The life of a revolutionary woman

Eleanor Marx:

A Life

Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl and Jenny Marx, was born in 1855 in a tiny flat in London, where her parents had settled with their children after being exiled from Germany and France for their political activity in the 1848 European revolutions. Rachel Holmes’s biography of Eleanor, the youngest and most politically active Marx daughter, both tells her subject’s story and details the world in which she lived and worked. 

Holmes’s opening paragraphs argue that “Eleanor Marx changed the world. In the process she revolutionized herself” and, further, that she “is one of British history’s great heroes. . . . Not since Mary Wollstonecraft had any woman made such a profound, progressive contribution to English political thought—and action.” Eleanor Marx “was a revolutionary woman writer; a revolutionary woman, and a revolutionary.” Her remarkable life story is told here with keen political insight, depth, and conviction. The book outlines as well the oppressive personal relationship that culminated in her death at the age of forty-three.

Eleanor’s nickname was Tussy—rhyming, her parents said, with “pussy” not “fussy” because she loved cats, and she wasn’t fussy. While Eleanor was close to both parents, she was her father’s favorite from her childhood until his death in 1883. The sixth child in the family, only she and two of her siblings survived to adulthood. Her sisters Jenny and Laura were eleven and ten years older than she, while the Marx son Edgar died of tuberculosis when Eleanor was twelve weeks old. After Edgar’s death and her older sisters had married and were living in France with their husbands, “her father seems to have invested all his hopes and affection in the family’s most recent arrival,” baby Eleanor. 

Without formal schooling, she gained her earliest education at home from her German-speaking parents and her older, French-speaking sisters. Throughout her childhood, she experienced the police surveillance and political repression imposed on her parents, including poverty and repeated moves across Europe. 

Although the Marx family had very little money, she was reared in a setting enriched by their intellectual and cultural backgrounds. She grew up knowing many of her parents’ fellow revolutionaries, including a diverse circle of émigrés from various European countries. Even more important, she was deeply influenced by their political activism, being regularly exposed to energetic political discussion and debate. In addition to the English, French, and American poetry and novels regularly read aloud and discussed in her home, she was introduced at a young age to the plays of Shakespeare and Ibsen in at-home readings and at live theatrical performances. It was no accident that the adult Eleanor was multilingual.

The adult Eleanor recalled that her father would “show his little girl where to look for all that was finest and best in the works, to teach her—though she never thought she was being taught, to that she would have objected—to try and think, to try and understand for herself.” While her father labored at writing Das Kapital with Eleanor playing at his feet, he found time to include her in his work, extracting “examples and narratives that could be turned into enjoyable stories for his little girl.” She also recalled going with him to the British Museum Reading Room where he conducted the research on which he based the book. 

Holmes’s overview of Eleanor’s childhood shows that Marx’s tutelage taught her history and politics as well: “To say that Eleanor Marx grew up living and breathing historical materialism and socialism is therefore a literal description and not a metaphor.” Accordingly, the book makes clear that she was deeply inspired by the political ideas and  activism that infused her parents’ lives, and chose to make the practice of those ideas and that inspiration the work of her life. 

Eleanor was committed from an early age to freedom struggles around the world, including those in Ireland, Italy, Poland, and elsewhere. When she was just eleven years old she had informed her parents, knowing of their intense interest in the US Civil War, that she was writing letters to the president of the United States. An older Eleanor recalled, “I remember, I felt absolutely convinced that Abraham Lincoln badly needed my advice as to the war.” Although no copies of those letters apparently exist, Holmes cites other evidence showing “how clearly her young mind had grasped Britain’s complicity in the slave trade and her natural allegiance to the Union cause.” 

Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s lifelong friend, comrade, and political collaborator, gave the Marx family financial support while Marx was alive and after his death in 1883. Engels’s backing was made possible by profits from his family’s textile firm in Manchester, and it kept the Marx family from ruin. 

While close to all of the Marx children, Engels was especially fond of Eleanor, and contributed regularly to her historical and political education. Holmes, who calls Eleanor “the foremother of socialist feminism,” demonstrates how strongly her political organizing among women, including her pamphlet “The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View,” was inspired by Engels’s groundbreaking book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. 

The political education Eleanor received from her father and his collaborator inspired her to become involved in organizing dockworkers, gasworkers, engineers, and miners, as well as later in the fundraising and international networking for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and other unions. “She tirelessly agitated amongst workers all over the country,” writes Holmes, “speaking at an endless series of public lectures, meetings, and open air rallies,” demonstrating “her unwavering commitment to the proletarian struggle and a firm understanding of the principles of Marxism.” She sometimes jumped up on pub tables to address small groups of workers, but also spoke to large international conferences in Europe, and on May 4, 1890, to a huge crowd at Hyde Park in London, for the first May Day demonstration in England.

Eleanor understood, perhaps earlier than most Marxists, that the emancipation of the working class and the liberation of women were inextricably bound together. Much of her trade union work included organizing women workers. While the use of the French term “feminism” appears not to have been recorded in England until 1883, from the beginning of Eleanor’s work for socialism she was clearly focused on the equality of women workers and the liberation of women. 

