First British Marxist

David Black of the London Corresponding Committee describes the role and work of Helen Macfarlane, the translator of the Communist manifesto

Helen Macfarlane was part of a 'red' tendency that emerged within Chartism in the aftermath of the defeats of 1848. The then undisputed leader, Feargus O'Connor MP, wanted to maintain the Chartist alliance with the radical liberals and promote his doomed 'back to the land' scheme. But opposition came from the Chartist left wing, led by George Julian Harney and Ernst Jones of the Society of Fraternal Democrats. With Jones in prison on sedition charges, Harney resigned as editor in chief of O'Connor's Northern Star in order to campaign for an independent working class movement, with an internationalist perspective and an avowedly "communist" press. Helen Macfarlane was radicalised during her stay in Vienna during the 1848 revolution. On returning to England, she moved to Burnley and made contact with the Fraternal Democrats and with Frederick Engels, who was by then resident in nearby Manchester. Marx and Engels assigned Macfarlane to do an English translation of the The communist manifesto, which Harney planned to publish. Macfarlane's first published journalism, a lengthy critique of Thomas Carlyle, was serialised in Harney's new monthly journal, the Democratic Review, in April-June 1850. Carlyle had supported the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act - passed to force the unemployed into the workhouses - as a measure to 'encourage' the 'surplus population' of 'paupers' to emigrate. Carlyle, however - whose ideas were attacked in the Communist manifesto under the heading of 'Feudal socialism' - invoked the spirit of 1066 and the "mail-clad Norman barbarians" (as Macfarlane called them) rather than the Victorian apostles of political economy. Carlyle called for "an immense volunteer police force, stationed everywhere, united, disciplined, feudally regimented, read for action; strong Teutonic men "¦" When he published a broadside against 'red republicanism', Macfarlane responded: "I am free to confess that for me the most joyful of all spectacles possible in these times is the one which Mr Carlyle laments; one which I enjoyed extremely at Vienna, in March 1848: ie, 'an universal tumbling of impostors ...' Ca ira! And how do men come to perceive that the old social forms are worn out and useless? By the advent of a new idea ... Mr Carlyle qualifies red republicanism ... by the epithet - 'mere inarticulate bellowing' "¦ Red republicanism is just about one of the most inarticulate, plain speaking voices in the whole of universal history." Philosophy and revolution Macfarlane's notion of "universal history" came from the German idealist philosophers. She saw history as a process by which the human mind overcomes obstacles to freedom. The "idea of perfect liberty, of equality and fraternity - the divine idea of love" had, she claimed, originated with the early christians, then been carried forward by the Lollards and other heretics of the middle ages, the martyrs of the reformation and the philosophes of the enlightenment, until it came "bursting forth from under the accumulated rubbish of ages, like waters of life", when the sans-culottes of 1789 took it onto the streets of Paris. The investigation of the philosophers into "the nature of man" was "terminated by Hegel, the last and greatest ... As Hegel expresses it, 'Freedom is a necessary element in the conception, man'... The next step in the history of this idea, will be its practical realisation." Like Marx, Macfarlane was influenced by the great French revolutionary, Auguste Blanqui, as well as Hegel. After 1848, Blanqui broke with the petty bourgeois notion of democracy as a formal structure for creating a static "equilibrium" based on "fraternity between the classes". For Blanqui, democracy was a historical process with an eye to both past and future. To mean anything it had to become socialism, otherwise the oppressors would use it to restore and preserve power for themselves. Likewise, for Macfarlane, revolution meant "the total destruction of the past ... because existing social forms leave no room for the evolution of the democratic idea." Even her most agitational journalism - for Harney's new weekly paper, the Red Republican (under the male nom de guerre 'Howard Morton') - was permeated by 'proletarian Hegelianism'. This is well illustrated by an article she wrote on the visit to London in 1850 by field marshal Haynau, the Austrian war criminal, infamous for his atrocities in Hungary following the 1848 revolution. During a visit to a brewery on Bankside, democratic workers attempted to drown him in a barrel of beer, then chased him across the river to Westminster. When the liberal press complained of the 'lawlessness' of the action, Macfarlane responded: "A hoary-headed old ruffian orders women to be stripped naked and flogged till nearly dead by a set of savage