Non Serviam: The Anarchy of James Joyce

March 6, 2016

Anarchy, James Joyce, Literature

James Joyce

When James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of both A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (A Portrait) and Ulysses, say “Non serviam” or “I will not serve”, he is merely restating Joyce’s own political, spiritual, and artistic creed. While almost everything that can be written about Joyce has been, it’s still not well known that the author of, perhaps the greatest novel in the English language, was a real flesh and blood anarchist and moreover, one approximating what today would be called a Market Anarchist.

Joyce was particularly influenced by the individualist tradition of anarchism which included William Godwin, Josiah Warren, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Max Stirner, Lysander Spooner, and Benjamin Tucker. While Karl Marx saw only classes such as proletarians and capitalists, the individualist anarchists were concerned, not unsurprisingly, with individuals, and sought to liberate them from the forces that smothered human potential. Joyce became interested in anarchism when he was living in Trieste and began calling himself an anarchist as early as 1907, although, hungry as he frequently was, he insisted that his stomach was always very much a capitalist.

The individualist anarchist tradition and specifically Benjamin Tucker, Joyce’s principal political authority, did not advocate violent action. The revolution that Joyce has Stephen Dedalus talk about is not to be brought about by violence, but gradually through the medium of art. In Ulysses Stephen tells Private Carr, a representative of the British State, as the latter is about to punch him, “Personally, I detest action”.

Joyce’s interest in anarchism stemmed from his view that all authority whether governmental or religious is control without individual consent. To govern is to violate an individual’s sovereignty and because all governments have a monopoly on the use of coercive force, they are all oppressive. Even exchanging a monarchy for a democracy is simply trading the tyranny of the king for the tyranny of the majority. It was natural that Joyce would gravitate towards Tucker, who had described both Church and State as a “double-headed monster” which sustained itself by keeping people “drugged with the superstitious reverence for the fiction of authority.” Both men hoped that by depriving religious and political authority of legitimacy  Church and State would be exposed as nothing more than a crude exercise of power.

In Ulysses the Church, in the form of his mother’s ghost, haunts Stephen who heroically asserts “No, mother. Let me be and let me live”. In a dramatic sequence at Bella Cohen’s brothel, Stephen’s mother preys on the mind of her son and exhorts him to repent, but Stephen defiantly exclaims, “Non serviam…Break my spirit all of you if you can! I’ll bring you all to heel!”

In A Portrait Stephen’s “non serviam”  is both political as well as spiritual. He tells his friend Cranly “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland or my church.”

As a creative artist, Joyce considered free expression sacrosanct and censorship just another example of the tyranny of state power, for the state not only banned obscenity, it also decided what obscenity was. By publishing a gratuitously obscene text like Ulysses Joyce was both exposing and rejecting the arbitrary basis of all state power. It was a form of literary anarchy. A portion of Ulysses was burned in Paris while it was still only a manuscript draft and it was convicted of obscenity in New York before it was even a book. Ulysses was banned on British and American shores almost immediately and when it appeared in 1922 government authorities on both sides of the Atlantic confiscated and burned more than a thousand copies. When the Ulysses case came before a judge in the fall of 1933, Nazi book burnings had taken place only four months earlier, so the case was no small matter. According to Kevin Birmingham’s recent opus The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle For James Joyce’s Ulysses, “The legal battles surrounding Ulysses … effectively turned the standard bearer of an avant-garde movement into a representative of art as a whole, a symbol of creativity fighting against the authority that would constrain it.”  Ulysses not only ushered in the modernist era and changed the novel for all time, but it also laid the foundation stone for literary free expression.

R.I.P. James Joyce, anarchist extraordinaire.


“Satan, really, is the romantic youth of Jesus re-appearing for a moment.”  James Joyce

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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44 Comments on “Non Serviam: The Anarchy of James Joyce”

  1. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    Thanks, Malcolm.

