Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Helen Macfarlane (2005)

David Black, Helen Macfarlane
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: April 2005
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 24: Summer 2005 

David Black, Helen Macfarlane. A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist and Philosopher in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (Lexington Books, 2005)

Helen Macfarlane has a place as a famous footnote in British labour history. She was the translator of the first English version of the Communist Manifesto (from the German) that appeared in the left-wing Chartist paper, the Red Republican in November 1850.

She has remained a famous footnote not because this was all her life was worth but because historians have been unable to establish much more about it. There is no autobiography, no papers and no obituaries. She disappears from the historical record in the early 1850s.

A new book by Dave Black has not, unfortunately, been able to establish what did happen to Helen Macfarlane from this date. He has however uncovered a series of new facts and details about her life in the 1840s and early 1850s that help us to understand who she was and how it was that she became the person to translate the Communist Manifesto into English.

Helen Macfarlane was unusual in the British working-class movement of the 1840s because she was a leading female activist and writer, and a leading figure on the left of Chartism, around the Fraternal Democrats of George Julian Harney. A friend of Marx and Engels, Black reveals that she had spent time in Vienna in 1848 and had experienced both the revolutionary events and ideas of that year at first hand.

She often wrote under the pseudonym of Howard Morton, again reflecting the difficulties that a leading female figure had during this period, and Black goes to some lengths to draw out the precise configuration of her ideas, which he clearly situates as left-Hegelian.

Black has also done some important new research in tracking what happened to Helen Macfarlane once she returned to Britain from Europe. He has checked family records both in Scotland and Burnley which place Macfarlane firmly not just in the context of an author, thinker and translator but also as a left-wing activist in the north-west.

The book consists of a series of short chapters – vignettes – which provide fascinating snapshots of Helen Macfarlane's relationship both to Chartism and to Marx and Engels. Black situating the writings of Macfarlane, as Howard Morton, in left-Hegelianism, shows how she engaged with other radicals such as the followers of Robert Owen and the social co-operator G J Holyoake in an argument about the need for a united radical party.

He also, in a far more interesting treatment than Gareth Stedman Jones's recent examination, draws out some of the reasons why Macfarlane translated the Communist Manifesto in the way she did, and why she chose certain words over others. Black does however agree that Macfarlane's decision to translate Marx and Engels text so that the audience of the Red Republican read that a 'hobgoblin' rather than a 'spectre' was haunting Europe was 'unfortunate'.

He demonstrates what he thinks may have been the reason for Helen Macfarlane's alienation from the movement, which he suggests took place at a radical dinner at the John Street Institute in central London in 1850. There were tensions between Marx and Engels and the left-wing Chartists George Julian Harney and Ernest Jones and Black argues that Macfarlane fell victim to these.

Finally he suggests, moving back to the Hegelian views which underwrite the book, that Helen Macfarlane is an example of an 'original individual' - someone who sets the tone of a movement or a period with their ideas.

Aside from the Hegelianism also running through the book there is an interesting commentary on Chartism in and after 1848. Black in particular draws out the differences between the ideas and strategies of Ernest Jones and G J Harney, and Marx's criticisms of both of them. This is an area little discussed by historians of Chartism, and I would like to have read more.

Overall Dave Black has provided some interesting new details about the hitherto obscure life of Helen Macfarlane and hopefully laid the basis for some further research here. He has also situated her life in the context of the left of the Chartist movement in a highly readable way. In short the book is a welcome addition to Chartist historiography.

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