The Paris Commune of 1871—that brief period when the working class of Paris seized control of the city—had a profound impact on the then sixteen-year-old Eleanor Marx. As Holmes explains, “it was the first political event in which Tussy was personally involved.” The Commune lasted just two months, but it showed her in practice what her father meant by working-class self-emancipation, and not least, the crucial role played by women in the revolutionary process. While her personal life was already filled with friends and comrades from around the world, the work she did defending the Commune and helping refugees after the Commune’s bloody suppresion confirmed her growing understanding that socialism is global or it is nothing.

 From her teenage years, Eleanor aided her father in researching Das Kapital and later translated, edited, and managed publication of many of his other works, including Value, Price and Profit, which was based on an address he had originally made to the General Council of the First International Working Men’s Association when she was just ten years old. As described by Holmes, Eleanor also wrote his earliest biography, thus becoming the first 

writer and memorialist who documented the history of her family for posterity; and it is, without exception, from her work, but usually without attribution, that all accounts of her famous father and his family have been drawn. . . . Without Eleanor Marx, the life of one of the greatest men of the nineteenth century and his close family would remain a closed door, and we would know less about Karl Marx than we do about Shakespeare.

Eleanor taught children and adults, and organized workers’ education inside the socialist and trade union movements, including programs in literacy, history, and art. She personally taught dockworkers and gasworkers she met to read and write; gasworker Will Thorne attributed her teaching, in part, to his being elected first general secretary of his national union. Her interest in worker education was aimed not only at assisting workers to gain literacy or even just spreading the ideas of socialism, but first and foremost to make the working class fit to rule.

Eleanor continued to be politically active through the deaths of her mother in 1881, her sister Jenny and her father in 1883, her “second mother” Helen Demuth in 1890, and her “second father” Engels in 1895. In addition to assisting in the German/English translation of Capital into English, Eleanor catalogued her father’s voluminous manuscripts and translated, edited, and managed publication of many of them. She was also a skilled French/English translator and produced the first English translations of Lissagary’s History of the Commune and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and gave popular lectures on history and literature, as well as engaging in theatrical productions for working-class audiences.

It was at one such gathering that she became acquainted with Edward Aveling, an aspiring playwright and fellow socialist whom she had first met at the British Museum Reading Room and with whom she fell in love—operative word fell. Initially accepted by Eleanor’s comrades and friends, even Engels, Aveling for a time played a leading role in the socialist movement and conducted lecture tours with Eleanor throughout England and in America. 

Eleanor’s friend George Bernard Shaw said later of Aveling that he was “an agreeable scoundrel . . . quite a pleasant fellow who would have gone to the stake for socialism or atheism, but with absolutely no conscience in his private life. He seduced every woman he ever met, and borrowed from every man.” This opportunistic, philandering, dishonest character for a time played a major role in the socialist movement, and his relationship with Eleanor must almost certainly have gained him trust for a time that he didn’t deserve.

After fourteen years of their living together, marked by his neglect, long absences, and reckless spending of money taken from her and their friends—including her legacy from Engels—Eleanor learned that Aveling had secretly married a young actress. This news followed another crushing blow, one witnessed by Aveling and confirmed by Engels, when Eleanor was told that Freddy Demuth, a young man whom she believed to be Engels’s illegitimate son, had actually been born to her mother’s best friend Helen Demuth and fathered by Karl Marx. 

Aveling’s role in Eleanor’s life was, quite simply, fatal. Holmes writes, “Aveling brought Eleanor down in a way no policeman at a rally or debating adversary on a public stage could have done.” In early 1898, housekeeper Gertrude Gentry overheard Eleanor and Edward arguing loudly, after which she was sent with a note, apparently initialed by Aveling, to a nearby pharmacy ordering chloroform and prussic acid “for dog.” Some hours after the poison was brought to the house, Eleanor was found dead in her bedroom. 

Many of Eleanor’s friends and comrades—and even Aveling’s family—held him responsible for her death, but the coroner’s inquest somehow found otherwise and ruled the death a suicide. Historians have most often accepted the coroner’s ruling, although Holmes’s detailed review of the events surrounding her death suggests strongly that it was Aveling’s responsibility. In any case, thus ended tragically the life at age forty-three of one of Britain’s most important, principled, and unforgettable fighters for socialism and women’s liberation. 

The book’s afterword summarizes the long-term benefits of Eleanor’s life and work: “Many of the freedoms and benefits of modern democracy Britain inherited . . . were a direct result of the work done by Eleanor Marx and the women and men like her,” including the eight-hour day, outlawing of child labor, universal suffrage, trade unions, and women’s right to equal education, pay, and employment opportunity. 

Holmes’s biography serves as an excellent introduction for a new generation of activists. While it doesn’t span the breadth of Yvonne Kapp’s masterful two-volume  biography of Eleanor Marx (published in the 1970s), it does an excellent and sophisticated job of refreshing the important contributions of a practicing socialist whose life resonates in our time, providing an overview of the British workers’ and women’s movements and a detailed, in-depth review of the ideas and struggles on which those movements were built. 

Arguing the importance of feminism to our movement, Holmes concludes the book with a positive look at where we are today: “[T]here are signs in the new collective impulses toward social democracy around the world that radicalism is being rethought and struggled over anew.” Eleanor Marx would be happy to know that her struggles for international socialism and women’s liberation continue today and, writes Holmes, “would no doubt remark encouragingly, ‘Go ahead!’”

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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