Eleanor Marx: a pioneering socialist-feminist

March 7, 2017

Eleanor Marx
By Rachel Holmes
Bloomsbury, 2015
508 pages

“Is it not wonderful when you come to look at things squarely in the face, how rarely we seem to practise all the fine things we preach to others?” lamented Eleanor Marx in 1892. 

Karl Marx’s youngest daughter was to be the tragic victim of this truism, as Rachel Holmes explores in her biography that extricates this pioneering revolutionary socialist feminist from the giant shadow of her father.

In a Britain where women had no political or economic rights, the English-born Eleanor willingly took after her rebellious dad. The young Eleanor was questioning and combative, absorbed in the free-thinking, theatre-loving, fun-filled and intellectually-rich but financially-stunted Marx household.

If Eleanor inherited Karl’s political genes, she chose to nurture them with frenetic activism and inexhaustible political stamina. Her support for the 1871 Paris Commune (“the first attempt of the proletariat to govern itself”, as Karl put it) gave Eleanor her first public profile. But it was her leadership in the trade union movement that defined Eleanor’s political impact.

She was “the epicentre of strategy and organisation” for the newly-stirring ranks of unskilled, often female, workers who had been long-ignored by Britain’s craft unions.

She opposed divisions between skilled and unskilled unionists — and between men and women workers. She said women must refuse to undercut men’s wages and that men must insist on equal pay for women for the same work.

Eleanor’s many successes in the labour movement, however, were not replicated in Britain’s revolutionary circles. “Socialism,” she said despairingly, “is at present in this country little more than a literary movement.”

It was a time of “faction, schism and split”, with nationalists against internationalists, revisionists against revolutionaries, and the anarchists against everyone. Eleanor, nevertheless, stiffened the Marxist cause by bringing to it her strengths of organisation, strategy and economics (she was one of the few in the movement in her day who had actually read, and understood, Marx’s Das Kapital).

Her most original, and most enduring, contribution, however, was the development of socialist feminism.

She detested domestic drudgery, was appalled by the grim lives of women factory workers, and resented the cultural constraints of the period. These constraints caused both of her (socialist) sisters’ lives to be wasted by the demands of housework, motherhood and their (socialist) husbands’ careers.

Eleanor followed Friedrich Engels and other Marxists who deplored women’s oppression and saw socialism as its solution. But she went further, making women’s liberation necessary to, as well as dependent on, socialism.

Her pamphlet, The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View, refocused feminism from its limited rights for middle class women to full equality at work and at home for the great mass of poor, working-class women.

Despite her feminist principles, however, Eleanor’s own “free-love union” with the playwright and socialist Edward Aveling, spectacularly failed to achieve socialist feminism in one household. Economic independence or domestic equality was doomed for her because, although “Eleanor loved Edward”, “Edward loved himself”.

Aveling’s main interest was sponging off Eleanor’s earnings and exploiting her famous name as his passport to fame. He treated lecture tour expenses as his own little pork barrel, did no share of the housework and was decidedly lacking in courage compared to Eleanor, who put herself in the front line of free speech and free assembly fights and wore the scars of police violence for her pains.

To top it all off, he killed her. Or she committed suicide. Soon after she had shatteringly discovered that the latest in Aveling’s series of sexual infidelities had resulted in a clandestine marriage to a 22-year-old actress, the 43-year-old Eleanor was found dead in 1898 from chloroform and cyanide.

Her untimely death also opened Aveling’s way to the money the recently-deceased Engels had bequeathed to Eleanor. Aveling had been the chief beneficiary of Eleanor’s will and remained so after he destroyed the codicil by which Eleanor had disinherited him after her discovery of his secret marriage.

Whether literally or morally, Aveling was responsible for Eleanor’s death.

Holmes’ book is more a page-turner of a period historical novel style — narrative is propelled by the collision course between the villainous Aveling and the deaf-to-all-warnings Eleanor — than a politically-rounded biography.

Eleanor, for example, agitated for an electorally-focused labour party but lacked any premonition of the pitfalls of parliamentarism. This is an issue Holmes, despite the benefit of over a century of disillusioning hindsight, does not critically explore.

Nevertheless, Eleanor Marx’s years of socialist feminist activism are dynamic enough to make even a romantic pot-boiler a tribute to her and her cause.

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