Paul O’Flinn


Them and Us in Literature


5. Capitalism, Racism and Joseph Conrad

In the first dozen years of the twentieth century British capitalism was in crisis. It wasn’t one of the monthly joke crises invented by the newspapers whose aim is to convince any worker with an ounce of guts and patriotism to Stand Up To The Militants and forego a wage rise for the next 83 years in the national interest. No, this time it was serious. True, it didn’t get in the way of the real business of life, so that historian Eric Hobsbawm has rightly called the period an “orgy of conspicuous waste”, the great age of Biarritz, of Monte Carlo, of the country house weekend. But it did mean threats to and cuts in the standard of living of most people in this country, and that in its turn fuelled all sorts of struggles.

The roots of the crisis are outside the scope of this book, but a few examples of the way it showed itself are worth mentioning. First, inflation. The pound of 1895 was worth only 70p by 1914. That may seem scarcely any inflation at all in the light of our present experience, but coming as it did after a whole generation in which prices had steadily fallen it represented an enormous change, a change not compensated for by a matching increase in wages for the majority of people.

Then there were strikes – workers spent nearly four times as many days on strike on the eve of the First World War as they had done at the turn of the century. 1911 brought a national dock strike as well as the first national rail strike. Miners were particularly militant. Winston Churchill tried to settle them in Tonypandy in 1911. Troops arrived and shot seven pickets, with the result that in 1912 there was the first national coal strike in British history. Union membership, 1.5 million in 1890, was up to nearly 4 million by 1914.

Ireland next. The nationalist movement was recovering from various setbacks in the 1890s and building towards the Easter Rising of 1916. The Liberal Government’s attempt to grant home rule in 1912 was blocked by the House of Lords. This meant a two year delay before the bill could be enacted. The Tories took the hint and, with their customary respect for law and order and hatred of violence, began openly arming and preparing for civil war. In March 1914 they were cheered by the news that British Army officers at the Curragh Camp had refused to obey orders to mobilise against them. (When other ranks do this sort of thing it’s called a mutiny and is very bad. When officers did it, it was called a crisis of conscience and was very understandable, so no one was punished.)

And then there were the women, fed up after generations on their knees and at last rising to their feet. The Women’s Social and Political Union was founded in 1903 at a meeting in Mrs Pankhurst’s drawing room. By 1908 they could draw half a million people to a rally in Hyde Park.

So there, briefly, crudely, was the situation. Inflation, national coal strikes, growth in working class militancy, Ireland in turmoil, women struggling for their rights, the Tories openly flirting with armed vigilante groups. Sounds familiar.

If the situation was familiar, so too was at least one of the solutions the ruling class was prepared to try. That solution was racism, the old divide and rule tactic. Keep the lower orders busy kicking each other and they’ll be in no position to unite and fight their real enemies.

The victims of this racism were largely Russian and Polish Jews fleeing pogroms and discriminatory laws following the assassination of the Czar by Polish students in 1881. Estimates of the number coming to this country varied from 82,000 (the official Government figure) to 800,000 (the total put about by Tory alarmists). As early as 1886 the Earl of Dunraven and Lord Brabazon had founded the Society for the Suppression of the Immigration of Destitute Aliens. Nobody took much notice and the society faded away. Undeterred, the deeply disgusting Evening News tried it on again in 1891: an article on May 20 was headlined The Jewish Invasion and next day it led with Jews as Anarchists. [1]

Trouble was clearly brewing so mobs of ruling class hooligans started congregating, looking for a chance to put the boot in. The Earl of Dunraven now founded the Association for the Prevention of the Immigration of Destitute Aliens (APIDA). His vice-presidents included the Dukes of Abercorn and of Montrose, the Earl of Egmont, Earl Ferrers, Lady Sandhurst, Lady Dorothy Nevill plus the odd bishop and vicar. Lord Charles Beresford thundered that the immigrants were an “incubator for Communism and Socialism”. The Hon. William Le Poer Trench, a member of APIDA, ran for Parliament in Whitechapel but got thrashed.

However, the hooligans plugged away and in 1905 got the Tory Government under Balfour to pass the Aliens Act. This act made entry much more difficult, introduced the term “undesirable alien” into the English language and gave the Home Secretary much wider powers to throw out people already here. It also made poverty a crime – an immigrant could be expelled for “living under insanitary conditions due to overcrowding”.

