Bearing witness to lost worlds – why Marxists are best placed to write an autobiography

I aimed at more than memoir. I set out to write a work of social, political, cultural, intellectual history

 

Why write an autobiography? Who do I think I am? Why should anybody be more interested in my life than anyone else’s life?

Many autobiographies are written by celebrities. I’m not a celebrity. I didn’t score any glorious goals to the roar of cheering crowds. I haven’t starred in Oscar-winning movies getting reviews of mesmerising performances. I’m not in demand for reality TV shows as an influencer or style icon. I haven’t made any paradigm-breaking discoveries – no new cure for cancer, no new theory about black holes, no algorithm to zap fake news.

I’ve lived a live that was not headline-making, but not totally obscure either, as an activist, academic and author.

Why write an autobiography is a question that might be raised with particular point about someone who is a Marxist. Aren’t we supposed to be focused on forces of history and not distracted by the particularities of personality?

My answer is that a well-written account of a life is about more than one person’s life. Done well, it can open to an account of many lives and to a panoramic yet intimate account of the socio-historical process. We experience forces of history by living a life. Marxists of all people should write autobiographies, because we have a clearer and deeper sense of the relation of personality to history. We should be better able to conceptualise the relation between self and socio-historical context, to express the epochal in the concrete, to shape a biographical narrative with a thrust to grand narrative.

Helena Sheehan as a cowgirl at home in the US in the 1950s
Helena Sheehan as a cowgirl at home in the US in the 1950s
Helena Sheehan as a nun with family visiting her in Corpus Christi parish in Philadelphia where she taught in 1964
Helena Sheehan as a nun with family visiting her in Corpus Christi parish in Philadelphia where she taught in 1964

There haven’t been many autobiographies on the Irish left. Not many of Irish academe either.

In writing this book, I have aimed at something more than memoir. I set out to write a work of social, political, cultural, intellectual history within the narrative frame of autobiography.

It is shaped by a particular conception of the relation between psyche and society. I believe that a person is neither a behaviourist stimulus-response mechanism nor a mystical inner essence. I believe that a person is inherently relational, a nodal point in a field of forces. We are both the creatures and creators of history.

Whether consciously or not, a person is formed within a torrent of processes and events. I decided from a young age to do so consciously, to bring the widest range of forces to the sharpest focus I could. I was striving always to be at the cutting edge of the process, to feel the pulse of my times. I set out to navigate the zeitgeist, hence my title, whether to go with the prevailing winds or to set a course against them.

In writing my way through this, I’ve sought to find a form of writing that is experiential without being egotistical, that brings to a focus the characteristic conflicts and choices of the age in the flow of concrete circumstances.

In capturing the temper of the times, I’ve focused particularly on the movements of my times in which I’ve actively participated, but I’ve set these within a wider context of competing cross-currents and within a complex web of interacting forces.

The author discussing the meaning of life during postgraduate studies at Temple University in 1967
The author discussing the meaning of life during postgraduate studies at Temple University in 1967

I’ve tried to tell my own story in a way that opens to the stories of others, especially those who have walked the same terrain as I have: that of the cold war, Catholicism, academe, the new left, the socialist movement, the communist movement.

I’ve done so as coherently as I can. I don’t regard myself as a decentred postmodern subject. I’ve struggled to integrate the flow of experience, against the fragmenting forces of my time, positivism and postmodernism. I’ve assumed that experience can be unified both as biography and as history.

My story begins in the US. I was born into a working-class milieu shaped by conservative politics and dogmatic religion. I hope that I’ve captured both the cohesion and contradictions of cold war America and pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Even as a child I was very questioning. At first, I groped only towards more sophisticated and liberal forms of politics and religion, but I still believed in the basics. As I was the sort of person to commit, to give myself fully to what I believed, I entered the convent.

The book portrays the last days of the old order in church, state, home and popular culture and then within convent walls. It explores the relativisation effect of Vatican II and the Kennedy years. It conveys the social turmoil of the 1960s in universities, in homes, on streets, in the very fabric of everyday life.

