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Book Review: Eleanor Marx – A Life

Biographies can transform the retelling of history and produce a romanticised and possibly distorted narrative. Eleanor Marx is one of those iconic figures who attracts biographies, well, because of her iconic status. Few of them contain new material and there is in fact little to add to Yvonne Kapp’s definitive two volume of the 70s or of David McLellan’s biography of Marx. The subject is of special interest to freethinkers because the tragic heroine whose life was dominated by her care for her father, and his legacy, was fatally betrayed by a leading secularist. It was Eleanor’s misfortune to have met him at the Brtish Museum reading room.

Edward Aveling, a friend of Annie Besant, was a very flawed character who not only betrayed her but was a thoroughly disreputable fellow in all respects. Aveling was Vice Chairman of the NSS. He was also a leading socialist political activist at a time when secularism was moving towards the Left. Later on, socialism may itself have become more influenced by Christianity. These are the most interesting passages in the book. Like many radicals, Aveling was an emotionally detached stunted individual seemingly incapable of basic empathy or intimacy. He may even have known of Eleanor’s impending suicide and did nothing to prevent it.

His quarrels with Bradlaugh and Besant propelled him to socialism. Aveling was typical of the kind of figure often thrown up by progressive movements. Articulate, able, intelligent and intellectually gifted, he was driven by a concern for ‘love of humanity’, but who was an emotional and social cripple, manipulative and a ruthless exploiter in personal life. Such individuals do untold damage to the movements concerned. Eleanor was a naïve, unworldly, honest and gentle Jane Eyre without the Rochester. Aveling’s disgraceful behaviour toward a vulnerable Eleanor has been well-documented and well known at the time. Eleanor was also touched by other recent tragedies in her eventful life: the deaths of her mother, father, siblings and close friends in rapid succession.

Finally on Engel’s deathbed she discovered that her friend Freddie Demuth was actually her half-brother. This may have devastated her. (Interestingly Bradlaugh himself may have had an illegitimate child who he did not acknowledge, namely Horatio Bottomley). Rachel Holmes, a historian, appears to have used secondary sources and adds nothing to the well known facts of Eleanor’s life.

Nevertheless it is a story which is told well but reads more like a tragic novel such as Anna Karenina. Eleanor was traduced, betrayed, exploited, humiliated and provoked beyond endurance by Aveling. She saw her situation as hopeless and chose an honourable suicide. Her thesis, if such it is, argues that Eleanor should be remembered as a feminist pioneer who changed the world.. This is wildly inaccurate. Although she was a female poltical activist it would be incorrect to cast her as a ‘feminist’. Eleanor was not without her own contradictions. In her later years she lived on a modest inheritance and had her own servant and secretary.

Holmes implies that the advancement of women was wholly influenced by socialism. But Eleanor’s milieu also included Karl Pearson, and Bradlaugh who were certainly not socialists yet supported female education and equality as did many leading intellectuals. Socialism based on a class analysis of society, and latter-day feminism, which has essentially a petty bourgeois character, are quite distinct. This has persisted to this day.

Eleanor as Organiser

Eleanor’s main activity was organising industrial workers and helping to win the 1889 dock strike which paved the way for the foundation of the Labour party. But her role was not major and the decisive element in winning the strike (and an inspiring example of international solidarity) was the £30,000 raised in Australia from dockworkers and sympathisers including religious groups. This underlines the fact that Holmes is using a historical narrative to construct a new myth or expand an existing one. Eleanor left the world much as she found it but, betrayed in love, she found it unbearable.

It is part of a unwelcome trend in which an allegedly hidden narrative is revealed as ‘reclaimed’ history. Personalised versions and events are seen through an empathic prism which ostensibly illuminates but also distorts. Eleanor had a tragic life but that alone does not equate with historical significance. This might explain why Holmes’ argument is unconvincing. Holmes has little knowledge of the complex political currents at a seminal historical moment with massive political upheavals from globalisation, industrialisation, mass communications, literacy and imperial expansion bringing forth radical and contradictory ideologies. Socialism, though hopelessly divided into factions, was only one of them and offered hope and optimism in an uncertain world before it came crashing down in the turmoil of WWI.

Holmes confuses socialism and social democracy and does not properly explain the roots of socialist and other internal politicial divisions and factions which are still the subject of fierce debate. Instead Holmes focusses on one individual through a personal memoir on Eleanor and her circle. This is wholly unsatisfactory although such divisions have persisted with catastrophic results. Aveling was one of those who caused a permanent rupture within and between progressive causes. If the alleged common agendas of secularism and socialism could ever have come together is doubtful but EA ensured otherwise..

Marx and Aveling were correct about Hyndman who later became a super patriot. Eleanor’s carefully planned suicide has ensured that she is remembered as a tragic heroine. It is very depressing that her last home has now been subdivided and although has a blue plaque does not have the status it deserves as the home of an important political figure. Holmes’ conclusion is that Eleanor changed the world. Even by the idolatrous standards of romanticised ‘feminist’ biography this is fanciful. Holmes seeks to make Eleanor the centrepiece of a seminal historical period during which she and a few others of the socialist nomenklatura ‘changed the world’. But this contradicts a central tenet of Marxism that events are shaped by historical forces which individuals do not transcend.


Surely Marx knew that these ‘historical forces’ needed to be felt by individual men and women who then acted in response to them? [Ed.]

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