Thursday, November 5, 2015

Last year's US movies (2001)

From the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
Humanity has created a mostly "inhuman" society, and it is this condition itself that has become the subject of its art - we look at last year's US movies
Traditionally American narrative cinema has concerned itself with a central character or group and telling a story from their lives. More interestingly, these characters and the landscapes within which they move are symbols of the cultural concerns of the people who make movies: screenwriters, directors, actors, cinematographers and their employers, the producers and financiers. The purpose of this review of the last year's films is to discover these concerns and define any shared cultural/political trends in the American movie industry. It is symptomatic of the internal contradictions within capitalism that good films are made in spite of the system of production and not because of it; humanity has created a mostly "inhuman" society, and it is this condition itself that has become the subject of its art. Capitalists are ambivalent about this because although a powerful and entertaining observation of the social condition can provide them with a profitable movie it can also serve to undermine their ideology.
Such would seem to be the case in American Beauty which enjoys itself with an amusing destruction of suburban "middle-class" values and beliefs. As a result of his alienated life the hero develops an obsession with his daughter's best friend. This new focus in his life motivates him to turn away from his career and family but inevitably leads to greater social disaster. As he expires in the wreckage of his life the film provides us with a sentimental vision of the innocence of first love as salvation from the horrors of suburban American life. A film about alienation with no political content seems unlikely but that's what it takes to win a sackful of Oscars from the Hollywood establishment these days.
Although indulging a similar pleasure in portraying the despair and corruption of American society The Insider at least attempts a political perspective. Here we are back in one of Hollywood's favourite scenarios of David-versus-Goliath, where an individual takes on the might of big government or a corporation; in this case the tobacco industry. The triumph of the moral victory is monumentally pyrrhic in the context of the habitual crushing of workers' ethical sensibilities by the wheels of the American profit juggernaut. This is recognised by Al Pacino's last line: "when some things are broken they can't be fixed"; which for a socialist sounds like a rejection of reformism and a call for revolution, but is probably heard as a voice of despair and political impotence by the audience as they bask in the fleeting superficial glow of moral redemption provided by the movie's end.
Russell Crowe (the co-star of The Insider) went on to star in last year's mega-blockbuster Gladiator; an attempt to revive the historical epic genre. It has long been a cliché to regard this "sword-and-sandal" genre as a metaphor for American imperialism despite their anti-imperialist narratives because of the obvious delight in the reconstruction of the military spectacle of ancient Rome (Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, The Robe, Spartacus, etc). Unusually, in contrast to this convention, there is in Gladiator an explicit identification with Roman militarism right from the start. Maximus, the hero, is betrayed because of the power his military successes bring him. Although technically brilliant the movie resolves itself into yet another dreary revenge narrative. At least there is no Christian dimension and it does have entertaining references to its generic predecessors.
This self-referential theme is also responsible for Shaft 2000 which also attempts to revive a genre, this time one of the seventies known as "blaxploitation". The original star, Richard Roundtree, makes an appearance as Samuel L. Jackson's "Uncle Shaft" and their enjoyment of the usual urban carnage is all very amusing, but the cynicism exhibited by the characters is depressing when compared with the original's odyssey through black radical politics. In the political vacuum of postmodern America the Black Panthers are regarded as a mere retro-fashion statement.
An altogether more thoughtful investigation of another of postmodernism's themes can be found in Nurse Betty which examines the part that the relationship between media and audience plays in American cultural identity. Betty, as the result of a trauma, comes to believe that she is one of the characters in her favourite soap opera. After avoiding the pursuit of a contract killer and his apprentice she actually finds herself playing the part she has identified with in the soap opera itself. Only her potential killer understands her delusion because his own homicidal career has become an act for him. If, as the movie suggests, the American audience understands who they are by reference to media stereotypes then what we have here is a frightening vision of the power of the medium's social manipulation.
Yet another, but much darker, variation of the same obsession with identify can be found in Memento. Here our "hero" suffers from short-term memory loss and has to literally inscribe on his own body who he is and what has happened to him using tattoos. The narrative is retrospective and follows his story through the perspectives of the other characters. It is hard to evade the feeling that this is a commentary on the notoriously short attention span of the American audience. The episodic nature of the story reminds one of the seemingly inexhaustible appetite for the next novelty of entertainment, having forgotten what they've just seen.
If it is true that we can trace a shared theme in the preceding films in terms of alienated characters seeking an identity within a media-dominated society, then two last examples take this idea to its extreme. The first explores a trans-cultural identity where the protagonist assumes the persona of a samurai and calls himself "Ghost Dog". To further thicken the cultural stew the samurai is black, his master is a Mafiosi, his best friend is a French-speaking Haitian ice-cream seller and the landscape is New York. The superficial identities of the Dog and his friend unravel when the ice-cream is discovered not to be the "best in America" and that bushido philosophy cannot cope with love and betrayal. The trans-cultural conceit collapses with the realisation of their exploitation by the capitalist system.
To counter all of this cultural despair and remind us of its absurd comic potential we have Being John Malkovich. The spooky reality of the puppets contrasts with the surrealistic company that exists on half a floor of a corporate building which hides a secret portal into the head of the celebrated actor John Malkovich. Our puppeteer hero discovers the portal and from inside the head we experience the vacuity of a celebrity existence. He subsequently sells tickets for others to visit, and when one of the punters believes herself to be John Malkovich and attempts to influence his life, this betrays the existence of the portal to its owner. In a magnificently funny symbol of the symbiotic relationship between media star and his audience Malkovich enters his own head and experiences the full horror of the political and aesthetic sterility of the narcissistic showbiz culture.
American mass-media from the pulp fiction and nickelodeon of the 19th century to the sports arena and multiplexes of the early 21st has always relied on the opiate of novelty and entertainment; but the tensions and contradictions within the content of some of the best of American cinema might lead some to turn away from the coliseum of Hollywood and reflect like Derek Jacobi does in Gladiator, saying: "I'm not of the people, but I'm for the people." In such a rejection of the identities offered by the capitalist media we might all finally focus on the reality of the need to resolve the class struggle.
Andrew Westley

