The opening line of this superb biography is pithy and dramatic: Eleanor Marx changed the world. One may agree or disagree with the extent to which she succeeded, but in her tiny frame, Karl Marx’s daughter packed a lot of punch, only to die very early at forty-three in circumstances that were devious and mysterious. She herself used to joke that the only thing common between her and her father was the shape of their nose, and she had none of his genius!
The great thing about the book is how it vividly captures the overall atmosphere, which makes the reader some kind of a permanent visitor to the Marx household, engagingly portrayed with its soot, smoke, books, babies, dinner on the table via the pawnshop, three languages spoken in any combination, and the tiny Eleanor, nicknamed Tussy, “using her father as a mount horse while he chain-smoked and wrote his critique of modern economics and labour relations Das Kapital.”
Even those who may not share Karl’s political views can’t help finding the biography, written more like a 19th century novel, exciting and spirited indeed.
Eleanor was born in 1855 in a tworoomed flat in Soho. Seven years earlier, her father had published The Communist Manifesto, a successful bit of agitprop high on romance, that had coincided with the wave of revolutions across Europe and South America. The Marx family had been driven out of Paris and had subsequently sort of settled in London.
The failure of the 1848 uprisings to bring about social change caused Marx and his friend Engels to do a lot of self-criticism and review their thinking. Engels was working for the family firm, Ermen and Engels, in Manchester, witnessing at first hand the poverty of the working classes. The two men became convinced that only organic action through their own unity by the workers and for the workers could challenge the balance between capital and labour — the bosses would not do so, and the newly emerging middle class tended to side with the bosses.
Eleanor Marx had no formal education but her father taught her philosophy and economics. The family trade was social democracy, not for their own profit but for the betterment of the world. Eleanor inherited this political legacy and chose to devote her life to it. The historical conditions into which she was born meant that she understood from experience what it meant, and felt like, to be a member of an oppressed group.
Eleanor had no schooling, and was barred from university, from voting, from standing for Parliament, from most of the professions, and from control of her reproductive and psychological rights. Her father was her university and so much else!
Eleanor encouraged working men to stand by women as their equals, while urging women not to undercut the going rate. She knew that was difficult when your family was starving.
Her work in London’s East End both galvanised and depressed her. As a contemporary account has it, families were living in filthy cellars while the men queued for erratic, dirty, dangerous work, often with unregulated chemicals.
At Silvertown, home of the “offensive industries” where every possible effluent was poured directly into the Thames, bosses preferred to ship in blackleg workers from Ireland and Paris rather than accept cuts to the 80-hour working week or demands for overtime pay for Sunday labour. Amid such adverse circumstances, Eleanor helped to organise a bitter strike. When the first snow fell, the factory owners started to evict families from tied accommodation.
The strike collapsed but Eleanor succeeded in one thing: she helped formed a union among the women workers. The Silvertown Women’s Union was a key piece of British labour history and feminism in the workplace.
As Holmes remarks, feminism begins in the 1870s, not the 1970s. Eleanor was a dynamo, to be found everywhere. The Bryant and May match girls’ strike. The Gasworkers’ strike. The Glassblowers’ strike. At Crosse and Blackwell, those warming family foods depended on the onion skinners — women — working 14-hour days up to their elbows in chemicals that left them with respiratory damage. Eleanor organised the women; they went on strike; they won.
Eleanor was in demand — travelling up and down the British Isles educating, organising and advising workers on extremely limited and few legal rights. Her activism was not confined only to Britain. Multilingual Eleanor took part in international socialism across Europe where she became increasingly interested in the conjunction or intersection (or the absence of one) between socialism and feminism.
Twice she visited America, where she compiled a dossier on the impossible conditions for women workers in the land of the free — 15-hour days were common — and where she met cowboys, rugged and poetic in their embroidered shirts and chaps, who explained what lay behind the folksy glamour of their life.
In New York City in 1886, Eleanor addressed a crowd of 25,000 men and women. The New York Herald reported: “Socialist pleading copper union spurred by a solitary woman.” The Herald was suspicious of Karl Marx’s daughter, describing her as “a German-looking lady with eye glasses”.
She met plenty of resistance to her feminism from the new trade unions and from comfortable critics both male and female. But Eleanor was not interested in theory for its own sake. Social Democracy and feminism seemed like solutions waiting to resolve practical problems.
Sadly, her personal life was tied to a decidedly inferior, cheat of a man who spent her money and abused her trust. Edward Aveling claimed to be married when he wasn’t (so that he didn’t have to marry Eleanor) and not married when he was (having secretly married someone else). George Bernard Shaw called him a “reptile”. Olive Schreiner, one of Eleanor’s dearest friends, loathed the man and feared from the first encounter itself that something terrible would happen.
And as Eleanor’s great bad luck would have it, the worst did happen. The concluding chapter of this absorbing tale concerns Eleanor’s death or suicide by consuming prussic acid, aged 43. She had at the time only recently found out that Aveling had secretly remarried under another name. She changed her will but Aveling appears to have destroyed the codicil. At the inquest, he blamed the death on Eleanor’s depression and made off with her inheritance from Engels, left specifically to support her political work. Holmes reopens the question of whether or not Aveling murdered Eleanor Marx.
By all accounts, it is certain that he signed a chit for the prussic acid and chloroform the morning of her death, telling the housekeeper it was for the dog. He then left Sydenham for Covent Garden, though he was supposed to be resting at home from kidney trouble. When he returned, the police were at the house and Eleanor had been dead for some hours.
Eleanor — who translated Madame Bovary; who staged Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in London; who believed in free love and equal marriage; who organised workers across Britain, Europe and America; who wrote, pamphleteered and argued, winning her cause victory by victory — was no match for an ordinary cad. As has been pointed out, subjectively speaking, she had an awful choice for her man in life.