Helen Macfarlane: Antigone in Victorian England
by David Black
Following the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in France
in February 1848, the tide of revolution reached Austria within weeks. In March,
the citizens of Vienna overthrew the government of Prince Metternich and forced
Emperor Ferdinand to concede a representative parliament and a new constitution.
But the Hapsburgs played for time and struck back. In October, Field Marshal
Windischgratz’s troops stormed the city and restored the status quo. A new
emperor, Franz Joseph, annulled the constitution. In Hungary, however, the
imperial army was driven out and independence was declared. Here
counter-revolution required outside help, and this was provided by Czar Nicholas
I under the terms of the Holy Alliance. Russian troops invaded Hungary and
restored Hapsburg rule. Afterwards, Windischgratz’s successor, Field Marshal
von Haynau, unleashed his own troops on the defeated Hungarian population in an
orgy of reprisals.
Present in Vienna in 1848 was a British woman called
Helen Macfarlane, then about 30 years old. The experience of revolution and
ensuing counter-revolution had a profound effect on her. When she returned to
England she embraced the radical wing of Chartism, which was trying to revive
itself following the defeat of the People's Charter campaign in 1848. In 1850
she began to write for two new publications edited in London by the Chartist
leader, George Julian Harney: the monthly DEMOCRATIC REVIEW and the weekly RED
REPUBLICAN. Living in Burnley, Lancashire, Macfarlane knew Frederick Engels in
Manchester. Engels, on behalf of Karl Marx (who was in London), commissioned her
to write a translation of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, which had first been
published in German just before the 1848 Revolutions broke out. Macfarlane’s
translation, serialized in the RED REPUBLICAN, was presented by editor Harney as
“the most revolutionary document ever given to the world.”
THE DIVINE IDEA OF LIBERTY
In an article for the RED REPUBLICAN, in June 1850,
Helen Macfarlane, writing under the pseudonym of "Howard Morton," said
that “Chartism in 1850 is a different thing from Chartism in 1840"; now
that "English proletarians" had "proved they are the true
democrats" and had "progressed from the idea of simple political
reform to the idea of Social Revolution. Returning lately to this country after
a long absence of some years, I was agreeably surprised by this fact. 'What old
Mole; workest thou in the earth so fast?'"
Of course, she was over-optimistic. Chartism would never
recover from the defeat of 1848 and the radicals’ efforts to renew Chartism as
a socialist movement were doomed to fail in the capitalist boom-time of the
1850s. But Macfarlane was the first British writer (actually, born in Scotland)
to understand the awesome importance of two German thinkers: Hegel and Marx. Not
only had she seen a Revolution; she had also grasped the power of an Idea:
Hegel argued that philosophy sometimes must exercise
"audacity." So also for Macfarlane, must its practical realization.
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 seems to have taken onboard Hegel's analysis of
Sophocles’ tragedy ANTIGONE. In this drama, Antigone’s two brothers,
Polynices and Eteocles, have killed each other fighting for control of the city
of Thebes. Eteocles’ victorious ally, his uncle King Creon, inherits the
throne and decrees that, whilst Eteocles should be buried with full honors, the
"rebel" Polynices should be left outside the walls of the city to be
eaten by the birds. Antigone refuses to accept this dishonoring of a brother.
Despite threats from Creon that he will bury her alive, she buries Polynices
according to the tribal religion and she wins Creon’s son Haemon over to her
side. The conflict ends in disaster for all concerned.
Hegel describes how the dramatic clash in ANTIGONE takes
place between two irreconcilable principles: on the one hand, the moral law of
the state, which is cruel, but nonetheless, historically
"progressive"; on the other hand, the law of "natural"
family honor, based on the kinship principles of a stateless tribal society.
Antigone says of this "natural" law:
The dialectical tension on Antigone occurs because the
supposedly less "civilized" of the two colliding forces gains, in
Hegel’s words, a "self-conscious actual universality." Antigone does
not just stand up to the new state; she also stands out as an individual from
those in her community “who think as I do but dare not speak.” Antigone
holds her defiance as more important than her life and in breaking the silence
she breaks the bonds holding the state together.