So They Say: Rouble Backhanders (1974)

The So They Say Column from the January 1974 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rouble Backhanders

A "Housing Scandal" was reported in The Times on 6th November. A Trade Minister, a Mayor, a chief city architect and various senior officials were sacked for corrupt practices and "numerous instances of gross violations of legality".
Those involved are charged with abusing their official positions by allotting housing space through favouritism, and flagrant contravention of the laws and regulations.  . . . (The Mayor) was removed for abetting various people in the illegal possession of flats and by his general acquiescence. The chief architect was dismissed for neglecting long-range plans for the city's future development, for falling to improve the quality of construction work and the unauthorized occupancy of a flat in the same board of trade housing development.
This sounds like an extract from the Poulson proceedings, but it is not. The report comes from the Times' Moscow correspondent, and refers to Tbilisi, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Georgia. We used to hear that this sort of thing happened only in the "decadent" west' but capitalism has the same effects everywhere.

Moves in a Mysterious Way

Some time ago and American sued thirty churches for redress after an injury to him was attributed to an "Act of God". heath and Wilson may both be thinking on similar lines. Under the headline HEATH WARNING ON UNCONTROLLABLE ECONOMIC FORCES, the Prime Minister was recently reported speaking of things beyond him: 
. . . we are faced by economic forces outside the nation's control which affect the livelihood of every man, woman and child in this country. (Times, 6th December 1973)
The same night, Wilson expressed the same sentiment in a party political broadcast:
But the leader of the Opposition said he would not blame everything that was happening on the Government. "For example, I've made it clear I do not think they are responsible for the present oil crisis . . . Some aspects of world prices, foodstuffs, are not their responsibility."
So these Men of Destiny, casting masterful eyes on the turbulence round them, say — what? That they are stumped.

Ask Them Another

However, it must not be thought that the current economic troubles are due to the ineptitude of fatheads like Heath and Wilson. Similar admissions are now being made by heads of state and erstwhile whizz-kids all over the world. On 2nd December the Sunday Times Business News had JAPAN: BRAKES ON THE BULLET ECONOMY. The Tokyo correspondent wrote:
The oil crisis, commodity shortages, a Cabinet re-shuffle including a change of Finance Minister, not to mention he usual uncertainties of economic forecasting, all these have thrown Japan's exports into a state of nearly total confusion.
The Economic Planning Agency admits: "It is impossible to give a responsible answer." A more assured member of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry says: "Nobody really knows, but . . ."
There was a symmetry between this and the item below it, headed THE US: NO ONE REALLY KNOWS. It spoke of forecasts of "unemployment nearly doubling to 7.5 per cent. or 8 per cent", and went on:
Most professional economists now admit that they have only the vaguest notions of what will happen in the next 12 months . . . no one knows how US export trade—considered to be one of the strong factors of the American economy—will be affected by economic slowdowns in Europe and Japan.
All now agree unanimously — but, being "experts" only temporarily — with the Socialist Party's case that capitalism cannot be controlled.

Alone I Did It

An example of the absurdity and anarchy of capitalism is shown in a report from Brazil. Like every other country, Brazil has sought "growth". As elsewhere, this is supposed to promise higher living standards for the workers — but, of course, not in the foreseeable future. Antonio Delfim Netto, "the Erhardt of Brazil's economic miracle" is quoted six months ago explaining what would happen of wages rose: "Easy, there would be runaway inflation." 

But labour shortages have enabled Brazilian workers to demand, and get, higher wages. And this has enabled the pragmatic Delfim (a) to admit that growth has nothing for the working class, and (b) to pretend he arranged for a labour shortage instead.
Last week Professor Delfim admitted that Brazil's chosen vehicle of expansion (the market economy) did not provide any mechanism for reducing the level of inequality, but professed himself happy with the effect which the emerging shortages of labour have produced. "This," he said, "is what we have worked for all the time." (Guardian, 4th December 1973)
Obviously this "miracle-worker' hasn't a clue, except to making up ingenuous answers. What will he say when labour shortage gives way to redundancies?

Beware of Them — They're Like Us

We have from America a leaflet headed WHAT YOUNG PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT COMMUNISM, apparently issued by the FBI. It urges every citizen to look out for "espionage, sabotage, and subversion activities". What it refers to, of course, is state capitalism: the first thing people should know about Communism is that it does not exist in the places implied, Russia, Cuba, China, etc.

But even taking the leaflet at its face value, it contains a curious self-contradiction. One side says, quoting J. Edgar Hoover:
Why is Communism a threat to you? Communists want to control everything: where you live, where you work, what you are paid, what streetcars you ride (or whether you walk), how your children are educated, what you may not and must read and write . . . 
On the other side people are told they can combat Communism by:
  1. Being good students (doing a good job at school)
  2. Being good citizens at home and in the community
  3. Learning more about the history of America
  4. Being willing to do their share for our country.
Thus, the way to prevent being told what to do, what to read, etc. is to let yourself be told what to do, what to read, etc. Which highlights the fact that there is no difference worth troubling about.

