Corbyn, Joyce and Ulysses

What does Jeremy Corbyn's favourite novel reveal about the character of his politics?

Jeremy Corbyn has talked about Ulysses again. The Twittersphere’s reactions this time have been more muted than the first time he mentioned Joyce’s book almost three years ago, when he said it was his favourite novel “on the grounds that it’s very hard to understand the first time and doesn’t get much easier on the third or fourth reading of it.” The ensuing responses to this were, to use the most politically neutral word I can think of, interesting. Most of them drew on pre-existing narratives, claiming that Corbyn’s choice was elitist and thus out of touch with The Great British Public ™. Others doubted that Corbyn had even read the novel, reasoning that because Corbyn had never been to university and his O-level results were poor, consequently he could never have read and understood such a modernist masterpiece. Extending this line of reasoning could bring out what remained unsaid: that the speaker had gone to university and had tried but failed to read and understand Ulysses, the implication being that if they couldn’t do it then no one of Jeremy Corbyn’s educational background could. Most infamously, a commentator offered Corbyn a Ulysses debate (a Joyce-off?). How exactly this would work or even function is one question to ask, as is how exactly literary criticism operates in a debate setting. (The other, deeper question is: are centrists okay?)

A few Twitter hot takes aside, Corbyn’s recent and much longer elaboration on Ulysses hasn’t generated nearly the amount of energy his first comment did. This is something of a shame because the interview with Peter Carty offers a rebuttal to some of the comments first time around, as Corbyn demonstrates understanding of the novel and offers some sound advice in tackling an intimidating read. This isn’t what interests me, however. What was lost a few years ago, and what this interview makes clear, is the affinity between Joyce and Corbyn’s own politics.

Ulysses is fundamentally a democratic and humanistic novel where the everyday is elevated to the level of epic. It valourises the ordinary, giving minor characters an interior monologue and showing Bloom’s gentleness and kindness as heroic. It’s easy to understand how a novel whose basic premise is predicated on the artistic brilliance of the everyday would appeal to Corbyn, given how he’s spoken about this before.

The democratic nature of Ulysses further chimes with Corbyn’s own politics. Although there are explicit political references in the novel, its politics are generally more abstract in nature: for example Ulysses pits a protean and fluid ontology against a static metaphysics epitomised by conservatism (The British State, the Church, nationalism, bourgeois morality). This becoming, or perhaps more aptly ‘blooming’ in Ulysses is both metaphorical, as characters change in how they are perceived and how they perceive others, and literal in the case of ‘Circe’ where the novel takes on a surrealist bent as the characters undergo an array of metamorphosis in front of the readers’ eyes. This has been the source of much inspiration for more theoretically minded engagements with Ulysses, like those of Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, which might seem a world away from Jeremy Corbyn. However, what this part of the novel has in common with the more concrete political moments of Ulysses is that Joyce is using Bloom to define a new heroism and an example of what we could and should be.

When we first meet Leopold Bloom in the opening chapter of Part Two of the book, he is preparing breakfast for his wife Molly. He’ll then leave and avoid coming back home so that Molly can have her affair with Blazes Boylan. We last see Bloom having failed to persuade Stephen to stay at the Blooms’ after Bloom pursues Stephen into Dublin’s red light district as he follows his instincts to protect and look after a young man he barely knows but who he knows is vulnerable. Bloom’s actions are kind, neighbourly and paternal, as he extends to others his natural empathy born of his perennial exile status. Bloom is depicted as something of a Messianic figure, a new Man, or more specifically a new “womanly man” who embodies a new politics by way of a new morality. Like so much of Ulysses, its depiction of politics is politics lived.

It might seem odd now, but Joyce was once thought of as an apolitical writer. Quite why scholars thought this when one major theme of the novel is the British colonial occupation of Ireland is beyond me, but I’d wager that they saw the experimental form of the novel as art for art’s sake rather than Joyce’s attempt to invent a new style in order to depict modernity and a new way to live. In this respect, Ulysses is a didactic novel, just not didacticism as we normally understand it. The novel did not exist in a vacuum and although it is set in 1904, it’s really about the years in which it was composed, 1914-1922. The barbarism and violence of the First World War, and the Easter Rising, lurk in the background alongside explicit references to British rule and the famine. These real life events fuelled Joyce’s own politics - one that was equally committed to socialism, democracy, and pacifism. All these principles are undoubtedly close to Corbyn’s own, but if there are some broad similarities there are also some very interesting differences.

