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The Legacy of Eleanor Marx

On her birthday, we honor the life of Eleanor Marx.

Portrait of Eleanor Marx. Wikimedia Commons

Born on January 16, 1855, Eleanor Marx was Karl and Jenny Marx’s youngest daughter. She would become the forerunner of socialist feminism and one of the most prominent political leaders and union organizers in Britain. Eleanor pursued her activism fearlessly, captivated crowds with her speeches, stayed loyal to comrades and family, and grew into a brilliant political theorist. Not only that, she was a fierce advocate for children, a famous translator of European literature, a lifelong student of Shakespeare and a passionate actress.

Unfortunately, her tireless efforts to improve conditions for working people — especially women — have largely been forgotten.

“Go Ahead”

When Eleanor was born, the Marxes were living in dire poverty; confined to a tiny, rundown apartment in Soho, London, the family of six and their housekeeper, Lenchen, could barely make ends meet. A series of misfortunes had rocked them. Her parents suffered from the strain of political repression and exile, crushed by debt and chronically ill. They had lost two children — Guido and Franziska — and would lose a third, their eight-year-old son Edgar, just four months after Eleanor was born.

What Eleanor lacked in material comfort, she gained in her home’s intellectual culture. From the beginning, father and daughter developed a very special bond that revolved around bookworming, household renditions of Shakespeare plays, and Eleanor’s precocious interest in politics. In her childhood letters to her uncle Lion Philips, she discusses Poland’s national oppression, the political prisoner Blanqui, and her support for Abraham Lincoln.

Eleanor’s parents started calling her “Tussy”— to rhyme with “pussy cat” — because of her love of cats, and the name stuck. She had an adventurous personality, cultivated by reading James Fenimore Cooper’s novels and Captain Marryat’s seafaring tales. She avidly collected stamps, and took charge of the family’s many pets.

Two months after her tenth birthday, Tussy played Confession with her family. The game presents players with a long list of preferences, and Eleanor’s results already showed what kind of woman she would become:

Your favourite virtue: Truth

Your favourite virtue in man: Courage

Your favourite virtue in woman: [left blank]

Your chief characteristic: Curiosity

Your idea of happiness: Champagne

Your idea of misery: The Toothache

The vice you excuse most: Playing the truant

The vice you detest most: Eve’s Examiner

Your aversion: Cold Mutton

Your favourite occupation: Gymnastics

Your favourite poet: Shakespeare

Your favourite prose writer: Captain Marryat

Your favourite hero: Garibaldi

Your favourite heroine: Lady Jane Grey

Your favourite flower: All flowers

Your favourite colour: White

Your favourite names: Percy, Henry, Charles, Edward

Your favourite maxim and motto: “Go ahead”

Charles Eve’s Examiner was the name of a stuffy Victorian school textbook that Tussy dreaded, and it’s intriguing that she chose to leave the question about woman’s virtue blank.

The youngest Marx didn’t like school. Unlike her sisters, she did not last very long at the all-women’s South Hampstead College. Tussy had been an atheist from a young age, and she loathed the school’s parochial, patriarchal approach, which trained women to be proper and obedient.

Even though she dropped out of school, Tussy did not lose out on a top-notch education. The intellectual atmosphere at home was more than enough, and Friedrich Engels and his Irish partner Lizzy Burns had a more profound influence on Eleanor than South Hampstead’s Miss Davies ever could.  “Uncle Angel” — as Tussy called Engels — sent her books to discuss, and Lizzy Burns provided her with a practical education in history and politics. Burns belonged to the Irish Republican movement, and converted the young Tussy into a Fenian sister. Eleanor bought copies of the nationalist newspaper the Irishman and wore green ribbons in her hair to show her support for the republican cause.

Breaking Free

After the Paris Commune’s defeat in 1871, the Marx household was flooded with French political refugees. Among the exiles was one of the most prominent Communards, Hippolyte Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. He became Tussy’s first love, but her father did not approve. His two other daughters had married French revolutionaries with no stable career prospects; Marx didn’t want this to happen a third time.

But Marx was also acting selfishly: he relied on Eleanor a great deal during this period, both intellectually and emotionally, which stunted her sense of independence. She not only served as his research assistant, toiling away at the British Museum in his place, but Marx also seemed to live vicariously through her. As he famously put it, “Jennychen looks like me, but Tussy is me.”

