Eleanor Marx

Issue section: 
(393)

If you are looking for a book to take on holiday, then look no further. This is a book that is both politically important and enormous fun to read.

Rachel Holmes obviously adores Eleanor Marx, or Tussy as she was known. It is hard not to. As Holmes writes, “If Karl Marx was the theory, Eleanor Marx was the practice.”

She was the first female trade union leader, she co-founded the Socialist League (the precursor to the Labour Party), she was a pioneering feminist, and was the first to translate Flaubert’s classic Madame Bovary.

Tussy was a hero of the Great Dock Strike of 1889. Hundreds of dockers would turn up at the dock gates each morning competing for a day’s work — some of the worst treated workers in the country. Given confidence by the East End strikes of the Match Girls and Gas Workers, Ben Tillet led the fight to unionise the docks. Eleanor Marx was the key figure in organising the support for the strike.

The book is not all undiluted praise. Holmes recognises Tussy’s contradictions. Eleanor did not see a great divide between her public and private lives “even when she tripped over them and sent her flying”. It is fair to say she had toxic relationships with men.

There is a strong suggestion that she was murdered by her lover Edward Aveling, metaphorically if not literally. Holmes writes about Eleanor’s financially poor but emotionally and culturally indulgent upbringing, separately to her father’s indiscretions so that the opening chapters read like a manual of how to raise a socialist child.

Tussy’s relationship with her father and with Engels was thrown into crisis with the discovery that Marx had fathered a child with their maid.

One of the main aims in Holmes’s biography seems to be to firmly position Eleanor as a socialist feminist. Holmes is a historian who specialises in the Victorian era, and one of the tantalising things about Eleanor Marx is that she is both a modern socialist woman and a product of a different age.

Had she not taken her own life at just 43 she might have lived well into the 20th century. Who knows what contribution Marx’s remarkable daughter might have made to the “century of wars and revolution”?

This book doesn’t entirely replace the earlier extensive two-volume biography by Yvonne Kapp — but that book is out of print and, while excellent in its own way, it is long and stained with Kapp’s soft stalinism. We can only hope Holmes’ book helps to bring Eleanor Marx to a new generation of women and socialists.