Perhaps Joyce and Corbyn’s most apparent political affinity is their anti-imperialism, and it’s this that Corbyn himself highlights in the interview. Joyce was a colonial subject and all too aware of the suffering and indignity the British had inflicted on the Irish. Along with the Church, the British Empire in Ulysses is depicted as an oppressive and occupying force, as Stephen puts it: “I am the servant of two masters […] The imperial British state [and] the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church”. Corbyn’s own ‘soft’ anti-imperialism has been borne out of his lifelong commitment to nuclear disarmament and the wider peace movement. This makes him something of an anomaly within Labour, which when in government has had a shameful history of warmongering, the politics of pacifism and anti-imperialism more often than not coming from outside the party. This tendency has often been heavily theoretically based, stressing Lenin’s point that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. Corbyn’s politics, however, stem from a moral rather than theoretical argument and it’s here we see see a further interesting similarity with Joyce: both are non-Marxist socialist.

Maybe it’s the redbaiting of the past few years that has made the existence of this political identity appear surprising: the thinking goes ‘all Marxists are socialists and all socialists are Marxists’. At the time Joyce was writing, however, Marxism was just one left tendency among many vying for the hearts and minds of the working class. Another significant tendency was anarchism, an ideology Joyce flirted with as a young man having read Stirner, Bakunin, and Kropotkin; he was also drawn to Italian anarcho-syndicalism. Alongside these more radical politics, Joyce was also hugely influenced by Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Home Rule League.

Parnell’s party held the balance of power in Parliament between 1885-1890 and many thought that he could have brought about home rule without violence as it was his party’s influence in the hung parliament of the time that meant Gladstone adopted Home Rule. However he was brought down by the revelation that he had been having an affair; he was condemned by Catholic bishops and the British Liberal Party refused to work with him. This was taken as an enormous betrayal and it certainly made a mark on the young Joyce, who at nine years old wrote a poem about it (“Et tu Healy?”) much to the pleasure of his father, John, whose passion for Parnell his son inherited. Not only did Parnell’s home rule without violence voice Joyce’s own political desire, but the nature of Parnell’s downfall can be seen in Joyce’s own hostility to the institution of marriage and the stuffiness of bourgeois relationships.

One of the few accounts we have of Joyce’s opinion on Marx himself is dismissive: he claimed to have never read anything by Marx except the first sentence of Das Kapital, which he found so absurd he immediately returned the book to the lender. In Ulysses however, when in a Dublin pub Bloom is wrestling with the nationalist and anti-Semitic Citizen, Bloom lists Marx alongside Spinoza and Christ as rebuttals to the Citizen’s bigotry and examples of Jewish greatness and achievement. Ulysses is, among many things, a great anti-racist novel, a trait that strikes a chord with Corbyn’s own lifelong commitment to anti-racism and solidarity with refugees and migrants.

In a letter to his brother Stanislaus, in 1906, Joyce writes that Ireland may have to go through a capitalist stage before it can attempt socialism; he may not have read Marx, but this does demonstrate that he was familiar with branches of Marxist historical thought and certainly sympathetic towards them. However, in a letter Stanislaus wrote to Joyce, he states that Joyce’s own socialism was “thin”, to which Joyce agreed, saying that he was, like Ibsen, an anarchist in thought but not a practical one. This caveat as not a practical anarchist might have also been a way for Joyce to sidestep the issue of anarchist violence of the early twentieth century, given that, like Parnell, Joyce was a pacifist. As such, Joyce’s anarchism focuses on the priority of the individual and freedom from all oppressive structures, state or otherwise. At the same time, it should be noted that Joyce did identify as a socialist and some of the most overly political moments in Ulysses are examples of this, where Joyce’s socialism is clearly utopian in nature. For example, in ‘Circe’ Bloom becomes “Leopold the first”, is declared the successor to Parnell, and announces a “new Bloomusalem” where there will be “No more patriotism of barspongers and dropsical imposters. Free money, free love, and free lay church in a free lay state.” It’s part of Joyce’s genius that he asks us to take these scenes comically as well as seriously.

Although he wished Ireland to be free of the British, Joyce was no nationalist. Corbyn in his interview is right to stress that the Easter Rising was primarily socialist and secondarily nationalist, but there’s an assumption in the interview that Joyce was sympathetic to the Rising, whereas Joyce, according to his biographer Richard Ellmann, considered the uprising a failure. A compelling argument in Joycean scholarship is that it was the failure of the Rising that strengthened Joyce’s anti-nationalist and pacifist views. The history of national liberation movements in the years preceding Joyce’s death would prove him wrong, and it’s arguably this historical experience that leads Corbyn further from Joyce’s own politics in his sympathies for the Rising. Indeed, it’s not surprising that Corbyn’s other favourite novels are about the colonial and postcolonial experience: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ben Okri’s Famished Road. Similarly, a great influence on Corbyn (and on the New Left in general) were the social movements of the 1960s and 70s: the women’s movement, gay rights, anti-racist, and anti-colonial struggles have been central to Corbyn’s politics, often when they were politically unfashionable (let’s not forget that the “loony left” tag came about through the GLCs championing of gay rights). This has also had an affect on Joycean scholarship, with scholars treating Ulysses politically and integrating feminist, post-colonial, and Marxist readings that have come about as part of those same social movements.