Putting it Simply

We are often told that the language of Socialist economics is too weighty for the man in the street who reads football reports. The report of Queens Park Rangers v. Sheffield United in The Observer on 9th December began:
The leather spheroid never looked like evading the custodian.
It means nobody could get the ball past the goalkeeper.
Robert Barltrop

Class, Micropolitics & Solidarity (1996)

From the October 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialists recognise that workers who are involved in reform campaigns are, at least, trying to gain some control over their lives.
What do we find if we examine, quickly, the present state of class struggle in this little corner of world capitalism known as Britain?

Looking first at what we might call the traditional areas of organised conflict, trade union activity, there has been something of a flurry of activity over the last couple of months with tube strikes and postal strikes particularly in the news. This has fairly predictably led to the government threatening more repression and further curbs on union powers, to the point of considering an outright ban on strikes in "essential services", though such a ban may be rendered impossible by the difficulty of defining what is or is not an essential service.

These disputes drag on as management, more used these days to little overt resistance from workers, continue to try to impose their will on hostile workforces. Simultaneously, the unions are stung to greater efforts of resistance not only by the hostile interference of both the Tory government and the Labour so-called opposition.

Of course, these remain relatively minor disputes and the reactions of the two major parties represent the efforts of the capitalist state to stamp out what it thinks are the dying embers of workers' resistance. It is possible that such efforts by the state might actually cause sparks to ignite further flare-ups of open conflict; what's certainly the case is that they can never succeed in entirely extinguishing class struggle because the capitalist system itself continually produces both fuel and ignition.

What of other manifestations of conflict? What of the so-called "micropolitical" struggles—Newbury, Wexports, the "land is ours" campaign and the like?

As far as the major parties are concerned, the future has been abandoned. Mainstream politics, with Labour and the Tories drawing so close together, has nothing to offer but more of the same, world without end—unless of course things simply get worse. This political sclerosis and ideological entropy means that all the political energy has migrated elsewhere, out of parliamentarianism and into either charities or loosely-organised protest actions, both areas being primarily defensive.

There are many people including many of those involved in such struggles, who will question the relevance of class to these protests and actions. They are, after all, specifically "micropolitical", single-issue campaigns, concerned it would seem, purely and simply with specific, very localised outcomes.

Newbury bypass protesters, for example, would probably consider the notion that their campaign to stop a road from being built (and save a rare snail) had a class aspect as absurd. But then, why should we assume that a struggle must necessarily be self-conscious? The class struggle is, in fact, an inevitable feature of the capitalist system, whether those involved are conscious of it or not, being the result of irreducible conflicts of material interest under capitalism.

While the immediate aim of those at Newbury may be "simply" to stop the construction of a road for ecological reasons, it should be recognised that this does not in itself mean that important issues of class are excluded from the entire structure of the conflict that is involved. There is a very important question of power at issue here, which is always a vitally important element of class relations. Class and capitalism are inevitably involved, so these issues are not really "micro" at all but actually have global, social and economic implications. 

Whatever else may be involved, the conflict over the Newbury bypass is one in which working-class people are struggling for some degree of democratic control over their environment, which inevitably brings them into conflict with the state and with capitalist big business.

Of course, it needs to be recognised that most struggles such as these are doomed to failure in the long term, and that when they are successful, they will lead only to further struggles ad infinitum, as long as the capitalist system itself continues to exist; as long as, that is, working people don't actually have real democratic control over our own lives. These struggles are (as in trade-unionism) defensive, as they react to impositions and the diktats passed down from the capitalists and their public lieutenants in the state, even though they also express a desire for something more, something better than what there already is. Part of the problem is that this desire is left vague, ethereal, relatively inarticulate, and the energy released by it is frittered away in specific short-term, defensive struggles, often without even recognising connections between them, or with apparently different but ultimately related and overlapping struggles such as those involving unions or tenants groups.

A recent example of an inspired, but ultimately doomed (as those involved will have no doubt realised all along), "micropolitical" action involved four women entering a British Aerospace factory in order to disarm military aircraft bound for Indonesia. These women, from the anti-war group Ploughshares, undertook this action as a protest against Indonesian state terrorism in East Timor, where it is assumed the planes were to be used against the civilian population (or against East Timorese rebels—although, if reports are to believed, that does in fact mean pretty much the entire population).

What is particularly interesting, and heartening, about this event is the strong element of solidarity involved. First of all, and most obviously, there is the solidarity of the women with the East Timorese people against the (Indonesian) state and big business (and not just British Aerospace—Indonesian aggression, and Australian support for it, is driven, surprise surprise, by economics, specifically by the existence of oil in the Timor Sea). Presumably the action was undertaken in order to publicise the situation in East Timor and therefore the women were expecting to be arrested and convicted of "criminal damage"; to that extent they will consider their action to have been relatively successfully.

What will have made it still more successful for them is the fact that they were actually acquitted by a jury on 30 July, despite having admitted their actions, simply arguing that they were ethically justified. This brings us to the second example of solidarity—that of the working people in the jury who decided that the women were indeed justified in their actions.