    I believe Proudhon was a left-wing anarchist, not in the tradition of Spooner and other individualist anarchists.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Michael. There is some dispute as to how to classify Proudhon as you can see from this extract from the Individualist Anarchism entry in Wikipedia:

      “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) was the first philosopher to label himself an “anarchist.”[48] Some consider Proudhon to be an individualist anarchist,[49][50][51] while others regard him to be a social anarchist.[52][53] Some commentators do not identify Proudhon as an individualist anarchist due to his preference for association in large industries, rather than individual control.[54] Nevertheless, he was influential among some of the American individualists; in the 1840s and 1850s, Charles A. Dana,[55] and William B. Greene introduced Proudhon’s works to the United States. Greene adapted Proudhon’s mutualism to American conditions and introduced it to Benjamin R. Tucker.[56]”


      • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

        Thanks, Malcolm. I appreciate this fascinating history describing Joyce’s place in the evolution of anarchy.

        Proudhon evidently opposed private property, the cornerstone of libertarian anarchy, which led me to my conclusion about him.


        • Roderick T. Long Says:

          Well, it’s complicated. He opposed one form of private ownership which he called “property.” But he defended another form of private ownership which he called “possession.”

  2. Bonnie Marshall Says:

    I’m awed by the power of Joyce’s imagination and confidence, Malcolm…grateful for it, also…glad you wrote this very reasoned article. Smiles…


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “I’m awed by the power of Joyce’s imagination”

      Thank you Bonnie. “Awed” is such an overused American expression but your use of it above to describe Joyce’s imagination is completely apt. Cheers.


  3. aaforringer Says:

    Fantastic as always my friend.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Glad you enjoyed it. I always enjoy reading Joyce even when I don’t understand what he is saying, but maybe that’s because the more Joyce I read the more Guinness I drink 🙂


  4. Andrea Stephenson Says:

    Thanks for sharing this Malcolm, a fascinating piece on the influences on his work and how this philosophy relates to creativity.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thanks Andrea. Joyce was a free thinker in so many different ways. I only recently discovered that his remarks on Hamlet in Ulysses reflected his interest in the Shakespeare authorship question, a subject dear to my own heart too.


      • aihuomaimminentriver Says:

        O he did weigh in on the debate! Interesting. Who might he have nodded towards? Surely not the usual suspects – Bacon, Marlowe or de Vere. He must have, like most people, found the whole idea of Shakespeare not being the author of the works troubling. I studied Joyce’s Ulysses some forty years ago, as an undergrad, and my chief fascination was with his word- creativity and infelicity to linguistic prescripts. My takeaway: Molly Blooms’s mock-rendering of metempsychosis to ‘Met him pike hoses’. The Anarchist dimension didn’t quite register then. Now you’re filling in the missing puzzles for me.Grateful for your great insights.


  5. The Coastal Crone Says:

    Your post is a reminder that even today his work is relevant and reflects the strife between church, government and individual beliefs. Well stated!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for commenting. Yes, his work is still relevant because while we will never forget how to make the internal combustion engine we do forget hard won battles for civil liberties and freedom of expression. It seems that each generation has to renew the fight.


  6. Daniela Says:

    In a broad term – every raw act of creative expression represents a form of rebellion. At the very least against artist’s own limitations, which invariably are limitations of his/her own circumstances, including those of genetics and environment. Anarchism by its very definition represents sets of beliefs that government is unnecessary, and even harmful, and advocates instead a society based on voluntary cooperation. On the other hand, communism as presented by Karl Marx in mid-19th century and again broadly speaking – stands for a political ideology or philosophy, whereas socialism is primary the socioeconomic system associated with it. Like many modern political ideologies, communism has its roots in the Enlightenment, developed in opposition to the rise of capitalism in the Industrial Revolution. In its purest form requires that – means of production, distribution and exchange are owned or controlled collectively. The political implications of this economic system would be social justice, equality (‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’), and cooperation in contrast to the liberal emphasis on freedoms and individual rights. While there have been numerous interpretations of socialism since Marx, with some arguing for a workers’ revolution to end the capitalist system, and others for more gradual democratic reform – the fact remains that Marx saw any such stage as ‘transitional’ to the ultimate conclusion of historical development – a classless society that bring to an end the historical conflict between classes and in which private property and the state itself no longer exist … which dare I say is sounds an awful lot like anarchism!

