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Kate Webb: The Individual Complexity of Eleanor Marx

July 25, 2014

How we remember the woman at the heart of one of the nineteenth century’s most important collective movements.

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Eleanor Marx circa 1875
Image: AKG Images/AKS0

By Kate Webb

In 1888, Eleanor Marx wrote to her only surviving sibling, Laura, describing her efforts to organize the poor in London’s East End. She was haunted by the squalid scenes she encountered there, the degradation of the human spirit. In her early thirties and already a tireless activist, Eleanor was an organizer, speaker, and translator at conferences held by the international socialist movement and a founding member of Britain’s early social democratic parties. The suffering she witnessed in the East End spurred her to help forge a new movement of unskilled workers, one powerful enough to liberate the millions condemned to lives of wretchedness. As a key figure in New Unionism, she advocated the eight-hour day and rallied gas, chemical, and shop workers, dockers, and matchgirls in strikes that changed the industrial landscape of the country.

Unlike many of the middle class women who became active at this pivotal moment, Eleanor was no stranger to the brutality of poverty.

This hectic, crowded life, vividly described in Rachel Holmes’s new biography, Eleanor Marx: A Life (published by Random House in the UK in May 2014 and forthcoming in the US in February 2015) is one that many activists today, from Occupy to the Arab Spring, will recognize: a mix of excitement at being on the stage of history, of comradeship in a global movement that has the possibility of change in its sights, and of acute awareness of what is at stake: “One room especially haunts me,” she told Laura, “Room!—cellar, dark underground. In it a woman lying on some sacking on a little straw, her breast half eaten away with cancer… naked but for the scraps of an old red handkerchief and sail over her legs, surrounded by four children and a baby, all howling for bread whilst her husband tried to pick up a few pence at the docks.” Unlike many of the middle class women who became active at this pivotal moment, Eleanor was no stranger to the brutality of poverty. The youngest daughter of Karl Marx, she was born in London into the family at the vortex of international communism and apprenticed as her father’s amanuensis, researching the conditions of the English working class. Yet this sight of men forced to “fight… like beasts,” women dying without doctors, and children howling for food, was something she found hard to shake off.

Holmes’s biography considers anew the vital questions posed by Marx’s life about how to remain sensitive to suffering without falling prey to despair and develop an effective politics without sacrificing oneself on its altar. “This book rehabilitates a brilliant woman who has not had her due in history,” Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the British human rights organization, Liberty, tells me. Along with Chakrabarti, I spoke to a variety of journalists, historians, novelists, and activists about why they consider Marx to be such a pioneering figure. For Bee Rowlatt, currently writing a book on Mary Wollstonecraft, the strength of Marx’s dedication stands out: “She was a committed internationalist, committed to humanity, to men and women on a global scale before it was fashionable. Even today most people don’t poke their nose out of their own metaphorical village.”

“What really appeals to me is her ability to see how all things are interconnected,” the novelist Kamila Shamsie tells me. Paul Mason, the journalist and social historian, agrees: “Eleanor Marx understood that class struggle is not all about economics: it’s about gender oppression, national oppression, racism. So much of Marxism in the twentieth century became a caricature which reduced itself to economics. The Marxism of Marx, and of Eleanor Marx—who was the first authentic Marxist in the world because she learnt it at source—was much more rounded.”

This roundedness was something that came naturally to her. As the child of an exiled Jew who spoke five languages and travelled more than was usual for her time (including a formative experience in France during the Paris Commune), she spoke out against the parochialism of British socialists and was sensitive to the questions of power raised when people with different degrees of status, money, and education come together. Many of the union leaders she worked with benefited from her personal tutoring in literacy and numeracy.

Socialists revered her father, but Eleanor had no time for the priestliness to which the movement was prone, nor for the elitism of some middle class feminists with whom she shared platforms. Rather, she did all she could to break down barriers, encouraging an atmosphere of informality in which ordinary people would be less afraid to speak. “She knew the importance of humility,” Zackie Achmat tells me on the phone from South Africa. An HIV/AIDS activist, he was imprisoned at fifteen during the anti-apartheid era and understands how intimidated people can be: “If I had to struggle against my fear of the jailer just think how much more a black working class woman who lived through the pass laws, and was arrested by white police, has had to struggle with it. Similarly, a white person raised to see black people as a source of danger, looking now at a smart black person who gets up and speaks confidently, will either act with paternalism or fear. Eleanor Marx understood this and showed an entirely socialist irritability with bourgeois feminism on the one hand and socialist patriarchy on the other. It’s her ability to acknowledge both these things that made an enormous contribution.”

“When you are directly affected and it’s your shit, you find ways of organizing and of making alliances with people you wouldn’t otherwise relate to.”

Today, when so many take a “West is Best” approach, even invading countries in the name of democracy, Shamsie also says we can learn from Eleanor’s example. “I’d make a distinction between being an internationalist and an interventionist,” she explains. “I don’t think of Eleanor going to America to talk to trade unionists [in 1886] as being an interloper. She is invited to collaborate with local trade unions and is dealing with people who are already in there doing the work. She never pretends she can parachute in with the answers. It’s more a question of: how can we enact solidarity?” When I ask Isabel Cortes, the campaigns officer at an international transport union, to describe how they “enact solidarity,” she says, “The international perspective must come from the bottom up. Working class women fight to the bitter end. When you are directly affected and it’s your shit, you find ways of organizing and of making alliances with people you wouldn’t otherwise relate to. Solidarity can’t be imposed by people saying, ‘you shouldn’t be wearing that,’ or ‘I feel really strongly that you’ve had your fanny chopped off,’ or whatever it is, that doesn’t work: it’s patronizing and there’s nothing long-term about it.”

