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Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Sandy Nel­son

Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes; The Wa­ter Mu­seum by Luis Al­berto Ur­rea; Find­ing Abbey by Sean Pren­tiss

Press, 508 pages

As a po­lit­i­cal refugee in Lon­don in the mid-1800s, Karl Marx strug­gled to feed and house his fam­ily, but he found the re­sources to pro­vide his two old­est daugh­ters a for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. Jenny and Laura Marx at­tended a girls school “learn­ing to sing, sew, paint, play the pi­ano and be la­dy­like,” while Eleanor, the youngest, was home-schooled by one of his­tory’s most in­flu­en­tial thinkers. Eleanor, known to her fam­ily as “Tussy,” was about six years old when Marx be­gan writ­ing the cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism that sev­ered so­cial­ism from its utopian roots and set it on a rev­o­lu­tion­ary path. “To say that Eleanor Marx grew up living and breath­ing his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­al­ism and so­cial­ism is there­fore a lit­eral de­scrip­tion and not a metaphor,” Rachel Holmes writes in her en­gag­ing and breezy bi­og­ra­phy of the woman whose con­tri­bu­tions to la­bor ac­tivism and so­cial­ist-fem­i­nist the­ory are typ­i­cally over­shad­owed by her work as her fa­ther’s ar­chiv­ist and de­fender. Marx “ex­tracted ex­am­ples and nar­ra­tives [from his anal­y­sis of cap­i­tal­ism] that could be turned into en­joy­able sto­ries and use­ful in­struc­tion for his lit­tle girl,” Holmes writes. “Tussy and Cap­i­tal grew up to­gether.” When Eleanor was nine, her fa­ther helped found the in­ter­na­tional fed­er­a­tion of work­ing­men’s or­ga­ni­za­tions that evolved into the First In­ter­na­tional, an al­liance of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies ded­i­cated to the abo­li­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. As her fa­ther’s re­search as­sis­tant and sec­re­tary, the pre­co­cious fif­teenyear-old mixed with Fred­er­ick En­gels, play­wright Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, Ger­man rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies Wil­helm Liebknecht and Au­gust Bebel, and vi­sion­ary designer Wil­liam Mor­ris. Th­ese early con­nec­tions and her own pas­sions led Eleanor to work as a la­bor or­ga­nizer, writer, actress, teacher, trans­la­tor, and or­a­tor. She brought so­cial­ist ideas into re­formist move­ments for the eight-hour day and women’s suf­frage and fem­i­nist ideas into the so­cial­ist move­ment, ar­gu­ing that women’s lib­er­a­tion was es­sen­tial to gen­uine rev­o­lu­tion­ary change. Whether lead­ing a strike of gas work­ers or fe­male match mak­ers or teach­ing ba­sic lit­er­acy to un­e­d­u­cated la­bor­ers, she took the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plain the end goal: work­ers’ con­trol of pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion. Her tal­ents earned her the nick­name “Our Old Stoker.”

Af­ter her fa­ther died in 1883, Eleanor and En­gels worked to­gether to col­lect and or­ga­nize his pa­pers for pos­ter­ity. Among those doc­u­ments, they dis­cov­ered Marx’s notes on the re­search of ground­break­ing an­thro­pol­o­gist Lewis Henry Mor­gan into Na­tive Amer­i­can kin­ship sys­tems. With Eleanor’s help, En­gels de­vel­oped th­ese ideas into The Ori­gin of the Fam­ily, Pri­vate Prop­erty and the State, a trea­tise on the emer­gence of pri­vate prop­erty, class, and pa­tri­archy from the col­lapse of egal­i­tar­ian tribal so­ci­eties. The 1884 book, a so­cial­ist-fem­i­nist clas­sic, placed “the world-his­toric de­feat of the fe­male sex” in the tri­umph of this new so­cial or­der and ar­gued that women’s eman­ci­pa­tion re­quired re­plac­ing cap­i­tal­ism with a more tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced ver­sion of early col­lec­tivism. “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,” Holmes writes.

But even as she faith­fully up­held her fa­ther’s ide­o­log­i­cal le­gacy against the ef­forts of war­ring fac­tions to claim the “Marx­ist” pedi­gree, Eleanor was com­ing un­done. Her com­mon-law mar­riage with po­lit­i­cal col­lab­o­ra­tor Ed­ward Avel­ing had been tested over the years by his se­rial in­fi­deli­ties and chronic du­plic­ity. But when she learned that Avel­ing, freshly freed to legally marry her af­ter the death of his first wife, had in­stead mar­ried a mis­tress, Eleanor took a fa­tal dose of prus­sic acid on March 31, 1898. His own death of kid­ney dis­ease four months later spared Avel­ing a civil law­suit threat­ened by Eleanor’s po­lit­i­cal al­lies and rel­a­tives, who blamed him for her sui­cide. But Holmes sug­gests that Eleanor’s spirit was de­pleted by a se­ries of dis­ap­point­ments that had a cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect on the Marx clan’s most sen­si­tive scion. Three years ear­lier, En­gels had re­vealed that Freddy Demuth, the son of the Marx fam­ily’s house­keeper, was her half-brother, her fa­ther’s un­ac­knowl­edged prog­eny — not En­gels’ son, as Demuth and the Marx chil­dren sus­pected. In the end, the de­cep­tions of the three men she loved most might have been too great for Eleanor to bear. She — like Avel­ing, En­gels, and her fa­ther — was an im­per­fect per­son, able to en­vi­sion and work to­ward the ideal fu­ture yet in­ca­pable of ris­ing above the con­tra­dic­tions and re­al­i­ties of her cir­cum­stances and tem­per­a­ment.

Holmes han­dles all this with an ob­jec­tiv­ity and un­der­stand­ing that are rare in Marx fam­ily bi­ogra­phies, which tend to ei­ther idol­ize the fam­ily pa­tri­arch or dis­miss the to­tal­ity of his ideas be­cause of his hu­man short­com­ings. Her wry ed­i­to­rial ob­ser­va­tions and commentaries punc­tu­ate the nar­ra­tive and keep it earthy rather than aca­demic. The au­thor’s com­mit­ment to an hon­est por­trayal of Eleanor and her fam­ily and her in­ci­sive grasp of his­tory and so­cial­ist-fem­i­nist the­ory make this a wel­come con­tri­bu­tion to the his­tor­i­cal record.

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