You Don’t Know Helen: The Overlooked and Forgotten Contributions of Helen Macfarlane

Stacey Haugen

Summary: Explores the life and work of Helen Macfarlane, early translator of the Communist Manifesto, labor activist, and radical journalist, who almost disappeared from the historical record until recently — Editors


Church in Baddiley, Cheshire, where HM spent her last years.

It is my intention to explore the life and work of Helen Macfarlane, a radical woman who is largely unknown and who’s work and ideas appear only briefly in the history of Marxism and the Chartist movement. Born in England in 1818 Helen Macfarlane’s involvement in radical journalism was short lived. In 1850 she published thirteen short articles in London socialist newspapers and became the first person to translate Marx’s Communist Manifesto into English, before disappearing from the political scene. The journalist and independent intellectual who has written about Helen Macfarlane, David Black, contends that:

“As she entered the world of radical journalism in April 1850, only to abruptly leave it in December of that same year, she may be regarded as an interesting footnote to the history of Chartism and Marxism, but a footnote nonetheless. However, when I first came across her essays and articles of 1850—thirteen of them, which no historian had ever bothered to evaluate–her words jumped off the page at me; it struck me that no one had ever before written like this in the English language.” (Black 2014, i-ii)

Referring to Macfarlane as the first “British Marxist,” David Black has extensively explored the life and writings of Macfarlane, and his work was instrumental to my engagement with, and analysis of, Macfarlane’s thoughts and ideas.

Before I move on to discuss Macfarlane’s involvement with the Chartist movement and her short career as a radical journalist, I want to first make a brief comment concerning the tension between the personal and the political. It is widely recognized within the feminist movement and feminist theory that personal experience and the reality of one’s place in the world influence and shape one’s passions and interests. The rational and emotional are not conflicting phenomena but instead are closely related. For this reason, I will be discussing Macfarlane’s thoughts, ideas and arguments within the context of her life and personal experiences. By doing this I am in no way discrediting or downplaying Macfarlane’s important contributions to Chartism and Marxism. I am instead hoping to give you a holistic look into her life and work, as the two inform each other, and offer a more complete picture of an important, but often forgotten, radical woman.

Macfarlane’s family history, her encounter with a revolution and her knowledge of the works of many radical philosophers, all influenced her political ideas. Born in Barrhead, near Glasgow, Scotland in 1818, Macfarlane, the youngest of eleven children, grew up in a middle-class family (Black 2014, ii-iii). Both her mother and father’s families owned and operated dyeing mills. Her mother’s family were themselves radical, and many of their workers, who were highly skilled and unionized, supported the Chartist movement. When the family’s dyeing businesses went under in 1842, Macfarlane, an educated young woman, was able to find work as a governess because of her knowledge of the German language (Black 2014, iv-v). It was also her knowledge of modern languages that found her employed in Vienna in 1848, when the Revolution erupted there weeks after the overthrow of Louis Philippe in France. In Vienna she got a glimpse of a revolution led by the people, that she would later refer to as a “joyful spectacle” (Black 2004, 44). Influenced by the revolution and the works of philosophers such as Georg Hegel, Heinrich Heine, and Karl Marx, Macfarlane began to develop her own political ideas (Black 2004, 3-4). Returning to England, Macfarlane began writing, often under the pseudonym Howard Morton, for two Chartist papers, the weekly Red Republican and the monthly Democratic Review. Both papers were founded by one of the leaders of the Chartist movement, George Julian Harney, and were intended to bring revolutionary socialist ideas to working class people (Black 2004, 40). Involved in the Chartist movement in London, through Harney, Macfarlane would have travelled in the same socialist circles as Karl Marx, who moved to Britain in 1847. Macfarlane translated the works of both Marx and Engels, and Hegel, into English for publication in the Red Republican and Democratic Review.

I am going to discuss Macfarlane’s unique argument for Democratic Organization, which is based on universal suffrage and forms the foundation for the establishment of her conception of a new social order. Macfarlane argues that the ideal of democracy originated with the life and teachings of Jesus, who revealed:

“the divine nature (or at least a manifestation of it which is found only in man) [that] is common to us all… In virtue of our common nature, we are bound to do to others, as we would they should do to us. This rule is universally valid, without distinction of birth, age, rank, sex, country, colour, cultivation, or the like. Wherever you find a human being, you must consider him a brother and treat him as such; doing all for him in case of need, that you would wish done for yourself in a similar case” (Black 2014, 6-7).

For Macfarlane, democracy enforces the equality of all peoples, places policy-making decisions in the hands of the masses, and fundamentally opposes the exploitation of one person by another.

I will note that while Macfarlane argues that the Democratic ideal originates from Jesus, and his teachings on equality and brotherly love, she is adamantly opposed to, and condemns, the organized church. Macfarlane states that the true democratic idea “…is certainly not expressed in our state church, with her secular head and her pagan hierarchy of bishops” (Black 2014, 14). Because no sect of the organized church has ever raised its voice against class inequality, the church fundamentally contradicts the lessons of Jesus and the practical realization of his teachings.

Since the life and death of Jesus, who Helen refers to as the “poor despised Jewish proletarian,” “the Nazerean,” and “the divine Galilean Republican,” the democratic ideal has revealed itself at different times throughout history. It would again appear and further take shape through the reformation and Protestantism of the 16th century, and then again through German philosophy, including through the works of Immanuel Kant and Hegel. For Macfarlane, the next step in the development of the democratic ideal would be practical realization in British society through the attainment of universal suffrage, and then the establishment of a new social order.