Eleanor did not want to be a stay-at-home daughter. At eighteen, she broke away from her parents, moving to seaside Brighton. As a young woman without money or formal education, this was no small decision. Eleanor was still seeing Lissagaray — called “Lissa” — and helped him edit and translate his history of the Paris Commune into English while looking for teaching jobs to support herself.

Tussy worked hard to prove to her parents that she could make it on her own. She found a teaching position at a seminary for young ladies in Sussex Square. She and Lissa took long walks along the seafront, and as Eleanor’s biographer Rachel Holmes puts it, they spent their time “munching fish and chips, eels, clams, and whelks on the pier, chain-smoking, talking, debating what they were reading.” According to their friends and neighbors, Lissa was Eleanor’s fiancé.

This bid for independence did not last long. Her parents were concerned that the “engagement” permitted the couple to walk freely in public and participate in activities typically reserved for married couples. Karl and Jenny wanted Tussy home, away from her lover. Eleanor resisted, but the Marxes insisted and eventually won: Eleanor quit her teaching job and returned home to her parents at Modena Villas.

She became depressed and resentful, which manifested as anorexia. Marx was relieved to have his favorite secretary by his side, but she was physically suffering from his domineering possessiveness.

Even in the midst of this, acting, theater and performing arts remained a consistent source of joy. She formed the “Dogberry Club” in 1877, named after the oafish Shakespeare character in Much Ado About Nothing, and she joined various literary societies devoted to the bard and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She had become a highly proficient translator, and her version of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary remained the primary English version until the 1950s.

At the age of twenty-five, Eleanor lost her mother. Jenny Marx’s unwavering commitment to socialism played an essential role in Eleanor’s development as a socialist and a feminist. Much of Jenny’s life was characterized by struggle, and she didn’t want her daughter to endure the same hardships she had.

Three years later, Eleanor’s older sister Jennychen died from bladder cancer, and Karl died of bronchitis and pleurisy. Eleanor would maintain her father’s legacy by becoming one of his first biographers and continuing his fight for international communism. As time went on, she added an emphasis on women’s liberation, children’s rights, and trade union activism to the struggle.

Shortly after her mother’s death, Eleanor’s relationship with Lissa officially ended. The Third Republic had granted amnesty to former Communards, and Eleanor, unlike her sisters, did not follow her Parisian revolutionary back home. Soon she would meet the man she would spend the rest of her life with — for better or for worse.

The Woman Question

Eleanor met Edward Aveling in the British Museum Reading Room, a hotspot for socialist intellectuals and freethinkers, including early members of the Fabian Society like Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw. Aveling, a science lecturer and secularist, popularized Charles Darwin’s ideas and atheism. His science textbooks were well received, and he also had a flair for poetry and drama. This appealed to Eleanor, and eventually, she and Edward presented themselves to their friends as husband and wife, even though they were never legally married.

Eleanor and Edward had much in common: their love for theater and commitment to socialism as well as shared ideas about the concept of “free love,” which they defined as being able to love whomever one wanted to. Edward took this notion to a hypocritical extreme, engaging in a series of romantic escapades behind Eleanor’s back. While she provided for the couple financially, Aveling accumulated debt with his many — and often younger — paramours. Shaw based the unscrupulous womanizer Louis Dubedat in the Doctor’s Dilemma on Edward.

In 1886, the couple collaborated on “The Woman Question,” the bulk of which Eleanor wrote herself. The main argument holds that men and women must work together to overcome women’s oppression and that feminist liberation is a necessary condition for the achievement of socialism. Questions of sex, marriage, and women’s day-to-day life under capitalism are not alien to historical materialism, but essential aspects of it.

Against prevailing Victorian puritanism, Eleanor unapologetically called for sex education:

As our boys and girls grow up, the whole subject of sex relations is made a mystery and a shame. This is the reason why an undue and unhealthy curiosity is begotten to them. The mind becomes excessively concentrated upon them, remains long unsatisfied, or incompletely satisfied—passes into a morbid condition. To us, it seems that the reproductive organs ought to be discussed as frankly, as freely, between parents and children as the digestive. The objection to this is but a form of the vulgar prejudice against the teaching of physiology.

Eleanor did not begrudge or denounce middle-class feminists in their fight for suffrage. On her analysis, the middle-class woman had become a proletarian in her own home, second to her husband. However, Eleanor argued that “women’s rights” without class struggle will be necessarily limited, and that middle-class feminism is more interested in competing with men than in liberating the working class from capitalism.