By the letter of the law, it seems apparent that these four women should surely have been convicted; they had broken the law. But, while we should hold no illusions concerning the jury's motives in acquitting them, i.e., there seems no reason to think that it was specifically done with this in mind, their act of solidarity threw the whole notion of legality into question.

Working-class solidarity can go beyond legality; there is little enough such solidarity around at the moment, and it is understandable, if, for example, threats by the state against union rights make the union movement somewhat nervous, but it must also be recognised that the union leaders seems to have forgotten that such a thing as solidarity is even possible. But it is absolutely vital; whatever the laws says, class solidarity can make the law unworkable anyway.

The laws of the state are made workable only by the active consent of its "subjects", the working class, and can therefore be made unworkable by the withdrawal of that consent. This is an absolutely basic lesson to be drawn from the history of the trade-union movement; if the relatively class-conscious workers hadn't been willing to break the law, and back each other up, in the first place, there would be no unions today. This is a lesson that trade unionists, even more than those involved in "micropolitics" (who seem to have at least some consciousness of it) have to re-learn today so that they can regroup, grow once more as an effective force within capitalism, and defend themselves and the immediate interests of working people more effectively.

That said, there is an air of expectancy among the unions at the moment, an expectancy that flies in the face of all the evidence, that Labour will somehow "put things right" if it wins the next election, that they will "set things straight" for the union movement and the working class. But the Labour Party feels little or no solidarity with working people in struggle, and things will anyway always be twisted for workers under capitalism.

As socialists have reiterated time and time again, workers need to stop putting their faith in reformism; capitalism will never, can never, be reformed in our interest. The real interest of the working class will only be served by the abolition of class altogether, along with capitalism in all its forms and will all its iniquitous effects. But also, until the majority of people come to see this and do it, those workers who are drawn into struggle should also realise that reformist appeals to the laws of the capitalist state are irrelevant and solidarity is supremely important. And who knows? Maybe such recognition of a basic commonality of interest could lead more people to realise that those interests are absolutely opposed to the interests of capitalism itself.
Jonathan Clay

Material World: Rising Sea Levels (2015)

The Material World Column from the November 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Tuvalu is one of the smallest countries in the world. It has a population of only 11,500 and has been inhabited for almost 3,000 years. In 1997 the then Tuvalu Prime Minister Koloa Talake addressed world leaders at the Kyoto conference. He petitioned countries around the world to take immediate action on global warming and make the changes needed to stop it in its tracks. He explained his low-lying country was sinking into the Pacific Ocean because of rising sea-levels. The current Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, said climate change was the ‘Enemy Number One’ for his country. The people of Tuvalu don't require scientists to explain it to them. They can see it for themselves. Salt water is flooding the land and the people are having difficulties growing their crops because of salination of the soil. Groundwater is increasingly becoming undrinkable due to sea-water contamination. It is brackish and salty. Islanders are relying on catching rain water.
‘What we are talking about is survival,’ said Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, another island nation in the Pacific Ocean that comprises a population just over 100,000 on a string of atolls barely 3ft (0.9m) above sea level. ‘It’s not about economic development ... it’s not politics. It’s survival.’
Following the Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s joke about the predicament of the low-lying Pacific Islands ('Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door'), President Tong commented ‘What kind of a person is he? As long as there is this kind of attitude, this kind of arrogance in any position of leadership, we will continue to have a lot of tension. It shows a sense of moral irresponsibility quite unbecoming of leadership in any capacity. I find that extremely sad, extremely disappointing that we are making jokes about a very serious issue’. Tong went on to warn Dutton that any future Australian immigration minister will have to deal with a wave of Pacific refugees from low-lying countries like Kiribati, if sea levels continue to rise. ‘I don't think so, I know so, because the science is quite categorical’ he said. Already two islands belonging to Kiribati have been totally submerged.
Nor will it be only vulnerable island-states like Tuvalu, or Kiribati and the thousands of islands around the world that are also just above sea level which will disappear. Vast tracts of river delta are not much higher than the ocean shore while some of the world’s biggest coastal cities are very close to sea level. Approximately 100 million people live in areas below sea level. Tens of millions of people who live in these low-lying areas near the ocean will have to migrate.
According to a 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report the sea level rise on the Bangladesh coastline could be about one meter in the next 50 years this will cause 11 percent of Bangladesh’s landmass to be covered by the water from the Bay of Bengal, forcing approximately 20 million (near enough the population of Australia) environmental refugees inland to the already densely populated and over-burdened cities. Up to 10 million could be displaced in the Philippines and millions more in the Nile River delta which lies only 2 meters above sea level. Such water level rises would affect low-lying cities around the world including: London, Shanghai, Hamburg, Bangkok, Bombay, Manila, Buenos Aires and Venice.
If places like Tuvalu and Kiribati are to survive we must act so they do survive and that can only be accomplished by establishing a socialist society. Socialism is defined as the common ownership and collective control of the means of production and distribution. It is the name given to the next stage of civilisation, if civilisation is to survive and we are not doomed to a return to the Dark Ages. As long as the instruments of production — land, machinery, raw materials, etc — remain private property, only comparatively few can be sole owners and so long as this is the case, they will use their private ownership for their private advantage, regardless of the cost to others. To protect the environment calls for the rational allocation of resources and for the widest possible development of democracy. This is a struggle for today. This is the struggle for socialism. Capitalists are not about to cut their profits for anybody. Have they ever reduced their profits to provide jobs, end disease, or avoid wars? There’s no reason to expect them to do such a thing in order to stop islands sinking into the sea from climate change. Many will simply be seen as unavoidable collateral damage in the drive for profits.

