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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Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 46 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

Instructor:

  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.