'Political From Top to Toe'

A Biography of Eleanor Marx

(Liberation introduces its readers to the 2014 biography of Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes.)

Rachel Holmes’ biography introduces us to a remarkable figure of revolutionary communist history: Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. Eleanor Marx (Tussy to her family and friends) was among the pioneering first generation of socialist activists, trade union organizers, and feminists. She was also the first to introduce the English-speaking public to Madame Bovary, to the first authentic account of the Paris Commune, and to Ibsen’s plays. And of course, she was the main source of biographical information about Karl Marx, and with Engels, the custodian of Marx’s political and intellectual legacy. Eleanor’s life and work is an important part of the legacy of the communist movement, and Holmes does a great service by introducing us anew to this legacy.

Eleanor's Childhood

The biography has fascinating details about Eleanor’s early childhood – that coincided with Marx’s authorship of Capital. As Holmes observes, “Tussy and Capital grew up together.” Later, Tussy remembered how “it must have been no small nuisance to have a small child chattering while he was working at his great book. But the child was never allowed to think she was in the way.”

Father Karl (called by his nickname Mohr by all in the family including his daughters) created a series of stories for his little daughter, about a magician named Hans Röckle. Tussy recalled, that much like Marx himself, Röckle was always "hard up", and "could never meet his obligations either to the devil or the butcher, and was therefore" much against the grain "constantly obliged to sell his toys to the devil."

Holmes adds, "In Hans Röckle Marx pokes fun at himself and the absurdities of the bohemian life to which he subjects his family. In this Faustian pact Marx is Hans, and Uncle at the pawnshop in Soho the affable devil. At another level of abstraction, the Hans Röckle cycle offers a neat allegory of surplus value, alienation and the workings of capital, governed by the diabolical debt cycle and the stygian circulation of commodities. Narrating these adventures to Tussy, Marx constructed a transposed child-friendly version of the subject of his great-book-in-progress: his epic critique of the economic system that would come to be known as capitalism."

Tussy was popular among her playmates and their families, as a result of which the Marx family was known in the neighbourhood as the ‘Tussies’. As she grew up, “No stories, books, ideas or questions were out of bounds. The Marx children were allowed to pick up, read and touch any and all printed words.” While the Marx home was always hand-to-mouth when it came to necessaries, books and paper and writing materials there always were in plenty. French, German and English were spoken in the multi-lingual household. And how did Marx tell his daughter about religion? “Tussy vividly recalled her father telling her the story of Christ: ‘the carpenter whom the rich men killed’.”

A Unique Education

In 19th century London, the few schools for girls that existed, did not offer an education on par with men. But for the first ten years of her life, Tussy received a unique education at home. She, like all her sisters, grew up with an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays. She learnt gymnastics, and she could defeat her father at chess, much to his annoyance. Engels loaned her Firdousi’s Sháh-Námah - Lives of the Kings, from where she learnt that chess was introduced into Persia from India.

Engels had been writing about the American Civil War, and Tussy would write long letters to Abraham Lincoln with advice she felt he badly needed! Her father “never posted the letters, but kept them to show to Engels, to the great amusement of them both.”

“To her great annoyance, in 1866, at the age of eleven, Tussy started attending school regularly.” The girls’ school “placed more emphasis on the required upright deportment and decorum of young ladies – who were not meant to tumble, leap, do handstands, cartwheels, headstands, forward rolls or have firm opinions on political matters.” Tussy rebelled against such ‘feminine’ restraints. When sent with her sister Laura to a boarding school, both sisters played truant from the school, refused to attend church or obey curfews.

In 1868, Tussy visited Engels and his partner Lizzy Burns in Manchester. “Engels put Eleanor on an intense course of literature, philosophy, political theory and poetry” while Lizzy introduced her to the Irish (Fenian) liberation movement and to working class districts in Manchester. She and Lizzy were ardent supporters of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, in spite of the fact that Marx and Engels disapproved of its anarchist and conspiratorial methods. On her return, Tussy would force her family to attend a demonstration “where 100,000 gathered to demand an amnesty for Fenian prisoners.”

