National Liberation in an International Context

Navigating the Zeitgeist
By Helena Sheehan
Monthly Review Press (2019)

Navigating the Zeitgeist, is the first installment of Helena Sheehan’s two-part autobiography, covering the period between her birth in 1944 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sheehan’s many books and essays include, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, which made a vital contribution when it was published in 1985, remaining relevant, even urgent, to this day. 

As autobiography, Navigating the Zeitgeist is a fascinating account of events and personalities with whom Sheehan was deeply involved. Each episode is given a critical and self-critical exposition, including evaluations of well-known political figures as well as some who were lesser known but equally important. Traversing Cold War America, Catholicism, the Sixties New Left, Sinn Fein and the IRA, the Communist Party of Ireland and the International Communist movement, Navigating the Zeitgeist is as much a sweeping overview as it is personal narrative, but in both senses, it’s an insightful and informative read. 

In this book review, however, I concentrate on certain questions Sheehan raises in the course of telling her story. When, for example, Sheehan grapples with “Marxism in power,” she’s referring to debates which erupted with some of her hosts while doing philosophical research in the Soviet Union, German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia and Poland. While she encountered many imaginative, critical thinkers in all these countries she was nonetheless confronted by the ossification of thought, the recitation of a catechism and the marginalization of serious inquiry for which socialism had long been condemned in the capitalist west. The struggle to remain loyal to the cause of international communism while maintaining one’s integrity are not only matters for the committed Marxist Sheehan was and remains. They are serious questions for philosophy as a discipline, as indeed they are for anyone seeking to change the world.  

Her opening pages warn us that we are entering a battlefield. Mocking postmodernist tropes anointing the “decentered subject,” or declaring the “grand narrative” passé, Sheehan uses both her life experience and her philosophical training to dismantle an edifice erected, in the first place, to lend an aura of irreverence to old-fashioned anti-communism. Many have no doubt been duped by such “theory” making this intervention more timely than ever. The challenge is not only to expose the fraud but to examine the deeper perplexities thereby obscured. To interrogate the failures of revolutionaries, in and out of power, while maintaining a commitment to revolutionary change is a task too few intellectuals have been willing or able to undertake. 

Compounding the problem is an unwillingness or inability, on the part of revolutionaries themselves, to squarely confront such failures as if doing so were tantamount to betraying the cause. Each successive chapter, therefore, is a building block in an argument, a retelling not only of a sequence of actions but of the reasons people, including Sheehan herself, took them. An example is the process by which Sheehan left first her religious order and subsequently an entire way of life.  Not only was Catholicism a totality or comprehensive world view from which she was definitively and traumatically separating herself, but she was at the same time resolutely upholding the necessity for totality or a world outlook, albeit with diametrically opposed content to that of the Catholic Church. Sheehan thus explains her thought processes while defying postmodernist claims to have rid the world of “totalizing discourse.” Sheehan draws a line between her own world view and what she exposes as a form of “branding.” Branding, in this case, has a double meaning: ostracism and discredit, on the one hand, selling or identifying a product, on the other. This method is employed throughout, even as terrain and terminology change.

When Sheehan writes: “I am bearing witness to lost worlds here. It is no longer possible to step into a pre-Vatican II convent or travel to the USSR. These were strong and seemingly stable worlds that vanished stunningly and suddenly.,” she is referring to personal experience, both as a nun and a communist, but she is making another, more significant point, as well. Her “witness” is one of active engagement in world-historic processes, an engagement without which there can be no consciousness of either the mechanisms or the stakes involved. Passive onlookers may hold opinions of processes over which they exert no influence. Only those who’ve committed themselves gain access to the truths emerging from the struggle against falsehood. Given that from Parminides onward, philosophy has differentiated “the way of opinion” from “the way of truth,” this is not a matter of rhetorical posturing but of definition and procedure; of logical consistency and empirical evidence; of fearless critique and taking sides. It is furthermore at the core of the very disputes Sheehan would later be embroiled in, which in turn, reveal a great deal about what led to “collapse of communism.” 

