In Other Words
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.