Navigating the Zeitgeist: a book that's red all over

Navigating the Zeitgeist: a book that's red all over

  • Navigating the Zeitgeist - A Story of the Cold War, the New Left, Irish Republicanism and International Communism 
  • Helena Sheehan
  • Monthly Review Press, €24.00

THIS is an autobiography of a unique life. The author, Helena Sheehan, goes from American Catholic nun into the New Left, becomes an Irish Republican and Marxist, joins the Communist Party and sharpens her debating skills at "dazzling intellectual soirees" and conferences perhaps about, inter alia, how many dialectical materialists could dance on the head of a pin, is accused by her comrades of revisionism, joins the Labour Party and becomes a university lecturer.

Sheehan, a media commentator and author of several previous books, tells the story of her life up to 1988. She had met in Philadelphia and befriended Billy McMillan from Belfast. She arrives in Ireland in 1972 and meets almost immediately Mick Ryan, Seán Garland and Cathal Goulding. All four men are leaders of Official Sinn Féin and on the Army Council of the Official IRA, Goulding being its chief of staff. She also meets the editor of the United Irishman, the party newspaper, Eoin Ó Murchu, whom she marries the following year. She writes: "I landed among the leadership of the movement", and later declares: "In this movement I became a Marxist".

Sheehan details how she threw herself enthusiastically into Official Republican life, with late-night drinking, singsongs and learning how to lay down the Stalinist line and root out "Trots", ie, Trotskyists, from the party. She joined the Pearse Cumann in Rathmines and soon became its education officer. She devoured all she could about the Soviet Union adding that, "We had a great grá for Albania", which is beyond absurd. Cumann members beware because she "took a strong polemical line with anyone who came into the debate with an anti-intellectual or a relativistic position. There was such a thing as truth, I defensively declared".

In 1973 and 1974 she was "feverishly occupied" in developing an education programme for the party nationwide. She offers one of the essay questions for members to write answers for, "The four [Trotskyist] Fourth Internationals and all the groups they have formed are active agents of imperialism. Elaborate." She now "wonders how many [new members] that we drove away". The answer may be by the score. She accurately describes many aspects of the atmosphere of the time in the party. She relates that the party raised money through organising folk concerts and bank robberies.

Despite the rigid, Stalinist line that the party was taking, she left Sinn Féin in March 1975 because, in effect, it was not dogmatic enough. Official Sinn Féin had been trying to replace the Communist Party of Ireland as “head boy” in Moscow’s class. She applied the following day to join the CPI . While Goulding and Garland were only amateur players at socialism, the players on the CPI team were professionals, even if the party only played in the fourth division in the European Communist League. Ó Murchu followed her into the CPI and the couple were able to live the October Revolution daily and glory in the Soviet fatherland even more than before.

She began to research Marxist philosophy seriously and to delight in intellectual debate with comrades from all over Europe, especially at international conferences abroad, paid for courtesy of "Moscow gold". However, she eventually came to accept the reality of the lies and dishonesty of the Soviet regime, even if she does not phrase it quite like that. However, she refers to "purges" perhaps five times without explaining them, once mentioning that they "permeated every workplace, every community during that time".

But Sheehan, who somehow avoids mentioning Stalin's name in this chapter, does not make explicit that she is referring to the Moscow show trials of 1936 to 1938. It is impossible to write about the Soviet Union in the 1930s without mentioning "show trial", or even trial. She might have mentioned that Stalin executed practically every prominent Bolshevik involved in the October Revolution still alive in 1938, that they all signed "confessions", admitting to treason and being agents of Nazi Germany, and that these false confessions were extracted through torture and threats against parents and children. Estimates vary, but Stalin had killed around one million Soviet citizens, between 1936 and 1938 alone.

However, Sheehan does make clear her disappointment with her discovery of the truth and in Vienna in June 1979 she singles out for her "sorrow and rage" the "honest communists who were executed". What about the millions more? She appears to make a virtue of this "discovery" but the truth had always been right under her nose in almost every library.

Similarly with the "Lysenko affair", Sheehan peddles, in this reviewer's opinion, the usual Stalinist drivel, "a rich and significant history", etc. Lysenko, a pseudo-scientist and Soviet hero, denied the existence of genes and ridiculed the work of the "reactionary" (because he was a monk) Gregor Mendel. What Stalin valued about Lysenko's science was his peasant origins and his unwavering support for Stalin himself. Sheehan fails to mention Lysenko's help in prosecuting the brilliant scientist, Nikolai Vavilov, who "confessed" after 900 hours of interrogation in 1940 to being a "wrecker" and was sentenced to death.

This eventual disillusionment with Stalinism has been written about for decades and is nothing new. 

What is interesting here is the Irish perspective, including her stated mea culpa for being, in effect, a Stalinist apparatchik, in one, if not two political parties, and her as yet in 1988, unshaken belief in Marxism, despite the brutal reality of those states. 

Sheehan mentions "proletarian internationalism", but does not explain it. It meant the duty of every communist in the world to shut up and do what Stalin wanted.

Three reflections may give an insight into the mind of a dialectical materialist. Sheehan writes that when her young daughter's class at school was making its first communion, the girl initially "didn't want to be excluded". Sheehan continues and asks of an eight-year-old, "What did she want? I asked. Did she want a new dress, a special day, and all that, or did she believe that the bread was the body of a dead god and she should eat it?"

Secondly, she describes vividly the "electric" effect on her when she became a Marxist and how, at that moment, everything "suddenly clicked". Her flowing intellectual description of her happiness makes no mention of how mankind will benefit, how people's lives will be better off under Marxism. 

Thirdly, after honourably gaining her doctorate in 1980 from Trinity College she declares that it was "tainted by the intellectually dishonest . . . nature of the ceremony in which I was conferred in the name of deity in which I did not believe". 

Perhaps it was tainted a bit more by her support during at least part of her years at Trinity for an intellectually dishonest and brutal regime that murdered and tortured by the millions in the name of socialism. These attitudes, in this reviewer's opinion, are key to understanding why the capitalist class has nothing to fear from dialectical materialists. Her declaration that she has not told a lie since her teenage years is remarkable and makes her the first communist in history with this accolade.

In 1981 she joins the Labour Party, which is a broad church where even Marxists can find a pew, if only at the back of the church. Ideological differences with her husband are increasing and take their toll on their marriage, and in 1984 she leaves the family home. She begins lecturing in communications and social science and does research into popular culture and social history. 

She is still a Marxist in 1988, but will the convulsions of 1989 turn her into a mere socialist, or even a dreaded social democrat or, God forbid, like her erstwhile comrades in Russia, a capitalist? We shall have to wait for Part II to find out.

The book could do with an index, given all the people mentioned. However, this eclectic, well-written and absorbing book is a valuable, if somewhat self-serving, account of a personal journey and life on the left in Ireland. The chapter regarding the Official Republican movement is especially valuable and almost certainly could have been longer.

Her sojourn in the Communist Party will interest primarily those ideologues who are still counting those dialectical materialists dancing on the head of that pin, or those who stopped dancing but still hum the Internationale.

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