Downloading PDF. Please wait...

Helen Macfarlane—hobgoblins, spectres and the fight for working class independence

This article is over 1 years, 0 months old
We shouldn’t forget the life and work of Scottish revolutionary socialist Helen Macfarlane, writes Judy Cox
A painting of the 1848 revolution in Austria, people wave flags and stand on a barricade, illustrating an article on Helen Macfarlane

Barricades during the revolution in Vienna, where Helen Macfarlane was in 1848

If Helen Macfarlane is remembered for anything, it is for the hobgoblin of Communism.

The Communist Manifesto we know begins with the infamous lines, “A spectre is haunting Europe, a spectre of Communism.” When Macfarlane first translated Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ work into English in 1850, the manifesto began, “A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism.”

Today, her translation is little more than a slightly ridiculous footnote in the history of the Communist Manifesto.

But Macfarlane wasn’t just a footnote, and nor was she a joke. While her political life lasted for only a few years, she left a body of writing which established her as a socialist theoretician in her own right as well as a populariser of Marxism. She was at the forefront of arguing that political changes at the top of society or within the state weren’t enough, that the working class had to fight for a “social revolution” that fundamentally transformed the economic structures of society.  

The Communist Manifesto was published in German in February 1848 just as the revolutions it predicted erupted across Europe. Tyrants fell and new possibilities for democracy, freedom and equality opened up in what became known as the “Springtime of the Peoples”. It inspired many radicals and Chartists, a working class movement that started off fighting for universal male suffrage in Britain. This included many women who joined the democratic revolutions in Germany, France and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Macfarlane was one of them.

Macfarlane was born near Glasgow in 1818 to a middle class family who owned a calico printing works. But she was in Vienna when the revolution erupted in February—and was exhilarated by the experience. In October 1848 she wrote, “I am free to confess that, for me, the most joyful of all spectacles possible in those times is the one which I enjoyed extremely in Vienna, in March 1848—a universal tumbling of the imposters. For it amounts to this, that men are determined to live no longer in lies.”

The revolution marked the “advent of a new idea”, and she found that new idea in The Communist Manifesto. Understanding how to drive revolution forward towards a socialist transformation of society became the core of her thinking and writing.

However, those euphoric weeks of international revolution rapidly gave way to division and betrayal. Sections of the liberal capitalist class, or “bourgeoisie” as Marx termed it, had stood against the old order in Europe and hoped to win democratic republics. These regimes, ruled by absolutist monarchies and dominated by feudal landowners, held back capitalist development. But, in 1848, the liberal capitalists felt threatened by working class self-activity, fearing it would win change beyond the political reforms they wanted. They turned their backs on social change, preferring the security of the old regimes and their capacity to repress the masses.

From the summer of 1849, Marx and thousands of other European revolutionaries came to Britain. They joined Engels as activists in Britain’s socialist and Chartist circles where they tried to organise the most militant—and to understand the implications of the revolutions of 1848.

Helen had returned to Britain, living firstly in Burnley, Lancashire, and then in London, where she became active in the same circles. Her translation of the Communist Manifesto was a contribution to this ongoing debate. It centred on the need for working class independence, and the importance of fighting for economic as well as political reform.

Macfarlane’s writings—more than hobgoblins

Macfarlane’s translation was serialised in four parts in an English magazine called The Red Republican in November 1850. Until 1888, it was the only translation of the Manifesto available in English. Marx and Engels themselves approved it and twice sent it to publishers in the US in unsuccessful attempts to have it published there.

Hobgoblins aside, Macfarlane’s translation made some changes to the original text. Historian David Black suggests that she toned down the Manifesto’s internationalism because they feared reprisals from a British government nervy about the large numbers of European and Irish radicals in London.

But if they were worried about prosecution, why publish the Manifesto at all? It seems more likely that Macfarlane cut sections where Marx and Engels’ predictions had proved to be overly optimistic. By 1850 it was obvious that the German revolution of 1848 was not the prelude to a working class “proletarian” revolution, as they claimed in the paragraph she omitted.

Macfarlane’s translation was noticed by The Times newspaper, which highlighted the Manifesto as an example of the appalling state of the literature of the poor. Unsurprisingly, The Times focused on the passages on the family. It pretended to be shocked at the Manifesto’s descriptions of how capitalist relations of production reduced women to “mere instruments of production” and wide-scale prostitution distorted sexual relationships.

For the most part, Macfarlane’s translation was lucid and punchy. She wrote, “Everything fixed and stable vanishes, everything holy and venerated is desecrated, and men are forced to look at their mutual relations, at the problems of life, in the soberest way.” This sentence will be more familiar from Samuel Moore’s 1888, now standard translation. It reads, “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.” Moore’s phrasing is brilliant, but her translation also retained the power and depth of the original German.  

MacFarlane’s writing combined journalistic articles condemning bourgeois parties and defending workers’ struggles with more philosophical explanations of the theories of German philosopher GWF Hegel.

Her fluent German and political understanding enabled her to access, interpret and absorb Hegel, as well as of Marx and Engels. She was the first to translate his writings from German into English and she disseminated Hegel’s conception of history as the unfolding of enlightened ideas. For her, it was accelerated by working class self-activity.

