Rebel Lives: Eleanor Marx

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There have been plenty of women socialists whose records of activity are too little known but from whom we can draw inspiration and guidance for the struggles of today. One such whose record deserves celebrating is Eleanor Marx (1855-1898). This article will, hopefully, help revive knowledge of her contribution to the socialist movement for a new generation of New Zealand revolutionary socialists.

Eleanor Marx was born in London, where the Marx family had settled after exile from Germany in France and Belgium. She was the sixth and last child of Jenny von Westphalen and Karl Marx. Three of the six did not survive childhood. Eleanor’s two older sisters married French socialists and moved to France. Eleanor, who was described as political from head to toe, remained in Britain where she worked closely with her father until he died in 1883. Thereafter her closest collaborators were Friedrich Engels and Edward Aveling. From 1884, when Aveling became Eleanor’s common law husband, she was usually known as Eleanor Marx Aveling.

Eleanor Marx’s output for the movement, her sheer hard work, was enormous. She was an organiser, journalist and translator, and in demand as a speaker.  Aside from her political and trade union activities, Eleanor Marx had to find work in order to get by. She was at times a school teacher, a typist and a literary translator – she translated Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English.

Amongst Eleanor Marx’s political translations into English are some of her father’s works and Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune of 1871. She worked on the translation of Das Kapital into English with Engels and Aveling.

Of note is Eleanor Marx’s essay The Women Question. She had political differences with the bourgeois women’s movement that was only concerned with the right to compete with men on equal terms within the system. For her women’s oppression and class oppression were linked by capitalism, as explained in this paragraph:

The truth, not fully recognised even by those anxious to do good to woman, is that she, like the labour-classes, is in an oppressed condition; that her position, like theirs, is one of merciless degradation. Women are the creatures of an organised tyranny of men, as the workers are the creatures of an organised tyranny of idlers. … for women, as for the labouring classes, no solution of the difficulties and problems that present themselves is really possible in the present condition of society. All that is done, heralded with no matter what flourish of trumpets, is palliative, not remedial. Both the oppressed classes, women and the immediate producers, must understand that their emancipation will come from themselves. Women will find allies in the better sort of men, as the labourers are finding allies among the philosophers, artists, and poets. But the one has nothing to hope from man as a whole, and the other has nothing to hope from the middle class as a whole.

Her views on women’s oppression are also found in a report, for the British Socialist Democratic Federation newspaper Justice, on the German socialists’ Gotha Congress, particularly on Clara Zetkin’s “brilliant” speech.

The Marx household, and later Engels’s, was the hub of an international network of revolutionary socialists. Eleanor Marx carried on a correspondence with these friends and contacts. Having German, English and French, Eleanor Marx was well-equipped to be an organiser of and translator at many an international socialist or trade union conference as well as often being present as a delegate. 

Although a figure in international socialism, Eleanor Marx’s life was specially intertwined with the British working class movement from her teens to her early and tragic death by suicide in 1898. The 1880s and 1890s were decades that saw the socialist movement revive and the rise of New Unionism. Eleanor Marx was intimately involved in both the political and industrial struggles of the day. She was a model Marxist in being able to combine the two spheres into one indivisible class struggle. She was a political trade unionist and a socialist who dived into the elemental mass movement. She was one of few who achieved this synthesis, unlike the sectarian SDF, the largest socialist party which did not support trade union action. 

Eleanor Marx was always in the thick of the struggle. For example, she was present at Bloody Sunday, 13 November 1887. That year was one of economic depression. In October the starving unemployed took to demonstrating daily at Trafalgar Square. There were mass meetings of the unemployed in Hyde Park followed by clashes with the police. On 23 October there was a march to Westminster Abbey and on the same day Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling addressed an outdoor public meeting. In early November the police started using force to break up the daily meeting in Trafalgar Square and on the 8th the police ordered a ban on meetings and speeches there. On the following Sunday 4,000 constables, 300 mounted police and 650 soldiers were deployed in and around the square to prevent a meeting called to protest repression in Ireland, the imprisonment of Irish MPs and for the right of free speech. Columns of workers, thousands strong, from working-class areas of London made their way to Trafalgar Square only to be charged into again and again by baton wielding police. Two demonstrators were killed, 200 were hospitalised. Of those arrested, 160 received gaol sentences. In a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette Eleanor Marx wrote:

I got pretty roughly used myself. My cloak and hat (which I’ll show you) are torn to shreds; I have a bad blow across the arm from a policeman’s baton, and a blow on the head knocked me down – but for a sturdy old Irishman (a perfect stranger to me), whose face was streaming with blood, I must have been trampled on by the mounted police. But this is nothing to what I saw done to others.

Eleanor Marx will always be associated with New Unionism. She wrote a report on the 1890 Liverpool Trades Union Congress that drew the significance of this movement.

The Liverpool Congress of 1890 marks ….. a new departure in Trades Unionism in England. It was the largest Congress yet held. It was also the most representative – representative not merely, as former Congresses have been, of the aristocracy of labour of the “skilled” artisan, but of the hitherto despised “unskilled” worker, who is also, to quote the address of the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, “the most numerous, important, and essential of all.”