    This is one too long comment – sorry -:)!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      No need to apologize Daniela as you are perfectly correct. The early Marx was very liberation oriented and although he was vague on details, did indeed see the state as eventually withering away, which would indeed be a form of anarchy. However, I think Joyce was too clever to believe that everyone would eventually be transformed into peace loving altruists enabling the coercive powers of the state to wither away. Individualist Anarchists generally believe in private property and simply believe that the functions of the state, including a legal system, defense and police force, can be provided more efficiently by private entities. While one can argue about the practicality of such a vision it does at least have the advantage of not requiring a change in human nature.


  7. authorbengarrido Says:

    Very interesting article. I would agree that Marx was being incredibly naive when he assumed every one would become a peace loving altruist. However, I wonder if you think Joyce’s non action, artistic revolution is more realistic?

    “Joyce’s interest in anarchism stemmed from his view that all authority whether governmental or religious is control without individual consent.”

    True, but does it matter?


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Ben.

      “I wonder if you think Joyce’s non action, artistic revolution is more realistic?”

      Yes, I do. I would not have written about it if I didn’t 🙂 I think anarchy has a bad rap.

      “True, but does it matter?”

      Not if you believe that might makes right as I think you do. But if you value individual autonomy i.e. you believe that people should be treated as autonomous entities with their own feelings, goals and values, then individual consent is a basic building block of any society hoping to maximize the area of individual autonomous action within a social setting.


      • authorbengarrido Says:

        Is it an aesthetic choice or is there some deeper reason? Valuing autonomy over equality would seem a matter of taste, or at least that seems the most likely source of suporting anarchy or communism. I’m not asking to trivialize Joyce, btw. Aesthetics is important and fundamental.

        And yes, in my experience, both in what I’ve read and especially what I’ve lived through, right without might ends very messily.


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Ben, I don’t believe Joyce ever provided a deeper justification as we only know of his politics through his novels and through major influences such as Benjamin Tucker. Tucker did not think any state was justified because he believed the only way to end the exploitation of the working man was to end the monopolies of money, land, tariffs and patents.

          “Valuing autonomy over equality would seem a matter of taste”

          Really? I’m not sure what human flourishing could take place in the absence of a recognition of the value of autonomy.

        • authorbengarrido Says:

          For Confucius, flourishing required harmony, submission and duty. For Marx, flourishing required equality. For Buddhists, the entire point of life is overcoming individual autonomy and achieving nirvana. For the legalists, flourishing meant formalized and absolute bureaucracy (and it worked, btw). For St. Augustine, flourishing was found in ever more creative techniques for self detestation. For Schopenhauer, flourishing consisted of overcoming despair with artistic expression- indeed I strongly suspect he’s where Joyce got that artistic revolution idea. For Agamemnon, flourishing consisted of glory in battle and honorable death. For the Puritans, the very people on whose foundation our flourishing rests, flourishing consisted of purity, discipline and self denail.

          Taken together, that’s a lot of people for whom individualism and autonomy were not the goal.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Ben, thank you for this great comment which gives me an opportunity to refute your position, which seems to be that values are all a matter of taste. However, before I attempt to do so I would like to point out that I agree with your basic premise that there are a variety of different ways that humans can be said to flourish and not all of them involve liberal values. However, I would argue that while it’s certainly possible for humans to flourish without autonomy, it’s much rarer than we think. Secondly, while the traditions you mention reject liberal values, Confucianism, Marxism, Buddhism and Christianity etc., still affirm universal human values. Rejecting the universality of western liberal values does not inevitably lead to cultural relativism.