For Mason, the key point is that, “Eleanor Marx’s internationalism was working class internationalism and her feminism was working class feminism. What that means, translated into today’s terms, is that people working on that World Cup venue in Qatar, under very bad conditions, have more in common with workers in Britain than they do with their own bosses.”

Chakrabarti agrees, seeing the idea of solidarity as more important today than ever, as the only lasting guarantee of freedom in a world where nationalism is on the rise. “Eleanor Marx was right about lots of things but she was most right in her internationalism, that’s her truly visionary contribution,” Chakrabarti says. “Today the choice is simple: do you want to be a foreigner nearly everywhere in the world or do you want to be a human being everywhere? Choose between English rights and human rights. I’m telling you if you choose English rights, then you choose citizen’s privileges, which can be revoked in a heartbeat or traded away by your government.”

More contentious is the legacy of Eleanor’s feminism. Achmat, the HIV/AIDS activist, and others point to her frustration with middle class women concerned only with reforming the system to gain equality with middle class men, rather than transforming it for the benefit of all. Sheila Rowbotham, who wrote the introduction to a book of compiled correspondence between the Marx daughters, thinks, however, that Eleanor also battled with Marx and Engels’ dismissal of bourgeois feminism, or at least its assertion of individuality.

“The feeling that your personal desire for expression was less important than dedication to a cause was understandable given the terrible circumstances that people had to struggle with in those times,” Rowbotham says. “It seemed indulgent to talk about personal feeling, so this element in socialism was suppressed.”

If she seems such a modern figure, it is because she strove to unite her political activism with her personal expression in a way that now seems wholly familiar.

The result of this suppression was a lingering suspicion on the left of the arts and other imaginative ideas that might have helped socialism develop in a less dogmatic fashion. It was disastrous for women, too, mirroring taboos in society at large that silenced them from speaking out about issues such as domestic violence, responsibility for childcare, contraception, and sexual desire. Eleanor fought both these tendencies, translating Flaubert and performing with George Bernard Shaw in A Doll’s House, Ibsen’s shocking play about the inherent sadomasochism of bourgeois marriage; she also lived out of wedlock with a married man, questioned ideas about sexuality with friends like the South African novelist Olive Schreiner, and supported women who were imprisoned for marrying against their father’s wishes. If she seems such a modern figure, it is because she strove to unite her political activism with her personal expression in a way that now seems wholly familiar. But we must remember that in Victorian England (as today in many parts of the world), the walls between men and women, between public and private life, were high, and there were risks of disgrace, humiliation, and even incarceration for those who tried to pull them down.

It is, then, in her historical context that Mason insists we must consider Eleanor Marx and other activists like her, to try to make sense of their passionate commitment: “The 1880s are a period in which everybody in the world who calls themselves socialist is basically entranced by the sudden possibility of a mass labor movement. You can see it coming: [in America] the Haymarket riots and the Knights of Labor, the French anarcho-syndicalists, the British dock and matchgirls strikes. You can see it unfolding. It must have been like opening a Christmas present. That must have obsessed them to the point where everything is posed around the question of: what are we going to do to make this happen?”

Today, when the pressures of global capitalism are rising again to boiling point, and many activists are posing this question once more, we should raise a glass to Eleanor Marx and remember how she struggled to create dynamic collective change without sacrificing her individual complexity.

Kate Webb is a freelance critic who writes for the TLS, the Guardian and Al Jazeera. Her essays on Angela Carter and Christina Stead have been published by Virago, Macmillan, and the Halstead Press. She is writing a book about the dream life of Eleanor Marx.

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2 comments for Kate Webb: The Individual Complexity of Eleanor Marx

  1. Comment by John on July 27, 2014 at 8:24 am

    An excellent comment on a remarkable woman, dedicated to progressive politics and the emancipation of the wealth producing classes.

    There is a confusing issue in the article however and it is the lurch between ”British” and ”English”; these terms are not synonymous. Chakrabarti refers to ”English” rights etc – I haven’t a clue what these are. Are they different from rights in Wales, N. Ireland and Scotland? A little less parochialism and some more internationalism would be welcome here.

    ”Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the British human rights organization” …, ”Choose between English rights and human rights. I’m telling you if you choose English rights.”…”Victorian England”..”.the British dock and matchgirls strikes…”

    I am British but I am not English. I reject the conflation of British and English in this otherwise excellent article.

  2. Comment by John on July 28, 2014 at 9:21 am

    It’s disheartening to make comment on mistakes in an article only to find it ignored. I wouldn’t mind if you objected to it, but silence in the face of a correction isn’t a good idea.

    I’m certain the anarchists of Guernica wouldn’t have behaved like this – they would speak. What aspect of differing opinion are you afraid of?

    Good luck.

    John Border

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