She argued that inequality between the genders can’t be removed from capitalism’s structure: it makes capitalism possible in the first place. Employers exploit the divisions between men, women, and children to keep wages low and profits high. In other words, capitalists have a material incentive to be patriarchal and sexist, and men and women must unite their struggle against the bosses in the same unions and organizations.

Eleanor did not believe in preconceived gender roles. As she put it, there is “no more a ‘natural calling’ of woman than there is a ‘natural’ law of capitalistic production, or a ‘natural’ limit to the amount of the labourer’s product that goes to him for means of subsistence.” Many of her ideas are still considered radical today.

The Agitator

Eleanor Marx fought for socialism not as a theoretical idea, but as a practical reality. She was uncompromisingly committed to internationalism and, in 1884, left the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) when it became nationalistic and started focusing on British workers at the expense of their brothers and sisters around the world. She also objected to SDF leader H. M. Hyndman’s parliamentary opportunism, so she and Edward went on to found the Socialist League with William Morris. In 1897, after failing to push the overly Christian and reformist Independent Labor Party toward Marxism, Eleanor returned to the SDF to work on building an anti-imperialist front against British policies in South Africa and India.

Eleanor participated in many of the workers’ strikes around Britain. She served as educator, agitator, and spokesperson, but she also took on a lot of the less glamorous clerical tasks and paperwork. She led the London Dock strike, which effectively shut down the city’s shipping, the Silvertown gasworkers’ strike, where she was given the nickname “Old Stoker,” and the onion skinners’ strike, for which Eleanor organized four hundred women workers into a union.

Rachel Holmes describes how her organizing affected the onion-skinners:

They set terms for an eight-hour day, minimum standard wage and improved work conditions, and struck. Within a week, Crosse & Blackwell were unable to meet their orders to retailers. Management tried to bribe the women with selective pay rises and, in final desperation, free beer for all workers. These offers were rejected; the skinners won.

These strikes paved the way for Britain’s modern labor movement. Eleanor and Edward also accompanied Wilhelm Liebknecht to observe labor conditions in the United States where she became a passionate advocate for the Haymarket anarchists on trial in Chicago, defending them against false accusations of bomb-throwing and against a rigged justice system. Tussy’s activism was fearless and steadfast, never losing sight of the ultimate goal: emancipating the working class.

Death and Legacy

At Engels’s deathbed, Eleanor and her sister Laura learned that Karl had fathered Freddy Demuth, their housekeeper Lenchen’s son. Engels had assumed paternity to save the Marxes from public disgrace. Edward Aveling learned of this as well, and many of Eleanor’s biographers have speculated that he used this information to blackmail Freddy and Eleanor for money.

Eleanor eventually discovered Edward’s lies and deceptions, including the fact that he never wanted a divorce from his first wife because he wished to inherit her money. He stayed with Eleanor for the same reason: he wanted her inheritance, including what Engels willed to her, and control of Marx’s literary estate.

Edward’s deception reached a new level when Eleanor found out that he had secretly married Eva Frye, one of his young students. This news came shortly after Eleanor had spent many months nursing her partner back to health from kidney disease. For decades her friends and family had warned her that Edward didn’t deserve her — he was a liar, a cheater, and a manipulator — but Eleanor had remained true to him and busied herself with her political work.

After so many romantic blows, combined with Engels’s death and the truth about her brother Freddy, Eleanor began to spiral downward. As described by Holmes, Edward:

promised to marry her eventually when his legal wife died; he promised that they would have children when the time was right; he constantly assured her that he would provide his full half-share of their joint income when he made it in the theatre or one of his academic textbooks hit the big time.

Years of false promises and lies took their toll on Tussy. On March 31, 1898, Eleanor Marx was found dead after swallowing cyanide. A great deal of speculation has followed: was it suicide, or was it murder? Whatever the case, Edward Aveling played the part of her abuser.

Eleanor Marx should not be defined by her death, nor should she be reduced to the abuse that she endured. She should be remembered and celebrated as the radical woman she was: a pioneer of Marxist feminism.

End Mark

About the Author

Harrison Fluss is a corresponding editor with Historical Materialism and a lecturer in philosophy at St. John's University and Manhattan College

Sam Miller is a recent graduate of Columbia University. She is currently a teacher in Manhattan.