Antigone in Victorian England -
Helen Macfarlane, Revolutionary and Feminist in the Year 1850

By David Black


The Divine Idea of Liberty

Following the overthrow of 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 Diet and a new constitution. But the Hapsburgs played for time and struck back. In October, Field Marshall 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 Marshall 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 Peoples 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, serialised in the Red Republican, was presented by editor Harney as “the most revolutionary document ever given to the world.”

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 surpised 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:

“The idea of perfect Liberty, of Equality and Fraternity – the divine idea of love, incarnate in the gentle Nazarean, is the idea we earnestly worship.” This “great work had been begun by the Lollards and other heretics of the middle ages, but its accomplishment was reserved for Luther”. With the Enlightenment, it “freed itself from the dead weight of a lifeless Past… bursting forth from under the accumulated rubbish of ages, like waters of life - like a fountain to refresh the wanderer fainting in desert places: it found an expression free from all symbols, sagas, and historical forms, in the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, by Maximilian Robespierre, and in the immortal pages of the ‘Contrat Social’ and ‘Emile’”.

This “unique and profound investigation into the nature of man, which, conducted by a phalanx of modern philosophers, was terminated by Hegel, the last and greatest. The result of this investigation was the democratic idea, but as thought, not in the inadequate form of a history or saga. As Hegel expresses it, 'Freedom is a necessary element in the conception, man'... The next step in the history of this idea, will be its practical realisation."


Hegel argued that philosophy sometimes must exercise "audacity". So also for Macfarlane, must its practical realisation. She wrote: "We, who rally round the Red Flag, are reproached with entertaining the nefarious design of completely destroying the existing order of things; with the desire of totally abolishing the present system of society - for the purpose, it is said of putting some fantastic dream, some wild utopia of own in place of long established and venerable institutions"; the accusers being "bankers, cottonspinners, landowners", as well as "'superior women', educated according to the recipes of Mrs. Ellis for making 'admirable wives and mothers'."

"We are low people certainly; disreputable vagabonds without doubt. In ancient times we were accounted 'the enemies of the human race', accused of setting fire to Rome... I am happy to say we still retain our old reputation... and have not failed to follow the laudable example of our precursors in Roman times... Yet even in England, this shopkeeping country of middle-class respectability there are a few of us belonging to the 'better sort' who have repudiated all claim to be considered respectable, because for them the words Justice and Love are not mere empty sounds without a meaning; because they say - like Antigone in Sophocles - the laws of God are not of today, nor of yesterday, they exist from all eternity."

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, Polyneices 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 honours, the ‘rebel’ Polyneices should be left outside the walls of the city to be eaten by the birds. Antigone refuses to accept this dishonouring of a brother. Despite threats from Creon that he will bury her alive, she buries Polyneices 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 honour, based on the kinship principles of a stateless tribal society. Antigone says of this ‘natural’ law:
"Not now, indeed, nor yesterday, but for aye
It lives, and no man knows what time it came."

George Lukacs, 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". The dialectical tension on Antigone occurs because the supposedly less 'civilised' 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.

Lukacs’ 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 Lukacs’ restatement of the importance of the Hegelian dialectic for understanding Marx’s humanism but rejected Lukacs’ 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 self-liberation.

I have included these 20th century interpretations of Hegel’s analysis of Antigone to illustrate its influence on revolutionary thinkers. In Helen Macfarlane, it surfaces again in an article she wrote on the visit to London in July 1850 by Baron Von Haynau, the aforementioned Austrian Field Marshall and war criminal. Von Haynau happened to 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 rescued by a squad of constables. When the Morning Post asked, "How is it that the labouring class, once profoundly indifferent to what was taking place in foreign countries... have suddenly become so sensitive?", Macfarlane responded:

"... 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."

Pantheism and Materialism

Macfarlane, like her contemporary George Eliot, turned to German philosophy to understand the growing crisis in Christianity. Macfarlane translated parts of Hegel’s introduction to ‘Lectures on the History of Philosophy’ for discussion in the Democratic Review. Hegel argued that despite Luther’s great blow for freedom, Protestantism had introduced a "tormenting uncertainty" into the minds of individuals. Similarly, for Macfarlane, in "the regions of spiritual compromise, of doubt and fluctuation, of unrest, of weariness and vexation of soul - the region of protestantism... [there] is no fundamental principle, upon which a reasonable creature could find a firm footing."

The problem with all churches (apart from the Unitarian movement, which she had some respect for) was that "an infallible book is assumed as the basis of religious faith, yet without having any professedly infallible interpreter". But ”covertly, every sect assumes its articles, confession or creed, to be the infallible interpretor"; and anyone who refuses any particular sect's interpretation is "immediately denounced as an 'infidel scoffer'."

Macfarlane argued that Protestantism was a “a state of transition… the stepping stone for the human mind in its progress from deism to pantheism - that is , from a belief in some things, in the divinity of one being or of one man, to a belief in the divinity of All beings, of All men - in the holiness of All things.”

At this point, Macfarlane seems to part with Hegel and side with his most radical pupil, Heindrich Heine - another friend of Marx. Heine wrote in his 1835 essay on the ‘New Pantheism’:

"In man divinity attains self consciousness - and the latter in turn is revealed through man. This is achieved not in or through a single individual, but in and through the totality of mankind - so that every man comprehends and represents in himself only a portion of the God-Universe, but all men together comprehend and represent it in its totality - in ideas well as reality."

Similarly, for Macfarlane, pantheism was:

"…the sublime and cheering doctrine of man's 'infinity - as the oak lies folded up in the acorn... the divine nature (or at least in a manifestation of it which is found only in man) is common to us all... 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….”

On the political orientation of pantheism, Heine wrote:
"The political revolution which is based on the principles of French materialism will find no enemies in the pantheists, but rather allies who derive their convictions from a deeper source, from a religious synthesis... [The] divinity of man manifests itself also in his body. Human misery destroys or abases the body, which is the image of God... We interpret the great words of the Revolution which St. Just pronounced, 'le pain est le droit du peuple', as meaning 'le pain est le droit divin de l'homme'. We do not contend for the human rights of the people, but for the divine rights of man. In this, and in many other respects, we differ from the men of the Revolution. We do not wish to be sans-culottes, or frugal citizens, or economical presidents. We establish a democracy of equally glorious, equally holy and equally happy gods. You ask for simple dress, austere manners and unseasoned joys. We, on the other hand, demand nectar and ambrosia, purple raiments, costly perfumes, luxury and splendor, dances of laughing nymphs, music and comedy. Oh, do not be angry, virtuous republicans! To your censorious reproaches, we say with the fool in Shakespeare, ‘Dost think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ "

Heine concluded:

"We have, in fact outgrown deism. We are free and do not need a tyrant with thunder. We have come of age and do not need paternal supervision. We are not the bungled handiwork of a great mechanic. Deism is a religion for slaves, children, Genevans and watchmakers."
Macfarlane clearly echoes Heine’s words in her call for a republic “without helots, without poor, without classes… of equally, holy, equally blessed gods”. She adds, “Upon the doctrine of man’s divinity, rests the distinction between a person and a thing… the most heinious crime I can perpetrate is invading the personality of my brother man… Red Republicanism… is a protest against the using up of man by man”.

I have taken up just a couple of themes from Macfarlane’s writings. I take up more of them in a 50,000-word book I am completing on the subject. 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 ‘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’ in British political life. 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.

First published in THE ETHICAL RECORD, March 2003

Postscript: Helen Macfarlane: A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist, and Philosopher in Mid-Nineteenth Century England by David Black (Lexington Books) published 2004.