The Feminism of Eleanor Marx

By Sunderland, Jane | Hecate, November 30, 1983 | Go to article overview

The Feminism of Eleanor Marx


Sunderland, Jane, Hecate


Eleanor Marx was, first and foremost, a revolutionary socialist. She wrote in 1885:

There are those who accuse of us being, to say the least, `unpractical,' because instead of trying `to help where we can' we demand a revolution. I maintain that we Socialists alone are truly practical, because we alone dare to go to the root of the ill.(1)

She was, as Lindsay German points out,

unique in British working class history: a woman, a mass agitator, thoroughly schooled in Marxist ideas which made her rare enough. But even rarer in that she combined her theory with practice.(2)

She was also committed to the liberation of women, but insisted on a revolutionary perspective rather than a reformist one:

It is with those who would revolutionise society that our work as women lies.(3)

Eleanor was born on 16 January 1855. Her childhood, though marred by poverty and her own health and eating problems was a warm and happy one. In a letter to her friend and political ally, Luise Weydemeyer, Jenny Marx, Eleanor's mother comments:

my poor dear Edgar was taken away from us and all the love for the little brother, all affection for him was transferred to the baby sister. The elder girls fostered and fondled her with almost motherly care. It is true that there can hardly be a more lovable child, so pretty, simple and good-humoured.(4)

Jenny Marx was an important source of criticism for her husband's work -- as well as his amanuensis. She also went to political meetings. But her domestic as well as her political role seems to have been subordinate to her husband's; for her, as Sheila Rowbotham reminds us, "there was no escape into the British Museum from the poverty and insecurity of their family life."(5) When with his children, however, Karl Marx was "a loving, gentle and indulgent father":

`Children should educate their parents," he used to say. There was never ever a trace of the bossy parent in his relations with his daughters, whose love for him was extraordinary...On Sundays...if the weather was fine, the whole family would go for a walk in the country...When his daughters were small he would make the long walk seem shorter to them by telling them endless fantastic tales which he made up as he went.(6)

Eleanor, in an article in part defending her father, tells how "this `bitter' and `embittered' man would talk politics and religion with his little girl,"(7) and indeed, her political consciousness developed early. Her first biographer, Chushichi Tsuzuki, quotes part of a letter to her great uncle which Eleanor wrote at the age of nine, during the Polish insurrection:

I hear from Papa that you are a great politician, so we are sure to agree. How do you think Poland is getting, on? I always hold up a finger for the Poles those brave little fellows.(8)

She later wrote to Olive Schreiner:

our natures were so exactly alike.... I remember his once saying a thing that at the time I did not understand and that even sounded rather paradoxical...Father was talking of my eldest sister and of me, and said: `Jenny is most like me, but Tussy (my dear old home name) is me.'(9)

It was, of course, not just a case of similar natures. Eleanor grew up in a highly-charged, highly-formative, highly political environment. As Tsuzuki comments:

In a way, Marx's house was the cradle of the European Socialist movement, and prominent Socialist leaders of Major European countries came and sought his counsel. In this house Eleanor grew up with open eyes, being often called upon to act as her father's secretary. Thus at the beginning of the 1880s she was well versed in the problems of the Socialist movement in various countries, and also personally knew many of its leaders.(10)

At the time of the Paris Commune of 1871, Eleanor was 16. As the Commune neared its destruction, Eleanor and her sister Jenny travelled to France to see their other sister, Laura: they then fled to Spain, in a somewhat dangerous position because of who they were, but found themselves under arrest for a short time on re-entering France. …

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