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Helen MacfarlaneThe first woman of the British revolution

Review by Kate McCabe

The first British Marxist, first translator into English of the Communist Manifesto, first translator and commentator on Hegel in English, internationalist and fiery, incisive revolutionary journalist. Little is known of Helen Macfarlane's life, but these accolades alone suggest she may be the most important female figure in the history of revolutionary socialism in Britain.

It was only in 1958 that the American historian A.R Schoyen, in a biography of British Chartist leader George Harney, noted that one of the most prolific contributors to his journals, who wrote under the name of Howard Morton, showed a remarkable understanding of what would later become known as Marxism. Schoyen wrote: "Who could this be but Helen Macfarlane, the admired acquaintance of Marx and Engels and translator of the first printed English version of the Communist Manifesto, which appeared in the four November 1850 issues of the Red Republican."

David Black has done a great service in bringing Macfarlane, who was almost certainly born in Scotland and lived in Burnley, to life. The information in this article is drawn from his excellent book.* By placing her writing in the context of her time - a time of revolution and counter-revolution - he makes us feel we know a great deal about her. Black cites her major influences as Hegel, Blanqui and Marx and shows how their thought influenced her work and struggle.

In 1848, when revolution broke out all over Europe, we know that Macfarlane was in Vienna. Black suggests this may have been to study German in order to equip herself for life as a governess. The revolution in Britain took the form of the struggle for the People's Charter. Black gives an account of the rise and fall of Chartism and the part played by the conflicting forces within this uneasy coalition of Manchester liberals, Owenites, Christian socialists and revolutionary socialists.

The Charter's history goes back to 1838 when William Lovett, leader of the London Working Men's Association, drafted a People's Charter which included not only the demand for the vote for adult men but also for adult women. This clause was removed as some thought it would hold up winning votes for men. But women were nonetheless leading activists in the Chartist movement, with their own organisations springing up all over the country. They developed a number of weapons of struggle still in use today, for example the consumer boycott to force shopkeepers (who had the vote because of property qualifications) to vote for candidates they approved.

In 1842 when Parliament rejected the second Charter, Lancashire workers struck. Fifteen hundred were arrested and many were imprisoned, deported to Australia or forced into exile. But it was in 1848 that the English workers rallied in their millions to the Charter, forming local committees and militias, with uprisings and strikes all over the country.

The progress of the Chartist movement was described thus by Macfarlane, writing as Howard Morton in 1850, in the first issue of Harney's Red Republican saying: "Chartism in 1850 is undoubtedly a different thing from Chartism in 1840. The leaders of the English proletarians have progressed from the idea of simple political reform to the idea of social revolution."

Macfarlane was on the revolutionary wing of Chartism and a supporter of the Fraternal Democrats, who collaborated with Marx and Engels in an attempt in 1850 to create an international socialist organisation. Macfarlane's internationalism, her commitment to revolution rather than reform, and her determined struggle against English liberalism mark her out as one of the most important figures in the Chartist movement.

She was not the only British writer to be strongly influenced by German philosophy and to write under a male pseudonym. Black includes in his book a section contrasting Macfarlane's thought with that of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Eliot, like Macfarlane, had rejected Protestantism. She was the translator of the work of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose ideas strongly influenced her novels. Both women lived in London and wrote for periodicals whose offices were in the same street. But Black highlights Eliot's development towards the brand of positivism that worshipped only the facts - the observable, scientific facts - so ridiculed by Dickens in Hard Times.

Macfarlane on the other hand was a flexible thinker, much influenced by Hegel's dialectic but determined that the democratic ideal should be translated into the real world of human beings, transforming society, writing:

"As Hegel expresses it, 'Freedom is a necessary conception in the concept man'. The German thinkers from Kant to Hegel, were the apostles and pioneers of the democratic movement at present shaking society to its foundation throughout the German empire. The next step in the history of this idea will be its practical realisation, that is, the reconstruction of society in accordance with the democratic idea. Is it for a moment to be supposed that this idea - having despite all opposition passed through so many phases, or moments of its development - will stop short of the next and final one?"

Macfarlane espouses Hegel's "pantheism", which sees divinity in all things - a kind of negation of all previous religion. The days when Protestantism was a progressive force are numbered, she says: "The human mind has not been standing still for the last three hundred years. Men are beginning to perceive that this system satisfies neither the heart nor the head; neither the imagination nor the intellect."

Macfarlane defines pantheism as: "The sublime and cheering doctrine of man's infinity - as the oak lies folded up in the acorn…The divine nature (or at least in a manifestation of it which is found only in man) is common to us all… We are bound to do to others, as we would they should do to us. This rule is universally valid, without distinction of birth, age, rank, sex, country, colour, cultivation or the like."

