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Reflections on James Joyce's Politics

Until very recently, most commentary on Joyce stressed that his works are apolitical.  Since Joyce is said to have been largely apolitical it is claimed his work is also apolitical.  More recently however some scholars have begun to look at the political, even radical, influences on Joyce and his engagement with radical political movements.  While most of the commentators who have discussed Joyce's politics identify his influences as socialistic, it is more precise to suggest that Joyce's politics were influenced by libertarian versions of socialism, notably anarchism and syndicalism (or revolutionary unionism).

Significant works such as Dominic Manganiello's Joyce's Politics Richard Ellmann's The Consciousness of Joyce have made a strong case for the Joyce's libertarian socialism.  Laduyt and Lernout (1995) note that Joyce drew much of his research material for Finnegan's Wake from the anarchist geographer Metchnikoff's masterwork Les Grandes Fleuves Historique.  In preparing his notes, Joyce also gave particular attention to the "Introduction" written by the renowned anarchist geographer Elisee Reclus.  A look at those instances where expressions of political concerns appear in Joyce's work suggests that there is a strong affinity with anarchist themes.  Ehrlich (1997) notes that from the vantage point of the turn of the late 20th century "we may easily forget to what extent late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth-century socialism and anarchism were necessary stations for the avant-garde on the road to literary modernism" (84).

Other commentators, such as Robert Scholes suggest that Joyce exhibited a general disillusionment with socialism that affected many exponents of European modernism.  Scholes (1989) suggests that the failings of mass socialist parties, eventually culminating in their capitulation at the outbreak of World War One, which saw socialists supporting their national bourgeoisie in war efforts, brought "authoritarian and totalizing proclivities" within socialism to the fore (29).  In the case of Joyce these tendencies, according to Scholes, "took an aesthetic direction toward the artist as a supreme figure, absolute in his own world and without any specific social responsibility" (29). A more recent work, James Fairhall's James Joyce and the Question of History (1993) also provides a portrait of Joyce as a youthful enthusiast who later became disillusioned with socialism.  Noted theorist Helene Cixous, in The Exile of James Joyce (1972), goes even further in condemning Joyce for a perceived authoritarianism.  For Cixous Joyce enjoyed only "two socialist years" which simply served as " a mask for the 'inner heroism'" and "'redeeming selfishness' of the artist" that represented his true political values (203 202, 203).

In my view such approaches, which view Joyce's politics through the lense of traditional socialist categories are not suited to understand the complexity of Joyce's idiosyncratic political vision.  Joyce's notions of the artist as heroic herald of a new world, rather than standing counter to socialism invoke visions of socialism that, despite their marginalization from the mainstream of socialist politics, were vital during Joyce's lifetime. As only one overlooked example, I would argue that the emphasis on the artist as mythic herald of a new world, is an already present characteristic of the Sorelian revolutionary syndicalism which influenced so strongly Italian syndicalists, and through them, Joyce as well.  According to Caraher, " a fuller, more detail-oriented, social construction of Joyce's politics, as enacted through his life and texts, tends to place the author's European modernism not so much within the camp of international socialism…as on its intellectual fringes" (176).  Any discussion of Joyce's politics must avoid simplifying his complex ideological impulses despite the many interpretive challenges they pose.

Partly Joyce stands counter to the orthodox socialism by which he is usually measured.  Instead Joyce suggests an anti-feudal rather than anti-capitalist socialism based not on the industrial proletariat, from which Joyce experienced and felt some distance but rather from a declasse petty bourgeoisie, an "in-between class" that painfully felt the constant threat of downward mobility and impoverishment.

The conventional working class - gardeners, plumbers, carpenters - has virtually no representatives here.  Joyce's people belong almost exclusively to the lower middle class, often affecting a sense of superiority that is only a reflection of their own insecurity.  Poised between upper-class aspirations and the possibility of descent through the no-safety-net floor of 1904 society, Joyce's characters inhabit a gap, a site of high anxiety in historical Dublin… (Sherry, 8).

Joyce evokes a complex variant of socialism which finds its inspiration and speaks of the concerns of overlooked classes, those who do not play the world historic part of either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie in the dominant Marxist versions of socialism.  In looking at Joyce the socialist one is opened to significant, if under-appreciated counter or marginal currents within the history of socialism.  Closer attention to Joyce's socialism reveals the complex and contradictory forces of radical modernism as well as hinting at alternative visions of social struggle which cannot be contained within binaries such as "socialism or barbarism" that inform the works of critics such as Robert Scholes.  In this way a re-thinking of the sources and expressions of Joyce's socialism provides a useful starting point for re-thinking the sources and influences underlying European modernism as well as opening interesting avenues for understanding histories of socialism.

Colin McCabe (1979) argues that reading of Joyce's correspondence with his brother Stanislaus between 1905-1907 suggests a powerful but highly personalized interest in revolutionary socialism.  For McCabe, the letters reveal fundamental concerns and influences that further account for contradictions in Joyce's politics.

