Eleanor Marx
Jews, Marxism and the Worker's Movement

Henry R. Rosenthal

Eleanor Marx: ’I Am a Jewess’

First Published: Morning Freiheit, May 10, 1987.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This article is reprinted from the Canadian Jewish Outlook, a progressive monthly published in Vancouver, B.C. Mr. Rosenthal is the journal’s editor.

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It was during the first eruption of the Dreyfus Affair that Karl Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor announced proudly, “I am a Jewess.” Those words signalled a reversal of the process by which her grandfather had abandoned Judaism and converted to the Lutheran faith. In August, 1824, he had baptized Karl, 6 years old at that time, together with one brother and five sisters.

But it was not the Dreyfus Affair alone that impelled Eleanor to reassert her Jewish identity. Perhaps a more powerful factor was her discovery of working-class Jews in London’s East End and their militant struggle for social justice in the sweatshops.

The first recorded evidence came in a letter dated October, 1890, addressed to a group of Jewish Socialist workers in London.

“Dear Comrades: I shall be very glad to speak at the meeting of Nov.; the more glad, that my father was a Jew.” As it happened, that meeting, called to protest the latest round of persecutions in Czarist Russia, was scheduled to be held in the Great Assembly Hall, but the hall’s owner was pressured into cancelling the booking by the Chief Rabbi and Samuel Montagu, Jewish M.P. for Whitechapel.

But the meeting was held out of doors on Mile End Waste, and passed a strong resolution of censure against the leaders of the Jewish establishment for their attempts to prevent their protest against anti-Semitism.

Eleanor Marx’s rediscovery of her Jewish roots is described vividly in Yvonne Kapp’s magnificent biography of Eleanor’s tragic but eventful life. That work brings to life the last few decades of the 19th century, the turbulence of its intellectual discourse, the emergence of the socialist movements, and the struggle for workers’ rights and the equality of women.

In all of those dynamic developments, we find Eleanor Marx at the storm centre. Eclipsed over time by the fame of her illustrious father, and later by her egomaniacal husband, Edward Aveling, Eleanor’s unique place in the history of modern times is affirmed in Kapp’s monumental study.

Yvonne Kapp’s main source of information on Eleanor’s doings was a Russian woman, Zinaida Vengerova, who was studying English literature. She met frequently at the British Museum with Eleanor Marx, and a friendship developed, which was later recorded Vengerova’s memoir entitled “On the Daughter of Karl Marx.”

In addition to newspapers and journals of the time, Kapp’s other major source was Morris Winchevsky, who would later make his mark on the Jewish Socialist movement in the United States. However, he did spend some 16 years in England, where he founded the first Yiddish socialist journal, called Der Poilisher Yidl (The Little Polish Jew), which became Die Tsukunft (The Future). When that publication veered towards Zionism, Winchevsky started a new publication called Arbeiter Fraint (Worker’s Friend).

Winchevsky worked with Eleanor on several demonstrations, where they often shared the same platform. But it was not until the International Congress held in Zurich in 1893, when he and Eleanor Marx were part of the 65-person delegation from Great Britain, that they became closely associated.

On that occasion, Eleanor Marx took advantage of her position in the secretariat of the Congress to inform the delegations that 600 Jewish workers organized in eight different unions were represented at this meeting (tumultuous applause).

Winchevsky, recalling the incident, thought that many of those present were unaware of the existence of a Jewish worker: “that is, a Jew engaged in manual labour, let alone organized Jewish workers.”

Later that day, delegates marched in an impressive parade through the streets of Zurich. Winchevsky was unsure about what contingent he could join.

He recalled, “Eleanor ran up to me in great haste. She placed me next to herself with Will Thome on one side, and Edward [Aveling] on the other. ’We Jews must stick together,’ she said. And together we remained and we made plans. I was to tell the Jewish workers who her father was, and she would give me material no one else has.” Unfortunately, Winchevsky left England for America shortly after (1894) and the plans were not implemented.

Vengerova’s impressions of Eleanor were somewhat different. She was astounded to learn that Eleanor had been learning Yiddish. As Eleanor explained, “I even deliver lectures in Yiddish, and easily distort German grammar so that my audience should understand me better.”

Vengerova recorded her surprise that “in enlightened England there still existed the language of the Jewish ghetto. But Eleanor explained to me that she was active among the Jewish working women in Whitechapel, and that in the interests of socialist propaganda it was more sensible for her to learn Yiddish than to wait for the ignorant masses of immigrants from Eastern Europe to become Anglicized. ’Besides, the Jewish language is akin to my blood,’ she said.”

With the departure of Winchevsky and other activists from England, socialist activity among Jews declined. But a notable meeting was held on Dec. 7, 1895 to protest the resolution passed by the Cardiff Trades Union Congress to control immigration. Ten Jewish unions in London sponsored the protest rally, and speakers included Kropotkin, Wess, Stepniak, Burrows, and Eleanor Marx, with Edward Aveling in the chair. Speeches were delivered in English and Yiddish by representatives of Jewish and Gentile unions.

Given the ebullience of her spirit, her dedication to the cause of socialism, and the universal respect and love she inspired wherever she went, it must have been difficult for her many friends to understand or accept the fact of Eleanor Marx’s suicide at the age of 43. But the last years of her life brought the death of Friedrich Engels and some of her closest friends and family members, her desertion and betrayal by her ill-chosen marriage partner, Edward Aveling, plus the ebb of socialist fortunes which had given her life meaning. It was the combination of all these tragic circumstances which laid her low, and shattered her spirit. Her loss was keenly felt by thousands, and the manner and causes of her premature death were heatedly debated for several years by leading Socialists like Edward Bernstein and Keir Hardie, and feminist Olive Schreiner. But her memory was later allowed to lapse into oblivion, perhaps as a relief from the acrimony of a pointless debate. Aveling, the evil genius of her life, followed her to the grave several months later in December 1898.

We owe a debt of gratitude to talented biographer Yvonne Kapp, whose labor of love has produced one of the most compelling biographies of our time. Although meticulously researched and documented, it pulsates with life, and illuminates whatever it touches, with warmth and a compassion which is never blind. In bringing Eleanor Marx and her family to life, Kapp has also provided a remarkable, many-sided portrait of an exciting age in the history of modern times.