George Lukács, in THE YOUNG HEGEL, shows how Hegel saw
the ancient tragedy of Antigone as a precursor of the "tragedy in the realm
of the ethical" he saw unfolding in capitalism. Hegel feared that because
great wealth seemed to be "indissolubly connected with the direst
poverty," the powers of a "lower world" (expressed in the
"laws" of political economy) were becoming inverted with the
"higher world" (the Ethical State) and threatening to dissolve the
"bonds uniting the whole people."
Lukács’ insights were re-examined in the 1970s by
Raya Dunayevskaya who, like Macfarlane, identified the Idea of Freedom with the
Idea of History, freed from its narrow bourgeois horizon. Dunayevskaya praised
Lukács’ restatement of the importance of the Hegelian dialectic for
understanding Marx’s humanism, but rejected Lukács’ fetishism of the
“vanguard party” as mediator of class consciousness.
Dunayevskaya pointed out that the traditional Left had
limited “subjectivity” to the negation of capitalism by an abstract
universal of “socialism,” which in reality had ended up as Stalinism and
other forms of statism. But the second subjectivity--as “negation of the
negation”--contained the objectivity of real struggles by real human beings.
Addressing socialist feminists who were fighting for "autonomy" from
the Old Left, Dunayevskaya argued that Hegel’s analysis of Antigone expressed
how the individual's experience in revolt can lead to a new subjectivity
"purified of all that interferes with its universality"; in which the
prevailing "principle" is an objective "autonomy" of
These 20th century interpretations of Hegel’s analysis
of Antigone illustrate its ongoing influence on revolutionary thinkers. In Helen
Macfarlane’s case, it surfaces again in an article she wrote on the visit to
London in July 1850 by Baron von Haynau, the aforementioned Austrian field
marshal and war criminal. Von Haynau happened to be visiting the Barclays and
Perkins brewery on Bankside when word got around the Chartist-supporting workers
that the “Butcher Haynau” was in their midst. The workers set upon him and
attempted to drown him in a barrel of beer; he narrowly escaped with his life
and had to be rescued by a squad of constables. When the MORNING POST asked,
"How is it that the laboring class, once profoundly indifferent to what was
taking place in foreign countries...have suddenly become so sensitive?"
Let us look at the other side. A hoary-headed old
ruffian orders women to be stripped naked, and flogged till nearly dead, by a
set of savage soldiers...Of what terrible revolting crime had these unhappy
women been guilty? They had aided their husbands, their fathers, their brothers,
in the Hungarian and Italian insurrections.
These women, Macfarlane pointed out, “had aided those
to whom they were bound by every natural and legal tie" as part of the
struggle for Freedom. Like Antigone, they had upheld a "higher law"
than that laid down by the state. And "it lives."
In another article she links the "Holy Spirit of
truth" which inspired the poets and prophets--namely Hesiod, Isaiah,
Cervantes, Milton and Shelley--with the guidance of the "Nazarean"
towards "a pure Democracy, where freedom and equality will be the
acknowledged birth right of every human being; the golden age...the Paradise,
which was never lost, for it lives--not backwards, in the infancy and youth of
humanity--but in the future." On a similar note, she takes Blanqui's
concept of "A Republic Without Helots" to mean a society "without
poor, without classes...A society such indeed as the world has never seen--not
only of free men, but of free women."
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, as she puts it in reference to Antigone, comes from
Marx. THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, as translated by 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."
I have taken up just a couple of themes from
Macfarlane’s writings. She also debated the issues of Chartist organization
and propaganda; she did a powerful critique of Thomas Carlyle; she attacked the
historians of the "Glorious British Constitution"; she wrote about the
United States of America as a "sham republic" which wasn’t a
democracy because its Black people were enslaved and its women were denied their
rights; and more.
Karl Marx described Helen Macfarlane as an
"original" and a "rare bird." For me, she was a flash of
humanistic enlightenment appearing suddenly in mid-19th century England, then
just as suddenly disappearing without trace in 1851, having fallen out with her
editor, Julian Harney. Historians, with a few exceptions, have ignored her.
* * *
Editor's note: The above essay consists of excerpts of a
longer piece published in THE ETHICAL RECORD, South Place Ethical Society, 25
Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Website: www.ethicalsociety.org.uk
Published by News and Letters Committees