The last eighteen months will be memorable in the history of the working-class movement. In England during the few months more actual work has been done than during almost as many previous years. On the 12th March, 1889, the Gas Workers’ and General Labourers’ Union was formed, and began the work of organising the unorganised masses. They have gained – in spite of one serious defeat – innumerable victories for the Gas Workers, and for thousands of the “unskilled” workers of both sexes enrolled under their banner. The Dockers whom one had grown to look upon as the most hopeless of men – following in the wake of the Gas Workers, fought their magnificent fight and won something more than the historic “tanner” – self-respect, a belief in their own manhood, a powerful organisation. In these eighteen months hundreds of thousands of men and women, who had been a terror in themselves, and a standing menace to the rest of their class, have been organised, and, far from being a drawback, have become the very back-bone of the working-class movement.

Eleanor Marx had thrown herself into practical support for the London Dock Strike as witnessed by union leaders of the day.  Will Thorne recorded:

John Burns’ wife and Eleanor Marx-Aveling acted as correspondents for the committee; they worked long hours and walked bravely late at night or in the early morning, to their distant homes. Sacrifices unnoticed and numberless were made … but all distinction was lost in this great inspiring phase of the class struggle.

British socialist and trade unionist Tom Mann said:

One of these volunteers who rendered valuable service was Eleanor Marx Aveling … a most capable woman. Possessing complete mastery of economics, she was able a like in conversation and on a public platform to hold her own with the best. Furthermore, she was ever ready, as in this case, to give close attention to detailed work, when by so doing she could help the movement.

During the Dock Strike there was a 100,000-strong meeting in Hyde Park. The Radical MP Cunninghame Graham wrote in the Labour Elector

And so speaker succeeds speaker. To Mann and Burns succeed Mrs. Aveling, Tillet and MacDonald. Curious to see Mrs. Aveling addressing the enormous crowd, curious to see the eyes of the women fixed upon her as she spoke of the miseries of the Dockers’ homes, pleasant to see her point her black-gloved finger at the oppression, and pleasant to hear the hearty cheer with which her elegant speech was greeted.

No sooner had the Dock Strike ended that a new strike by rubber workers broke out at Silvertown in East London. It was to be a long and bitter strike. After the first three weeks of the strike, while Eleanor Marx was responsible for looking after two nephews over from France, she threw herself into the fight. She spoke daily outside the rubber works and at huge public meetings. She founded a women’s branch of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers, recruited the women rubber workers and became the branch secretary. After 12 weeks and diminished funds the majority had gone back to work and the remaining strikers agreed to end the strike. 

Eleanor Marx had been centrally involved as a strike leader and union member, if not a striking worker. She was elected unanimously to the union’s Executive Council at the next annual conference in 1890 and was thereafter active on behalf of the union until retiring from her position in 1895. For example, she raised money to help East London women onion skinners win their strike. The main demand put on Eleanor Marx at this time was to accept speaking engagements at union branch meetings. The demand was such that she wrote a letter to the editor of the People’s Press as a way of communicating with branches to ask them not to advertise her as a speaker without consulting her first: “The difficulty is not lessened when one is announced to speak at two or three different places at the same time.”

The burgeoning New Unionism movement did not have a corollary in a mass workers’ party. Such a party, as existed in Germany, was not to come into existence in Britain during Eleanor Marx’s lifetime. The Avelings joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1884, joined the split to form the Socialist League in 1885, split from the Socialist League and formed the Bloomsbury Socialist Society in 1888. They were present at the founding conference of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 (Edward as a delegate, Eleanor as a visitor) and re-joined the SDF in 1896. 

One or other or both of the Avelings were centrally involved in leadership roles in these organisations and both were energetic propagandists. In a June 1897 letter to the SDF’s Justice Eleanor Marx said that she had given 41 lectures and spoken or taken the chair at ten meetings in the past eight months, not counting a week’s lecturing in Holland.

Will you let me tell the many S.D.F. branches that are so kindly asking me to lecture for them that I am obliged to decline, for the present at any rate, all open-air work? My throat unfortunately will not stand the strain. Those who know me will not suspect me of shirking work … When the indoor propaganda begins again I shall, as always, be at the service of my comrades and the cause …

In addition to speaking engagements, from September 1896 to January 1898 Eleanor Marx wrote a column, International Notes, for Justice. She also gave classes in French and German for SDF members.

All the organisations in the British socialist movement were small-scale and flawed. In an 1895 letter to an American socialist Eleanor Marx lamented:

It goes here much the same as with you. The socialist instinct grows stronger and stronger amongst the masses, but as soon as it comes to translating the instinctive urge into clear demands and thoughts, everyone falls apart, some go into the Social Democratic Federation, some into the Independent Labour Party, others stay within their Trade Union organisations etc etc. In short, a lot of sects and no Party … 

Eleanor Marx did not succeed in marrying the mass union movement to a socialist organisation, but it was not for want of effort. She was a tireless propagandist for revolutionary socialism by, chiefly, addressing hundreds upon hundreds of meetings, including on speaking tours to as far away as Scotland. She did as much as anyone in her times to keep the flame of Marxism alive and popularise socialist ideas amongst the British working class. 

Further reading

There are few books on Eleanor Marx. The ones I have relied on are the two volumes by Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx: Family Life (1855-1883) and Eleanor Marx: The Crowded Years (1884-1898), first published by Virago in 1972 and 1976 respectively. They are comprehensive, erudite, but very readable. However, I recommend E P Thompson’s critical review is read alongside.  

For a shorter read there is the 64-page A Rebel’s Guide to Eleanor Marx by Siobhan Brown, 2015. See here for a favourable review.