As Holmes observes, “Most students join protest movements when they go to university; Tussy had returned from the University of Engels and Burns in Manchester a fully fledged youth protester.” Tussy never returned to school after this.

Moreover, in Lizzy Burns, Tussy had found her first female role model. “Freedom-loving, uncorseted, fiercely political and sparkling with fun, Lizzy Burns was everything the Misses Boynell and Rentsch feared that Tussy might become without proper restraint.”

Holmes paints a vivid picture of the free and easy Marx household: “In the Marx family there was nothing out of the ordinary about their thirteen-year-old daughter sitting in bed sipping port during the day, reading radical nationalist publications and humming Fenian freedom songs whilst dashing off letters on current affairs.”

When Tussy was nine, the First Congress of the International Working Men’s Association (the First International) was held in London. She helped organize it, attending its open sessions as well as the meetings of its sub-committees. William Liebknecht observed that Tussy was growing into “the International Working Men’s Association personified.”

Jenny, Lenchen and the Burns Sisters

The adult Eleanor, in a talk on ‘Shelley’s Socialism’ co-authored with her partner Edward Aveling, had argued that while Godwin’s influence on Shelley has been duly recognized, “Not enough has been made of the influence upon him of the two Marys; Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley….the world in general has treated the relative influences of Godwin on the one hand and of the two women on the other, pretty much as might have been expected with men for historians.” Much the same could be said of how history has treated the women in Marx and Engels’ lives. Holmes’ biography of Eleanor does much to give these women their due, and helping us to see them as political actors rather than only in terms of their personal relationships to Marx and Engels.

Jenny von Westphalen (called Möhme by all family and friends including her daughters) was four years older than Karl, and both had been childhood friends. When Marx was a teenager, Jenny was already a political radical. “It was from Jenny’s lips that (Marx) first heard the words of Shakespeare and Shelley, and followed, absorbed, the movements of her enquiring mind as she questioned, challenged and debated with all around her…. For Karl Marx her analytical mind, passionate politics and disregard for social propriety made her a woman in a million.”

Holmes notes Jenny’s “sparkling and frank letter on the guiltless joys of premarital sex” in 1841: “I cannot feel any repentance . . . I know very well what I have done and how the world would dishonour me, I know it, I know it – and yet I am blissfully happy and would not surrender the remembrance of those hours for any treasure in the whole world.”

Jenny Marx was the only woman signatory to the Communist Correspondence Committee founded in 1846 in Brussels – “the cultivar from which all subsequent communist parties grew.” During their journeys around Europe between 1843 and 1848, “Karl, Friedrich and Jenny famously explored their thinking on communism.”

What emerges from Holmes’ biography is also the role of Jenny as well as all the three Marx daughters in Marx’s intellectual labour. Apart from Engels, only Jenny and the three girls could decipher Marx’s handwriting. So, it was they who transcribed his writing reliably – the fact that we can read Marx today is thanks in large part to them. And they also helped Marx with his research in the British Museum Reading Room. “Marx never compelled any of his children to follow in the family business, though all of them did.”

Holmes also tells us about the Marx couple’s inseparable lifelong companion, housekeeper and comrade: Helen Demuth or ‘Lenchen’. Lenchen came from a family of bakers; “In the person of Helen Demuth, bread, revolution and the universal politics of housework converge in an extraordinary life and personality.” Lenchen was, to the Marx children, a second mother, just as Engels was a second father. Holmes speculates if Eleanor was named after Helen.

Helen had worked as a maidservant since she was eight years old, and had been subjected to brutal conditions as a child labourer, typical of “a young European working-class maidservant.” When she entered the employment of Jenny’s mother, her luck changed, and she learned to read, write and account. Lenchen and Jenny formed a friendship that lasted all their lives. When Jenny was struggling after the birth of her first daughter, Lenchen joined her and Marx to help. The three were not separated even in death: on Möhme's instructions, Lenchen lies buried with Marx and Jenny in the grave in Highgate cemetery.