In September 1850 the Austrian general, Baron von Haynau, came to London on a semi-official visit. Haynau was infamous for his role in crushing the Hungarian Revolution and for having female insurgents publicly stripped and whipped. A militant crowd led by women tried to lynch Haynau at the Barclays and Perkins brewery on London’s South Bank. They chased him down Borough High Street, pelting him with horse manure and chanting, “Down with the Austrian Butcher.”

The media attacked the workers’ “violence” and the Morning Post newspaper demanded to know why the working class had become so “sensitive” to international issues. Macfarlane responded by reminding them of Haynau’s brutality towards women whose only crime was to support insurrections.

She continued, “Had I been present when these brave proletarians gave this ruffian his deserts, I should certainly have dissuaded the ‘mob from using violence’, that is, from actually laying hands on him. I would have said, brothers, your hands are hardened and blackened from honest toil. Do not pollute them from touching that beast. Take mops and brooms, sweep him out as you do other kinds of dirt. Like to like. Filth to filth. Haynau to the common sewer.”

Macfarlane contributed several important theoretical articles to newspapers owned by Julian Harney who was steering Chartism, a movement for universal male suffrage, toward socialism.

Learning the lessons of defeat

This shift among many Chartists was prompted by the defeat of the 1848 Chartist petition and the European revolutions. Macfarlane supported the new strategy and joined the socialist camp with left wing Chartists, such as Julian Harney and his friends Engels and Marx.

In June 1850, Helen explained how Chartism had developed in the preceding decade. “English proletarians proved they are the true democrats and had progressed from the idea of simple political reform to the idea of social revolution,” she wrote. She argued for a “double movement” strategy, with the campaign for the Charter winning political change and a revolutionary movement making the case for social change.

The socialists in Macfarlane’s circle had learnt from the experience of 1848 that political reforms were not sufficient to secure real change unless they were accompanied by economic reforms. She drew a distinction between limited political demands, which left working class living conditions unchanged, and more thorough-going social demands.

In Britain 1832 Reform Act gave more property-owning middle class men the vote. But this had not lifted the conditions endured by the majority in society, as Helen explained in another article. “We want no merely political reforms,” she wrote. “Did the Reform Bill give us abundant food and airy gardens and clean, well-ordered homes instead of starvation in filthy cellars… We, the veritable people, the proletarians, desire a social revolution—that is, a radical change in our social condition, because we produce the boasted fabric of English greatness and English civilisation.”

The alliance between working class people and the middle classes was unstable and had fractured under the pressure exerted from the old regimes of Europe. This led MacFarlane to conclude that only working class organisation which remained independent of the political leadership of the middle class could succeed.

In 1850, she argued, democracy was a “soul looking for a body”, because those posing as democrats were unable and unwilling to mobilise the masses to win reform. That year middle-class reformers organised a Peace Conference in Frankfurt, attended by the great and the good of England’s liberals, who argued for “peace and tranquillity”.

Macfarlane exposed their appeals as humbug sentimentalism. She wrote, “As long as society is divided into classes, so long will the social system be founded on the distinction of a ruling class and a subordinate class. As far as my research has extended into universal history, I have never found an instance of an oppressed class being what their rulers would call “orderly and tranquil”.”

She describes how “the slaves of all ages, the helots of Sparta, the Roman bondmen, the serfs of the Middle Ages”, black slaves in the US South and workers “of modern times have amply and energetically protested against that atrocious system of one class using up another”. It is “a system which can only be enforced and continue in any country by the unlimited use of the whip and the bayonet”.

Macfarlane supported Harney’s moves to turn the Chartist movement into a socialist movement at the National Convention of March 1851. It agreed to oppose middle class reform organisations, act in solidarity with trade unions and Irish nationalists, and demand state education and the nationalisation of the land and the mines.

By the time the Convention met, however, MacFarlane had left the Chartist Movement. At a New Year’s Eve party at the end of 1850, she had an argument with Harney’s wife Mary and ended her connection with the Red Republican. When Marx next wrote to Engels, he called Harney “stupid and cowardly” to fall out with Helen and called her the only contributor to the paper who had original ideas.

MacFarlane married a French revolutionary called Francis Proust. In 1853 she gave birth to a daughter, Consuela Pauline Roland. She was named after Pauline Roland, a French revolutionary socialist who helped to lead the revolution in Paris in 1848, was arrested and transported in 1851 and died on her way home in December 1852.

MacFarlane and her family sailed to South Africa, but a year later she sailed home alone after her husband and baby both died. In 1856, Macfarlane married a widowed vicar with eleven children. She died in 1860 aged 41 after making the extraordinary transition from Communist and Chartist to country vicar’s wife.

Eleven years after her death in 1871, the Paris Commune—the first workers’ government—erupted. Marx was widely identified as the leader of the Communards, and this led to a huge upsurge in interest in Marxism. Macfarlane’s translation of the Manifesto was finally published in two US publications and was translated into French.

The history of the Manifesto is intimately bound up with the revolutionary struggle which its authors and its translators so tirelessly fought for. Macfarlane was among a small number of revolutionary women who established the right of women to contribute to the socialist movement. And she deserves to be remembered as a part of the history of Marxism.

Further reading 

Helen MacFarlane: Red Republican: Essays, Articles and Her Translation of the Communist Manifesto edited by David Black. Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop 


Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance