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Last updated:13 August 2015

Eleanor Marx

Eleanor MarxEleanor Marx was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx and Jenny von Westphalen and was born in 1855. Although commonly remembered as ‘the daughter of Karl Marx’ such a title takes much away from all that she achieved as a feminist, a socialist and a translator, journalist and editor. After the death of Karl Marx in March 1883, Eleanor produced the earliest appreciation of his life and was invaluable in the organisation of his papers. She continued to have an important and productive relationship with Friedrich Engels.

Examples of the breadth of her work include the fact that in 1886 Eleanor completed the first English translation of Madame Bovary by Flaubert.  She was also instrumental in the spread of the work of Ibsen in Britain at a time of intense discussion of the ‘Woman Question.’  She produced, too, a work on the poet Percy Shelley, and had the ability to research and write pamphlets and articles on a whole range of subjects.  For example, she both translated and provided an introduction to the 1871 work The History of the Paris Commune by Lissagaray.

She was a member of the Social Democratic Foundation and later the Socialist League and was a delegate in Paris for the founding of the Second International in 1889.  Perhaps her most lasting achievement was the hard work she put in with the development of the trades union movement in the 1880s working alongside those such as Will Thorne and Tom Mann but with particular emphasis on her work in assisting in the organisation of women workers.

E.P. Thompson argues that during the New Unionism, from 1888 onwards, when Eleanor identified especially with the Gasworkers and General Labourers Union, she ‘in doing so, ceased to act as an elitist, a special person, and ceased to skate in circles on the surface of the movement.’  Thompson notes how well she was received by ‘the sisters of the union, whom she played a most significant part in organising and then in assisting with the humdrum chores of weekly union work.’1

A recent biographer, Rachel Holmes, portrays Eleanor as having ‘created the political philosophy of socialist – feminism.’2  Eleanor’s work of 1886 The Woman Question: from a Socialist Point of View remains an important political statement.  In a letter written to E. Belfort Bax in 1895 Eleanor stated that ‘The so called “Woman’s Rights” question is a bourgeois one. I propose to deal with the Sex Question from the point of view of the working class and the class struggle.’

The tragedy of the life of Eleanor lies in her relationship with a man who was referred to by just about everyone who met him as a ‘reptile’ – Edward Aveling.  Although many of her works were co-written with Aveling, many comrades questioned his commitment to the Socialist movement and he had a reputation for dubious personal, moral and financial behaviour.

Eleanor committed suicide in 1898 in circumstances which remain unresolved through a poorly conducted inquest and because of the controversy over the degree of culpability attached to the behaviour of Edward Aveling.

Eleanor lived not just at a time of importance for socialism and feminism but a time when the energies of all great thinkers, workers and trade unionists were directed towards achieving reform and attacking the lack of human respect which is the very essence of Capitalism.  In her 2014 biography, Rachel Holmes concludes that ‘to live with Eleanor for a while is to have an opportunity to remember how we got here, where the democratic liberties we enjoy came from. And at what price we let them go.’

1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/thompson-ep/1976/eleanor-marx.htm
From E.P. Thompson ‘Persons & Polemics: Historical Essays’. Merlin Press: London, 1994.

2. Rachel Holmes ‘Eleanor Marx: a Life’. Bloomsbury: London, 2014.

The Working Class Movement Library has a range of material for people to come in and read on Eleanor Marx including biographies by Rachel Holmes [shelfmark JS47], John Stokes [K25],Chushichi Tsuzuki [B44] and the two-volume work of Yvonne Kapp [B43].  Many articles, books and pamphlets by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling can be accessed online at the Marxist Internet Archive, or browsed in print at the Library for those who still like the feel of paper...