Socialist Party archives - Review: Life and Times of Eleanor Marx, June 1985


Life and Times of Eleanor Marx

Review by Norma Prenderville of Eleanor Marx, Vol.'s 1 and 2, by Yvonne Kapp in Militant Irish Monthly, June 1985

The story of Eleanor Marx deserves to be widely known. It is the moving story of a strong minded, courageous and independent woman who devoted her talents ad energies, throughout her life, to the socialist cause.

Born in 1855 in the two-room tenement in Soho that was home for many years for Karl Marx, his wife Jenny and their other children, she knew poverty from an early age. On numerous occasions the only shield from the bailiff's men was a hastily requested and speedily sent money order from Engels, Karl Marx's collaborator, fellow revolutionary and staunch friend.

Poverty and illness killed of three of the Marx children at an early age, yet Eleanor's memories were happy ones - both her parents were gifted story tellers and every day brought a further instalment in the lives of their invented characters.

The youngest of the household, she was note excluded from the political discussions that took place. In a letter written to Eduard Bernstein (a prominent German socialist) when she was eight, we find her even then stating her opinion on the 'Polish' situation and eliciting Bernstein's opinion. She was 12 when the ill-fated Fenian uprising took place in Ireland and became passionately interested in the Fenians and their cause, the more so when one of their leading members, O'Donovan Rossa, joined Marx's 1st international.

Her formal education was scrappy enough, but while on extended holiday with Engels he set her formidable reading lists. Determined to be independent, she set out herself to find a teaching job. Later she did research work for a fee in the British Library or 'ghosted' articles for other writers. She learned to type to boost her pitiful income but still lived from hand to mouth for most of her life.

After her father's death in 1883, it was she who, with Engels, set about the formidable task of putting Marx's papers in order and preparing them for publication. The political task of refining and editing the material fell to Engels but Eleanor did a huge part of the donkeywork - researching and annotating the thousands of references in Marx's works. She also translated, wrote introductions and various articles for socialist publications.

She was intimately involved with the struggle for the eight-hour day, speaking at mass rallies in London's Hyde Park. She played an active part in the great gas workers' strike of 1889. She organised a women's branch of that union, recruiting members form various factories in London's East End.

Her work also extended to the 2nd International, whose conferences she attended as a British delegate presenting reports but also acting as a translator into French and German.

It is impossible to do justice to her in a few bare lines yet through her activity she won a place in the minds and hearts of the many thousands of working class people who knew and heard of her. While many about her, particularly those in the Social Democratic Federation, ignored the new general trade unions that were emerging, seeing no role for 'socialists' in the struggle for better conditions or reforms, Eleanor, with unerring instinct, saw in it the rekindling of the class movement and the natural arena for socialist propaganda. Her greatest talent and her greatest achievement was her ability to explain simply and passionately the ideas of scientific socialism and their relevance to the lives and aspirations of ordinary working class people.

Eleanor committed suicide in 1898. The reasons remain obscure. Her relations with her common-law husband, Edward Aveling, with whom she had lived for nearly 15 years, had for long been unhappy because of his many affairs. He had recently married another woman, giving a false name at the registry office. Yet that, in itself, would not have broken the spirit of a woman of such strong will. Coming after Engel's and her sister Jenny's deaths, a possible feeling that she had no more to contribute to the movement, a deeply felt regret that she herself had no children and after 25 years of constant activity, strain and hardship, this last episode may have proved too much even for her to bear.

It was a tragic ending to a life that was selfless in its dedication to socialism, a socialism that was crystal-clear in its principles and permeated through and through by her deep feeling for her class and its suffering.

Eleanor Marx, Vol.'s 1 and 2, by Yvonne Kapp are excellent books, well worth reading.

Norma Prenderville
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