Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 1


Helen Macfarlane

David Black
Helen Macfarlane: A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist and Philosopher in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England
Lexington, Lanham 2004, pp. 177

DAVID Black has written an interesting and useful book on Helen Macfarlane, who will be known to readers of Revolutionary History as the original translator of the Communist Manifesto into English, when it appeared in the Red Republican of George Julian Harney in 1850.

It may be argued that Black has really written several books in one. The first and most distinctive is that which provides the evidence of some important historical detective work on Helen Macfarlane, about whom little has hitherto been known. The second, also of some importance, is a chapter which deals with the specificities of Macfarlane’s translation of the Manifesto. The third is an interesting discussion on the left-wing Chartism of the Fraternal Democrats, and what happened to this current after 1850. The final book within a book is a discussion of the ideas and politics of Left-Hegelianism, of which Black is a partisan. Black ably demonstrates that Macfarlane herself held such views, although he is less convincing on what the historical significance of this might have been.

The name Helen Macfarlane has long been something of a puzzle for historians of Chartism, and it is a great strength of the book that Black goes some way to unravelling the mystery. Leading female Chartists were very rare things in the 1840s – all the nationally-known leaders were men – and one who could both understand the Communist Manifesto in its original German and translate it into English was virtually unique. By a close reading of articles in the Red Republican, Black demonstrates that Helen Macfarlane wrote on a number of occasions for that journal using the pseudonym Howard Morton. This has previously been assumed by historians.

Where Black breaks new ground is in discovering that the Macfarlane family had Scottish origins, and in 1850 were to be found living in Burnley. He has also uncovered the fact that Macfarlane was in Vienna in the Year of Revolutions, 1848, and was therefore exposed to the actuality of the events that Marx and Engels referred to in the Manifesto as well, clearly, as gaining a grounding in the works of Hegel. Black digs up one or two other references to Howard Morton, and places Macfarlane’s presence at a dinner given by the Fraternal Democrats in London on 31 December 1850 at which both Marx and Engels were also present. Black has traced a letter from Marx which shows that a dispute took place between Harney’s wife and Macfarlane. After that, all trace of Macfarlane is lost. It is still not known why she was in Vienna, when and why she returned, or indeed what she did after 1850 and when and where she died. The book provides some tantalising new evidence, and it is to be hoped that future historians will continue the detective work and find out more.

The most recent work which touches on the translation of the Communist Manifesto into English is the Penguin edition with an introduction by revisionist historian Gareth Stedman Jones. He refers to Macfarlane just once, on page 15, and misspells her name, although he does pick up that she wrote under the pseudonym of Howard Morton.

David Black’s treatment is much briefer, but he still manages to make some valuable points that Stedman Jones misses. Firstly, he acknowledges that Macfarlane’s use of the word ‘hobgoblin’ for the more often used ‘spectre’ that Marx and Engels argued was haunting Europe was unfortunate. It suggests an idiosyncrasy to Macfarlane’s translation which is far from the reality. Secondly and most importantly, he draws attention to a number of sections of the Manifesto that did not actually appear in the Red Republican. He quickly dismisses the idea that Macfarlane herself exercised the editorial pencil, and suggests, rather, that Harney, the editor of the paper, deliberately omitted certain parts that he felt might attract the attention of the authorities. The Red Republican itself had already excited their interest, in particular in a search for links between left-wing Chartists and European revolutionaries.

Black also convincingly demonstrates some of the differences between Macfarlane’s translation and the later and now standard work of Samuel Moore, and argues that these were a result of Macfarlane applying a Hegelian logic to her work. Again he is convincing on this. For example, Moore’s translation had Marx and Engels writing: ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’ By contrast, Helen Macfarlane translated the same German passage as: ‘Everything fixed and stable vanishes, everything holy and venerable is desecrated, and men are forced to look at their mutual relations, at the problem of life, in the soberest, most matter-of-fact way.’ Black argues that while the former is of course better known, the latter is closer to the Hegelian spirit of Marx and Engels’ work.

If these are the two original areas of the book in terms of historical research – and the book would still be an important contribution to our knowledge if it had stopped there – Black’s work on left-wing and late Chartism and on left-wing Hegelian ideas in Britain in the 1840s and 1850s are both interesting pieces of analysis.