Tussy - Eleanor Marx and the Early Socialist Movement in Great Britain (2012)

Eleanor Marx
From the Marx, the Cold War and the Spooks blog

In January, 1855, Karl and Jenny Marx, their daughters, Jenny and Laura, and their son, Edgar, were living in two rooms at 28 Dean St. Soho Square, London. In 1851, a third daughter had been born, but only lived for one year. But in January, 1855, a fourth daughter, who they named Eleanor, was born. In March, however, much to Karl and Jenny Marx's distress, the nine year old Edgar died. Nevertheless, the arrival of Eleanor was a great joy to them. "Tussy", as she was later called, was soon the "idolised darling of the whole house". And of her, Jenny Marx wrote in a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer in America, on the 11th of March, 1861:

"The child was born when our poor little Edgar died, and all the love and tenderness we bore him was transferred to his little sister, and the older girls looked after her and nursed her with almost motherly care. But then it would really be difficult to find a more lovable child, as pretty as a picture and sweet tempered...the child has learned German, and speaks it with remarkable accuracy and grammatical precision, and , naturally, she has learned English as a matter of course. The child is Karl's favourite, and her laughter and her merry chatter dispel any of his worries". 

Karl Marx was a great lover of children. He was no authoritarian. The girls treated him more as a playmate than a father; and they called him "the Moor", a nickname given to him on account of his jet-black hair and dark complexion. "Children must educate their parents", he would say. And during this period he remained completely aloof from all political activities, and concentrated on his studies and journalism.


Marx would take his three daughters, Jenny, Laura, and young Eleanor, for outings into the country on Sundays; their favourite destination being Hampstead Heath, with a magnificent view of London, and the hills and valleys surrounding the city, from Jack Straw's Castle.

At home, Marx would read to Eleanor the stories of Bluebeard or Rumpelstilzchen by the brothers Grimm. And he would recount his version of the life of Jesus, in which he depicted Jesus as a poor carpenter's son who had been unjustly executed by the rich and powerful. In 1856, the Marx family moved to Grafton Terrace, Haverstock Hill, near Hampstead Heath.

When Eleanor was sixteen, a French radical, Prosper Olivier Lissagaray, who later wrote a history of the Paris Commune of 1871, in whose ranks he fought, fell in love with her , courted her, and proposed marriage. Eleanor seems to have been favourably inclined towards Lissagaray; but Karl was doubtful about his reliability, despite Eleanor's mother, Jenny, approved the match, and in the end, after much hesitation, nothing came of it. Eleanor was obliged to remain at home. As she got older, she became her father's secretary, and conducted much of Marx's correspondence with the International Workingmen's Association. Eleanor Marx loved to recite poetry and to act, and her father encouraged her to take dramatic lessons. In 1875, the family moved again, to Maitland Park Road, in the same area.

In autumn of 1878, Marx's wife Jenny, became dangerously ill. She was suffering from incurable cancer. In June 1881, Karl went down with a violent attack of pleurisy, complicated with bronchitis and pneumonia. Eleanor nursed them both. She wrote:
" Mother lay in the big front room and the Moor lay in the little room next to it. The two who had grown used to each other, whose lives had completely intertwined, could no longer be in the same room together. The Moor got over his illness once again. I shall never forget the morning when he felt himself strong enough to get up and go into my mother's room. It was as though they were young again together - she a loving girl, and he an ardent youth starting out together through life, and not an old man shattered by ill-health and a dying old lady taking leave of each other for ever"

And on the 2nd of December, 1881, Karl Marx's wife, Jenny died. There was no ceremony at her funeral, although Frederick Engels spoke at the graveside.


In June, 1881, a small book, England for All, was published. It was written by Henry Myer Hyndman, who claimed it to represent the programme of an organisation called the Democratic Federation, which he had just formed. This annoyed Marx, as much of the book consisted of English translations of extracts from Marx's Capital, together with a few summaries of Marx's ideas; but Hyndman mentioned neither Capital or Marx, and merely commented at the conclusion of the Preface that he was indebted "to the work of a great thinker" for much of the material. Marx broke off all relations with Hyndman.

Following his wife's death, Karl Marx's health again deteriorated; his daughter, Jenny also died on the 11th of January, 1883, and in the afternoon of the 14th of March, whilst sitting in his easy chair, Karl Marx fell asleep for the last time. As with his wife, there as no ceremony at the funeral, but again Engels spoke at the graveside. Laura had married Paul Lafargue in 1867.

Eleanor Marx was now alone. She, therefore, soon became more socially and politically active. Shortly after the death of her father, Eleanor met Beatrice Potter (later to become Mrs Sidney Webb) who was involved in charity work and freethinking. In 1883, W.G. Foot, the editor of the The Freethinker, was jailed for blasphemy. Eleanor was, in the words of Potter, "very wrath". It was useless argueing with her, she noted in her diary:
"She refused to recognise the beauty of the Christian religion. She thought that Christ if he had ever existed, was a weak-headed individual, with a good deal of sweetness of character, but lacking in heroism...The aim of socialists was to make people disregard the mythical next world and live for this world, and insist on having what will make it pleasant for them."