          The meaning of concepts such as autonomy, freedom, coercion and equality will always be contested, not because they lack any core meaning, but because we often give different weights to the various elements that constitute these concepts. For example, in talking about equality is someone talking about equality of opportunity, equality of income or equality of natural ability? Most of the traditions you mention do value a form of autonomy although they give different weights to the different elements which constitute autonomy.

          Autonomy is important in Confucianism but while in the West we tend to think of an individual being autonomous and separate from external power authorities, Confucianism emphasizes individual autonomy within the context of one’s connection to, or harmony with external power. The lack of a term for autonomy in Confucianism does not mean that Chinese thinkers or even ordinary Chinese people do not imply it in their writings or even experience it in their lives.

          Similarly Marx was just as concerned with bringing about autonomous self-realized workers as he was with establishing equality although the former was probably a stronger presence in his earlier writings.

          While there may be no need for autonomy once one reaches nirvana, Buddhists do see plenty of use for it on the way to achieving this state. For example, autonomy is a necessary condition for spiritual practice. One is always to “see for yourself,” and make your own decisions about what makes sense to you in the teachings of the Buddha. It is fundamentally up to oneself, and no one else, to engage the path of practice. No one can make us do it, we have to choose it ourselves. While Buddhism does not speak against God, it also does not assert that God shapes our lives and that God’s grace is at work in our transformation. We are each individually responsible for the effects of our actions, for our own karmas.

          St. Augustine argued strongly that we had free will. In “On Free Choice of the Will” he argued that if human beings did not do evil themselves, and it was rather caused by God, then it would not make sense for God to punish or reward human beings for doing good or evil since they would not be the cause of their own actions. But since God does reward and punish people, and all that God does is just, God could not be rewarding or punishing determined beings. We must therefore have free will.

          Autonomy was also a key element in Puritanism as nothing was a lonelier task than the Puritan’s solitary quest for salvation. R.H. Tawney documents this well in his ‘Religion and the Rise of Capitalism’ where he describes the way in which Puritan religious doctrines strengthened the sense of striving for perfection and self-sufficiency.

          I’m going to pass on Schopenhauer out of lack of knowledge but I think you get the idea. I want now to move on to the subject of universal human values which I know, as a nihilist or moral relativist, you reject. Just as rights or individual virtues conflict with each other (e.g. justice and mercy) so the elements that make up a decent society may conflict, but this does not mean that judgments about what constitutes a decent society are culture specific. I would argue that humans are like other animals in having a definite nature, independent of changes in cultural values, which shapes their experiences whether they like it or not. No one benefits from torture (Trump excluded) or persecuting people on account of their religion or sexuality. Being at risk of violent death is not good for anyone in any culture. Such truisms could be multiplied. Universal human values should be looked upon as something akin to moral facts, indicating goods and evils that are generically human.

  8. authorbengarrido Says:

    I was mostly talking about Western conceptions of individualism and freedom, but if you want to define the value of autonomy widely, that’s certainly fine. I could still pick out groups like the Calvinists, who believed in a wrathful God who has still pre-destined everyone and everything, but that’s ticky tacky and the Calvinists didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    “I want now to move on to the subject of universal human values which I know, as a nihilist or moral relativist, you reject. Just as rights or individual virtues conflict with each other (e.g. justice and mercy) so the elements that make up a decent society may conflict, but this does not mean that judgments about what constitutes a decent society are culture specific.”

    I’d completely agree. Well, except for the part where you called me a nihilist or relativist. I certainly think that the decision to value rights or equality or purity or freedom is an aesthetic decision, but I don’t think all ethical values are such. As I mentioned in “The Doomed Moralists” and “The Doomed Moralists, Part II,” I believe those values are continued existence and the imposition of meaning on reality.

