Rediscovering Eleanor Marx

Issue section: 

Karl Marx's daughter helped organise unskilled workers in the East End of London. Here we reprint a section of the new Rebel's Guide, plus an extract of Eleanor Marx's May Day speech, and Siobhan Brown explains why she wrote the book.

The Great Dock Strike of 1889 represents New Unionism’s most significant action, involving thousands of workers in east London. An estimated 150,000 families relied on port work in the 1880s. It was mostly casual, with just 10 percent of workers having permanent and regular employment.

Beginning in Poplar in mid-August before spreading up and down the river and into other trades, the strike involved 37,000 workers by 22 August. By 25 August there were an estimated 130,000 strikers involved, including ship painters, carpenters and workers in largely female trades such as jam, biscuit and match manufacturing.

Workers in different industries often lived in the same slums, were members of the same families and came from the same areas of origin in Ireland, Scotland and England.

These workers were often deemed “unskilled”. They were anything but. In gasworks, for instance, workers had to contend with numerous hazards and often for very long days and nights. The drive to profit through the use of new machinery made for very skilled and tiring work.

Eleanor described scenes at the docks: “The men fight and push and hustle like beasts — not men — and all to earn at best 3d or 4d an hour! So serious has the struggle become that the ‘authorities’ have had to replace certain iron pailings with wooden ones — the weaker men got impaled in the crush!”

As well as the female branches of Eleanor’s gas workers’ union, women were continuously involved in New Unionism and the Great Dock Strike in particular.

Women showed their support in visible ways. During a demonstration of some 10,000 workers marching through the City, the procession stopped to encourage some scabs to stop work.

William Morris reported in Commonweal that “on their not complying, groans and execrations burst from the crowd, the women being the loudest”. Louise Raw also notes further support for the dock strike among women workers: “Female participation in the strike was again demonstrated when 150 tinplate workers, ‘mostly girls’, came out in solidarity, and ‘when a procession of dock labourers passed [them]... they followed in the rear, singing and dancing and playing mouth-organs’.”


During the Dock Strike, Eleanor played an important role behind the scenes. She undertook much of the administration during the strike. This was a critical task to organise support for thousands of strikers and their families while employers were trying to force them back to work. A newspaper report of the time describes how Eleanor Marx and local women “work in the interests of the strikers, some 16 or 17 hours a day”.

Eleanor Marx and other socialists argued for the importance of solidarity and self-organisation. The move away from “up on high” preaching of socialist ideas towards on-the-ground organisation was a radical departure from the norms of British socialism at the time.

The May Day demonstration of 1890 was when New Unionism was at its most visible. It was here that Eleanor Marx made one of her most famous speeches (see below).

From Silvertown to Stepney to the cities across Britain, New Unionism represented — without overstatement — one of the turning points of working class history. On 7 September, The East London News main editorial, with the headline “Strike Fever”, summed up how widespread the strikes were:

“The present week might not inaptly be called the week of strikes — coal men, match girls, parcels postmen, carmen, rag, bone and paper porters and pickers and the employees in jam, biscuit, rope, iron, screw, clothing and railway works have found some grievance, real and imaginary, and have followed the infectious example of coming out on strike.”

That “infectious example” remains an inspiration today. Workers who were told and believed for years that they could not improve their working conditions, their pay or their hours were beginning to fight back. Their example destroys the myth that anyone is “unorganisable”. Eleanor played an important part in the success of New Unionism and in giving workers the confidence to fight back.

This is an edited extract from A Rebel’s Guide to Eleanor Marx by Siobhan Brown, published by Bookmarks, £3

Speech on the First May Day

Hyde Park, 4 May 1890

We have not come to do the work of political parties, but we have come here in the cause of labour, in its own defence, to demand its own rights.

I can remember when we came in handfuls of a few dozen to Hyde Park to demand an Eight Hours’ Bill, but the dozens have grown to hundreds, and the hundreds to thousands, until we have this magnificent demonstration that fills the park today. We are standing face to face with another demonstration, but I am glad to see that the great masses of the people are on our side.

Those of us who have gone through all the worry of the Dock Strike, and especially the Gasworkers’ Strike, and have seen the men, women and children stand round us, have had enough of strikes, and we are determined to secure an eight hours’ day by legal enactment; unless we do so, it will be taken from us at the first opportunity.

We will only have ourselves to blame if we do not achieve the victory which this great day could so easily give us.

There is in the park this afternoon a man whom Mr Gladstone once imprisoned — Michael Davitt; but Mr Gladstone is now on the best of terms with him. What do you suppose is the reason for the change? Why has the Liberal Party been so suddenly converted to Home Rule? Simply because the Irish people sent 80 members to the House of Commons to support the Conservatives; in the same way we must kick these Liberal and Radical members out if they refuse to support our programme.

I am speaking this afternoon not only as a Trade Unionist, but as a Socialist. Socialists believe that the eight hours’ day is the first and most immediate step to be taken, and we aim at a time when there will no longer be one class supporting two others, but the unemployed both at the top and at the bottom of society will be got rid of.

This is not the end but only the beginning of the struggle; it is not enough to come here to demonstrate in favour of an eight hours’ day. We must not be like some Christians who sin for six days and go to church on the seventh, but we must speak for the cause daily, and make the men, and especially the women that we meet, come into the ranks to help us.

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.

Abridged (from Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx, Vol 2, 1976)

Why I wrote the Rebel’s Guide

Eleanor Marx is someone who is often misrepresented. Many people — even socialists — know her as the partner of a cheating academic, as a tragic figure who committed suicide, or simply as the youngest daughter of Karl Marx.

She was much more than all those things. She was shaped by the times she lived and worked throughout. An early interest was the Irish republican movement. She had a close relationship with Friedrich Engels, her father’s closest collaborator, and his connections with the Irish community in Manchester were a source of great inspiration.

At 16, she visited France during the Paris Commune and was imprisoned and interrogated by the police. Back home she played an important role in organising Commune anniversary meetings and setting up organisations to support Communard refugees.

She translated Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune and helped bring the stories of the Commune to new audiences. Throughout her life she wrote on the workers’ movement and wider issues in society. Her pamphlet The Woman Question from a Socialist Point of View was an important contribution to a Marxist understanding of women’s oppression. She campaigned for reforms to benefit women but always linked these campaigns to the question of revolution.

Eleanor spent the 1880s in a whirl of activity. During the period of New Unionism hundreds of thousands of workers showed that strikes, the more militant the better, could effect real change in their lives. The period is one of great significance and inspiration.

The working class and its organisations had suffered a long downturn. Eleanor played a role in bringing them back to life. She organised solidarity, set up women’s branches in the new unions and jumped on pub tables to speak to workers in London’s East End.

In the book I wanted to bring this movement to life and show how Eleanor related to it. Although she had an interesting cultural and social life, I really wanted to place an emphasis on her political activity.


She would have recognised the world we live in today. An inspiring example that came up again and again in discussions while I was writing the book was that of fast food workers in the US. One of their slogans, “We can’t survive on $7.25”, is exactly the kind of cry the matchwomen, dockers and gas workers of the 1880s would have taken up.

In a society where anti-immigrant myths were constantly perpetuated, she recognised the importance of unity against the bosses and the state. In the 1880s the immigrants were Irish and Jewish. Today they are Bulgarian and Romanian.

At the centre of her arguments was always the emancipation of the working class as the act of the working class itself. Her life was shaped by the struggle for an alternative world.