In this process, the stable world of my youth was shattered. My whole world view came into crisis. The whole social order that I had taken for granted was called into question.

The author on a platform with Pete Seeger at a mass anti-war demonstration in Washington DC in 1971
The author on a platform with Pete Seeger at a mass anti-war demonstration in Washington DC in 1971

With others who came to be called the new left, I marched many miles for civil rights, for women’s liberation, against the Vietnam war and then against the whole system shaping all the terrible injustices of poverty, racism, sexism, imperialism. We talked long into the night calling into question everything we had been brought up to believe.

Later the story moves from America to Ireland, with various forays into the rest of Europe, both east and west, dealing with experiences of republican, social democratic and communist parties and social movements. I explore the patterns of social change in Irish society as I experienced them, particularly in terms of my political commitments within Official Sinn Féin / IRA, the Communist Party of Ireland and Labour Left within the Labour Party. Also in terms of my teaching and research within Irish universities – TCD, UCD and NIHE-DCU. I’ve tried to give a fair assessment of the people and the milieux I encountered without glossing over difficulties or shrinking from negative judgements.

The author speaking at an anti-war protest at the US Federal Building in Philadelphia in 1971
The author speaking at an anti-war protest at the US Federal Building in Philadelphia in 1971

Although Ireland was my base, I spent a lot of time in the rest of Europe, not only on rare holidays, but more in terms of political and academic interactions. When in the CPI, I became caught up in the life and controversies of the world communist movement. In eastern Europe, I witnessed the last decades and then the dying days of the socialist experiments that had shaped the 20th century and felt the ground shifting under my feet again.

As the world turned upside down yet again, I traced the ideas, debates, events and life stories that played out as it transpired.

I earned my living doing various jobs, but primarily as an academic, eventually as a professor. Over the decades and continents, I have tracked many transformations, for better and for worse, in the modus operandi of universities. I have endeavoured to perceive the patterns and the underlying forces shaping these developments, while participating in them and sometimes resisting them.

In the 1960s and 1970s, we brought a great transformation in universities, not only in access, but in curriculum, as we questioned the theoretical foundations of academic disciplines and brought new disciplines into being. There has been a powerful push to roll back these advances and to bring universities into line with the rhythms and demands of the global market.

The author speaking at a Labour Party seminar on “Is Marxism relevant to the 1980s?” in Dublin in 1984
The author speaking at a Labour Party seminar on “Is Marxism relevant to the 1980s?” in Dublin in 1984

To different readers, there will be much that is familiar as well as much that is exotic in this book.

This narrative brings readers inside the closed enclaves of convent life, the Official IRA, the Communist Party of Ireland and the International Lenin School in Moscow. I am bearing witness to lost worlds here. It is no longer possible to step into a pre-Vatican II convent or to travel to the USSR, Yugoslavia or the GDR. These were strong and seemingly stable worlds that vanished stunningly and suddenly. They seemed destined to last forever until they were gone. I want to testify to the power of their existence and absence.

I have been conscious of a dynamic between me-then as a character in my story and me-now as its author. I have tried to be scrupulously honest about this and not attribute my mature views to my younger self, while still bringing to bear my mature self in conceptualising the meaning of events in a way that I might not have done then.

I started with the intention of writing my story in a single volume, but arrived at a book-length manuscript when I was only up to the late 1980s. I decided to make this project into a two-volume work, as my later life was no less eventful than my earlier life and I still had a lot to say. I have concluded here with the end of the cold war, which had so shaped my life and times until then.

My next book will be about the end of socialist regimes in eastern Europe, life in the new world order, especially in the wild east, the global forces bearing down on universities narrowing their agenda into ever tighter alignment to market forces, my six intervals in South Africa, the challenges of the economic crisis for the left, which surged and then waned – or crashed in Greece, where I have spent much time in the last seven years. And whatever else may happen by the time I finish.
Navigating the Zeitgeist: A Story of the Cold War, the New Left, Irish Republicanism, and International Communism by Helena Sheehan is published by Monthly Review Press. Sheehan is Professor Emeritus at Dublin City University, where she taught media studies and history of ideas in the School of Communications

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