Potter added that Eleanor Marx "lives alone, and is much connected with the Bradlaugh set". Charles Bradlaugh, although not a socialist, was a well-known radical, republican and freethinker. But within a year of Karl Marx's death, Eleanor had entered into a "free association", or liaison, with one of this "set", Dr. Edward Aveling, a physician and, at the time, a teacher of science, who with Bradlaugh and Annie Beasant, was a leading secularist. Eleanor had by then a secretarial job in "a better class boarding-school"; but when she openly announced the situation, they said that they regretted to have to sack her. "I need work much", she informed Havelock Ellis, " but find it difficult to get. 'Respectable' people won't employ me"

A number of Eleanor's friends tried to discourage her interest in Edward Aveling, but without success. But following their association, Aveling became active in the emerging socialist and social-democratic movement, and, in fits and starts, became a lecturer and writer, and later on a translator of some of Karl Marx's writings. But according to Edmund Wilson there was something odd about Aveling:
"...he was extremely undependable about money::he not only skipped out of hotels without paying the bills, but he borrowed money from his friends right and left, and even when he knew they had little, without ever paying it back; and he did not hesitate to use for his own purposes the funds which had been given to the cause"(To the Finland Station)

At one time, Aveling tried being an actor;he wrote several one-act plays, in which he and Eleanor acted. He also had luxurious tastes


Eleanor Marx joined the Democratic Federation in 1883, as did William Morris who hoped that it would become a socialist organisation. And in August, 1884, at its conference, the Democratic Federation became the Social-Democratic Federation. Its "ultimate" objective was:
"The establishment of a free condition of society based on the principle of political equality with equal social rights for all and the complete emancipation of labour"

To this ultimate objective, the Social-Democratic Federation added a number of immediate demands which it called "palliatives"; these included the abolition of a standing army, free compulsory, secular education, and the means of production, distribution and exchange to be treated as collective or common property. But neither the SDF's immediate or ultimate objective included the abolition of the wages system as proposed by Karl Marx as early as 1865.

Edward Aveling had also applied for membership of the [Social-]Democratic Federation; and, although the Executive Council, and Hyndman, did not want him in the organisation, they deferred to pressure by Eleanor and a number of her French and German friends, who wrote letters to the Council on Aveling's behalf, and he was admitted. They, together with William Morris, Robert Banner, E Belfort Bax, and a number of other members of the Council, soon came into conflict with the autocratic leader, Hyndman, whom Frederick Engels called an "extreme chauvinist"

The break with Hyndman, and the Social-Democratic Federation, came at a stormy meeting on the 27th of December, 1884, at which Morris read out a statement which , in part, read:
"...We believe that to hold out as baits hopes of amelioration of the condition of the workers, to be rung out of the necessities of the rival factions of our privileged rulers, is delusive and mischievous. For carrying out our aim of education and organisation no over-shadowing and indispensable leader is required, but only a band of instructed men, each of whom can learn learn to fulfil, as occasion requires it, the simple functions of the leader of a party of principle.We say that on the other hand there has been in the ranks of the Social-Democratic Federation a tendency to political opportunism, which if developed would have involved us in alliances, however temporary, with one or other of the political factions, and would have weakened our propagandist force by driving us into electioneering, and possibly would have deprived us of the due services of some of our most energetic men, by sending them to our sham parliament, there to become either nonentities, or perhaps our masters, and it may be our betrayers. We say also that among those who favoured these views of political adventure, there was a tendency towards National assertion, the persistent foe of socialism; and it is easy to see how dangerous this might become in times like the present.Furthermore, these views have led, as they ere sure to lead, to attempts at arbitrary rule inside the Federation;for such a policy as above demands a skillful and shifty leader, to whom all persons and opinions must be subordinated, and who must be supported (if necessary) at the expense of fairness and fraternal openness...
....our view of duty to the cause of socialism forbids us to cease spreading its principles or to work as mere individuals. We have, therefore, set on foot an independent organisation, the Socialist League, with no intention of acting in hostility to the Social-Democratic Federation, but determined to spread the principles of socialism by the only means we deem effectual."

The first two signatories to the statement were those of Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx.

The Socialist League was formally founded on the 30th of December, 1884. Following the "To Socialists" statement, partly quoted above, " The Manifesto of the Socialist League", which as largely written by William Morris, was published in The Commonweal, which as edited by Morris with Aveling as sub-editor. The Manifesto set out in some detail the ideas of not just Morris, or Eleanor Marx, but the emerging, still contradictory, socialist movement of the 1880s in Britain. Its main arguments and conclusions are worth quoting.


It begins :
"We come before you as a body advocating Revolutionary International Socialism; that is, we seek a change in the basis of Society - a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities.

As the civilised world is at present constituted there are two classes in society: the one possessing wealth and the instruments of production, the other producing wealth by means of those instruments, but only by the leave and the use of the possessing class.

The two classes are necessarily in antagonism to one another. The possessing class, or non-producers, can only live as a class on the unpaid labour of the producers - the more unpaid labour they can wring out of them, the richer they will be; therefore the producing class - the workers - are driven to strive to better themselves at the expense of the possessing class and the conflict between them is ceaseless."

And the Manifesto of the Socialist League continues:

"All the means of the production of wealth must be declared treated as the common property of all...Nationalisation of land alone, which many earnest and sincere persons are now preaching, would be useless so long as labour was subject to the fleecing of surplus value under the capitalist system.

No better solution would be State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called, whose aim it would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages in operation: no number of merely administrative changes, until the workers are in possession of all political power, would make any real approach to Socialism

The Socialist League therefore aims at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism, and well knows that this can never happen in any one country without the help of the workers of all civilisation...