    Donald Trump actually makes a good case study for why I’m reluctant to include more universal, generic human goods and evils past the two previously mentioned. For the sake of argument, please bear with me and assume that Trump is a fascist.

    The typical ethical formulation of this postulate goes something like this.

    “Donald Trump is a fascist. Fascism is evil. Donald Trump and his supporters are forces of evil. Let us express our outrage at this evil.”

    The consequence of such a formulation is that a bunch of people with dreadlocks will yell at a bunch of people with mullets who believe that “Donald Trump is a patriot. Patriotism is good. Donald Trump and his supporters are forces of good.”

    If we’re lucky, this turns into the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or some other impotent and incoherent blob of nothing. If we’re unlucky, this turns into a pogrom where one group of infinite righteousness cleanses the world of the other group of infinite badness (whether the mullets or dreadlocks are the infinitely righteous we will, of course, determine after the fact).

    However, if we get rid of all our ideas of justice and freedom and simply assume that meaning and existence are the base goods, we approach Donald Trump from a totally different angle. Now we say something like this:

    “Donald Trump is a fascist. Fascism, in the past, seemed like a bad thing for continued existence. Is it still a bad thing for continued existence and if so, why are people supporting it?”

    If we decide that fascism is still bad for our continued existence, this line of ethical thinking skips the dreadlocks and yelling and results in a game plan. Put in another way, when we strip ethics of its holy and universal connotations and limit it to only the things we absolutely need (some sort of meaning and continued existence), we allow flexible and cool-headed thinking to replace moral outrage and comic book superheroes as the source of ethical action.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “I believe those values are continued existence and the imposition of meaning on reality.”

      Ben, thank you for the clarification but I still don’t understand the above statement. All we need to exist is a bear skin, a lump of meat and a cave so I don’t think anyone would disagree that existence is important and a value worth fighting for. The problematic issue is “the imposition of meaning on reality” because because there is no objective yardstick with which we can compare different forms of life. Imposing a form of life on people does not make them believe in it. The Romans were more powerful than the Christians, but in the end it was the Christians who won out. Are you arguing that history is on the side of the big battalions because if so it is often ideas that motivate men to action?


      • authorbengarrido Says:

        I’d say that Christianity is a very elaborate system of meaning to impose on reality.

        While imposing meaning on reality can mean imposing values on other people, it doesn’t have to. Indeed, pluralism is a system of creating (and revising) meanings.

        So, as for the Christians and the Romans, I think that’s good example. If you only measure power in military might, then it’s true the Christians were weaker than the pagans. (This is actually much more complex than you’re making it out, Romans vs. Christians, but we can use the popular conception just fine for this exercise.)

        However, the reality of Christianity stamping out paganism seems to demonstrate that, ultimately, Christianity was more able to continue existing than paganism. My analysis of why would be that Christianity is an excellent moral and psychological system for the poor, the resentful and the downtrodden. Contrast this with the vague, casual and upper-class gods of the Roman pantheon and it’s not too hard to figure out who the regular folk would end up supporting.

        Thus, in its ability to marshal the poor and resentful, Christianity possessed the power to continue existing while Roman paganism didn’t.

        Surviving is the standard. How you survive is the problem to be solved. In this sense, I’m proposing a consequentialist ethics.


  9. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    Malcolm, it’s good to see your writings back on wordpress! This post really got me intrigued to finally give myself the challenge of diving into Ulysses.
    I’m curious to know how your book project is progressing?


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Hanne, thank you. Ulysses is definitely worth the effort but the emphasis is on the word “effort”. You need to work at it. Maybe get a good guide such as Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses or watch the series of lectures by Joseph Campbell called Wings of Art. You can watch the latter for free on the internet but they have annoying ads. Ulysses has become one of those books that I would take to a desert island if I had to entertain myself for years. I would also definitely read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man first. As to my book, the less said about that the better 🙂


  10. Cindy Bruchman Says:

    Sorry I missed this post, Malcolm. “. . .all authority whether governmental or religious is control without individual consent. To govern is to violate an individual’s sovereignty and because all governments have a monopoly on the use of coercive force, they are all oppressive. Even exchanging a monarchy for a democracy is simply trading the tyranny of the king for the tyranny of the majority.”

