'Political From Top to Toe'

A Biography of Eleanor Marx

(Concluding part of the introduction to the 2014 biography of Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes. The first part appeared in Liberation June 2015 issue)

Eleanor the Political Activist

Eleanor’s mother understood her well when she described her as ‘political from top to toe.’ The biography draws a vivid picture of Eleanor’s tireless activism, fuelled by chain-smoking, sleeplessness and her motto: ‘Go Ahead!’

As a leader of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), from “August 1884 to January 1885 Eleanor attended every meeting of the executive council, frequently taking the chair.” She then led the split within the SDF that led to the formation of the Socialist League, where she was the only woman among the ten founding signatories. She was one of the key leaders of the League, “with a formidable grasp of economics, organisation and strategy.”

At Engels’ request, she conducted archival research for the English translation of Capital, locating Marx’s original English sources in the British Museum and law libraries. “This research was probably a better grounding in social and economic policy than that received by many of her university-educated male contemporaries.” She developed her public lectures on the Factory Acts in England with Edward into a pamphlet, The Factory Hell.

“Within the twelve months between the summers of 1885 and 1886 Tussy started and finished the first English translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; revised a new edition of Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune; put on the first performance of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in England; championed the programming of art and education in the Socialist League; produced a body of journalistic work on prostitution and sex slavery; became a ghostwriter and finally completed the English translation of the first volume of Capital with Samuel Moore, Engels, Aveling, Lafargue and Longuet. If this were not sufficient, she and Edward completed and published ‘The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View’.

Holmes writes, “Tussy seemed tireless. It is impossible to find her slacking or napping, let alone holidaying. Her correspondence from 1885 onwards is like an administrative and organisational machine, each missive fuelling her steam engine of activism…. when it comes to political organisation, no task is too menial or laborious for Tussy to undertake willingly and execute with superb efficiency.” From writing hundreds of handwritten letters, to translating, typing, booking places for meetings and organizing food for delegates, to researching and writing original articles, she did everything.

She was also a gifted and powerful public speaker. The biography recounts many of the occasions on which Eleanor addressed large crowds.

In March 1884, at a public meeting to commemorate the Paris Commune, Eleanor, for the first time, made “women’s leadership of the Commune…the subject of an anniversary address.” She stressed women’s emancipation as “not just integral or desirable, but a precondition for the progress of meaningful social change….She was the only person on the platform that night to address the questions of sexual difference and gender inequality but, resoundingly, the most well-received speaker.”

On an agitation tour of the US, Eleanor made several persuasive speeches addressing anti-Communist prejudices and fears. In a memorable speech marking the first May Day of 1890, she concluded with the “Shelley’s great thunderous invocation to working-class Englishmen and women in The Masque of Anarchy: Rise like Lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/ Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you/ – Ye are many – they are few.”

Appearing as a witness in a court hearing where protesters received draconian sentences for peaceful protests, Eleanor was reprimanded by the magistrate for her ‘impertinence.’ When people present raised slogans against the draconian sentences, the police assaulted them, singling out Eleanor and William Morris for “a particularly brutal thumping.”

Eleanor was at the heart of some of the most significant political events of her time. It is fascinating to read of the time in 1887 when Trafalgar Square in London was like a modern-day Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park. Thousands of unemployed workers and socialists occupied the Square indefinitely, “holding public meetings, making speeches themselves, asking questions, discussing how to appoint new leaders and the viability of leaderless revolution…. Trafalgar Square became a hub of daily democratic protest and free speech, within hearing distance of Parliament.”

When the Government banned meetings in Trafalgar Square, Londoners called for a massive demonstration in defence of freedom of expression, with the slogan, ‘To the Square!’ Tussy was in “the frontline of demonstrators attempting to force themselves into the barricaded square.” The police crushed the protesters brutally, and many people including leaders ‘skedaddled’, as Shaw described it. But Tussy faced the police violence head-on, turning up at Engels’ doorstep later with “her coat in tatters, her hat bashed and slashed by a blow.” Engels, commenting later on her militancy, observed that “Tussy . . . was not the attacked, but the attacker.”

In July 1889, Eleanor was translator as well as strategist at the Congress held by socialists in Paris.

Eduard Bernstein wrote admiringly of her, “Some few of us were struck by the superhuman effort she put into this task [as interpreter]. She was ceaselessly busy, from morning to evening, generally interpreting in three languages. She gave herself no respite, missed no session. Despite the oppressive heat in the hall she stayed the course of the whole Congress doing this thankless, gruelling work: in the truest sense of the word the ‘proletarian’ of the Congress.”

She had begun using the new machine – the typewriter. “Tussy did some investigative journalism into typists’ wages and labour conditions, published as ‘Sweating in Type-Writing Offices’ in the People’s Press. …Her own quick skill at typing was of course soon pressed into unpaid political service.”

For her lecture series of 1897 Eleanor chose most frequently the subjects of imperialism and colonialism in India and South Africa, often giving variations on her lecture ironically entitled ‘Our Glorious Empire’.