Literature shared in these issues. In 1906 Robert Tressell started to write his socialist classic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and devoted the very first chapter to contesting various racist arguments, evidence of the seriousness with which he viewed them as a threat to working-class unity and organisation. On the other hand, a standard chunk of racism and bestselling novel of the period was Guy Thorne’s When It Was Dark, first published in 1903. The villain of this piece is a Jewish millionaire, Constantine Schuabe, who plots to overthrow Christian civilisation by faking archaeological evidence to disprove the story of Christ’s resurrection. The fraud is believed for a while so things fall apart and the number of rapes doubles. Fortunately a plucky curate called Basil and Gertrude, a whore with a heart of gold, unmask the rogue and the Stock Exchange recovers in a twinkling. [2]

Which brings us to Joseph Conrad. In 1905, the Government was busy as we’ve already seen acquiring powers to expel Russian and Polish immigrants for the crime of poverty. Yet the same year Balfour, the Tory Prime Minister, arranged for Conrad, an impoverished novelist of Polish origin, to receive a grant of 500 “in view of the quality of his work and his need for money”. Why? Why didn’t Balfour try to throw him out like the rest? To answer that we need to look briefly at the man and the work whose quality so pleased the Prime Minister.

In 1857 Conrad had been born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski of Polish parents living in the Ukraine. They died when he was a boy and at the age of 16 he took up a career as a merchant sailor. He first served on an English ship at the age of 20. By the time he was 29 he had become a naturalized British subject and had earned a Board of Trade master’s certificate. His views at this time were fairly typical of an officer in the Merchant Service: brisk, elitist and right wing. Thus in 1885 we find him writing a couple of letters to a friend. The first thanks him for sending a copy of the Daily Telegraph, and the second has this to say about contemporary politics:

the International Socialist Association are triumphant, and every disreputable ragamuffin in Europe feels that the day of universal brotherhood, despoliation and disorder is coming apace, and nurses day-dreams of well-plenished pockets amongst the ruin of all that is respectable, venerable and holy. The great British Empire went over the edge, and yet on to the inclined plane of social progress and radical reform. The downward movement is hardly perceptible yet, and the clever men who start it may flatter themselves with the progress; but they will soon find that the fate of the nation is out of their hands now! The Alpine avalanche rolls quicker and quicker, as it nears the abyss – its ultimate destination! Where’s the man to stop the crashing avalanche?

Where’s the man to stop the rush of social-democratic ideas? The opportunity and the day have come and are gone! Believe me: gone for ever! For the sun is set and the last barrier removed. England was the only barrier to the pressure of infernal doctrines born in continental back-slums. Now, there is nothing! [3]

Sadly, Conrad never really passed beyond the blinkered world of Daily Telegraph politics. When he retired from the sea ten years later in order to write, it was the same set of thin, reactionary ideas that he began to shape into fictional forms.

In October 1906, a year after the passage of the Aliens Act, Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale began to appear in serial form. F.R. Leavis, who’s probably the best known English literary critic, uses the following phrases to describe it in his book The Great Tradition: “indubitably a classic and a masterpiece ... classical in its maturity of attitude ... sophisticated moral interest ... one of the most astonishing triumphs of genius in fiction.., one of Conrad’s two supreme masterpieces, one of the two unquestionable classics of the first order that he added to the English novel ... subtle and triumphant complexity of its art” and so on.

F.R. Leavis notwithstanding, the fact that The Secret Agent was serialised in a U.S. magazine called Ridgeway’s: a Militant Weekly for God and Country is an accurate giveaway, and it really is difficult to take the book much more seriously than the other piece of rubbish, Guy Thorne’s When It Was Dark, that we mentioned earlier. The main character, Adolf Verloc, runs a porn shop in Soho with his wife Winnie. In his spare time he’s an agent provocateur hired by the Czarist Russian Embassy to move in various anarchist and revolutionary groups. He also does a bit of spying on behalf of the British police.