    Excellent. I have read “Dubliners” and have been influenced by his style. Why haven’t I read “Ulysses”? Engaging post, thank you.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      ‘Why haven’t I read “Ulysses”?’

      Thank you Cindy. Start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as Ulysses follows on from it chronologically. I’ve read Ulysses once and listened to it three times. You are in for a treat but as I remarked to someone else it does take some effort. Also, neither book is anything like Dubliners.


  11. Aquileana Says:

    An excellent post, dear Malcolm…
    It is curious how the individualist anarchist tradition might some many points in common with Adam Smith´s theories… Particularly with his idea of `the invisible hand´ruling and the laissez faire, laissez passer principle.
    This makes even more sense if we think of Stephen´s statement, “Personally, I detest action”… which you have quoted above.
    It is quite surprising to find out this similarities, if we keep in mind that those two theories seem to be in conflict one with regard to the other… sigh.
    Sending all my best wishes. Aquileana 🙂


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “It is quite surprising to find out this similarities,”

      Thank you Aquileana. It should not be too surprising. Adam Smith (a custom’s official), was certainly not an anarchist but his guiding principle was laissez-faire so, at least from a modern perspective, what he advocated might seem like a minimalist state. Market anarchists share with Adam Smith an appreciation of the value of markets and the role of private property and simply take Smith’s arguments to their logical conclusion, arguing that if the functions of a minimalist state (a police force, a judicial system and a national defense force) can be more efficiently handled by private enterprise then why not move in that direction?


  12. Daedalus Lex Says:

    Yes, a revolution in sensibility with political change as a by-product! I never saw those anarchist art-bombs in Joyce. Thanks for an enlightening article.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for joining the discussion. Actually I don’t think political anarchy was a by-product of literary anarchy in his work. Political anarchy was one of Joyce’s core convictions and there is a great deal of politics in his writings.


      • Daedalus Lex Says:

        Thanks, Malcolm. Full disclosure: I still feel for Ulysses the same ambivalence Carl Jung expressed in his 1932 letter to Joyce: “I’m profoundly grateful to yourself as well as to your gigantic opus, because I learned a great deal from it. I shall probably never be quite sure whether I did enjoy it, because it meant too much grinding of nerves and of grey matter. I also . . .couldn’t help telling the world how much I was bored, how I grumbled, how I cursed and how I admired.”


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Thank you Daedalus (any relation to Stephen 🙂 ?). I did not know about Jung’s review of Ulysses and was amused to read in the same letter you quote that Jung said the following about the last section of Ulysses (Penelope), “I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.” That’s quite an admission from Jung! Joyce could not have been too upset with Jung’s review as two years later he sent sent his daughter, Lucia, to be treated by Jung, who was the first to correctly diagnose the troubled girl’s symptoms as schizophrenia and to get her the proper psychiatric treatment.

        • Daedalus Lex Says:

          And I didn’t know about Joyce’s daughter. Interesting correspondence, no doubt. Daedalux Lex just came as I was trying to start a tech writing group in New Orleans, where I am a tech writer and there is no chapter of the national organization. Somehow Daedalus Lex seemed a good marriage of techno-god and words, with a nice ring to it. But I’m sure Stephen was echoing in the unconscious on that day 🙂

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “Interesting correspondence”

          Yes, no doubt someday someone will make a film about it.

  13. D. Wallace Peach Says:

    I knew so little of Joyce that these articles have been fascinating. I’m always intrigued by the monumental works of history’s literary greats, how they pushed against acceptable norms, became battlegrounds for free expression and thought, and opened doors that we enjoy today.



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