour movement; Conrad may have been a conservative who declared he had ‘no taste for democracy’, but he was also one of the few European writers to admit the horrors of colonialism.) Rather, these and other authors found that anarchism provided a screen on to which they could project an array of fin de siècle anxieties. In societies divided by class and gender, the example of the Paris Commune, the growth of the trade union movement, the beginnings of secularisation, and even the struggle for universal suffrage made the future unpredictable and frightening, the authority of the state newly fragile seeming. While some, like Oscar Wilde, sensed in this new fragility the hope that ‘With the abolition of private property’ humanity would enjoy ‘true, beautiful, healthy Individualism’, conservatives and reformists saw the threat of violence and carnage. (These statists were looking the wrong way, of course: when the violence and carnage arrived in 1914, it was worse than anyone could have expected, but it was directed, as usual, by the very states they’d hoped would save us from ourselves.)

At the height of the cloaked anarchist’s literary popularity, English literature developed a special ideological function. Terry Eagleton has argued that in the Victorian era, English literature took over from religion as society’s primary discourse of ideological control. In support of this argument, he quotes the inauguration speech of George Gordon, an early professor of English literature at Oxford: ‘England is sick, said Gordon, and ‘English literature must save it. The churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the state.’ (This conservative bias is still evident today: a good example is Ian McEwan’s Saturday, a book so clunky and didactic that it would never have been critically tolerated had its political objective not been to defend the invasion of Iraq.)

Perhaps the fiction of the cloaked anarchist terrorist is part of a Hobbesian strain in modern literature. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes the pre-government ‘state of nature’ as ‘the war of all against all’ in which life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ It’s so awful, in fact, that it’s in the interest of individuals to surrender their rights to a strong central sovereign, and for the sake of peace and security to endure such abuses as that sovereign may inflict upon them. Not everybody agreed. In 1649, as Hobbes was completing Leviathan, a group of Christian communists published The True Levellers Standard Advanced, in which they argued that the wealthy were ‘Lording over, and despising their fellow Creatures, killing and destroying those that will not, or cannot become subject to their Tyranny, to uphold their Lordly Power, Pride and Covetousness.’ They occupied St. George’s Hill in Surrey and there began to grow crops on previously uncultivated land, believing that God had made the earth ‘a common treasury for all’ and ‘Every single man, Male and Female, a perfect Creature of himself.’ Nowhere in the beginning of time, they argued, was it said ‘That one branch of mankind should rule over another.’ Needless to say, the Council of State backed local landowners who hired gangs of mercenaries (police avant la lettre) to systematically beat the communist farmers and to burn their crops and houses. (For the Diggers, life without government hadn’t been solitary, poor, nasty, or brutish, but it had been regrettably short).

To this reading, the anarchism of the cloaked anarchists is incidental. Compare The Secret Agent with another famous Conrad novel: as Chinua Achebe observed in his critique of Heart of Darkness, Conrad dehumanizes black Africans and uses them to present a metaphorical antithesis to civilization. Similarly, Conrad had little interest in anarchists as human beings; in the Secret Agent, he uses them to embody the darkness that lurks in the heart of every individual. So, it’s not just Conrad’s exceptional eloquence that prevents his work from being read as merely racist or sensationalist; what makes his writing such an important pillar of the canon is that it is above all a warning about our society. We are all potentially savages. The beast is in all of us, and if, as in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the rule of law is absent, we will quickly descend into a state of barbarism. This Hobbesian view, so strongly espoused in our fiction, is almost a definition of ethical conservatism. It also summarises the primary argument raised against anarchism: it’s all very good in theory, but a world without government would in practise mean the war of all against all. (Or as Alan Moore put it, ‘when you mention the idea of anarchy to most people they will tell you what a bad idea it is because the biggest gang would just take over. Which is pretty much how I see contemporary society’.)

At its silliest, this Hobbesian argument silences radical ideas with straw man examples: I remember George Monbiot, in The Age of Consent, basing his denunciation of anarchism on the observation that when the government lost control of Sierra Leone violence and chaos ensued. The error here is simple: Anarchism, or libertarian communism, or whatever we wish to call it, is not some natural state waiting to break out from beyond the ruins of civilisation; rather, it should be thought of as an ambition for civilisation. It is something we should work towards.


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