Book Review: Eleanor Marx, by Rachel Holmes — by Richard Abernethy

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Summary: A lively, recent biography (published by Bloomsbury in 2014) gives a vivid account of Eleanor Marx (1855-1898) and her circle, at the heart of late nineteenth century socialism–Editors


They named her Eleanor, but among family and friends she was known as Tussy – to rhyme with pussy, not fussy. Third and youngest daughter of Jenny and Karl Marx, she spent little time in school. In the financially precarious but intellectually abundant Marx household, where German, French and English were spoken interchangeably, she grew up immersed in world culture and socialist ideas.

Rachel Holmes’ book brings Tussy to life. The story of her life is told as she lived it, month by month and year by year, weaving back and forth between the personal and the political. It is eventful, inspiring, occasionally funny (look out for the anecdote of Engels and the hedgehog), and tragic in its ending.

The early chapters, dealing with Tussy’s family background and childhood, provide an intimate back story to the origins and development of Karl Marx’s philosophy. One surprise is that the first radical in the family was Eleanor’s mother, Jenny.

Beautiful, witty and aristocratic, Jenny von Westphalen attracted many suitors from the upper ranks of Rhineland society, but her radical ideas set her apart. She took a leading role in the Young Germany movement whose democratic ideas were viewed as subversive by the Prussian state. Her marriage to Karl Marx, four years her junior, was fiercely opposed by her reactionary half-brother, Ferdinand, who later became Prussia’s Minister of the Interior, in which capacity he would send his secret agents to spy on the Marxes.

Karl Marx introduced Tussy to the world of literature by reading aloud to her, giving books as presents, discussing books with her and encouraging her to form and express her own opinions. He made up a set of tales about a magical toymaker called Hans Röckle (apparently a fantasy representation of Marx himself). Hans Röckle was obliged by debt to sell each of his toys to the Devil. The toys would undergo all kinds of strange adventures before returning at last to Hans’s toyshop. These stories have been interpreted in various ways: as an allegory of the Marx family’s own experiences of exile and debt; of the alienation and circulation of commodities; or the passage of human history through alienation to liberation. Perhaps something of all these.

By the age of six, this precocious little girl already knew many scenes from Shakespeare by heart. Interestingly, she preferred male roles. As a young woman, she co-founded the Dogberry Club, for play-reading and other Shakespearean interests. This led in time to advanced Shakespeare scholarship as a member of the New Shakespeare Society. A talented amateur actress, her ambition for a professional career on the stage remained unfulfilled; a loss to the theatre, perhaps, but an undoubted gain to the socialist movement.

The women in the Marx and Engels households receive some rare and overdue recognition here: Eleanor’s mother Jenny; her sisters Jenny (Jennychen) and Laura; Helene Demuth (Lenchen), Mary Burns and Lizzie Burns. All were lifelong socialists. Without their largely unsung contribution as research assistants, secretaries and homemakers, Marx’s Capital might never have been written, or made it into print. Eleanor was one of only three people capable of deciphering her father’s handwriting and preparing his works for publication – the others were Jenny and Engels.

“Who is the fiend who invented housekeeping? I hope his invention may plague him in another world.” Domestic labour, and the fall of its burden on women, was one of Eleanor Marx’s lifelong concerns and is a recurring theme in this book. No stranger to housework myself, I have some notion of how she felt, but in an era of coal fires and gas lamps, with no vacuum cleaners or washing machines, and no radio or recorded music to provide distraction, it was much more of a time-devouring and mind-numbing monster. One feels that Eleanor would have approved in principle, though she might have been personally uncomfortable at the thought, of her biographer delving into how the division of labour between the sexes applied even in her own revolutionary family.

Eleanor became one of a circle of notable radical intellectual friends who all frequented the Reading Room of the British Museum in the London district of Bloomsbury. They included Olive Schreiner, South African writer and feminist – Eleanor’s closest friend; Havelock Ellis, a pioneer in the study of human sexuality, also a distinguished literary critic and translator; and George Bernard Shaw. All were against the restrictions and subordination that women were burdened with by law and social convention. They wanted to work out new relations between men and women, based on freedom and equality, openness and honesty.

