Everyone goes through a crisis of belief at some point in their lives. We grow up with certain views of the world presented to us and when they don’t fit experience, have to revise or abandon them. This process can be incredibly painful and in the case of Helena Sheehan, it’s hard to imagine a more total collapse and rebuilding than her journey from nun to communist. Her autobiography, therefore is an important book, not just for documenting her times and the very interesting circles she moved in but in allowing the reader to explore in some depth a crucial question for us all: how do I know my current belief system is right?
That’s a big question for anyone, but it’s especially important if you are going to devote years of your life to a particular political strategy and try to persuade others of it.
Helena Sheehan’s political trajectory, charted with complete honesty in this book, was from conservative Catholic, to the US New Left of the late 1960s, to Official Sinn Féin on her arrival in Ireland in 1972 and to the Communist Party of Ireland in 1975, which she left early in 1980. Joining the Labour Party in 1981, Helena helped found the Labour Left group and was close to Michael D. Higgins.
There’s plenty in the autobiography for those wanting to cherry pick her insights into characters like Seamus Costello, Tomás Mac Giolla, Betty Sinclair and Michael O’Riordan, but my interest is in the deeper story.
In 1965, having committed herself to the Sisters of St Joseph in Pennsylvania, Helena found herself at odds with the lifestyle of the order. In particular, watching news broadcasts on the march from Selma to Montgomery in spring 1965, she saw nuns participating and wondered why she couldn’t do the same. She taught, ‘We shall overcome’ to the kids in her class. In other words, it was waves of history (as she puts it) that tore her away and while a few years later, nuns left the order in droves, Helena was one of the first to do so.
The intellectual crisis this brought about, compounded by losing her teaching job for being too ‘controversial’ and falling out with her family, was nearly fatal:
I was alone and desperate as it was possible to be. My world was in ruins. In time, I would rebuild on new foundations. But between the collapse of one worldview and the construction of another, there was only an abyss. I often wonder where I found the strength to endure that emptiness.
Eventually, Helena found a way forward via philosophical existentialism to the radical left in Philadelphia (she was studying at Temple University) and by 1970 was deeply involved with city politics. This is a fascinating part of the book, depicting a non-stop lifestyle and a feverish intensity of revolutionary discussions and actions that has rarely been seen since. Helena was in constant discussion with Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, anti-Vietnam protestors, members of the Weather Underground movement, Feminists, Gay rights activists, etc. Her background and intellectual rigour seems to have made her an extremely valuable activist, more able to connect the revolutionaries to wider audiences than many of her peers. And also to spot nonsensical posturing.
This is also the part of the book that in my view, most meets a challenge that she states in the preface, of wanting to connect the social and economic changes of her times with the experience of an individual. Her grasp of the totality of US society, allows her writing to be both wonderfully vivid at a personal level and at the same time to portray a massive systemic crisis. The same strengths are not evident in the sections on Ireland and the USSR, not because her beautiful writing style falters but because I don’t think, even now, reflecting on her life, she’s as clear about the nature of the social systems she’s writing about. These chapters lack her ability, for example, to juxtapose popular culture and sub-culture the way she does so brilliantly with the chapters on the USA.
And this brings me back to the question of belief systems. For a long time Helena was, to put it bluntly, a Stalinist, even after leaving the CPI. Since ‘Stalinist’ is an insulting term that evokes dictatorial practices and bullying, I need to state that Helena comes across as never anything but totally honest and someone who does not believe (as, alas, so many on the left seem to, even today) that there are situations where the ends justifies the means. As she quite rightly observes, ends and means are connected. Helena’s loyalty to the USSR was one of genuine intellectual conviction. Having studied Marxism of a certain type, seen its power, coherence and strength of insight, especially when compared to the anaemic philosophy she encountered while working on her PhD at TCD, Helena sincerely accepted that the USSR was socialist.
How does it happen that someone who has struggled to pick herself up from near death for having invested herself in one ideology (Catholicism) that came crashing down upon her, then adopted another that would do the same? The book stops in 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin wall, with a signal that this would be the second great intellectual crisis of her life. The cheap answer, which seems to have been thrown at her several times, is that this is just her nature, to uncritically commit to a big-picture ideology. From nun to communist is not such an extraordinary journey from this perspective.
Helena’s own rebuttal to that is that she’s acquired her second, communist, worldview after years of effort to achieve intellectual and moral clarity, whereas she stumbled into the first, unformed and driven by forces of which she was largely unconscious.
Let’s agree that, broadly speaking, to be a socialist is a fine thing. Really, this is an inspiring book because it is about a life spent largely in causes that have improved the position of working people, of those nations resisting empires, and especially the position of women. Nevertheless, as soon as you think you have the full picture, worse, if you defer to someone else in your party you think has the full picture, you’re doomed to one day finding yourself articulating a view that no socialist should hold.
In Helena’s book, I don’t think she ever defers to someone in authority, except perhaps the dead authorities of brilliant thinkers. But I do think her model of Marxism is (at least for 1975 to 1988), ultimately, a sterile one, by which I mean the categories that Marxists use to discuss social structures (mode of production, surplus value, etc.) have been imposed on history rather than derived from it.
How do I know my current belief system is right? Because I’ve studied; I’ve fought; I’ve struggled to change the world; I’ve tested it constantly against unfolding events; I’ve had to build it up from the ruins of previous belief systems. That’s all impressive but it’s not enough. My view is that you also have to be open to the possibility that this hard-fought for model is wrong. It’s difficult, because the path to becoming a post-modernist (something that Helena despises, with good reason), begins with surrendering the primacy of your belief system.
Yet when I see a human being who clearly has great honesty and integrity fail to mention the Hungarian uprising of 1956 in her discussions of Eastern Europe; fail to support the Prague Spring or the early days of Solidarity in Poland and instead, describe her sojourns in the USSR largely in halcyon terms, I have to shake my head in dismay. Now the book only ends in 1988, so Helena’s current views might be much closer to mine on these issues (i.e. on the side of those who rose up against the rulers of Russia and the eastern block). But for me the most fascinating aspect of this candid auto-biography is that it makes you question your own understanding. Readers will ask themselves: if someone with Helena’s strengths can end up a Stalinist, then where am I heading?
It’s not easy, being ambitious and determined enough to believe the whole world can become a place of equality and freedom, yet modest enough to accept your current approach to achieving that goal could be flawed. Yet on reading this entertaining autobiography, it seems to me that’s the fast-flowing contradiction that socialists have to constantly navigate.