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Helen Macfarlane: A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist and Philosopher in mid-nineteenth century England

by David Black, Published by Lexington Books, Maryland.

Tribute to Helen Macfarlane— That the Parliament notes the forthcoming launch of the book, Helen Macfarlane: A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist and Philosopher in mid-nineteenth century England; welcomes the fact that this radical Scotswoman will at last be rescued from obscurity and given her place of importance in 19th century politics and political movements, including the Chartists and the Vienna uprising of 1848; further notes that it was Helen Macfarlane, under the alias Howard Morton, who first translated the seminal pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto, into English for the magazine, The Red Republican, and that she played an active role in promoting the politics of revolution and equality throughout her life, and believes that the Scottish Parliament Information Centre should order several copies of her book and that libraries across Scotland should be encouraged to do likewise.

Moved by Tommy Sheridan, supported by: Mark Ballard, Rosie Kane, Rosemary Byrne, Frances Curran, Colin Fox, Alex Neil, Elaine Smith, Ms Sandra White

Few people probably noticed this motion tabled before the Scottish Parliament on February 18th this year. However, our parliamentary representatives are to be congratulated for their attempts to bring Helen Macfarlane, a remarkable woman, to the public’s attention. The inspiration for the motion was provided by the publication of Helen Macfarlane: A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist and Philosopher in mid-nineteenth century England; written by David Black, editor of the marxist-humanist journal, Hobgoblin (see our Republic of Letters page).

The motion itself gives a brief outline of Helen Macfarlane’s wider significance. Dave’s book is not the usual biography. Too little is known about Helen Macfarlane. We do not know when she was born - only that Macfarlane was of that generation of post-Napoleonic War ‘baby-boomers’, which included other original and radical women writers such as George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. (p.2)

Dave’s enquiries locate Helen Macfarlane’s upbringing in Scotland. However, she later moved to London and Burnley. She was in Vienna during the 1848 Revolution. This profoundly affected her thinking. She joined the Fraternal Democrats, the most politically advanced section of the Chartist Movement. Between April and December of 1850, she wrote a number of articles for the Democratic Review, the Red Republican and Friend of the People. She also made the first English-language translation of the Communist Manifesto. Where later translators wrote of the Communist spectre haunting Europe, Helen Macfarlane wrote of the hobgoblin, which stalked the Europe of the Pope and the Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police agents. (p. 138)

Given the all-prevalent, male chauvinist, anti-woman feeling in mid-nineteenth century Britain, Helen Macfarlane, usually wrote under the nom-de-plume of Howard Morton. In her own words, British society condemned itself in ‘the position of women, who are regarded by law, not as persons, but as things’. (p.3) And in confirmation of women’s tenuous position in bourgeois society, all trace of Helen Macfarlane disappears from history, after 1851.

Not surprisingly then, Dave’s book is necessarily and unashamedly a Biography of an Idea (p.3) and that idea is Freedom. Dave identifies Helen Macfarlane’s concern with Hegel’s Idea of Freedom and with its ‘externalisation’. (p.4) She was the first person, born in Britain, to study, translate and utilise Hegel’s thought. However, she took Hegel’s thought further. Macfarlane’s ‘narrative of history’ saw a ‘pure democracy’ emerging from class struggles.(p.4)

Like the great French revolutionary, August Blanqui, Helen Macfarlane saw democracy as a historical process leading towards a ‘Republic without Helots’ - and end to exploitation and oppression through emancipation and liberation, where freedom and equality will be the acknowledged birthright of every human being... without poor, without classes... A society... not only of free men, but of free women. (p.4)

Dave demonstrates that Helen Macfarlane already anticipated the clear distinction between the ‘forms’ that the movement took in the twentieth century (Social Democracy, Stalinism, etc) {which} were based on economic determinism rather than a concept of Freedom (p.132). Therefore, she retains a contemporary relevance.

The other of Helen Macfarlane’s concerns, was the economic and political development of England. (p.4) The Britain of the day was the most economically advanced area in the world. Helen Macfarlane lived in Burnley, at the very centre of the cotton manufacturing industry, which was then the pacesetter for capitalist development in the world. Engels also had lived in nearby Manchester, prompting him to write The Condition of the Working Classes.

Helen Macfarlane polemicised against three political tendencies involved in the Industrial Revolution. The first of these included the Manchester Liberals, who fought against ‘Old Corruption’ under the banner of Free Trade. (p.4) The leading spokesmen for these humbug manufacturers were Richard Cobden and John Bright. Many of their arguments are being recycled today by such neo-liberal advocates of global corporatism as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. However, one difference is they are also the political leaders of the ‘New Corruption’, ripping off workers, consumers and the finances of the state for the benefit of the global corporations.

Helen Macfarlane also polemicised against such rosewater sentimentalists as Charles Dickens. He advocated charity to deal with the problems of the day. Again we have contemporaries in such figures as Sir Bob Geldof, the G8’s licensed court jester. Geldof’s interventions around the current G8 summit have been designed to promote musical ‘alternatives’ to the events organised by the ‘Make Capitalism History’ wing of the G8 protests. His proposed million person march in Edinburgh, white-clad and pleading, resembles Father Gapon’s St. Petersburg supplicatory march to petition the Tsar, a century ago. The ‘sentimental’ Dickens could also show his real political feelings, when writing of the Chartist Movement - Bastards of the Mountain, draggled fringe on the Red Cap, Panders to the basest passions of the lowest natures! (p. 53)

However, Helen Macfarlane’s opposition to Thomas Carlyle, the famous Scottish writer and opinion-former of Victorian Britain, was perhaps her most important polemical contribution. Carlyle opposed the rise of industrial capitalism. Because of this stance, he won many adherents, including a whole generation of Radical and early Labour figures. He opposed the new sham aristocracy of mill owners. However, he was even more vociferous in his opposition to Chartism, and indeed any movement of the oppressed. He was especially contemptuous of Black West Indians and our own White Ireland... these two extremes of lazy refusal to workl! (p. 80) In 1849, Carlyle published an essay attacking American abolitionists in an essay, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question!

Helen Macfarlane was extremely prescient in her attack on Carlyle. The idea... which, I think, pervades all Mr. Carlyle’s works, is that of hero-worship, (p. 82) When Carlyle looked for a force to counter the Chartist Movement, he sought a precedent in the Norman conquerors, an immense volunteer police force, stationed everywhere, united disciplined, feudally regimented, ready for action; strong Teutonic men. (p. 80) He clearly anticipated the rise of the later fascist paramilitaries.

It is always important to remember the dark appeal of fascism, which today opposes globalisation. Fascism seeks to divert the current worldwide mass movement into narrow chauvinist, racist and sexist channels, to create more hatred, division and conflict. Helen Macfarlane upheld revolution as the best antidote to the reactionaries of her day. 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 in Vienna, in March 1848 - i.e. ‘an universal tumbling of impostors’.... Ca ira! - or, if she had been writing today., ‘Y Basta’!

Allan Armstrong

The second part of this review will be published in the next issue of Emancipation & Liberation.