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Rachel Holmes: Eleanor Marx’s Radical Freedom

Natasha Lewis interviews Rachel Holmes, author of a new biography that elevates the life of Karl Marx's daughter, the pioneering feminist and socialist organizer.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Rachel-Holmes-c.-Sarah-Hickson-e1430492612203.jpg Rachel Holmes. Photo by Sarah Hickson

On the first international May Day dedicated to workers’ rights in 1890, Eleanor Marx gave a speech in London’s Hyde Park. “I can remember when we came in handfuls of a few dozen to Hyde Park to demand an Eight Hours Bill,” she said to the crowd, “but the dozens have grown to hundreds, and the hundreds to thousands, until we have this magnificent demonstration.” She ended her speech with Shelley’s words from “The Masque of Anarchy,” a poem he wrote in 1819 after a massacre of protestors in the north of England:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many—they are few.

Eleanor—political activist, writer, teacher, and daughter of Karl Marx—had seen the impact a nationwide day of action for shorter working hours could have in the United States, just four years earlier. On May 1, 1886, 300,000 American workers took to the streets to call for an eight-hour working day. The New York Times declared the Eight Hour Movement “un-American,” but working hours were reduced for 200,000 workers and union membership increased, though the week ended tragically whe police retaliated on protesters in Haymarket Square.

At the time, Eleanor was in the United States on an “agitation tour,” making speeches, interviewing workers, and meeting allies. Three years later, the International Socialist Congress of Paris passed a resolution calling for an international demonstration on May 1 for the eight-hour working day (a demand that still feels somewhat radical today, when everyone’s working from bed, and schedules are becoming more and more unreliable).

Eleanor grew up while Karl was writing Capital, and he told her children’s stories based on the book’s ideas. As an adult, she applied his theories to her political organizing, adapting them and expanding them, most crucially combining his Marxism with her feminism. She wrote against middle-class suffragists, who didn’t understand that “the present position of women rests . . . upon an economic basis.” And she organized women workers, forming the first women’s branch of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers in 1889. Eleanor knew, Holmes writes, “By dividing workers by gender, the employers kept everyone’s wages down. If male workers accepted women’s labour as being of less value than their own, they allowed employers to undercut their wages.”

Alongside the story of Eleanor’s political development and public life as a popular writer, speaker, and organizer, Holmes tells the story of Eleanor’s personal life. Much of Holmes’s insight comes from letters written by Eleanor and other women, with whom she shared secrets and advice. “EM to LL,” which stands for Eleanor Marx to Laura Lafargue, the one sister who outlived her, is one of the most common notes at the back of the book. In a letter from the South African author Olive Schreiner to her husband Henry, Olive writes of a conversation she has with Eleanor about periods: “The time of greatest and most wonderful mental activity is just after, and perhaps the last two days of the time, too. Eleanor . . . the only woman I have spoken to on the subject feels much the same.” The final letter Eleanor sends to her half-brother Freddie is urgent. If it had been an email, maybe she would have lived longer.

Writing this the week of May Day 2015, a moment when the national guard are enforcing a curfew in Baltimore, armed with assault rifles, the book feels like a useful insight into a too-short life lived for the hope that the world could be changed. I spoke to Rachel Holmes about Eleanor’s political and personal lives, and why, if we want to take power, we cannot be nice. Happy May Day.

—Natasha Lewis for Guernica

She’s radical and revolutionary not in terms of permanent Marxist revolution, but actually that profound radical transformation of the person.

Guernica: One thing I really liked about the book is how you portray Eleanor’s emotional trajectory as well as her public life. In her younger days, the family are often having a hard time—mostly it’s money troubles and health troubles—but Eleanor is a really happy child. There’s this passage where she’s ill, but she’s having a great time in bed, drinking port, writing letters, and singing Irish freedom songs. In her 20s, she’s struggling to get independence from her parents and especially her Dad, Karl Marx, but she’s not eating or sleeping enough, and she becomes ill. Later she’s a popular organizer, writer, and public speaker, but her home-life is a nightmare, something that she mostly keeps to herself. Why did you decide to include so much of Eleanor’s personal life?