Lenchen’s “opinions were shared equally in dining room and kitchen. There was no upstairs downstairs in the Marx family home…. Her mind was respectfully, even meekly, received by all the family, except Eleanor, who frequently challenged it.”

However, Holmes also notes that “Whatever the genuine bonds of love, trust and mutual respect between this extraordinary triumvirate, there was always a hierarchy in the triangle: Karl at the pinnacle, served by Jenny and Lenchen, who also served Jenny.”

Holmes notes how, even in this most democratic of families, gender and domestic labour made it inevitable for the women’s political and public lives to be subordinated to those of the men. “… For every hundred meals they (Jenny and Lenchen – ed/) cooked, Marx and Engels expressed an idea; for every basket of petticoats, bibs and curtains they sewed together, Marx and Engels wrote an article. For every pregnancy, childbirth and labour-intensive period of raising an infant, Marx and Engels wrote a book. Some years later the favourite daughter of these four friends postulated ‘a general idea that has to do with all women. The life of woman does not coincide with that of man.’

Holmes also notes, “In their lifetimes the friendship and comradeship between the inseparable Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was legendary on at least three continents…. The comradeship between the inseparable Jenny von Westphalen and Helen Demuth is neither legendary nor generally well remembered.”

Holmes deals with the controversial question of the paternity of Helen’s son Freddy Demuth – who was brought up in foster care. Holmes concludes that Marx was the father, that the entire family conspired to keep this secret, and that the friendship of Jenny and Helen, and the Marx marriage, survived the storm of this episode. But Holmes does not bring much fresh evidence to bear this out, beyond the letter by Louise Kautsky claiming that Engels himself had revealed these facts to Eleanor on his deathbed. While positive evidence on this question is wanting, there is however the troubling question: if Marx did not father Freddy, why was the identity of Freddy’s father kept such a secret? If Engels was the father, why did he not acknowledge Freddy as a son and include him in his life and in his will? Why, if Helen was a second mother to the Marx children, was Helen’s own son sent to live in foster care?

There is no doubt that these questions troubled Eleanor, who treated Freddy with great sisterly affection. It was clear that at least initially, she assumed Engels to be Freddy’s father. She wrote to her sister, “‘Freddy has behaved admirably in all respects and Engels’ irritation against him is as unfair as it is comprehensible. We should none of us like to meet our pasts, I guess, in flesh and blood. I know I always meet Freddy with a sense of guilt and wrong done. The life of that man! To hear him tell of it all is a misery and shame to me.” In another letter she wrote, “I can’t help feeling that Freddy has had great injustice all through his life. Is it not wonderful when you come to look things squarely in the face, how rarely we seem to practise all the fine things we preach – to others?” When she began work on Marx’s biography, a task she never completed, Eleanor wrote to her sister Laura, “Marx the “Politiker” (politician) and “Denker” (thinker) can take his chance, while Marx the man is less likely to fare as well.” In the last part of her life, she wrote many letters to Freddy sharing her anguish over her painful relationship with Edward Aveling, and Freddy offered every kind of help.

The other remarkable women we meet in this book are Engels’ partners, the Burns sisters. Mary Burns was a nineteen-year-old Irish textile-worker and political activist, who had first introduced Engels to working class industrial life, inspiring and facilitating the research that culminated in his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England. Mary and Engels never married, but lived together in an open relationship. After Mary’s death, her sister Lizzy became Engels’ partner. Both Mary and Lizzy were huge influences on Eleanor – independent, politically active and sexually free working class women.

