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Alastair Hatchett

Eleanor Marx

(April 1977)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.97, April 1977, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Eleanor Marx Vol 2, The Crowded Years 1884-1898
Yvonne Kapp
Lawrence and Wishart £12.00

THERE are very few biographies of socialist leaders that bring alive the creativity, activity and relevance of their subject. We have works like Deutscher’s Trotsky, Frolich’s Rosa Luxembourg, E.P. Thompson’s William Morris, Cliff’s Lenin; and there is Victor Serge’s autobiography Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Yvonne Kapp’s two volume work on Eleanor Marx now stands with them.

The first volume covered Eleanor Marx’s formative years in the material poverty but exhilarating spirit of the exiled Marx family in London. The second volume covers her life as an active revolutionary. Here we see her as a committed socialist in first the Social-Democratic Federation and then the Socialist League. As working class struggle rose at the end of the 1880s we see her as one of these who transcended the limitations of the small socialist sects throwing herself into the East London agitation.

Unlike most of her contemporaries in the middle-class socialist milieux of London she was at the centre of the new unionism of the semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Her efforts were acknowledged when she came first in the poll for the executive of the Gasworkers Union. On Christmas Day 1889 she wrote to her sister Laura Lafargue:

‘... For my own poor part, look you, life seems to be becoming one long strike. First there was the Dock Strike. No sooner was that over than I was summoned to Silvertown, and for 10 mortal weeks I travelled daily to that out-of-the-world place; speaking every day – often twice a day, in all weathers in the open air.

‘I began to hope for peace – when lo! the Gas Strike begins ...

‘I am a member of the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, and Secretary of a Woman’s Branch which I started in Silvertown, and that takes up no end of time. How this strike will go it is difficult to say ... The blacklegs in the works are getting very unmanageable. 132 were seriously burnt (through lack of skill) in one week ... Things are moving here at last, and though the methods differ from those on the Continent, the movement is none the less certain.’

Her optimist had been forged in a long apprenticeship: through the inspiration of her father, and her research for Capital; in her long association with Engels; among the exiles of revolutionary Europe; but most of all by the potential demonstrated by working class struggle in the 1880s.

Her creative but ultimately destructive relationship with Edward Aveling is described with clarity and sympathy by Yvonne Kapp. Eleanor Marx’s suicide in 1898 reflected more than a lover’s betrayal. Kapp show’s how Eleanor’s despair was largely a consequence of the crushing of her optimism. The working-class advance was stemmed by the employers’ offensive of the 1890’s. Engels, known to her as ‘the General’, died in 1896, severing her connection to her father’s generation. That tragedy for her was reinforced by her antipathy for the increasingly crude interpretations of Marx’s writings in Britain and throughout Europe.

Had she lived on, wrote Will Thorne of the Gasworkers Union years later,

‘Eleanor ... would have been a greater women’s leader than the greatest of contemporary women.’

Yvonne Kapp has brought her life out of the shadows of history. These volumes of Eleanor Marx’s biography are expensive so order them from your library and rediscover the excitement of part of our history.

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