There is little historical work on either left-wing Chartism, in the shape of the Fraternal Democrats – founded in 1846 – or on late Chartism after 1848, although in terms of the latter more research is now starting to appear.

Black traces the origins of the Fraternal Democrats in 1846, looks at their relationship with Marx and Engels, and is particularly interesting on the tensions between Ernest Jones and George Julian Harney as leaders of Chartism in the early 1850s. It is in some ways a pity that Black’s analysis here amounts more to tantalising vignettes rather than a full-blown study. He traces the relationship between Marx and Engels, European émigrés to Britain after 1848 and left Chartists, demonstrating that attempts to set up a revolutionary socialist grouping founded on the basis of an analysis of the impact of the defeats of 1848 foundered. Harney, who Marx called ‘Citizen Hiphiphoorah’ for his endless cheering on of European revolutionaries whether left-wing or not, split from Marx and Engels, and also from the other left-wing Chartist leader Ernest Jones. Jones himself was criticised by Marx for failing to understand the depth of the defeat of 1848 and for seeking pretexts for agitation that simply were not there. Marx cautioned against giving up and retiring to bed, but he did emphasise that revolutionary change would now be a matter of decades rather than a year or two. It was a matter of material circumstances rather than simply an exercise in the will of revolutionaries to bring it about.

Black does write more fully about the relationship between Helen Macfarlane and left-wing Hegelianism. He considers in some detail several of her articles – written as Howard Morton – in the Democratic Review and Red Republican, and draws out clearly the Hegelian and early Marxist logic in them. This is an interesting and useful exercise and an extremely valuable counter to those who argue that such advanced ideas were simply not available to the Chartists, who, it is claimed remained stuck with radical but pre-Marxist ideas.

The problem is that Black does not actually advance or develop this argument even if it is implicit in the book. That suggests a number of important unasked and unanswered questions. If Helen Macfarlane was a representative of a left-Hegelian tradition in Britain, what happened to this tradition, and what influence did it have? It is probably very difficult to tell, although Black does suggest that Marx was running a study group for Chartist activists and others interested in such ideas. Likewise since (most) of the Communist Manifesto appeared in English in a leading Chartist paper – the Red Republican – in 1850, what actual impact did this have on the ideas and political strategy of the Chartists? Who actually read it, and what did they think? Again it may be very difficult to tell, but it is possible to argue, although Black does not, that there was a considerable influence on the 1851 Charter and Something More programme of the Chartists that broke with the Six Points of the Charter that were agreed in 1837 in the sense that it argued for social and economic democracy.

John Saville was one of the few historians aside from Black to discuss Macfarlane, and in his introduction to a reprint of the Red Republican he notes that Howard Morton was ‘close to the intellectual position of Marx and Engels, and the articles above the signature provide the most lively and interesting reading in the whole of the Red Republican. Howard Morton had a splendid polemical style, was obviously widely read and widely travelled.’ Saville goes on to argue that Macfarlane’s article on Chartism in 1850 provided the basis for the politics of the Charter and Something More. The article begins: ‘Chartism in 1850 is a different thing from Chartism in 1840. The leaders of the English Proletarians have proved that they are true Democrats … They have progressed from the idea of a simple political reform to the idea of a Social Revolution.’

Indeed Black’s position is far preferable to that of Gareth Stedman Jones, who argues in his 2003 preface to a new edition of the Communist Manifesto that ‘between 1850 and 1870 the Manifesto was remembered by no more than a few hundred German-speaking veterans of the 1848 revolutions’ (p. 16). This suggests that Helen Macfarlane’s partial translation of the Manifesto in the pages of the Red Republican had no impact whatsoever in Britain. I don’t think this is true, and Black’s book points to the reality that it wasn’t. However, further research, perhaps particularly in the Chartist press, is needed to take the argument further.

Lastly, Black argues that Helen Macfarlane was one of those people in history, a ‘rare bird’ as Marx called her, who make an original and distinctive contribution. He compares her to Rosa Luxemburg, and argues that she was in the tradition of all those who associate socialism with freedom, rather than the control societies of Stalinism and social democracy. Well, perhaps. This may be taking things a little too far until some more can be discovered about the life and work of Helen Macfarlane

Nevertheless David Black has written an interesting, useful and readable book. My only significant criticism is that in many parts I would like to have read more. Black raises many issues for socialist historians to put on their research agendas.

Keith Flett

Updated by ETOL: 29.10.2011