Another significant difference between Joyce and Corbyn is their opinion on Marx. Corbyn has described Marx as “a great economist” and said that we have “a lot to learn” from Das Kapital. This is quite a different attitude than the one Joyce had. It is no accident that Corbyn frames his appreciation for Marx as an economist and praises Das Kapital rather than the political or historical work, as it’s the former categories that most often translate into political praxis. In this, Corbyn is being faithful to his greatest influence: Tony Benn. Benn agreed with Marx’s critique of capitalist society, but thought that in the UK liberal democracy could be used in order to bring about a more egalitarian society. Like Benn, Corbyn has supported extraparliamentary politics and internationalism: both went against the Labour leadership in backing the 1984-5 miners’ strike and both supported the fight against apartheid back when the Federation of Conservative Students were producing “hang Nelson Mandela” posters.

Neither Benn nor Corbyn could be considered theoreticians, which places them squarely in the non-Marxist camp. Benn claimed that he owed more to Christian socialism than to Marx and this can also be seen in Corbyn, who observes that his own brand of socialism overlaps with the “fundamental tenets of Christianity” that were “social justice”, “sharing” and “compassion”. This might set Corbyn against Joyce given the latter’s hostility to the church. Joyce was definitely anti-clerical, but anti-theist? Debatable. Joyce was raised Catholic, denounced his faith as a young man and died describing himself an atheist. And yet, in Ulysses we have several allusions to Jewish Messianism and Bloom declares “Love […] the opposite of hatred” as a way to fight injustice rather than “Force, hatred, history, all that”. Despite Joyce’s atheism, it’s hard not to read this in terms of Christian agapē. In the same scene Bloom’s mind then wanders to think of love in terms of eros as he thinks of the universality of romantic love and concludes: “And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody.”

Corbyn’s critique of capitalism is a moral critique based on a common-sense understanding of fairness and inequality rather than the systemic critique one finds in Marx. What then of Joyce’s critique of capitalism? In short, there isn’t one. Joyce’s socialism came out of an affinity and empathy with working class people and his opposition to British rule in Ireland, but in terms of the economic system that underlines the exploitation of the working class in Ireland, you’ll struggle to find one in Ulysses. Instead, rather than critique, in Joyce we have an affirmative politics based upon an ethical code viewed as almost axiomatically drawn from both Jewish and Christian thought. Martin Beveride, writing about Tony Benn, states: “The New Testament call to “love thy neighbour” Benn considered to be an egalitarian imperative to reject injustice”. He could equally be talking about Bloom or Joyce, and most certainly Corbyn. We see this in Bloom’s politics, kindness, and gentleness, and we see this in Corbyn’s consistent championing of minority rights and calls for a more equal economic system. This ethics itself can be an impediment to a successful politics, for example: Joyce’s rejection of all forms of violence even when used by the oppressed or Corbyn’s refusal to be as ruthless as some of his detractors have painted him to be when dealing with political opponents.

This ethics can essentially be understood as a politics distilled from a profound sense of empathy and expressed as a form of common sense, in that it is immediately given and held in common. In a wonderful essay on Ulysses John Berger, who interestingly enough, was a Marxist, touches on this ethic and crucially, the pedagogical nature of the novel as he recalls reading Joyce as a teenager and describes him as: “this man who never spoke down to anybody, and who remains to this day an example of the true adult […] I continue to live the life for which Joyce did so much to prepare me.” “To prepare me”, the novel is as much about self-becoming, of self-realisation, as it is about an ethic of the other; it is fundamentally a novel about life and about how to live.

This ethic is utterly authentic and, in the case of Corbyn, feels anachronistic in modern politics which is why we have to compare him with a fictional character from the 1920s. Moreover, it’s this nature of Bloom that, among many other reasons, has made Ulysses endure and why despite the novel’s difficulty people still fall in love with it. It’s also the reason why people are drawn to and support Corbyn. It isn’t a supposed charisma or personality cult that leads people to back him, it’s never been about Corbyn as a man but about ideas and ideals that are commonly shared. Corbyn might be the vehicle for this and give it his own specificity, but that ethical injunction remains. He has sometimes sacrificed these ethics for political reasons in a way that has disappointed his supporters (his U-turn on Trident for example), but we also see it in his recent and significant affirmation of trans rights. It is this that his detractors and political enemies miss time and time again. Corbyn embodies a type of politics that offers a particular way to see the world, one that doesn’t reduce existence to an economic outcome, that not only promises to stop the cruel policies of the Tories, but also wants us as individuals and as a society to, well, bloom.


Tom Allen (@Tom_J_Allen)

Tom Allen lives in London and is an independent researcher.