Rachel Holmes: For me the fascination with biography is the life of the individual in the context of history. A biography is never a biography of one person, of course, but the individual life of your protagonist will never conform. It will always bang up against history. All of us are many different people over time. We have our childhood selves, people that we remember, but they’re very different to our adult selves and the way that we create our own naratives is not that dissimilar, I think, to how a biographer structures their narrative of a life. She’s a really jolly child and the pet because she’s the youngest in this family, and she’s almost like an only child because her younger sisters Laura and Jenny have grown up. Although she doesn’t go to school, she has a lot of liberty to write and read with Marx while he’s working, and he shares his ideas with her.

Guernica: So she gets an education from Marx and from others who were around the family home such as Friedrich Engels. This was unlike most girls at that time.

Rachel Holmes: It’s really unusual. This is something that cuts across class: Virginia Woolf’s patriarchal father Sir Leslie Stephen did not feel the need for his daughters to be educated. The Marxes were easygoing and it was a very free-flowing environment: they were European revolutionaries. When you’re writing, you’re making decisions about compression and the shape of a life, which are very similar to how we experience our inner consciousness. But on the other hand you’re also making decisions that are narrative and structural. The reader can’t follow Eleanor Marx to every trade union meeting, and the published book is obviously much shorter than the final manuscript. The terrific thing now is that there are wonderful online sources, so if people want to go and read the whole speech, they can. I like the demotic nature of that. I think it’s a very exciting time to be a historian.

Guernica: A lot of the texts you cite—“The Woman Question,” The Working-Class Movement in America, both of which she wrote with her partner Edward Aveling—are available to read for free online.

Rachel Holmes: marxists.org is an absolutely fantastic website. It’s an international, peer-reviewed site of transcriptions and translations into multiple languages, and it’s very much in the spirit of the movement, intellectually and politically.

The great difficulty is that you cannot be nice. If you want to take back the power, you have to behave in ways that are not conforming and will not be about pleasing other people.

Guernica: How did you first come across Eleanor Marx, and why were you interested in writing about her?

Rachel Holmes: I first encountered her as a historical character in two ways, which is part of the bifurcation of my upbringing. My paternal family are English, so I was born in London and partly brought up there. My maternal family are South African and when I was small and my parents separated my mother and I went back to South Africa. So for me the emergence of my own childhood consciousness was in the context of 1970s and 1980s apartheid South Africa and the movement there. South Africa had a very strong tradition of pro-democracy struggle informed and driven by socialist and Marxist tradition, and so Eleanor Marx was part of the ethos. Why she came into particular view for me at the moment she did had to do with where we were in South African politics a decade post-1994, and a sense of how were things panning out with, for example, the role of women in a democracy. She came up in a conversation I was having with some very dear South African friends, and we used her as an example in a political argument. We looked for the most recent biography out of curiosity —I thought there would be many—and we sat there absolutely flabbergasted because there had been nothing since the Yvonne Kapp, which came out in the early 1970s. If there hasn’t been a biography written for over thirty years, what does the subject look like after the end of the Cold War now the archives have been opened up?

Guernica: You’ve said that Marx and Engels were the theory, and she was the practice, and the fact she’s a woman creates problems with the theory.What did you mean by that and what was she doing?

Rachel Holmes: Eleanor Marx was a pragmatic person of actions and deeds and she was an organizer. Marx and Engels never got in the day to day slog of structural organizational politics. Whereas she—let’s face it, her gender did make a difference—because she was a woman, it was expected that she would be the administrator and the secretary. So she has to make the books work, she has to make sure that the leaflets are right, that people turn up on time, that people are looked after. In one sense this is seen as menial but it’s the absolute backbone of politics. It is only seen as menial because she is a woman. When blokes do this its called activism. Also she’s constantly translating, and she has an enormous facility for language.

Guernica: She translates and edits Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune while she’s having a fling with him in her 20s. When she comes to the United States, she’s translating German socialist speeches into English and urging the German socialists to work with the Knights of Labor.

Rachel Holmes: That’s so important isn’t it? Socialism was in German and Dutch in America at that time.

Guernica: You’ve said you were reluctant to take her on as a subject. Why?

Rachel Holmes: You don’t want to take on a Marx, because that means I’ve got to do Daddy, and I’ve got to read all the intellectual histories and the biographies of Marx, and how much of Capital am I going to have to reread? All of it, basically. When I started working on it, it felt like I had years to go before her conception, because I’m dealing with the pre-history of the family. But going through the archives, what I began to see is she’s the person who is Marx’s original biographer, the person on whose knowledge and records 90 percent of what we know about this family is based. Eleanor Marx was her father’s first biographer. All subsequent biographies of Karl Marx, and most of Engels, draw on her work as their primary sources for the family history, often without knowing it. I think if she’d been a son, she would have been referenced more.