It is linked to the democratic idea, which she says "found an expression free from all symbols, sagas and historical forms in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, by Maximilian Robespierre and in the immortal pages of the Contrat Sociale and Emile [Jean-Jacques Rousseau]. The next step in the development of this divine idea will be its practical realisation; the Ethico-political regeneration of society."

In the only article published under her own name, Macfarlane reviewed The Present Time, a pamphlet by the reactionary Thomas Carlyle which attacked the forces of 1848, praised the captains of industry, suggesting serfdom might be reintroduced for their workers. It abused Irish and black people as lazy and suggested flogging and finally shooting as a punishment for idle godlessness.

Macfarlane took up the cudgels against Carlyle, writing: "Masses of men can never be coerced into the acknowledgement of truth, or into taking steps towards the realisation of an idea. You must show them that a thing is true and good to be done, then they will follow you, willingly as a god-given leader and guide. No man ever governed a country, by the will of its own people… unless he were the organ chosen by the spirit of the age, the exponent of the Idea which governed that particular epoch, manifesting itself in the whole of civilisation of that people."

Democracy was an idea in want of a body, she continued and added that where the rulers stand in opposition to the spirit of their age, revolutions will follow. "Sham governors" could only exist by coercion, representatives of "old dead formulas who ought to be kicked indefinitely into infinite space - beyond creation, if that were practicable".

No book ever had such an exciting history as the Communist Manifesto. In 1847 members of the secret revolutionary society, The League of the Just, broke away to form the Communist League and commissioned Marx and Engels to write their manifesto. Begun by Engels, completed by Marx, the ink was hardly dry on the first thousand copies in German when revolution broke out in Paris and spread.

But it was not until 1872 that it was publicly revealed, by Marx and Engels in their preface to the German edition of the Manifesto, that it was "published in English for the first time in 1850 in the Red Republican, translated by Miss Helen Macfarlane". The later English translation of the Manifesto (Samuel Moore 1888) is the one we see now, but Black's book includes the whole of Macfarlane's translation.

On New Year's Eve 1850, Marx witnessed an event that seems to have heralded the end of Macfarlane's relations with Harney, and of her published writings. At a dinner attended by Marx, Harney's wife attacked Macfarlane and in a letter to Engels, Marx denounces Harney's cowardice in not defending her, thus "breaking in a most undignified way with the only collaborator on his spouting rag who had original ideas - a rare bird, on his paper".

From that time on no more of Howard Morton's writing appears and the last mention we have is a note in Harney's Friends of the People recognising "Howard Morton's fundraising efforts for the Polish and Hungarian refugees in Liverpool threatened with deportation".

These were refugees from the brutal reaction that followed the revolution, a slaughter led by General Haynau, subject of a previous article by Morton. Haynau was in England in 1850 and visited the Barclays and Perkins brewery on Bankside. When word got to the workers that Haynau was there, they grabbed him and tried to drown him in a barrel of beer. The Morning Post newspaper asked: "How is it that the labouring class, once profoundly indifferent to what was taking place in foreign countries… have suddenly become so sensitive?"

Macfarlane responded by listing Haynau's crimes and concluded: "Had I been present when those brave proletarians gave this ruffian his deserts, I should certainly have dissuaded the mob from… laying hands on him… brothers, your hands are blackened and hardened from honest toil. Do not pollute them from touching that beast. Take mops and brooms, sweep him out as you do other kinds of dirt. Like to like. Filth to filth. Haynau to the common sewer."

He was not the only figure to feel the rough edge of Macfarlane's tongue. When a Peace Congress was organised by liberals and others aimed at reconciling the 1848 revolutionaries and their masters, Macfarlane wrote that a Peace Congress was "a contradiction in terms" and added:

"As long as society is divided into classes, so long will the social system be founded on the distinction of a ruling class and subordinate class. Now if there be a 'spirit of order and tranquillity pervading' in the oppressed class, it must be a remarkable stupid class indeed. But as far as my researches have extended into universal history, I have never found an instance of an oppressed class being what their rulers would call 'orderly and tranquil'. Had they been contented with all their sad fate they would have deserved it. No, the slaves of all ages, the helots of Sparta, the Roman bondmen, the serfs of the middle ages, the Negro and proletarian slaves of modern times, have amply and energetically protested against that atrocious system of one class using up another; a system which can only be enforced and continue in any country by the unlimited use of the whip and the bayonet."

Helen Macfarlane is like a shooting star, burning bright and then burning up and disappearing, along with the rise and fall of the revolutionary wing of Chartism. We know nothing of her personal life but she was this amazing creature in 19th century England - a woman revolutionary socialist with an active interest in philosophy and a Marxist perspective.

* Helen Macfarlane: a feminist, revolutionary journalist and philosopher in mid-nineteenth century England. David Black. Lexington Books 2004 $20

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