Unsung heroine of the class struggle

Author Rachel Holmes
Author Rachel Holmes
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Eleanor Marx was Karl’s youngest daughter and a formidable political thinker in her own right. Yvette Huddleston spoke to her biographer.

Eleanor Marx was an extraordinary woman. Born in 1855, the youngest child of Karl Marx, she was the first woman trade union leader, a pioneering feminist and passionate advocate of workers’ rights. She also translated Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into English for the first time and introduced the plays of Henrik Ibsen to the British public. And she achieved all this at a time when women were not entitled to an education, nor allowed to vote and were barred from universities and most professions.

It seems strange, then, that she is not as well known as near contemporaries such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Milicent Fawcett, but an excellent new biography by Rachel Holmes looks set to change that and bring Marx the recognition she so richly deserves. Holmes says that she was attracted to Marx as a subject because, despite being born more than 150 years ago, her work and thinking still have great significance today.

“She had concerns around feminism, social democracy and internationalism and these all felt relevant and modern. She cared about inequality and injustice in this country and beyond, and the issues she was grappling with in her public and private life are very familiar.”

Working on the book over a period of seven or eight years, Holmes found Marx became increasingly topical. “Here we are now and Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century about global capitalism and inequality is a best seller and an increasing number of people under 50 are reading the work of Karl Marx and Engels.”

Marx grew up with the works of her father – for the first ten years of her life he was writing Das Kapital – and his close friend and colleague Friedrich Engels, and she was steeped in their theories and philosophy. However, Marx was an activist and was not content to simply debate the issues. “Her father did the theorizing – and we need people to do that,” says Holmes. “But the great thing about Eleanor is that she managed to test the theory.

“Her father really did believe in equality and women’s rights – and equality of race and class – but he didn’t really conceptualize how that would all work. Engels had a go in Private Property and the State – he understood that unless you take on board sexual equality you will never achieve social equality. And Eleanor understood that too – so she goes out and gets involved in the trade union movement, supports striking workers and she realises that it is absolutely essential that women are involved as well.”

Out of this realisation came her treatise The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View. “What she discovered was that questions about feminism actually cut across class in quite complex ways,” says Holmes. “That put her in an interesting position.”

The pamphlet neatly summarised her philosophy of socialist feminism – she was a supporter of the suffrage movement but was not interested in winning the vote only for middle-class women, she was unambiguous in her assertion that women of all classes had to unite in order to effect change.

Marx’s remarkable life was cruelly cut short by her apparent suicide at the age of just 43. The exact circumstances of her death have never been fully established and Holmes reopens the question of whether she was murdered by her long-term partner Edward Aveling, an inveterate womaniser and wastrel. Of Marx’s seemingly rash loyalty to such an obviously unpleasant and untrustworthy man, against all advice – her closest friend Olive Schreiner despised him and feared something terrible might happen – Holmes says:

“There are contradictions and failures in everyone’s lives and I think it is part of what makes her human, but the legacy she leaves means that I am quite clear that ultimately she is defined by her work.”