Guernica: Has Eleanor’s gender affected how she’s been remembered?

So many people—whether they’re readers or media—say, “She’s amazing, but I’m just so angry with her: how could she be a really good feminist but in this really crap relationship? Why didn’t she leave him?” And my response is she’s like me, she’s like my friends who are middle aged divorcees.

Rachel Holmes: Before my book, the most common assessment of Eleanor Marx is “Yes, she’s great but basically she’s in the shadow of her father.” Absolute bollocks. She fought him, she resisted, and she was not a kind of trocadateur of his ideas. In the 1880s and 1890s, trade unionists knew her as Our Old Stoker, and she has a reputation in her own right that has little to do with the Marx name. Of course she had that status of the dynastic family, but what moved her out of it was as you say, she’s a girl and she’s a woman. After her father dies, she is one of the leaders of the International, and what’s she coming up against? Gender and sexual difference. When Engels writes The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, just after Karl Marx died, I realized that he’s writing about Eleanor Marx and all of her friends—Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis and Edward Aveling and George Bernard Shaw. Engels wrote elsewhere, “It is a curious fact that with every great revolutionary movement the question of ‘free love’ comes into the foreground,” and he’s seeing this in action with Eleanor’s group. When you’re reading these political, theoretical texts, it’s exciting to see where the ideas came from.

Guernica: Some of the most interesting parts of the book are about her relationship with Edward Aveling, who is almost universally disliked by everyone who loves Eleanor. They live together for years but never marry. She’s financially indpendent, but “free love” doesn’t work out for her as well as it does for Engels. She’s paying Aveling’s debts and doing all the housework, while he’s out with other women. And it’s quite frustrating to read because in many ways she’s so powerful and active and she knows all the theory, but she still ends up in that situation.

Rachel Holmes: I find it really interesting how people take her on, and people get really angry. So many people—whether they’re readers or media—say, “She’s amazing, but I’m just so angry with her: how could she be a really good feminist but in this really crap relationship? Why didn’t she leave him?” And my response is she’s like me, she’s like my friends who are middle aged divorcees. But also this is why she’s a feminist. It’s not in spite of, it is because—because of grappling with that. Many of us have had that experience of being in love with someone and then they end up being your enemy and there’s a stranger in your bed. In many ways, Eleanor’s relationship with Aveling is more complex than that. He didn’t inhibit her in many ways: she did the housework, but he didn’t care that it was sloppy, and they wrote together.

Guernica: She wanted to have children but he didn’t, and they never had any. When reading, I wondered if she’d have had as full a public life if she’d gotten her way.

Rachel Holmes: Yes, I think that was a great contradiction for her. Her sisters were brainy too, and what happened to them? Marriage, childbirth, death. Jenny says to Eleanor, “I’ve just become our mother and I’m so glad you’ve escaped this.” And then poor Laura and Paul Lafargue lost all of their children. So the enormous productivity of her life is also tied to the fact that she didn’t have children. If I were Jacqueline Rose or Susie Orbach, and had more psychoanalytic expertise, were some of these reviews were my patients, I begin to hear something, and it usually is women who are so angry that she didn’t leave him. They point out she’s a really strong intelligent woman, she’s a reviewer, she’s a critic, she’s an actress, she’s an activist, but why’s she still with that annoying man? People want these figures to not be us. We want her to have left and got away from Edward Aveling, which, by the way, I think she was on the cusp of doing. I think he had to drive her back down in that way that sometimes people do in psychotic breakdowns of relationships. Men want to destroy the women: you’ve become bigger than me, people love you more, you have a public platform, that’s my space you’re taking up. I can’t just divorce you, I have to destroy you.

Guernica: What do you think Eleanor Marx would be doing today?

Rachel Holmes: In the UK, for May Day in advance of the election, I think she would organize a broad coalition, and a big rally. She’d be in conversation with a lot of people. She’d go to the unions, Labour Party backbenchers, to allies, those people who were not part of the New Labour sell out. I think she’d go to some of the Liberal Democrats and some of the one-nation Tories who are very concerned about attacks on civil society, the liberal Tories. I think she would go to some of the organizers of the big literary festivals and music festivals, and obviously she’d go to the newspapers. She would of course be involved with the trade unions. Right now the trade unions in the UK are campaigning around zero-hours contracts, which isn’t about feminism, but it’s a feminist issue. Women are affected by zero-hours contracts, and the recession has and is affecting women more than men.

