Helen Macfarlane

Independent object

RP 187 () / Article

Talking of the destructive nature of egoistic desire, its satisfaction that the other is nothing, Hegel made room for further development, an empirical moment which might surprise those who think German Idealism only ever allowed for abstraction: ‘In this satisfaction, however, experience makes it [the simple ‘I’] aware that the object has its own independence.’ [1] History is such an independent object, and provided it is researched by genuine desire, it can jolt self-satisfaction out of its destructive circuits. Since Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s fumbling initiation, German philosophy has provided the anglophone world with ample opportunity for both desirous egoisim and destructive self-satisfaction, but historical research has recently unearthed an independent object to reshape our ideas, not just of the reception of Hegel in English but of what we actually think about Everything.

This ‘independent object’ is the Chartist journalism of Helen Macfarlane (1818–1860) in 1850, admired by Karl Marx as the work of a ‘rara avis’ with truly ‘original ideas’, but forgotten by everyone since, including all the official ‘Marxists’.* We are convinced enough of the power of her words – and their timeliness today – that we shall rely on extensive quotation from her articles in the Democratic Review, Red Republican and Friend of the People. In Radical Philosophy 186, David Charlston used graphs of statistical density to demonstrate how the ‘objective’ treatment of Hegel by translators like Terry Pinkard has served to ‘secularize and depoliticize Hegel’. [2] We found Charlston’s coupling an encouragement, since it implies a radical break with today’s consensus that rational politics can only start once religious passions have been replaced by secular logic. Macfarlane was addressing working-class radicals whose thinking was made possible by religious categories; her ‘Hegelianism’ meant that she had no time for the Benthamite programme of First Rationalism, then Improvement; she interpreted Hegel as an application of the revolutionary humanism preached by Jesus and betrayed by the established Church. This may be why, outflanking ‘radical poets’ like Shelley and Byron, Macfarlane’s polemics have the orotund, unanswerable ring of Shakespeare, Milton and Blake. These texts were written to be read aloud, in taverns where illiterate politicos would seize a newspaper and cry, ‘Who’s here can read? I want to know what Feargus O’Connor is saying about Julian Harney; has the man gone mad?’ The Macfarlane revival – she was not only the first translator of the Manifesto of the Communist Party (thirty-eight years before Samuel Moore’s standard one), but the first translator of Hegel’s philosophical writings into English – is not simply an independent object to dent the armour of know-it-all Hegelians; it also breaks into the realm of English Literature and its pecking orders.

[T]he golden age, sung by the poets and prophets of all times and nations, from Hesiod and Isaiah, to Cervantes and Shelley; the Paradise … was never lost, for it lives … this spirit, I say, has descended now upon the multitudes, and has consecrated them to the service of the new – and yet old – religion of Socialist Democracy. [3]

Marian Evans, another nineteenth-century woman who adopted a male soubriquet (George Eliot) in print (Macfarlane’s was ‘Howard Morton’), is revered as a novelist, but if you explore her critical relationship to Christianity (translator of David Strauss’s scandalous The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined) parallels with Macfarlane foam forth. Macfarlane’s commitment to the Chartist cause has a clarity, a conviction and historical grasp which can make a bid for George Eliot’s place at the moral centre of Victorian letters. As the novel form is laid waste by the Booker Prize contingent, reduced to a tawdry opportunity for middle-class confession, moralism and limp satire, Helen Macfarlane’s example steps forward; she was already there.

So much for the why and who. But philosophy? Macfarlane’s Hegel has none of the anxious complexitudes of Alexandre Kojève’s famous lectures – unfortunate template for the French (and now anglophone) reception of Hegel – which resemble nothing so much as someone tensely and lengthily defusing a bomb (Dialektik sprayed on the side in Gothic script). For Macfarlane, Hegel is quite simply a translation of Jesus’s revolutionary, egalitarian humanism into a …