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RADICAL WOMEN
Eleanor Marx: spotlight on a socialist feminist pioneer
Helen Gilbert
volume:  
volume 38
issue 2
April 2017
imagestuff

Read Rachel Holmes’ sensitive and absorbing biography of Eleanor Marx and you’ll fall in love with a radical heroine.

In Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury Press, 2015), the Karl Marx family and the 19th century socialist movement are vividly portrayed. Eleanor Marx is revealed as an important political leader, whom Holmes credits with being the founder of socialist feminism.

Eleanor was the youngest of Karl and Jenny Marx’s three daughters. These poverty-stricken revolutionaries had been forced out of Europe for rallying opposition to monarchy and repression. They landed in Britain, the heartland of industrial capitalism, where workers toiled 12-16 hours a day, living at the brink of starvation. It was here Karl Marx began his life’s work: the investigation into the nature of the profit system, crystallized in his opus Capital.

The Marx household was a warm, extended family where politics and literature were intensely discussed by young and old. Jenny was Karl’s great love, comrade in arms, and transcriber of his illegible manuscripts. Helen Demuth, though technically a servant, is more accurately described by Holmes as Eleanor’s co-mother and a thoroughly equal and opinionated member of the family.

While the children were small, the great philosopher worked at his table in the family’s decrepit two-room flat surrounded by domestic chaos. He was a playmate and an innovative storyteller. The daughters also had a “second father,” Frederick Engels: Marx’s political soulmate, a genial revolutionary and unwilling businessman who limited his own activism in order to financially support the Marx family. Engels’ companion Lizzie Burns, a working-class Irishwoman, led Eleanor to become a passionate supporter of the Irish freedom struggle.

In the midst of evading creditors, pawning the family’s belongings, hosting refugees from the Paris Commune, and enduring miseries of ill health, the Marx household nurtured a fun-loving, precocious girl with an instinct for justice.

The woman question. As the daughters grew, their upbringing as intelligent atheist rebels clashed with the Victorian society around them. Alone among her sisters, Eleanor embraced the Jewish heritage that her Marx grandparents had been forced to renounce. The older sisters married radical but feckless men and were soon swamped by household duties and sick and dying children.

At 18, Eleanor endeavored to strike out on her own and become self-supporting. Her mother encouraged her decision in letters that showed her own life’s burdens: “I alone understand how dearly you long for work and independence, the only two things that can help one over the sorrows and cares of present day society.”

Ultimately Eleanor scraped together a living as a translator, journalist, and researcher, while pouring her energies into labor upsurges and the international socialist movement.

She was deeply involved in strikes and day-to-day organizing. She tutored working-class leaders in basic skills and public speaking. She dodged police attacks at protests. She addressed thousands of people at public rallies. She helped form and lead the first women’s branch of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers. She called on unions to organize women and demanded that male workers support equal pay.

Eleanor spoke and wrote tirelessly on the conditions of women. With her partner, Edward Aveling, she co-authored a groundbreaking essay “The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View”. The authors trace women’s subjugation under patriarchy and describe female oppression in Victorian society. They call for a movement of proletarian women to fight alongside working men to overthrow capitalism. They show that equality of the sexes is needed for an effective struggle for social change.

No one immune. Holmes deals sympathetically with the sorrows and contradictions of Eleanor Marx and the Marx family.

The major tragedy of Eleanor’s life was that her partner Edward Aveling, though active in the socialist movement, was a con-man and manipulator. Many of Eleanor’s friends and comrades believed that Aveling engineered her apparent suicide at age 43. Eleanor died of poison in her bed shortly after signs she was ready to break with Aveling, a move that would have cut off his access to the inheritance she had received from Engels.

This biography reveals that, despite stunning misfortunes, Eleanor Marx embodied socialism and feminism in a way that was outstanding for generations to come. In Holmes’ words, “the dynamic pattern between philosopher father and political daughter shows itself clearly: Karl Marx was the theory; Eleanor Marx was the practice.”

Socialist feminists who read this gripping book will be rightfully proud to walk in her footsteps.

Author contact: helen.gilbert@juno.com.