Trade Union Organiser

In 1888, Eleanor “spent a large proportion of her time with dock workers in East London, organising union committees and campaigns for the eight-hour day.” In July 1889, she “addressed a massive crowd of 100,000 people at a rally in Hyde Park in support of the Dock Strike.”

This was a time of strikes by “so-called ‘unorganisable’ unskilled workers” all over the country: match-girls, sailors tram-men, gas workers, onion-skinners, sweet makers were all unionizing and organizing strikes. Many of these workers were women.

One of the most significant strikes was called by National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland. Leaders of this Union were former child labourers whose only access to literacy, numeracy and education had been through the factory education groups organized by socialists like Eleanor and her comrades. It was these leaders – Bill Thorne, Ben Tillett, Keir Hardie - who also became the first generation of Labour politicians in Britain. They were “visitors to (Eleanor’s) home before anyone else had ever heard of them. Tussy convened, she caucused, she networked.”

“Thorne observed that Eleanor worked long hours as a correspondent for the strike committee, walking home late at night or in the early hours of the morning when public transport was no longer running. Tillett remembered Eleanor: . . . doing the drudgery of clerical work as well as more responsible duties...

... during our great strike she worked unceasingly, literally day and night”

Thorne spoke of Tussy’s role in educating him, saying she “helped me more than anyone else to improve my very bad handwriting, my reading and my general knowledge.” Eleanor never mentioned this.

Around this time, she wrote to her sister, “life seems to be becoming one long strike.” Tussy led the men gas workers “under cover”, but she led women gas workers from the front. “Eleanor climbed on chairs and tables to harangue workers in Silvertown pubs…formed the first women’s branch of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers on 10 October 1889.” As secretary of the women gas workers and serving member of the gas workers’ national executive, Eleanor was a leader of one of the biggest emerging labour movements in the UK.

She spoke persuasively about how “this strike and all others would ultimately fail unless the women workers unionised and coordinated strategically with the men’s unions. By dividing workers by gender, the employers kept everyone’s wages down….Inequality between men and women in the workplace did not just favour or support capitalism, it made capitalism possible.”

At the third International Miners’ Congress in London in July 1892, “Eleanor worked as secretary and translator by day and by night wrote full-length political and economic analyses for both the English and German press.” Engels told Bebel about “Eleanor’s critical role in arbitrating in a potentially disastrous political dispute between German and Scottish coalminers.”

She was also enthusiastic about making cultural capital available to the working class and to children. She organized classes on Shakespeare for working class people and festivals for working class children, and took objection to vulgar entertainment at socialist gatherings. “Eleanor’s precepts on art were clear. Everybody was entitled to enjoy good quality, challenging culture and entertainment.” She wrote, “… do not let us say ‘anything will do’ for an audience because it is a poor and working-class one” and “We cannot too soon make children understand that Socialism means happiness.”

Challenging Sexism in the Communist Movement

Virtually all her life, Eleanor had been a witness and participant in the struggle against sexism and gender discrimination – in 19th century society and in the communist movement itself right from its inception.

As its very name indicates, there was a debate over the role of women in the First International. “At the founding of the First International in 1864 the General Council, led by Marx, voted to admit women as members. The French delegation opposed this on the grounds that women ‘belonged by the hearth, not at the Forum’….the French chapter proclaimed that, ‘To men belong labour and the study of human problems; to women child care and adornment of the worker’s home.’”

Such sexism cannot be rationalized merely as a “product of its times.” After all, women who organized and led the Paris Commune were the products of the same times, the same country as these sexist leaders of the First International!

While liberal socialists like Hyndman held “the bizarre view that democracy would be created if only working men were enfranchised and directly represented,” Eleanor, right from her mid-twenties, “started to question and challenge the exclusionary focus and insistence only on the rights of working men, not women, as the first step of socialist organisation in England.”

Eleanor thought through these issues with comrades around her, most significantly Engels. As Holmes puts it, “For the present and future of the family, (Engels) drew on the living examples around him: his own life, the Burns sisters, Lenchen, Pumps, and Marx’s daughters. Crucially, Engels introduced Herbert Spencer’s juxtaposition of the forces of production and reproduction into thinking about the family, sex and economics. This absolutely fundamental philosophical, political and economic realisation made a transformational impact on Eleanor. Engels had achieved what her father’s work did not; he had made the crucial step of identifying the relationship between the theory of historical materialism and feminism.”

Homles writes that for Eleanor, “Working-class and middle-class women were conjoined by the inseparability of production and the reproduction required to replenish the work force. From this perspective, patriarchy and capitalism were not just blood brothers but twins.”

Eleanor wrote with empathy of the struggle of bourgeois women, drawing upon Norwegian playwright Ibsen’s play The Doll’s House that she loved and had helped introduce to England: “The women of this class are sick of their moral and intellectual subjugation. They are Noras rebelling against their doll’s homes. They want to live their own lives, and economically and intellectually the demands of the middle-class women are fully justified…. As a worker, the proletarian woman had a different kind of independence to the housebound middle-class woman, ‘but truly she paid the price!’”