Holmes records how both Möhme and Tussy's eldest sister Jennychen expressed their dissatisfaction with the domestic burdens that trapped their ambitions. Möhme wrote: "In all these battles we women have to bear the hardest, i.e. pettiest, part. In the battle with the world the man gets stronger, stronger too in the face of enemies, even if their number is legion; we sit at home and darn socks. That does not banish the worries, and little daily cares slowly gnaw away the courage to face life….”

Like her mother, Jennychen, who had a “brilliant, original mind” had believed “that she could have both marriage and a career.” But once children and household burdens had her in their grip, “she discovered that, like her mother before her, she could not.” Jennychen wrote to Laura “Those blessed babies…though really charming good-tempered little fellows, put such a strain on my nervous system by day and night that I often long for no matter what release from this ceaseless round of nursing… I do believe that even the dull routine of factory work is not more killing than are the endless duties of the ménage. To me at least, this is and always has been so." Jennychen died young, probably as a result of complications following pregnancies.

With these examples before her, “Tussy was determined to escape this pettiest part. The start of her struggle to escape the predestination of playing the woman’s part had already caused her desperation, frustrated rage, eating disorders and near breakdown, experiences she shared with many women of her generation.”

The Teenage Tussy and the Paris Commune

The Paris Commune of March to May 1871, “the first and only attempt to make a proletarian revolution in nineteenth-century Europe,” was also “the first political event in which Tussy was personally involved.”

When the Paris Commune was at its highpoint in April 1871, Tussy and Jennychen travelled to France to help Laura with her sick baby (who eventually died). The French police arrested and interrogated the Marx sisters, suspecting them of being insurgents of the Commune. “Meeting the Marx sisters in person tended to confirm, not allay, their reputation amongst conservatives of being dangerous petroleuses: the legendary women street-fighters of the Paris Commune, led by the formidable Union des Femmes. It is likely that spies had already told the French authorities that Elisabeth Demetrioff, founder and leader of the women’s union, was a personal family friend of the Marxes in general and Eleanor in particular.” Eleanor had met the 19-year-old Demetrioff the previous year, when she had visited London.

Holmes takes the time here to remind us in detail how “the Paris Commune was a great gender event.” Those who attacked the Commune tended to do so in misogynist terms. One such commentator ranted, “The weaker sex behaved scandalously during these deplorable days …Those females who dedicated themselves to the Commune – and there were many – had but a single ambition: to raise themselves above the level of man . . . the gentleman’s seamstresses; the gentleman’s shirtmakers; the teachers of grown-up schoolboys; the maids-of-all-work . . . During the final days, all of these bellicose viragos held out longer than the men did behind the barricades.”

Arrested by the police, Jennychen boldly managed to conceal an incriminating letter to Marx and Lafargue from Commune leader Gustave Flourens. She managed to slip it into the police station’s own detention register – where it lay in full view while the police searched the girls and their apartment in vain. Later, the right-wing press could not believe that Marx’s daughters were the ‘insurgents’ being chased by police in France; they reported them to be “brothers of Karl Marx.”

The teenage Tussy was most active in helping the Communard refugees who had fled to France. Around this time, her mother described her as “‘eine Politikerin von top to bottom’ (a politician from top to bottom). Tussy fell in love with the legendary Communard Lissagaray, who was an exile in London, seventeen years older than her. She helped translate his account on his experience at the barricades of the Paris Commune.

Eleanor's Wars of Independence

As we have seen, the Marx daughters grew up relatively free of gendered restrictions. Their parents saw nothing strange about their daughters drinking wine, and they never expected their girls to learn ‘feminine’ accomplishments. The girls were all encouraged to be politically active.

As in even the most democratic of families, though, the tensions surfaced when the daughters fell in love or sought to live independently.

Möhme expressed her "maternal anxiety about the future security of daughters married to impecunious revolutionaries," and Holmes has some fun at the expense of Marx - himself an impecunious revolutionary - sharing such anxieties. Marx told Laura's lover Paul Lafargue, "You know that I have sacrificed my whole fortune to the revolutionary struggle. I do not regret it. On the contrary. Had I my career to start again I should do the same. But I would not marry. As far as lies in my power I intend to save my daughter from the reefs upon which her mother's life had been wrecked."