The climax comes after he inadvertently blows up Winnie’s brother during one of his murky escapades. Appalled, Winnie murders Verloc with the carving knife and rushes out of the shop into the arms of Comrade Ossipon, one of Verloc’s contacts. She hands over to him all of Verloc’s savings and together they decide to flit to St. Malo. However, clever Comrade Ossipon slips off the train with Verloc’s money just as it pulls out of the station, leaving abandoned Winnie to jump off the cross-Channel ferry in despairing suicide.

The point of the story is on the one hand straightforward flattery of the fuzz who have the thankless task of dealing with these people – the Russian ambassador at the end is “almost awed by the miraculous cleverness of the English police”. On the other hand it’s an attempt to present all revolutionaries as a poisonous gaggle of drunks, bores, foreigners, maniacs, drones, fatties, loons, and physical and racial degenerates. Read for example the description of Comrade Ossipon and you reach straight back both to the nasty racism and Tory hysteria behind the 1905 Aliens Act and to the sort of quality in Conrad that Balfour had earlier thought worth 500: “A bush of crinkly yellow hair topped his red, freckled face, with a flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the negro type. His almond-shaped eyes leered languidly over the high cheek-bones.”

The whole is peppered with asides that point to a political grasp roughly on a par with that of Lord Charles Beresford and Guy Thorne. Conrad assures us knowingly that: “The majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly.” The majority of revolutionists at that time called themselves Bolsheviks, at least in the Russian contest Conrad is describing. Indeed, as The Secret Agent was being printed in London in the summer of 1907 Bolsheviks such as Lenin and Djugashvili-Ivanovich (later known as Stalin) were also in London, attending the fifth congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party. Even someone as politically naive as, say, the editor of the Daily Telegraph would probably hesitate to call people like Stalin an “enemy of discipline”.

And so on. The standard revolutionary is not bothered about the Czar’s police, exploitation, starvation and the rest, he’s just “an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance” – the overripe, rotten language here matches the overripe, rotten idea. The readers of Ridgeway’s: a Militant Weekly for God and Country may have lapped it up, but F.R. Leavis is a big boy now and he ought to be a little more discriminating.

Conrad’s next novel, Under Western Eyes, was also a study of Russian revolutionaries, this time operating in St Petersburg and in exile in Geneva. It’s worth a look because it’s a good example of an enormous contradiction that’s still widely believed in. Thesis number one is that all human beings are the same – this because of their common, unchanging human nature. It is for this reason that all attempts at change, especially revolutionary change, are a waste of time, as the novel demonstrates. Conrad insists as much in an Author’s Note he added to the 1920 edition; he wonders at the revolutionaries’

strange conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall of any given human institutions. These people are unable to see that all they can effect is merely a change of names. The oppressors and the oppressed are all Russians together; and the world is brought once more face to face with the truth of the saying that the tiger cannot change his stripes nor the leopard his spots.

Thesis number two is that human beings are unimaginably different – split into utterly contrasting racial groups. Hence the novel suggests that it’s almost impossibly difficult for British readers to understand some of the things the Russians get up to. Indeed, as the English teacher who narrates the story points out again and again, he can scarcely understand them himself. We can only come near it if we remember we’re far from the Home Counties and make huge allowances for the characters and their thoughts:

If to the Western reader they appear shocking, inappropriate, or even improper, it must be remembered that as to the first this may be the effect of my crude statement. For the rest I will only remark here that this is not a story of the West of Europe. [4]

Small problem. Thesis number one (all human beings are the same) contradicts thesis number two (all human beings are different). Contradicts it to an extent that makes the novel more or less worthless. Either we all belong to such totally different racial groups that the habits and deficiencies of Russian revolutionaries have no relevance to the British situation, which destroys the novel’s purpose. Or we re all the same and those habits and deficiencies are relevant – in which case the novel’s frequent insistence on total difference is muddled eyewash. But then anyone who’s listened to Enoch Powell knows that muddled eyewash lies at the centre of all racist theory.



1. Details in this and the following paragraph from Bernard Gainer, The Alien Invasion: the Origins of the Aliens Act of 1905, London 1972.

2. There’s a great knockabout account of this dreadful book in Claud Cockburn’s Bestseller: the Books that Everyone Reads, 1900-1939, London 1972.

3. Quoted in Jocelyn Baines, Joseph Conrad, London 1960, pp.80-81.

4. Under Western Eyes, Penguin 1957, p.28.


Last updated on 28.7.2001