From: Douwdy <Douwdy- at>

Date: Mon, 23 Mar 1998

Subject: Antigone, Hegel and the Communist Manifesto (David Black)

(From David Black) "The task of regenerating revolutionary socialism is both daunting and exhilerating. This tradition has to find a way, not to 'bring socialist consciousness into the working class', but to reconstruct its *own* consciousness" - Cyril Smith

"This tradition" has a history I have been doing some work on for the last couple of years: the study of Marx's relationship with the English Chartists. I plan to put a book out (if I can find a publisher) on Helen Macfarlane, the 'Red Republican' hegelian feminist. She translated the Communist Manifesto into English - who has been truly 'hidden from history'. I would like to share a little bit of this 35,000 word work-in-progress with the group as a way of commemorating the Communist Manifesto and April 10 1848 Chartist mobilization in London.


Hegel argued that philosophy sometimes has to exercise "audacity". So also for Helen Macfarlane, must its practical realization:"We, who rally round the Red Flag, are reproached with entertaining the nefarious design of completely destroying the existing order of things; with the desire of totally abolishing the present system of society; - for the purpose, it is said of putting some fantastic dream, some wild utopia of own own in place of long established and venerable institutions"; the accusers being "bankers, cottonspinners, landowners", as well as "'superior women', educated according to the recipes of Mrs. Ellis for making 'admirable wives and mothers'". "We are low people certainly; disreputable vagabonds without doubt. In ancient times we were accounted 'the enemies of the human race', accused of setting fire to Rome... I am happy to say we still retain our old reputation... and have not failed to follow the laudable example of our precursors in Roman times..."

"Yet even in England, this shopkeeping country of middle-class respectability there are a few of us belonging to the 'better sort' who have repudiated all claim to be considered respectable, because for them the words Justice and Love are not mere empty sounds without a meaning; because they say - like Antigone in Sophocles - the laws of God are not of today, nor of yesterday, they exist from all eternity".

What are we to make of this remarkable unfurling of the Red Flag as the enactment of "laws of God' which "exist from all eternity"? Macfarlane appears to have been influenced by Hegel's analysis of Antigone. The daughter of Oedipus, Antigone chooses to be buried alive rather than let Creon, the ruler of the state, violate the burial rites of her people by leaving her dead brother to be devoured by the birds. The dramitic clash takes place between two irreconcilable principles: on the one hand, that of the City state, which is cruel, but nonetheless, in Hegel's view, historically 'progressive'; on the other hand, that of 'natural' family honour, based on the kinship principles of a stateless tribal society, whose values remain so powerful as to destroy Creon's family when his so n defects to Antigone's rebellion - such is its power:

"Not now, indeed, nor yesterday, but for aye

It lives, and no man knows what time it came".

The dialectical tension occurs because the supposedly less 'civilised' of the two colliding forces gains a "self-conscious actual universality". As George Lukacs points out in his monumental study, 'The Young Hegel', Hegel sees a similar "tragedy in the realm of the ethical" unfolding in capitalism, where great wealth is "indissolubly connected with the direst poverty". Economics now expresses the powers of the "lower world" - which is now inverted with the "higher world" and threatens the very notion of an Ethical State by dissolving the "bonds uniting the whole people".

Lukacs argues that Hegel, in a sense, anticipated the anthropologist Bachofen, who saw in the Oresteia/Antigone the values of a forgotten but real tribal society based on matriarchy. Bachofen's findings were used by Marx in his Ethnological Notebooks. Engels reworked Marx's notes for his own Origin of the Family, in which the notion of the 'historic defeat of the female sex' became the theoretical basis for subsuming Womens Liberation into the overarching statist 'socialism' of the Vanguard Party - thus producing something, according to Raya Dunayevskaya, quite different from, and at odds with, Marx's insights into the development and potential survival of ancient collective social forms, in which women at times enjoyed freedoms denied to them under capitalism.

In the context of the 1970s Womens Liberation movement, Dunayevskaya takes up Lukacs's analysis of the Oresteia and suggests that Antigone is a precursor of a subversive collectivity of consciousness in which the individual's objective experience in revolt can lead to a new subjectivity, one "purified", to quote Hegel, of all that "interferes with its universality". Rather than simply 'externalize' itself in the Totality - the fate of all 'subjective factors' according to Lukacs - the 'autonomy' of self-liberation prevails because the objectivity is, as in Antigone, re-absorbed as a 'principle'. Macfarlane, who opposes the miseducation of women in bourgeois society in roles as admirable wives and mothers", sees family ties as having a different meaning for the women of the Hungarian Revolution, who, as she said in her article on the Austrian Field Marshall Haynau, (the "woman flogger"), "had aided those to whom they were bound by every natural and legal tie" as part of the struggle for Freedom, and thus, like Antigone, upheld a 'higher law' than that laid down by the state.

Macfarlane's recognition of her own subjectivity as one of the "few of us belonging to the 'better sort'", who had defected to the side of the oppressed, comes not from Hegel, or Sophocles, but from her encounter with Marx and Engels in the light of her own political experiences. The Communist Manifesto, as translated by Helen Macfarlane, celebrates the fact that: "a part of the bourgeoisie is joining the proletariat, and particularly a part of bourgeois ideologists, or middle-class thinkers who have attained a theoretical knowledge of the whole historical movement".

Presented by the Chartist leader, Julian Harney as the "most revolutionary document ever given to the world", Macfarlane's translation was serialized in the Red Republican's November 1850 issues; though she wasn't credited in the paper for the translation, either under her own name, or as 'Howard Morton'). The opening passage of the Manifesto appears in later translations as "A spectre is haunting Europe. The spectre of Communism...", but Macfarlane's translation is more exotic:

"A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost. The ghost of Communism."

The rest of her translation is less controversial.