soldiers ... Of what terrible revolting crime had these unhappy women been guilty? They had aided their husbands, their fathers, their brothers, in the Hungarian and Italian insurrections ... Had I been present ... I should certainly have dissuaded the mob from using violence: that is, from actually laying hands on him. I would have said, brothers, your hands are hardened and blackened with honourable toil.. Take mops and brooms, sweep him out as you do other kinds of filth. Like to like. Filth to filth. Haynau to the common sewer!" But, having delivered this punch line, Macfarlane asserted the power of reason: ""¦ the events of the last two years have done more to enlighten the people on their true position than centuries of preaching. Universal history is the best 'enlightener'. Its lessons, you see, have reached even coal heavers, draymen and costermongers - about whose humanity, the readers of an 'enlightened press conducted by able editors', have entertained doubts. Yet they are men, and thinking men too." Revolution unity Helen Macfarlane's revolutionary polemics used a 'method' similar to Hegel in his philosophic discourses. She looked for common ground with those she is debating with and 'gets inside' their concepts in order to move them forward 'dialectically' towards a new unity of principles. In a Red Republican article in August 1850, she challenged the Owenite 'social reformers' on the question of 'rights'. Macfarlane argued that posing the question of any 'right' cannot ignore the reality of a society which "does not give me the power of exercising it"; and she suggested that if all tendencies agreed that "soil and capital are collective property" and "that these instruments of labour being common to all, should be used to the benefit of all ... on the principles of association and universal solidarity", then "many important consequences" were "derivable from these two fundamental propositions". Then, applying Marx's proviso in the Communist manifesto that measures "will, of course, be different in different countries", Macfarlane called for, "for example": free and compulsory education, equal rights for all in the justice system, state support for the old and sick ("not as a charity "¦ but as a right"), nationalisation of banking and "gratuitous national credit". In calling for the "centralisation" of the various radical tendencies, she pointed out that the Owenites had never been able to put any of their social theories into practice because they had shied away from "the battle between the classes composing society [that] must be fought out first". She suggested: "If the organisations would fuse into one, with one individual centre of democratic action, a double movement might be carried on: viz, a crusade for the Charter as a merely political reform, and a veritable revolutionary and social propaganda; and that too without distracting the attention of the people by the claims of so many democratic societies." In Macfarlane's view then, theory had to be more than just a parade of theories - as in shopping parade, offering the 'ism' that 'suits you best'. Macfarlane demanded organisational responsibility from theoreticians: that they make themselves useful "without distracting the attention of the people" from the practical issues, and provide, as Marx claimed of the Manifesto, "critical insight into the conditions, the course, and the general results of real social movement". The regroupment of the left in the early 1850s failed to get off the ground and Harney fell out with Marx and Engels when he formed an alliance with an anti-Marx faction of the German Communist League. But Harney also fell out with Helen Macfarlane, whom Marx described at the time as "the only one with any original ideas - a rara avis - on Harney's spouting rag". In fact, Harney had just finished serialising Macfarlane's translation of the Communist manifesto in the Red Republican, having introduced it as "the most revolutionary document ever given to the world". These bust-ups were a tragedy for the development of working class politics - but that is another story. Hidden from history Macfarlane is one of the most mysterious figures in socialist history. There is no known record of what became of her after 1851; and none of the socialist historians of succeeding generations ever bothered to try and find out (she was last heard of in spring 1851 collecting money for revolutionary Polish refugees facing deportation). In my research into Macfarlane I have discovered that she was born in Scotland circa 1820; one of the post-Napoleonic War baby-boomers whose ranks included other radical women thinkers such as George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. Like them, Macfarlane had to write under a male pseudonym to get her writings in print. But for her - a sworn feminist and enemy of her own class - the personal obscurity inflicted by the historians of bourgeois male society was to be near total.