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.

 

eleanor_marx_cover.jpg

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.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 36 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 51 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 6 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

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

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

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

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 44 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 69 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.