Navigating the Zeitgeist

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One important point to make about Helena Sheehan’s political odyssey — from a conservative Catholic upbringing through the radicalism of the US left in the 1960s and early 70s, on to Official Sinn Fein and the Communist Party of Ireland, and then into the Irish Labour Party — is that it demonstrates with crystal clarity the importance of the theory of state capitalism for revolutionary politics.

It is easy to forget this since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Chinese regime’s embrace of Comrade Billionaires, but Sheehan’s often tortured account of her negotiation of 1970s and 80s Stalinism certainly brings it home. Some of her recounting of her Stalinist period is amusing: the family who called their daughter “a little Trot” when she was naughty for example. But other episodes are sickening such as when she tells of her discovery that the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact involved handing over German Communists to the Gestapo. She was told that even if it was true, she was doing the enemies work by drawing attention to it! How did she end up in this company?

Sheehan’s account of her early life, of her radicalisation and involvement in the protests against the Vietnam War is excellent. Her chapter on the anti-war movement, “The Times They are A-Changin”, is tremendous and would have made a very good book in its own right. She reminds us of how the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI burgled the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, in March 1971 and stole over a thousand documents exposing the Bureau’s illegal COINTELPRO operations.

Only more than forty years later did she learn that one of those involved was John Rianes, her old ethics professor! And she tells of the comparatively forgotten protests in Washington DC in early May 1971 that saw more than 13,500 arrests. The Vietnam War “opened our eyes to the nature of the system under which we lived and provoked a breach that would never be healed”.

Then in 1972, she emigrated to Ireland where she joined first Official Sinn Fein and soon after the Official IRA. Here she records her first encounter with the Stalinist fear of Trotskyist contagion and chronicles her embrace of a Stalinised version of Marxism. Understanding the Soviet Union, “the world’s first socialist country was of primary importance”. Some three years later, she resigned from Official Sinn Fein and on that same day joined the Communist Party of Ireland. How on earth did a 1960s radical come to “defend much that was done by the KGB, Stasi, and other security services”? Although, to be fair, she did “find their degree of surveillance of ordinary working people…the suppression of dissent…indefensible”. In 1978 she actually spent four months in the Soviet Union, going “from a milieu where Marxism was marginalised” to one “where Marxism was in power”.

In the end the weight of evidence and experience finally overwhelmed her Stalinist illusions. She left the CP in 1979 and with grim inevitability ended up in the Irish Labour Party. More recently, she has been involved with the Occupy movement in Dublin and with chronicling the Syriza sell-out in Greece.