Eleanor Marx, A Founder of Socialist Feminism

by Peg Strobel

Eleanor Marx (1855-1898) is known in some circles as Karl Marx's daughter and assistant and in others as a key figure in conceptualizing and fighting for socialist feminism. In Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury, 2015), Rachel Holmes integrates both aspects of Marx's life and more.

 

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The youngest daughter of Karl and Jenny Marx, Eleanor grew up in Britain and was deeply involved in the development of socialism as a movement, not just as a body of ideas. She served as Karl's research assistant during his lifetime and as the preserver and protector of his legacy after his death. She combined theory and practice. Holmes notes, "She was midwife to the twins of trade unionism and socialist internationalism" (313). In 1889-90 she supported and mentored the head of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers during a crucial strike and established the first women's branch of that union. In the last year of her life, she served as fundraiser for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and  helped carry out the ASE's campaign for the eight-hour day. She fought battles within and without the various organizations and shifting alignments of socialists.

In 1886 she published with her common-law husband and lover, Edward Aveling, "The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View," which put women's issues, including sexuality, on the evolving socialist agenda. Holmes notes that, from the lives of friends and family members, Eleanor Marx was deeply aware of the problems experienced by women resulting from having children and bearing the responsibility for running a household. She preached the need for women to be financially independent. Although her friends and family identified Aveling as a parasite and a jerk, Marx remained in love with and loyal to him. Not physically attractive and often ill, he was nonetheless an excellent speaker and actor. They shared performances and speaking tours. Marx's critique of bourgeois marriage, Holmes suggests, provided a way for her to understand and justify her relationship with Aveling: "They both believed, like Marx and Engels, that the existing social contracts between women and men were corrupt. It wouldn't, therefore, surprise them to encounter common difficulties about property, economics and sexual infidelity in their own relationship. . . . They understood how things were in the concrete. They looked towards how they might be re-envisioned in the abstract future. It helps a great deal to keep this in view when reflecting on the question of why [she] stuck by Aveling" (257-58). Still, the most puzzling aspect of Marx's life is her fidelity to Aveling.

Eleanor Marx engaged with socialism internationally. She was deeply moved by the role of women in the Paris Commune of 1871 and helped an earlier lover write (and then translated) his memoir and History of the Commune, which became a key primary source.

Sharing an interest in theater and Shakespeare with Aveling, she translated Henrik Ibsen's plays and performed them, introducing English speakers to the radical ideas emanating from Norway about women's autonomy. She translated Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary from the French. Unlike her father, she identified with her Jewish ancestry, learning Yiddish and speaking out against anti-Semitism and the marginalization of Jewish unions within the trade union movement.

Despite her many accomplishments and vibrant life, she committed suicide at age 43. Holmes argues that this was the result of her discovery of betrayal by two men dear to her, her father and her lover. Eleanor Marx came to learn that the boy and man whom she had grown up understanding to be the illegitimate child of Engels was in fact her half-brother. During his wife Jenny's absence in 1850, Karl Marx had a relationship with Helen Demuth, Jenny's longtime companion who was part of the family and played a major role in keeping the household running through penurious times and Jenny's frequent pregnancies. This discovery raised a dilemma as Eleanor was trying to write a biography of her father.

If this was not enough, she learned that Aveling  had secretly married another woman upon the death of his wife years earlier. (He had told Eleanor that he could not marry her because his Catholic wife would not grant a divorce.) Within days of this second discovery, Eleanor Marx killed herself.

It was fascinating for me, having participated in DSA's reading/discussion of Karl Marx's work last spring, to read about the context--familial, political, intellectual--in which Marx and Friedrich Engels' works were written. I encountered Engels not merely as Karl Marx's co-author but as his financial supporter and fall guy. I learned about the Paris Commune through the Marx daughters' relationships with communards. And I observed how Eleanor Marx came to articulate the relationship of women to capitalism and to socialist struggles. Inheritors of her legacy, we are still trying to understand the latter.

PegStrobel4.png Peg Strobel is a member of DSA's Chicago chapter and National Political Committee. She co-chairs the Feminist Working Group.

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