The anarchist movement – in both its past and contemporary incarnations – is back to the cultural fore, and to such an extent that it echoes the surge in anarchist-themed entertainment before 1914.
The BBC has just aired a highly popular new adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent. Then there’s Elie Wajeman’s 2015 film The Anarchists. And Bertrand Bonello’s controversial Nocturama, just screened at the 2016 London Film Festival. These three works of fiction probe the societal reasons for terrorism and criminality, holding up a mirror to contemporary anxieties.
Given the news events dominating our age, it is hardly surprising that anarchy is so appealing, so fashionable. And a closer look at each of these three examples will demonstrate why.
The Secret Agent
In The Secret Agent, Conrad fictionalised a real explosion in Greenwich, London, in 1894. French anarchist Martial Bourdin died in the accidental detonation of a bomb which he was carrying to an unknown destination, possibly Russia.
There are many fascinating parallels between then and now in Conrad’s novel, and these are beautifully brought out by the adaptation. The overarching narrative is one of Russian spies and international police forces at loggerheads. The Greenwich explosion, Conrad imagines, was plotted by the Russian Embassy in an attempt to get Britain to renege on its much-vaunted tolerance of foreign political refugees.
These included hundreds of foreign anarchists at a time when the movement was undergoing a phase of terrorist radicalisation. The fiction reflects back on an era when immigration and asylum were acute public concerns, in conjunction with political extremism. Britain occupied a uniquely liberal position at the time, as the one country among international powers steadfastly upholding a near-absolute right of asylum for foreign revolutionaries – at least until the 1905 Aliens Act was passed.
But The Secret Agent’s appeal today does not stem from nostalgia towards this liberal openness. Anarchists are depicted as pathetic and ineffective, despite the international “black scare” triggered by the wave of anarchist-inspired terror of the 1870s-1920s.
Instead, it offers an insightful and historically accurate depiction of Britain’s extensive use of political surveillance and insistent secrecy on this point. As such, the reasons for its popularity today seem clear. The political emphasis in both the novel and the series is on the diplomatic intrigue of engineering terror – a provocative suggestion that terrorism originates in high politics rather than revolutionary plots, and remains unfathomable to the public eye.
The Anarchists, a film that took Cannes by storm last year, takes a kinder view of anarchists. They are portrayed as romantic revolutionaries rather than threats.
The film is located in 1899 Paris (another anarchist hub at the time), a decade after The Secret Agent but in the same golden age of pre-1914 anarchist activism. It is another tale of police infiltration with disastrous consequences, albeit of the sentimental kind. Young police agent Jean infiltrates a group of illegalist anarchists – proponents of illegal acts as a form of political propaganda – whom he inevitably grows close to, before duty forces him to betray them.
While the recreation of 19th century anarchism is occasionally a little formulaic, the evocation of anarchism as a timeless youthful romantic rebellion is quite convincing, underlined by the use of contemporary music. Wajeman’s anarchists preach personal emancipation and rebellion against capitalist oppression and thankless labour, as well as the bourgeoisie and its moral codes.
This twofold portrayal of anarchism – as a revolt against the brutality of capitalism and a romantic aspiration – was strikingly echoed in 2016 by the “Nuit Debout” movement and also resonates with the revival of far-left social movements internationally. In this instance, it may be argued that historical fiction voiced a profound yet incipient dissatisfaction among France’s youth, showing how revolutionary action may act as an outlet for this energy.
The same can be said of Nocturama, a film with a far darker diagnosis and prognosis. The film centres on a multi-site attack in Paris by a group of youngsters, who then go into hiding for the night in a luxurious department store. (Whether they should be called anarchists is quite problematic, as the protagonists’ motives remain opaque throughout, to both spectators and themselves.)
Their highly symbolical targets – which include the Home Office, a statue of Jeanne d’Arc and the boss of HSBC – hint at anti-establishment, left-leaning terrorism, but the characters only offer smatterings of explanation for the attacks, saying that they should also have destroyed Facebook and France’s employer federation. One character is seen wearing an Anonymous-style mask. The film levels its harshest critique at consumerism, as the characters wander and wallow all night amid the tantalising but meaningless fashion, food, toys and tech of the Samaritaine store.
While The Secret Agent and The Anarchists are period pieces, Nocturama is disturbingly of the moment. It conveys a true sense of impending disaster, backed by its prescient character – written in 2010, it was filmed in 2015, between the January Charlie Hebdo killings and the November mass attacks. It captures a profound feeling of unease among France’s youth and Western democracies at large, with one character ominously claim that “it had to happen”. Nocturama is naturally the most disturbing, because it is so aesthetically seductive and presents us with a society doomed to self-destruction without the retrospective distance afforded by historical drama.
In different ways, all three fictions show how anarchism and terrorism remain bywords for civilisational malaise, signs of a very fin de siècle feeling that we are standing on the brink of disaster. They continue a long tradition of fictionalising anarchism to refract a state of profound anxiety over international politics, terrorism, migration, left-wing activism and their root causes.