It’s worth recalling that many people alive today were participants in the revolutionary upheavals of the period between 1960 and 1980. The Cuban revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the victory of the Vietnamese were high points of struggle convincing tens of millions that a new world was being born. This was not confined to what was then called the Third World. In the First and Second, insurgencies were mounted that made “revolution in our lifetime” a reasonable supposition. Indeed, Prague Spring and the “Troubles” in Ireland, exemplify the zeitgeist, as much as their counterparts elsewhere. Not only were millions directly involved, but they shared to one degree or another the commitments illuminating Sheehan’s account. However, what stands out in her book is not what it has in common with the many memoirs, autobiographies and histories written of the same period, but what has been lacking in nearly all of them, namely: philosophy, especially, the philosophy of science. While covering many of the same events, personalities and outcomes, Navigating the Zeitgeist exceeds the rest because it focuses on what was perhaps the greatest deficiency of the revolutions of the Twentieth Century, and certainly contributed to the defeat of revolutionary communism. Once again, Sheehan’s experience is more than her own, it is evidence of how philosophy’s destitution actually played out; how decay within the Soviet Union was in a sense foretold by official treatment of philosophy as a dead letter. When Sheehan describes a chance encounter with Brezhnev, he appeared to her a corpse, an apparition of a sealed fate. 

Such dreary outcomes are irreconcilable with the materialism of Marx and Engels. The philosophical and scientific premises on which their analyses and prognoses were made bear scant resemblance either to the tautologies propounded by various socialist regimes or successive intellectual fads pursued by ostensibly left-wing theorists in the west. Decades later, it remains crucial to grasp how anti-communism necessarily included an obscurantism towards science, a mystification of processes by which knowledge is attained and the quasi-religious elevation of difference over similarity, what divides as opposed to what unites humanity. The great value of Sheehan’s account, therefore, is its relentless effort to ferret out core principles that must be fought for at all costs, especially in opposition to those falsehoods that, like shadows, attach themselves to those very principles. A prime example are the questions surrounding feminism, more specifically, the conflict between socialist feminism and radical feminism. Sheehan’s politicization began during the Sixties in the New Left. She became a feminist before she became a Marxist. Eventually, the study of philosophy combined with increasing political activity to lead her to study, in particular, Engels, author of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In a speech delivered at a Philosophical Society conference in Dublin, where Engels himself had once spoken, Sheehan recalls, “Following in the footsteps of Engels in more ways than one, I argued that the oppression of women was rooted in the social division of labor inherent in class society. It was grounded in private ownership of the means of social production. It was thus necessary for women to emerge from private work in the home and to enter fully into the sphere of social production. Marxism, I contended, was the only approach that conceived gender within a comprehensive world view, grounded in an analysis of socio-historic processes and the realities of political economy and that opened the way for the full liberation of women. Radical feminists argued that Marxism was a male theory and that could not explain the oppression of women.” 

This was in 1979. Needless to say, the issue remains unresolved.

Space does not allow for a fuller discussion of all the ground covered in Navigating the Zeitgeist. As much as is written above could be said about Sheehan’s involvement with Ireland and its politics. Those unfamiliar with names such as James Connolly, Sinn Fein-IRA, “Provos” and “Officials,” Cathal Goulding and Seamus Costello, might find this section of the book daunting, although it certainly makes engrossing reading. For those who’ve been involved, however, Sheehan’s are not “cautionary tales” bemoaning sectarian violence and pointless internecine rivalry. What emerges are above all else political and philosophical issues having to do with revolution as a process, national liberation in an international context and, again, a sharp distinction between the passive observer and the active participant. Throughout, Navigating the Zeitgeist demands this distinction be acknowledged by the reader. Not only that we understand better what Sheehan is trying to tell us. But that we may be inspired to participate and not just observe.