Guernica: Zero-hours contracts is the British name for a problem that exists in the United States, too. Employers hire people under contracts that don’t guarantee any hours and scheduling is completely unreliable, so you might be called in at the last minute or travel to work to be told you’re not needed that day. The U.S. labor movement is also organizing around this issue.

Rachel Holmes: In Eleanor’s day, workers were campaigning for the eight-hour day and she was heavily involved in that campaign. The fight against unfair scheduling is like the fight for a regulated work day—it’s people fighting for reasonable conditions at work and to have a life, so you can have some leisure.

Guernica: Since this interview will be out on May Day, could you say a bit more about the history of the campaign for the eight-hour day and Eleanor’s involvement in it?

Rachel Holmes: The goal of the first International May Day celebrations was the eight-hour working day. In the book, I tell the story of Eleanor’s leadership of the long campaign for the eight-hour day, and how May Day became the focus of that struggle. Eleanor was involved in the 1889 Paris congress resolution that established May Day as an annual demonstration of the international solidarity of labour in the demand for a legal eight-hour day. On the first May Day in 1890 she addressed a mass demonstration in Hyde Park, London, and gave one of the most brilliant, famous speeches of her career that sums up her determined socialist internationalism, commitment to British trade unionism, and the need for a parliamentary labour party to represent working people. She ended her speech by reciting Shelley’s “The Masque of Anarchy.”

Guernica: Could you talk a bit about her interest in theater and literature? How did she see the relationship between art and politics?

Rachel Holmes: She saw culture and politics as completely interrelated and was as much a woman of the arts and letters as of activism. She was the first translator of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into the English language and a champion of Ibsen, and she saw the enormous feminist significance of these great works of literature. Her attempts at acting, though charming and enthusiastic, were less successful. This was in part owing to the dearth in strong heroic parts for women and ultimately, perhaps, because she was too authentic and forceful a character to play anyone other than herself.

Guernica: As you mentioned, you did a lot of scholarly research for this book, but the book’s not written for academics. Who were you writing for?

Rachel Holmes: It’s not an academic book. but it’s very rigorous. There’s no reason for ideas to be convoluted. I wanted Eleanor Marx’s ideas, her life, her politics, which I believe are so fundamentally important in British history, to have a bigger platform. We’re all story-telling creatures, and also I think that’s the point about biography because the life is exemplary. The basic precept of Marx’s historical materialism involves the role of the individual in relation to history. Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx, which I really like, includes really clear expositions of some of his thinking and some of the theories. These ideas are big and democratic and popular, and they don’t belong to finnicky scholars. Some of the really important feedback and discussion I’ve had on my Twitter feed is from young women, school leavers, at university and in their twenties and I’m just blown away by how they engage with it.

Guernica: There’s a part when you say Eleanor believed women have to take equality for themselves—they can expect some male allies, but they can’t expect much more, and they definitely can’t expect anything from men as a whole. How would Eleanor respond to that kind of mainstream feminism today, like the HeForShe campaign, that puts the fight for gender equality into the hands of men?

Rachel Holmes: When I say she’s revolutionary and she’s radical, I stick by every syllable. She’s radical and revolutionary not in terms of permanent Marxist revolution, but actually that profound radical transformation of the person. What does it mean to be free? How do you get equality? And she’s radical and she’s a revolutionary in so far as you cannot ask for permission. People don’t give up power and privilege out of the goodness of their hearts. One of the key things about the entitlement and power of patriarchy, but also within feminism, is not that it’s wilful nastiness. But you can’t ask for permission. You can negotiate and you can bring people on board and you can build a base but you can’t expect for it to be given. In terms of feminism, Eleanor Marx is really important in this way and it comes back to something she said about American women being more forthright and not caring about seeming to be proper. The great difficulty is that you cannot be nice. If you want to take back the power, you have to behave in ways that are not conforming and will not be about pleasing other people, but will be about displeasing people who are closest to you so your mother, your father, your sister, your boyfriend, your husband. Not being nice girls and not apologizing, and accepting all the darkness that goes with it is absolutely essential.

Natasha Lewis is an editor at Dissent magazine.

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