Eleanor was “impatient with the caution within socialist organisations about how to treat the question of the equality of the sexes.” In ‘The Woman Question’, she and Edward sought to “show that feminism was an integral necessity, not just a single aspect or issue of the socialist working-class movement” (Holmes).

For them it is clear that “those who attack the present treatment of women without seeking for the cause of this in the economics of our latter-day society are like doctors who treat a local affection without inquiring into the general bodily health.” But, as Holmes points out, “at no point do Eleanor and Edward argue that sexual oppression can be resolved merely with an economic answer: ‘The woman question is one of the organisation of society as a whole.’”

Eleanor and Edward do not only discuss the question of economic and legal inequalities. They discuss the need for changed attitudes to the family, home, community and sexuality. They argue, “To us, it seems that the reproductive organs ought to be discussed as frankly, as freely, between parents and children as the digestive. The objection to this is but a form of the vulgar prejudice against the teaching of physiology.”

Eleanor and her friend, the writer Olive Shreiner “discussed their sexual desire, periods, premenstrual tension, the effects of their monthly cycle on their work and moods, and wondered about the equivalents in their men.” Eleanor resented housework, writing, “Who is the fiend who invented housekeeping? I hope his invention may plague him in another world.”

On her trip to America, and in her work among women workers in Britain, Eleanor noted how “women workers were fined for reading newspapers, or for going to the toilet, drinking water or sitting on a stool whilst working.” How similar such working conditions are to those that prevail in India today!

Holmes records Eleanor’s determination that “Women should attend meetings, run for leadership and bring their mostly working children with them to meetings too…All working men, Tussy said, had a duty to give women a helping hand with children and the home to ensure their full ability to participate in the social and political movement.”

Holmes notes that “Much of the dissension within the union movement about legislating working hours stemmed from the fact that fixed working hours affected working women more than working men” – i.e the 8-hour working day was a more urgent demand for women workers than it was for men. “The sexual division of labour in the industrial workplace under capitalism was laid bare by the eight-hour movement. Tom Mann, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett were all sons of working mothers. All three insisted on the absolute necessity for legislation on working hours.”

Both among rank-and-file working class men as well as among communist leaders, “women were, by definition, unskilled workers.” Holmes writes, “Eleanor tackled this sexism head on. She started to refer to herself in her speeches, pointedly, as ‘a more or less unskilled worker’ who was nevertheless a leader on the union executive on which she had served almost since its foundation. As such, ‘it is my duty to protest against the statement that the “unskilled” do not demand a legal right to the eight hour day.”

Some on the Left argued that Eleanor could not be called “unskilled” because she was from the intellectual class. “But Tussy’s socialist sisters got her point: as a woman of any class she was, by legal and social definition, classified and regarded as ‘unskilled’.”

An immensely popular leader of the trade union movement, Eleanor nevertheless was not immune to “the patriarchal sexism within some sectors of the socialist movement that punished women who spoke up too loudly….she was excluded from the Trades Union Congress of 1890” on the grounds that she was not a ‘working women.’ She retorted, “Now, to begin with, I am a working woman – I work a typewriter; and secondly it is surely preposterous for anyone except the Congress itself to declare who shall sit and who shall not.” Much to her chagrin, she had to attend the Congress from a press seat as a reporter. “Presumably being a journalist for four different publications in three languages didn’t make her a working woman either.”

Eleanor was also friendly with the scholar of human sexuality, Havelock Ellis, who was among the first to study homosexuality and the transgender phenomena without treating these as disease, immorality or crime. Significantly, Eleanor also publicly defended the playwright Oscar Wilde when he was vilified and imprisoned for homosexuality. “When no British paper would publish her defence of Wilde, she got it published in Russia.”

Why It’s Important to Remember Eleanor Today

Reading Holmes’ biography, it is clear that Eleanor was much more than Marx’s daughter – she was a communist leader in her own right. The book lives up to the promise of its first line: “Eleanor Marx changed the world. In the process she revolutionised herself. This is the story of how she did it.” As Holmes concludes, we owe to Eleanor and her comrades“The eight-hour day. The outlawing of child labour. Access to equal education. Freedoms of expression. Trade unions. Universal suffrage. Democratically selected parliamentary representation, regardless of class, religion, gender or ethnicity. Feminism.” Holmes points out that those achievements are now being undone the world over: “Undermining employment rights, socially stigmatising the poor, blaming the sick, demonising immigrants, betraying child labourers, polluting the environment in the name of surplus value and incentivising families to send women home to make babies: all of these contribute to the re-creation of an economic underclass – and all of them are happening now.”

For revolutionary activists, especially for women in the communist movement and in fact all women, Eleanor’s life and work hold many lessons. It brings home the fact that independence can come only by being willingness to stop trying to seek approval or permission from parents, sisters, lovers or husbands, and by fighting the compulsion to perform the ‘duties’ of domestic labour. Holmes tells us, “Eleanor knew that without bringing the question of feminism to the centre and heart of every imaginative act and movement for social and economic change,” the struggle for such change would never be achieved. (concluded)

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