Book Review from the August 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Eleanor Marx', by Rachel Holmes. Bloomsbury £12.99.
‘Eleanor Marx changed the world,’ reads the first sentence of this biography’s preface. This is a grand claim to make and one which is not truly borne out. Its subject’s life is remarkable enough, without having to exaggerate.
Eleanor was born in 1855, the youngest by ten years of the three children of Jenny and Karl Marx who survived beyond childhood. Holmes gives a vivid description of the crowded, multilingual, literature-loving Marx household where she grew up. She had little formal education but learned a great deal from her father.
She was determined that her life not be taken over by pregnancy, childcare and household labours, with little opportunity for a career or committed political activism, as she had seen happen to her mother and sisters. She was indeed a dedicated and meticulous administrator and organiser in political groups and trade unions, such as the dockers and gas workers. She also taught basic literacy and numeracy to many union officials. In addition, Eleanor became her father’s secretary and research assistant, edited and published some of his works after his death (such as Value, Price and Profit), and was his first biographer. Many of her writings can be read online at www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/ .
One aspect of her rejection of prevailing values was her decision to live with a man who was already married, though separated from his wife. Unfortunately her partner was Edward Aveling: virtually everyone seems to have disliked him, and Holmes describes him as ‘an attractive, clever cad’. He had a series of affairs, was an inveterate conman and liar, and consistently strung Eleanor along with promises to marry her and start a family. She died in 1898, committing suicide after yet another betrayal by Aveling.
The nature of her political views can be seen in this extract from a speech made in the US in 1886, in which she advocated ‘abolishing all private property in land, machinery, factories, mines, railways etc.; in a word, in all means of production and distribution. But this is not abolishing private property; it means giving property to the thousands and millions who today have none.’ In 1884 she was a member of the executive council of the Social-Democratic Federation, but at the end of that year, with Aveling, William Morris and others, she founded the Socialist League, in opposition to HM Hyndman’s jingoism. The League officially advocated working through parliament to achieve its aims, but Eleanor resigned in 1887, since it was subject to too much influence from anarchists. As she said in another speech in the US: ‘the socialist … believes in political action, in the seizure of political power by the working class as the only means of attaining that complete economic emancipation which is the final aim’. She was later reconciled with the SDF.
As for changing the world, this seems to mean essentially paving the way for others to fight for and win such matters as votes for women and the outlawing of child labour. Holmes describes Eleanor as ‘the foremother of socialist feminism’: she certainly opposed anti-women prejudice in trade unions, for instance, and double standards concerning men and women who lived together without being married (she felt she had to explain her decision to others, while Aveling did not).
This is a lively and well-researched biography; it is just a pity that some of the claims made are overblown, and quite unnecessarily so.