14 June 2018 **** Front Page

Eleanor Marx – The woman history overlooked

By Tapani Lausti

Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life. Bloomsbury 2014.

Having been reading Karl Marx's and Friedrich Engels's writings since my youth, reading this biography of Marx's daughter Eleanor, made me realise how little I knew about the personal lives of all three. Eleanor comes through as an amazing personality whose role as a radical activist, orator, writer and translator was quite stunning.

But also Marx and Engels come alive in this book in a way that surprised me. As human beings they seemed to have been more interesting than I had realised. Even given some aspects of 19 th century life, they seem to have been very liberal in their attitudes to children and women. In spite of this, Karl Marx's domineering attitude did create problems for Eleanor. This did not, however, diminish her respect for her father's work. For many years, she worked with many of Marx's texts, editing and translating, and later with her newly-found joy in life, finishing texts with a typewriter.

Eleanor “Tussy” Marx's own important role in the history of socialism might not be well known even among socialists. Already in the preface Holmes highlights her historical status: “The life of Eleanor Marx was one of the most significant and interesting events in the evolution of social democracy in Victorian Britain.”

Holmes laments that her legacy for future generations is unacknowledged. She was one of the first and most prominent leaders of the new trade unionism. In addition she introduced feminism to the international trade union movement. She argued that the oppression of women has a disastrous effect on men. It hampers the development of the whole of humanity. Holmes writes: “Eleanor had argued consistently throughout her political life so far that it was essential for women and men to work together in order to effectively address the question of women's oppression in society.”

Many male trade unionists admired her deeply, not only because of the education she had given them. Her enthusiasm and capacity for incredibly hard work impressed everyone around her. Wherever Tussy spoke, she drew in large crowds. She was immensely popular.

Two shadows darkened Eleanor's personal life. Engels was supposed to have had a son called Freddy with Marx's housekeeper Helene Demuth (Lenchen). But just before Engels's death the truth came out: Freddy's real father was Karl Marx. Tussy was devastated. Holmes writes that simultaneously “Tussy lost both Engels and her idealisation of her father. It was the fact of not knowing, not the deed, that stunned her.” In spite of these personal complications, Lenchen and Marx's wife Jenny remained close friends.

The other shadow was Eleanor's partner Edward Aveling whose questionable life style created huge problems for Tussy. Edward was notorious for his financial irresponsibility and womanising. Eventually Eleanor suffered from loneliness which was brought on by Edward's emotional abandonment. As Holmes says: “Eleanor loved Edward. Edward loved himself.”

Hard work was Tussy's medicine. She prepared tirelessly newly published works of Marx and Engels. Many great works of Marxism were edited by her. When Eduard Berstein started to claim that Marx's theories were no longer correct for the end of the nineteenth century, Eleanor, knowing her father's work intimately, was able to argue Bernstein point by point.

Eleanor's personal grief finally led to her suicide. Many people blamed Edward Aveling, they even suspected that he actually murdered her. If he hadn't died four months after Eleanor, several people would have dragged him to court. According to Holmes, one of Eleanor's closest friends, the South African writer Olive Schreiner never doubted her first instincts that Aveling was a conman who would be the death of Eleanor if she didn't leave him.

Another friend recalled that Tussy admitted of being occasionally tired of life. “But who in her line of work wouldn't be sometimes?” Holmes asks.

In the Afterword Holmes writes: “Many of the freedoms and benefits of modern democracy Britain inherited for the twentieth century and beyond to our own millenium were a direct result of the work done by Eleanor Marx and women and men like her.”

Holmes adds: “Eleanor took the longer view of history, so would not be surprised to know the sequel is still in the process of being written and would no doubt remark encouragingly, ‘Go ahead!'”

Like Fiona McCarthy with her biography of William Morris, Rachel Holmes offers us a fascinating description of Eleanor Marx's personal and political life. These books are not only history. They encourage us to work towards a future ensuring decent human life. Eleanor Marx and William Morris are people we should never forget.


Read also:

I have written a lot about William Morris in Finnish, especially in my book Tienviittoja tulevaisuuteen (Signposts to the Future).


Archive: Social thinking


[home] [archive] [focus]