For Macfarlane, universal suffrage is the only way in which the democratic ideal can be realized and a new social order, that is based on the equality of all people, established. Macfarlane contends:

“I affirm that no real democratic arrangement of society is possible, except on the real democratic foundation of Universal Suffrage. Anything short of this is fudge. If you leave political power in the hands of any part of a nation, instead of extending its possession to the whole people, you immediately have the distinction of a ruling and a subordinate class; of one class which makes laws–of course for its own advantage, and another, which must obey those class laws, whether it find them just or not. On one hand, you have the master, on the other, the slave.” (Black 2014, 89)

Macfarlane argues that the fight for democracy and a new social order must be carried out by the people, the common working class proletariat, as neither the middle class “reformers” nor the selfish, profit-hungry bourgeois will aid in the fight for a new social order based on equality and fraternity, as the new system would put an end to the monopoly the bourgeois have on wealth and power (Black 2014, 63). The interests of the employer and employee are radically different, and one can only prosper by exploiting the other (Black 2014, 78).

Arguing for a revolution, Macfarlane contends that the equal right to life and freedom are nothing if they cannot be practically realized.

“The Rights of one human being are precisely the same as the Rights of another human being, in virtue of their common nature…. all human beings have a Right to the equal development and satisfaction of their unequal faculties and wants. But what of consequence to me is this Right, if society does not give me the power of exercising it? I can exercise it only in so far as I have free access to the instruments of labour, to Land and Capital.” (Black 2014, 68-9)

Macfarlane is adamant that property is a collective, and not an individual right. If property is considered an individual right, the divinity of all human beings, which is common to us all, is rejected because inequality is created. As equals we are to treat one another as we would like to be treated, and this includes providing for, and not exploiting, other human beings (Black 2014, 6-7).

Based on universal suffrage, public property and organized labour, Macfarlane’s new social order recognizes the divine nature within every human being, and puts the teachings of the Nazarean into practice. The land would be declared public property, a progressive tax put in place, towns rebuilt, labour organized, free and obligatory education established, justice administered gratuitously, and the state would support those incapable of work. According to Macfarlane, the ability to work and share in the fruits of your labour is a right.

“What we want is justice, not charity–a right, not an ‘incalculable benefit from above’. As children of the same Father, we demand that share in the advantages of civilisation of which we have been scandalously robbed; we demand our birthright as human beings–as rational, moral agents. That which we hold directly from God, in virtue of our humanity, we will not degrade ourselves by receiving as a favour, a ‘charity’, at the hands of any human being, still less at those of rascally aristocrats, whether landed or financial.” (Black 2014, 96)

Macfarlane makes it very clear that she is not seeking charity, but justice. Charity is an insult as it comes from the rich, who wrongly acquire property, enslave the poor to work it, and then offer bread to those who already have a divine right to it as a human being (Black 2014, 56). The ability to enjoy the fruits of your labour, to have an equal say in the laws of the country, and to live freely, are not gifts to be offered from one human being to another, they are rights bestowed on all human beings through their common divinity which exists regardless of race, class, and gender, and can only be recognized in a new socialist democratic order.

Macfarlane’s career as a radical journalist abruptly ended in December 1850 with the last publication of her work. Although no other written works by Macfarlane have been discovered, new research has uncovered new insight into Macfarlane’s life after her disappearance from the political scene. After marrying Francis Proust in 1851 or 1852, Macfarlane gave birth to a daughter in 1852. The family planned to make the voyage to the Boer Republic of Natalia, which was annexed by the British in 1843, to join some of Macfarlane’s siblings who had already settled there. Macfarlane arrived at her destination in March 1853 without her husband who had abandoned his wife and child early on in their journey at a port along the British Channel, supposedly because he was too sick to continue to their destination. Days after her arrival Macfarlane’s infant daughter died, and Macfarlane would later learn that her husband had also died. Macfarlane made the lonely trip back to England a year later, and moved in with her unmarried elder sister in September 1854. Macfarlane, who had argued adamantly against the organized church in her published works, married Reverend John Wilkinson Edwards, a widow with eleven children, in 1856. She gave birth to two sons, Herbert and Walter, before she fell ill with bronchitis and died at the early age of 41 (Black 2014, xxiii-xxv).

Although she only appeared briefly on the political scene, Helen Macfarlane was a brilliant and insightful journalist who was not afraid to condemn hypocrisy, point out injustice, and argue for revolution, democracy and social change. In only 13 short articles Macfarlane develops and outlines the way forward to a new social order and the abolishment of the current system. She witnessed suffering and exploitation, and reasoned that without the practical realization of the democratic ideal, through the attainment of universal suffrage and the establishment of a new social order, the equal right of all human beings to life and freedom is worthless. She truly believed that the attainment of true democracy and equality was possible, stating, “we believe it as quite possible to enact laws whereby the rights of every man might be secured, without encroaching on the rights of his fellows. That is our dream, that is our Utopia; it is the democratic and social republic” (Black 2014, 88).

While she is largely unknown, and often overlooked in the history of Marxism and Chartism, Macfarlane’s works are worth revisiting and exploring further. Her arguments for the unity of the socialist movement and the practical realization of democratic and socialist ideals, and her critiques of the current system of exploitation and injustice, continue to be applicable in our contemporary situation and offer new insights on the way the forward.



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

Black, David, ed. 2014. Helen Macfarlane Red Republican: Essays, Articles, and Her Translation of the Communist Manifesto. London: Unkant Publishers.



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