Marx objected to Tussy’s relationship with Lissagaray, even attempting to forbid her from meeting him. Tussy initially obeyed, confining herself to writing letters to her father pleading to be allowed to meet Lissa, or at least be told when she would be allowed to meet him. Eventually, however, “she stopped asking for permission to continue with her liaison with Lissa and simply re-established the relationship in the open, daring anyone to challenge her directly.”

When Tussy announced her intention to live independently in Brighton and earn her own living, Marx sulked. “It was no small thing in early 1870s England for an eighteen-year-old without her own money or formal education to strike an act of independence like this from her family…The Jenny Marx who was once a young female radical firebrand empathised with Tussy’s decision…. Jenny recognised her own youth in Tussy, in which her natural instinct for liberty from the absurdities of patriarchy and class-based social expectation were cast as rebellious provocation.”

Jenny told her daughter, “I alone understand how dearly you long for work and independence, the only two things that can help one over the sorrows and cares of present day society….nobody understands your position, your conflict, your embitterment better than I do. Let your young heart triumph…”

Holmes skillfully situates Eleanor’s personal struggles, dilemmas and even illnesses in the larger social landscape. She writes, “The narrative of Tussy’s life begins to take shape like that of a feminist anti-heroine of the great Victorian novels. Except that she is real, not the aspirational projection of a frustrated intellect that longs to express itself through the actualisation of contested freedom." Holmes is referring here to novels such as Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Tussy began earning a living as a history teacher. “A teenager with an ‘immense interest’ in the Commune and the International quickly attached herself to her inspiring new history teacher, Miss Marx. ‘Is it not odd that I should always hit on such girls?’, Tussy asked her mother with a charming lack of awareness that she might be a role model for younger women.”

But Jenny’s support for her daughter’s independence wavered when she began to worry about Lissagaray’s frequent visits to Tussy and Tussy’s health problems. Fighting now against her parents’ “allied forces,” “Eleanor lost the battle in her first war of independence.”

The stress of being “torn between her father, her lover and her independence” took its toll on Eleanor’s health. She had inherited her father’s tendency “for stretches of intense, concentrated productivity punctuated by stress-related exhaustion.” But hers was not just an individual predicament, but a social one. “This was the great age of nervous anxiety and feverish repression labelled ‘hysteria’. Tussy contracted the whole infuriating syndrome of Victorian feminine neurosis … the effects of patriarchal repression and thwarted desire on intelligent, ambitious daughters.”

Eleanor recovered under treated by the legendary Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify in England as a doctor. Anderson was fully aware of the social causes of so-called ‘hysteria’ suffered by so many women of the time, and Marx respected her diagnosis.

On a holiday with her father after her recovery, she was struck by the domestic violence and humiliation inflicted by family friend Dr. Ludwig Kugelmann on his wife and daughters. This “sharpened Tussy’s awareness of the dangers of economic dependency for women within marriage. Here, along with her consciousness of the growing unhappiness and struggle of both of her sisters, are the first explicit signs of her nascent feminism.”

The second edition of this personal struggle was waged by Eleanor some years later. “Unmarried and childless, Tussy was exposed to the dependency of her ageing parents and to being nanny to her sister’s children. It was the dilemma of every woman of her ilk. To fulfil her aspirations for a life as an artist and activist, intellectual and community leader, she needed to learn how to murder the self-sacrificing, eternally good, dutiful, boiling with resentment, angelic youngest daughter....She desired romance, marriage and children but deferred, prompted by the still small voice that warned they were potential roads to future unfreedom. As a little girl she had written a loving letter to her ‘dear Dady’ [sic] – signing herself ‘Your UNdutyful daughter Eleanor.’ How to recapture the unbounded optimism of the little girl bold enough to be an undutiful daughter?”

