- Helen Macfarlane: A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist, and Philosopher in Mid- Nineteenth-Century England
Helen Macfarlane, who briefly enlivened radical debate in Britain around 1850, is an intriguing figure, not least because she has proved to be highly elusive. Not many will know that, at the invitation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, she produced the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto (1848), which was serialized in the Red Republican, edited by Chartist George Julian Harney, in November 1850. David Black is to be highly commended for devoting the first book-length study to this enigmatic figure. Unfortunately, his diligent research notwithstanding, Black has been unable to bring to light anything about Macfarlane's life, except for some rather inconclusive information gleaned from the 1851 census that would confirm her middle-class origin, to which there are several pointers in her writing. Given the paucity of biographical material, Black has turned to her writing, a total of thirteen (not twelve, as claimed in the introduction) articles, some of them serialized, which appeared in publications edited by Harney between April and December of 1850. Except for a three-part article on democracy, in which she subjected Thomas Carlyle's views on that issue to trenchant criticism, the pieces are signed by "Howard Morton," which, as is now commonly agreed, was her pseudonym.
As Black himself acknowledges, his book is not a biography of a person, but of an idea (3). He therefore places Macfarlane's writing in both its philosophical and political contexts. She used her command of German to read G. W. F. Hegel, and she sprinkled her articles with quotations from his work. Politically, she moved in the circles of those Chartists like Harney whose socialist leanings had only been confirmed by the defeat of the third Chartist petition in 1848. As Black convincingly demonstrates, Macfarlane's thinking on economics and politics was akin to Marx's, not least because they [End Page 527] shared the grounding of their ideas in Hegel's philosophy. Throughout, Black makes good use of Macfarlane's oeuvre to elucidate her thinking by tracing the influences under which it developed, foremost among which are Hegel and Auguste Blanqui. Black makes no attempt to conceal his sympathy with her revolutionary views, which extended to her brand of Christianity. Macfarlane proposed a blend of socialism and Christianity in which Jesus figured as a prototypical proletarian. This aspect of her thought was first explored by John Saville in a 1968 article in The Christian Socialist, but Black, who reaches similar conclusions, does not appear to know this article.
It is in Black's historical contextualizing of Macfarlane's thought that fault with this study can be found. Black's presentation of Chartism as having been delivered up to defeat by middle-class leaders shying away from any radical solution to the ills of society is shaped as much by his highly selective use of out-of-date literature on the movement as by his own normative concepts of class and class consciousness. Black's sketch of economic developments in a Britain on the threshold of becoming the "workshop of the world" is equally marred by his arbitrary selection of facts and by his attributing agency exclusively to employers. Furthermore, a number of statements reveal the author's lack of familiarity with nineteenth-century social history, such as the claim that women textile workers were not unionized (137) or that middle-class girls were brought up to be teachers or governesses (44).
These errors are closely connected with an obvious lacuna in the book. Although rightly calling Macfarlane a feminist, Black fails to explore her special brand of feminism, a move that would have further underlined the outstanding quality of her thinking. Not only was she one of the very few marxian socialists in Britain at the time, but her notion of oppression encompassed gender as well as class. The book concludes with two appendices, the first of which lists all of Macfarlane's...