Eleanor Marx: hidden from history

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Eleanor Marx

History is written, by and large, by the ruling class and serves its interests in promoting its world view. So when the BBC recently screened its history of women’s struggles for the vote in Britain, ‘Suffragettes Forever’, presented by Professor Amanda Vickery, we were treated to a very partial account which deliberately minimised the participation of working class women (boiling it down to the Bryant & May ‘matchgirls’ strike of 1888) and completely erasing the part played by socialist and communist women leaders, namely Eleanor Marx and Sylvia Pankhurst. In Vickery’s history, the struggle for women’s rights, including the vote, was a limited feminist pursuit: a battle by women against men to achieve equality – starting with Queen Victoria (!) and ending with Lady Astor. There was a different political perspective, however, that saw this battle as part of the struggle, led by the working class, to liberate men and women from wage slavery and oppression. Both Eleanor Marx and Sylvia Pankhurst organised and fought explicitly in opposition to the bourgeois feminists whom Vickery favours as the heroines of the struggle. That is why bourgeois history prefers to consign them to oblivion.

Fortunately, there are some histories that keep alive the role played by socialist women. In 2014, Rachel Holmes, who describes herself as a feminist, published a new, acclaimed biography of Eleanor Marx.*

Eleanor was the youngest daughter of Karl and Jenny Marx, born in 1855 in London, and politically active at a time that was crucial to the development of a working class movement in Britain and internationally. Brought up as a socialist by her parents and their circle of comrades including Frederick Engels, Eleanor was soon immersed in the socialist movement across Europe including involvement in the First International (International Working Men’s Association) and, after its dissolution, the Second International. She became an early supporter of the Fenian movement and of the Manchester Martyrs. In 1871 she was involved in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, helping to write a history of the uprising and translating it into English. By then Eleanor had become indispensible to her father as helper, secretary and translator; a role she was to fulfil for the British and international movement for the rest of her life.

Eleanor was present during vital years when the socialist movement was developing, and in particular when the new trade unions of unskilled workers were being formed. In 1884 she joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) alongside Engels and her partner Edward Aveling. In this period the Marxists were able to forge an alliance with unskilled workers in crucial industries. Eleanor played a vital role in the formation of the gasworkers union in 1889, calling for an eight-hour day, and became a leading figure in the ensuing strike and the Dock Strike that followed. Will Thorne, leader of the gasworkers’ union and also an SDF member, was to comment: ‘It was this spirit of the “New Unionism” that made international working class solidarity a reality, and strange to say, the historians hardly notice the revolution we created.’ Eleanor was centre stage and renowned as a socialist, an orator and an organiser.

For the Marxists, the battle was to forge a socialist party that would represent the interests of the mass of the working class in Britain. This necessitated a break with the old conservative craft unions which represented only the skilled workers and the racist and chauvinist traditions of much of the socialist movement in Britain, in particular under the leadership of the SDF in the shape of Henry Hyndman and the forces who would go on to form the Independent Labour Party. Eleanor’s story is the tragedy of the failure to build this socialist movement. By 1895 Beatrice Webb from the Fabian Society, an earlier incarnation of Labour’s Rachel Reeves, was arguing: ‘judging from our knowledge of the Labour movement we can expect no leader from the working class. Our only hope is in permeating the young middle class man’. She went on: ‘What can we hope from these myriads of deficient minds and deformed bodies that swarm our great cities – what can we hope but brutality, meanness and crime’ (Clough p29).

Similar sentiments were rife in the suffrage movement where the Pankhursts (except Sylvia) were to argue that working class women could play no leadership role. In contrast, Eleanor, who had heard Clara Zetkin’s address at the 1896 German Social Democratic Congress, was clear that: [Women workers’] end and aim are not the right of free competition with men, but to obtain the political power of the proletariat. Truly the working woman approves the demand of the middle-class women’s movement ... But only as means to the end that she may be fully armed for entering into the working-class struggle along with the man of her class.’

The issues that faced Eleanor Marx and her comrades still face us today. In this year of a general election in Great Britain, the reactionary political standpoint of the Labour Party is clear to see. The poorest sections of the working class remain without representation, despised and vilified. Racism and chauvinism still dominate. In these respects the battle facing British socialists is still to be won.

You can read Eleanor Marx’s story in Rachel Holmes’s flawed biography – flawed because she sidelines the dynamic of the socialist movement in Eleanor’s life, preferring to concentrate on the betrayals of Aveling, her partner. Better still you can look at Eleanor’s writings on the internet, or read Yvonne Kapp’s earlier and better biography if you can get hold of a copy (regrettably now out of print). The description of Kapp’s work as ‘Stalinist’ by the dreadful director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, at a recent feminist event at the Southbank Centre, is probably the best recommendation.

Carol Brickley

* Eleanor Marx: a life, Rachel Holmes, Bloomsbury, 2014, £25.00.

• Eleanor Marx archive: www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/

Eleanor Marx, Yvonne Kapp, Lawrence and Wishart, 1976 (out of print).

Labour: a party fit for imperialism, Robert Clough, Larkin Publications, 2014, £6.95.

• Women of the World Festival, Southbank Centre, 7 March 2015, ‘Go Ahead!’ Eleanor Marx and Sylvia Pankhurst, Shami Chakrabarti with Rachel Holmes, https://soundcloud.com/.../wow-2015-go-ahead-eleanor-marx-and-sylvia-pankhurst.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 244 April/May 2015