In these letters we can read the contradiction between an optimism engendered by Italian socialist politics and a pessimism confirmed by the developments of Irish nationalism.  Joyce's politics were largely determined by attitudes to sexuality.  Central to his commitment to socialism was his ferocious opposition to the institution of marriage, bourgeois society's sanctified disavowal of the reality of desire (McCabe, 160).

In this short article I discuss these aspects of Joyce's politics to highlight the complex and heterodox character of the socialist vision he develops.

Sherry suggests that a touchstone for the development of Joyce's political sensibilities can be found in the figure of the Irish syndicalist James Connolly.  For Sherry, Connolly provides both a parallel as well as a contrast for Joyce's socialism.  Connolly eventually arrived at an uneasy settlement between socialism and Irish nationalism in which nationalism was a useful expedient in arriving at socialism.  For Connolly, nationalism could contribute to social regeneration only insofar as it served to separate the Irish from the interests of the English aristocracy.  In this way nationalism, by fomenting the spirit of separation from the imperialist bourgeoisie, might contribute to a process of class rebellion that would eventually supercede it.

While Joyce at times allows for an uneasy acceptance of Irish nationalism he elsewhere maintains that an English presence in Ireland might contribute a necessary part to the evolution of socialism (Letters, II).  Specifically, English investment would contribute the capital required for industrial development and the corresponding emergence of a full-fledged organized working class.  This view, however misguided, fit with a certain Second International version of socialism that argued capitalism, and the superceding of feudal relations as a requisite part in the transition to socialism.

Perhaps more sympathetically, Sherry suggests that this acceptance of an English presence invokes Joyce's pan-national view of socialism and his hope that the new century might usher in the end of international war (10-11).  This hope was, of course very soon dashed on the rocks of 1914.  As Stanislaus Joyce (1958, 85) recounts, in describing his brother's socialist leanings: "My brother thought that fanned nationalisms, which he loathed, were to blame for wars and world troubles."

Connolly's expression of socialism, tinged with nationalist sentiments, can be said to reflect one crucial fact of Irish social history at the time - the absence of a mass industrial proletariat.  For Connolly nationalism served as a necessary addition to socialist ideology given the absence of a broad and united proletariat that might play the role assigned to it by Marxism.

For his part, Joyce was as aware as Connolly of this aspect of the Irish social context and saw the necessity of revising orthodox socialism in light of this.  In his letters Joyce offers the conclusion: "The Irish proletariat is yet to be created" (Letters II, 174).  From this crucial fact of history, Joyce drew much different conclusions.  For Joyce the very lack of a mass industrial proletariat in Ireland suggested the appropriateness of an anarchist rather than a socialist (or Marxist) program of social change1.

Sherry suggests that this awareness was central to the socialism of Joyce's younger years which developed from his youthful experiences and peaked in 1906-1907 during his time in Italy.  Joyce's stay in Rome coincided with a meeting of the international socialist congress.  "Among the rival factions at the congress he prefers the trades-unionists or Syndicalists, who subscribe to an anarchism Joyce justifies in view of the problems peculiar to Irish social history, in wording that forces to a focus the predicaments underlying Connolly's own argument and rhetoric" (Sherry, 10).

In response Joyce contemplates the necessity for "the overthrow of the entire present social organisation" in order to spur "the automatic emergence of the proletariat in trades-unions and guilds and the like" (quoted in Sherry, 10).  In this Joyce echoes popular revolutionary syndicalist doctrines of the day which argued for the revolutionary general strike as the mythic force which might regenerate the working class and its organizations through the heroic form given to their struggle.  Indeed French syndicalists as well as Italian insurrectionary anarchists (both of whom played a part in the Rome congress) advocated the general strike as the means by which an unformed or partly formed proletariat might come to recognize itself consciously.

Certainly this turn towards social myth is reflected elsewhere in Joyce's works. That the crisis and resolution of Ulysses is expressed in the language of myth (Sherry 2) echoes the mythic impulse of revolutionary syndicalism.  Ulysses like Sorelian social myth fuses the mythic, especially moral allegory, with the factual.

This is not unique in Joyce's works and is not confined to a later period of his writing.  "Previously, in early 1904, Joyce wrote the unpublished first draft version of "Portrait of the Artist," using socialist utopian ideology with images of man and woman in a future Dublin.  It combined in experimental prose some elements of the socialist manifesto and the aesthetic manifesto, the sexual confession, and the new psychology of Bergson" (Ehrlich, 1997: 87).  This is a crucial connection since it further suggests the link between Sorel, revolutionary syndicalism and Joyce.  Bergson, the vitalistic philosopher, was a key influence on Sorel who attended Bergson's lectures and incorporated Bergson's notions of elan vital as a key feature of his writings on the mobilizing powers of social myth2.

View notes


  • These readings also provide an alternative perspective from recent work such as Emer Nolan's James Joyce and Nationalism (1995).
  • One might also make note of the importance of ideas Joyce borrowed from Vico whose emphasis on corsi and ricorsi in the writing of history greatly influenced Sorel.