Born into socialism and the workers’ movement, Eleanor made her own distinctive contribution in many ways, as public speaker, writer, organiser, administrator, translator, interpreter, lecturer and tutor. Outwardly, she may have seemed “tireless”, privately, she struggled with the demands of political and domestic life. She engaged with many of the great causes of the age, including Irish independence, amnesty for the Paris Communards and of course women’s rights.

She was active in the “new unionism”, the formation of mass organisations that were not limited to particular skilled crafts but included unskilled workers, and the struggle for the eight-hour day.

In 1886, with Wilhelm Liebknecht and Edward Aveling, she made a four-month speaking tour of fifteen states in the USA. “It was our duty, and we made it our business, to speak out at every meeting we held in America in favour of a new trial for the condemned Anarchists of Chicago.”

One incident of this tour was a chance meeting with a cowboy known as Broncho John. “To our great astonishment he plunged at once into a great denunciation of capitalists in general and ranch-owners in particular…”

Much of the delight of this biography is to be found in such small but significant episodes.

Eleanor’s profound belief that feminism and socialism were inseparable clashed, on one side with those who campaigned for political rights for propertied and educated women only, and on the other with traditional male domination of the trade unions.

“My happiest moments are when I am in the East End amidst Jewish workpeople.” As thousands of Jewish immigrants, fleeing pogroms in the Russian Empire, settled in London and began to form their own unions and political associations, Eleanor worked with them, learning Yiddish and consciously identifying herself as Jewish.

Offstage from the political scene, three sub-plots ran through the drama of Eleanor’s life.

Karl Marx had left his manuscripts and correspondence (known as the Nachlass [legacy]) in trust to Engels, after whose death it was to pass to Marx’s surviving daughters, Laura and Eleanor. However, the leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) were scheming to get possession of the collection. Acting as their agents in this intrigue were Louise Kautsky, Engels’ housekeeper (not to be confused with Luise Kautsky, the friend and correspondent of Rosa Luxemburg), and Dr Ludwig Freyberger, who became Engels’ doctor and Louise’s husband. The Freybergers (or Freebooters, as Eleanor called them), effectively controlled Engels’ home (which they inherited when he died). Tussy’s tussle with the Freybergers led to an estrangement between herself and Engels, although fortunately they were reconciled before his death. Eleanor did get possession of the Nachlass, though with an important exception: the Marx-Engels correspondence went to the SPD.

Before dying, Engels revealed a family secret. Freddy Demuth, Helene’s son, was the unacknowledged natural son of Karl Marx, and so Tussy’s half-brother. Four years before Tussy’s birth, the affair in which Freddy was conceived threw her parents’ marriage into turmoil. Eventually the marriage of Karl and Jenny and Jenny’s lifelong friendship with Helene were restored. The three were even buried side by side. But Freddy grew up in foster care, poorly educated, ignored by his real father, Marx, and his putative father, Engels. Tussy was made aware that her happy childhood memories, though real, were not the full story. She did her best to make amends, not only by way of a financial settlement but by accepting Freddy into her life as a brother. It was to Freddy that she turned for support through her own troubles.

Eleanor’s relationship with Edward Aveling turned out to be a fatal attraction. The pair could not marry legally because Aveling was already married, though separated from his wife. Nevertheless, Eleanor and Aveling lived together as wife and husband. She added his surname to her own, becoming known as Eleanor Marx Aveling. Some of Tussy’s friends, Olive Schreiner for one, took an immediate, intuitive dislike to Aveling. In his public persona, he seemed to be a good match: a talented writer and lecturer, committed to socialism and feminism, sharing her passion for theatre and literature. On closer acquaintance, he was selfish, irresponsible and untrustworthy. Aveling’s extravagant claims for expenses created a scandal within the movement, which got into the capitalist press.

Tussy stood by her man with a loyalty he did not reciprocate. She tolerated Aveling’s many affairs with other women, but when she discovered that, following the death of his first wife, he had married another woman without even telling her, this was too much to bear.  She ended her own life by taking poison, aged 43. The international socialist movement realised what a treasure it had lost. Heartfelt tributes poured in from all over the globe.

Tussy’s favourite motto was “Go ahead!” Go ahead and read this wonderful biography.

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