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Navigating the Zeitgeist: A Story of the Cold War, the New Left, Irish Republicanism, and International Communism


Why would an American girl-child, born into a good, Irish-Catholic family in the thick of the McCarthy era—a girl who, when she came of age, entered a convent—morph into an atheist, feminist, and Marxist? The answer is in Helena Sheehan’s fascinating account of her journey from her 1940s and 1950s beginnings, into the turbulent 1960s, when the Vietnam War, black power, and women’s liberation rocked her bedrock assumptions and prompted a volley of life-upending questions—questions shared by millions of young people of her generation. But, for Helena Sheehan, the increasingly radicalized answers deepened through the following decades.

Beginning by overturning such certainties as America-is-the-world’s-greatest-country and the-Church-is-infallible, Sheehan went on to embrace existentialism, philosophical pragmatism, the new left, and eventually Marxism. Migrating from the United States to Ireland, she became involved with Irish republicanism and international communism in the 1970s and 1980s. Sheehan’s narrative vividly captures the global sweep and contradictions of second-wave feminism, antiwar activism, national liberation movements, and international communism in Eastern and Western Europe—as well as the quieter intellectual ferment of individuals living through these times. Navigating the Zeitgeist is an eloquently articulated voyage from faith to enlightenment to historical materialism that informs as well as entertains. This is the story of a well-lived political and philosophical life, told by a woman who continues to interrogate her times.

How did a convent girl from Philadelphia end up as a soldier of the Official IRA and then reinvent herself as a renowned Marxist philosopher? An uncompromisingly honest and utterly fascinating memoir from the drowned continent that was once western communism.

—Mike Davis, author, City of Quartz and Planet of Slums

Navigating the Zeitgeist is an odyssey of a communist navigating the 20th century and continuing into the next. It is a gripping narrative, both for the story itself and the author’s way of telling it, disarmingly honest from start to finish. It is an internal understanding of the revolutionary movement, all the more necessary at a time when the sheer existence of a communist subjectivity has become an incomprehensible phenomenon, buried by the discourse of the victors. Helena Sheehan weaves a rich tapestry combining the personal with the political, the experience of everyday life with cultural, social and intellectual history. More than a memoir, this book makes a compelling call for radical reflection and action.

—Stathis Kouvelakis, author, Philosophy and Revolution and Handbook of Marxism and Postmarxism

Helena Sheehan’s memoir of the last decades of the twentieth century captures the intense political passions of international communism at a crossroads. The conflicting pulls of criticism and commitment, adaptation and co-optation, are vital struggles to make sense of and shape the world. Navigating the Zeitgeist is more than the autobiography of a brilliant philosopher, lover, mother, and organizer. It’s the autobiography of the left.

—Jodi Dean, author, The Communist Horizon and Crowds and Party

Helena Sheehan’s journey from working class Irish America to the new left, Irish republicanism and the communist movement is a fascinating one. Along the way we encounter the Catholic Church, the movement against the Vietnam War, the Official IRA and European communism during the 1970s. Sheehan’s recollections not only provide a personal and political perspective on the people and ideas that shaped much of the modern left; her vivid portraits of many of the individuals involved are indispensable for anyone seeking to understand these movements and their times.c

—Brian Hanley, author, The Lost Revolution and Boiling Volcano

An absorbing, thought provoking, candid, and inherently fascinating memoir of a troubled life in troubled times, Navigating the Zeitgeis is especially and unreservedly recommended for both community and academic library Contemporary American Biography collections in general, and Marxism and Feminism supplemental studies lists in particular.

Midwest Book Review

Helena Sheehan is Professor Emerita at Dublin City University, where she taught history of ideas and media studies. She is also the author of several books, including Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History, Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories, and The Syriza Wave, as well as journal articles on politics, culture, and philosophy.

Publication Date: March 2019

Number of Pages: 308

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-58367-727-8

Cloth ISBN: 978-1-58367-728-5

eBook ISBN: 978-1-58367-729-2