...To the realisation of this change the Socialist League addresses itself with all earnestness. As a means thereto will do all in its power towards the education of the people in the principles of this great cause, and will strive to organise those who will accept this education...."

At the same time as the Manifesto of the Socialist League was written, a draft constitution was prepared, with encouragement by Engels, by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. It committed the Socialist League to "striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Local Governments, School Boards and other administrative bodies". Their draft, however, was rejected by a majority of the membership at the League's first annual conference in July, 1885

Despite the Socialist League's official policy of the working class conquering "political power", and opposition to "palliatives", or what socialists now refer to as "reformism", the organisation soon demonstrated that, among its active members, were anarchists whose main concern was the destruction of the state, and reformers whose policies included the passing of the Eight Hour Bill. Furthermore, the Socialist League was not entirely opposed to the idea of nationalisation; and socialists such as William Morris and Eleanor Marx, and the socialist movement generally, had not, as yet, completely rejected the notion of leadership as a principle, although they ere opposed to the "arbitrary" leadership of people like Hyndman; this was partly understandable at the time, and was due to the fact that many workers, including active Trade Unionists, were still illiterate or , at least, only semi-literate. Another weakness of such people as Eleanor Marx, William Morris and Edward Aveling, was that although they had left the Social-Democratic Federation, and formed the Socialist League, they had "no intention of acting in hostility to the Social-Democratic Federation". It was twenty years before socialists realised that a party organised solely for the establishment of socialism would have to oppose other parties, including the SDF.


The Socialist League appeared to get off to a good start; indeed, just before its founding, Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky that Ernest Belfort Bax and Edward Aveling had "the best intentions and learn a lot too; but everything is confused and by themselves these literary people can do nothing; they are both thoroughly sound, intelligent and sincere although needing great assistance". However, by 1886, Engels noted that Bax was strongly influenced by the anarchists. Indeed, Engels wrote in April, 1886, that "...the anarchists are making rapid progress in the Socialist League". The main arguments were between those who considered that the working class, through a socialist organisation or party, could, or should, use parliament as a means to emancipation, which included Eleanor Marx, and those such as the anarchists, who did not. Morris attempted to reconcile both camps, writing in 1887:
" I am trying to get the League to make peace with each other, and hold together for another year. It is a tough job." 
Edward Aveling had already resigned as sub-editor of Commonweal early in 1886. He had been encouraged in this by Eleanor, who, by 1887, was calling the League "a swindle". And Bax, whom Engels had accused of being influenced by the anarchists, and who had succeeded Aveling as sub-editor of Commonweal also resigned, and supported the policy of the League contesting elections. William Morris was concerned with "making socialists", and considered that the only time that socialists should enter parliament was when a majority had become socialists and parliament should be abolished or "broken up". Morris was also opposed to the Socialist League advocating palliatives [he changed his mind some time later]

By the time of the 1888 conference, the various factions within the League had grown even more irreconcilable. However, while the various factions were tearing the League apart, working-class discontent was growing. John Quail comments:
"In the Trade Unions a sharper, more militant note was being struck. At the TUC conference the young Keir Hardie clashed with the Liberal's lap-dog, Broadhurst. A determined attempt to get an Eight Hour campaign under way in the Engineering Union and the TUC was made. John Burns and Tom Mann were active in this campaign. New organisations in the provinces, the Labour Federation on Tyneside and the Knights of Labour in the Midlands, proved surprisingly effective and grew rapidly. New organisational attempts also met with some success among the seamen. This new militancy was both spread by socialists and proved responsive to them" (The Slow Burning Fuse)

Not surprisingly, this included Eleanor Marx.


In 1883, in his The Historical Basis of Socialism, H.M. Hyndman explained his, and to some extent the SDF's, view of Trade Unions. he wrote:
"The waste of the Trade Union funds on strikes or petty benefits to the individuals who compose them is deplorable. Enormous sums have been lost, directly, or indirectly, in consequence of strikes which, if applied by Unionists to active propaganda against the existing system...would long since have produced a serious effect."

However, others, including Eleanor Marx, held a view that workers should resist the attempts by employers to depress their standards of living and, here circumstances were favourable, improve them, yet at the same time they should, through a political organisation or party, strive for the abolition of the system, capitalism, which exploits them.

Nevertheless, a "new" unionism was beginning to take over from the "old" unionism; the general from the craft. In 1888, the mainly female workers of the match factory of Bryant and May went on strike, which was largely successful. The dock strike of 1889 was probably the most dramatic conflict of th period, as it was a struggle of the most depressed section of the working-class who, hitherto, were considered unorganisable. The victory of the dockers was a victory for elementary Trade Union rights which led to a vast movement among both skilled and unskilled workers. The Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers' Union was formed out of the strilke. Even agricultural workers revived their unions.