She had deferred the start of her theatrical training, out of her duty to care for various sick members of her family. After her mother’s death, she was hit by the sense of her mother’s talents and ambitions that had been sacrificed at the altar of marriage and motherhood. When Lissa returned to Paris, Tussy refused to go with him; she broke off the relationship. “Where the letters of condolence praising Möhme for her exemplary selflessness were gentle consolation for Marx, they appalled and depressed Tussy, spurring her to choose uncertain independence over the loving subjection of marriage.”

But she still could not bring herself to abandon her duties to her father, now burdened by illness and broken by Möhme's death. It was her eldest sister Jennychen who helped Marx understand Tussy’s dilemma. “He expressed his conviction to Engels that no medicine, change of scene or air could cure her sickness; as he now realised, what he could do for her was support and enable her ‘to do as she wishes and let go through her theatrical lessons’… Marx would not ‘for anything in the world wish that the child should imagine herself to be sacrificed on the family altar in the form of the “nurse” of an old man’.”

Jennychen hoped to see Tussy do what she had failed to do – live “the only free life a woman can live – the artistic one.” Marx worried about Jennychen’s failing health, and thought Tussy should go to help her sister cope with her children. But Jennychen would not hear of it:

“The only bit of good news that I have had these many days is . . . of your literary enterprises. I congratulate you with all my heart and rejoice to think that one of us at least will not pass her life in watching over a pot au feu (pot of stew – ed/).”

Jennychen was dying; her refusal to take her youngest sister’s help at such a time, so as not to thwart her independence was a remarkable act of love and courage. Her death broke Marx – and he too died soon after.

Her father’s death helped Tussy resolve her dilemmas. She did not give up her quest for independence – but she did abandon her plans to be a professional actress, in favour of the more urgent task of being a political activist and a custodian of Marx’s writings. As Holmes writes, “After all, did the world need another actor more than it needed Marx’s intellectual legacy, secured by the one qualified, undaunted individual other than Engels with whom it could be trusted absolutely?”

Free Love and Double Standards

Struggles in Eleanor’s personal life were most painful when it came to love. Eleanor began living with Edward Aveling, a married man who had long been separated from his wife. She wrote letters to friends and comrades, explaining and justifying her decision. “Eleanor was justly anxious about how her decision might affect her political reputation. She knew the opponents of socialism, and women’s emancipation, could and would use her self-avowedly feminist free-love union as negative publicity….Aveling, on the other hand, didn’t have to send a single letter to anybody to explain or justify his position. That the same social conventions did not apply to him only underlined the double standards of patriarchal convention.”

Engels, who himself had lived in free-love, open unions with women, recognized the double standards that would not judge him for his personal life, but would judge Eleanor. He supported Eleanor’s decision. Engels “could play a different role for Tussy, that of a paternal figure without the complications of being her real father.”

It was at this time that “Engels was completing The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State…it was observing at close quarters the modern lives of Eleanor and her friends that inspired him to think about sex, socialism, free love and revolution in the early 1880s.” But ‘free love’ had different costs for Engels, Aveling and Eleanor. “All three believed in free love. Engels could afford it. Aveling borrowed interest-free from women to fund it. For Eleanor, a woman, free love was the most expensive form of love in which she could possibly have chosen to invest.”

She and Edward co-authored many important pieces of writing, and were both prominent communist activists. But Aveling was a compulsive liar, an unscrupulous man who cheated Eleanor, cheated many others financially, and sponged off Eleanor’s political and economic legacy. Famously, Bernard Shaw in his play The Doctor’s Dilemma, modeled the character of Louis Dubedat, the gifted, unscrupulous womanizer with a devoted wife, on Aveling.

At the end, Aveling contributed to Eleanor’s untimely death at the age of 48. She died of prussic acid poisoning; whether it was suicide after a particularly wounding betrayal by Aveling, or murder by him, remains a mystery.

(To be concluded in the next issue of Liberation).

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