During the dock strike of I889, writes Tom Mann,
"Offers of clerical help were numerous during the strike. One of these volunteers who rendered valuable service was Eleanor Marx Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx, a most capable oman. Possessing a complete masterly of economics, she was able alike in conversation and on a public platform, to hold her own with the best. Furthermore, she was ever ready, as in this case, to give close attention to detailed work, when by doing so she could help the movement" (Tom Mann Memoirs)

The Gasworkers and General Labourers Union was the first of the "new" unions for mainly unskilled workers. Formed in 1889, by sheer eight of numbers, the union exchanged their twelve-hour shifts for an eight hour day without a strike. Although, they subsequently lost it again, the old hours were never resumed. Shortly after the union's founding, Eleanor Marx became a member and, later, as a member of its first women's branch became a member of its Executive. Will Thorne, the union's general secretary, had no education as a child; and he recounted ho Eleanor helped him to improve his reading and writing, "which was very bad at the time"

In 1892, a Preamble To The Rules of the GGLU as drafted by Eleanor Marx and probably Edward Aveling. It reads:
"Trade Unionism has done excellent work in the past, and in it lies the hope of the workers for the future; that is the Trade Unionism which clearly recognises that today there are only two classes, the producing working-class and the possessing Master class. The interests of these two classes are opposed to each other. The Masters have known this a long time; the workers are beginning to see it, and so thay are forming Trade Unions to protect themselves, and to get as much as they can of the product of their labour. They are beginning to understand that their only hope lies in themselves, and that from the masters as a class they can expect no hope; that divided they fall, united they stand...the interests of all workers are one, and a wrong done to any kind of labour is a wrong done to the whole of the Working Class, and that victory or defeat of any portion of the Army of Labour is a gain or a loss to whole Army, which by its organisation and Union is marching steadily and irresistibly forward to its ultimate goal - the Emancipation of the Working Class - that Emancipation can only be brought about by the strenuous and united efforts of the Working Class itself. Workers Unite!


Eleanor Marx was not, however, blind to the limitations of Trade Unionism; nor to the necessity of workers studying the economics of the system that exploited them. Far from it.

From the 16th of August, 1856, to the 1st of April, 1857, Karl Marx wrote a series of articles, under the title of "Revelations of Diplomatic History of the 18th Century" for the Free Press. These articles were later edited by Eleanor Marx in a book, "Secret Diplomatic History of the 18th Century" was published in 1899. Eleanor also published, under the title of the "Eastern Question", a series of articles Marx wrote in 1855 for the New York Tribune.

More importantly, from the working-class viewpoint however, was the debate that Karl Marx had with John Weston, a member of the General Council of the First International, in 1865, in which he read a paper on wages, profit, prices, value, labour and labour-power, and the production of surplus value. At the time, Marx did not agree to its publication, as he had not finished his studies on Capital. The manuscript was then forgotten until after Engel's death in 1895, when it was discovered by Eleanor Marx, who edited it, with assistance from Edward Aveling, under the title of Value, Price and Profit; and it was published early in 1899.

It was in the ultimate paragraph, and well-known to Eleanor, that Marx had expounded his view on Trade Unions, wherein he wrote:
"Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces a a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system"

It was during the mid-1890s that Eleanor Marx, again with some assistance from Aveling, conducted economics classes. These, or at least some of them, were held at 337 Strand, London, which at the time was the head office of the SDF. (see, for example, Eleanor's letter to Mary Gray, a prominent member of the SDF, dated, 25.9.96, regarding "classes" ) Indeed, it was at such classes that Jack Fitzgerald and two or three other younger members of the SDF, who later founded the Socialist Party, first learned their Marxian economics in general and the theory of value in particular


Frederick Engels was devoted to "Tussy", as he called Eleanor, and often continued to entertain both Eleanor and Edward Aveling when other guests told him that if Aveling came they would not. Edward Bernstein seems to have found Aveling "very clever", and that he and Eleanor were of "great service to the socialist movement"; but Olive Schreiner wrote to Havelock Ellis, saying "I am beginning to have a horror of Dr. Aveling. To say I dislike him doesn't express it at all. I have a fear and horror of him when i am near. Every time I see him this shrinking grows stronger...I love her, but he makes me so unhappy".

He also made Eleanor unhappy; but she did not desert him. In 1893, the "disretable" Edward Aveling joined the newly-formed Independent Labour Party. Engels was, by then, living in London. He would have nothing to do with Hyndman, who he accused of taking money from the Tories. However, Engels enjoyed his remaining years in London; and he entertained freely. But by 1894, he was aware that he was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus, and was unable to speak, but could still write. He died on the 5th of August, 1895.

Aveling was unfaithful to Eleanor. Every so often he disappeared. Towards the end of 1897, he disappeared again. On the 24th of January, 1898, Eleanor Marx wrote to Mary Gray, in which she said:
" I would have been to see you, but as you know, Edward has been dangerously ill. He is now at Hastings, but though the lung trouble seems better, it seems certain that he must soon - in a year or so - undergo a most dangerous operation...the operation is so dangerous that there is the utmost danger. But without the operation there seems no hope at all."

Eleanor nursed him following his operation until he was well, although she was, by then, aware that he was in love with another woman. Aveling informed her that, during the time that he has been away in Hastings, he had - his first wife having in the meantime died - married a young actress. On receiving the news, Eleanor Marx committed suicide by taking poison. Aveling inherited the small amount of money that Engels had left Eleanor, and went to live with his new wife. A few months later he too died - in an easy-chair, in the sunshine , reading a book.


Just four years after the death of Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, Jack Fitzgerald, who had been one of Eleanor's students at her economic classes, together with a number of other London members of the SDF, rebelled (they also had been, like Eleanor Marx holding economic classes!) and, by early 1904, had either been expelled or had resigned; and, together with around 150 others former members of the Social-Democratic Federation, founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which opposed the advocacy of reforms or palliatives. It adopted an object and declaration of principles, largely drawn up by Fitzgerald. It was socialism - and nothing else!
Peter E. Newell