Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx, A Life
Karl Marx’s third and youngest daughter Eleanor, born in 1855, became the successor to her father as a radical analyst of industrial capitalism. But she was also an instrumental if under-appreciated force in her own right in the emergence of social democracy in Victorian Britain and internationally in the late 19th century. Her remarkable life, as Rachel Holmes writes in her comprehensive biography, entitled simply Eleanor Marx, A Life, was “as varied and full of contradictions as the materialist dialectic in which she was, quite literally, conceived . . . If Karl Marx was the theory, Eleanor Marx was the practice” (p.xvi). Holmes, a cultural historian from Gloucestershire, England, who specializes in gender issues, characterizes Eleanor as the “foremother of socialist feminism” (p.xii). She emphasizes how Eleanor supplemented her father’s work by defining for the first time the place of women in the working class struggles of the 19th century.
But in conventional (Karl) Marxist thinking, the personal and the political are never far removed and they are ever so tightly intertwined in Holmes’ account, which focuses heavily on interactions within the Marx family circle. In the last third of the book, Holmes provides heartbreaking detail on how the three closest men in Eleanor’s life betrayed her: her father Karl; her father’s collaborator and Eleanor’s life-long mentor, Friedrich Engels; and her common law husband, Edward Aveling. The collective burden of these three men’s betrayal drove Eleanor to an apparent suicide in 1898 at age 43.
Adhering to a chronological format, Holmes writes in a light, breezy style that, oddly, is well suited to bear the book’s heavy themes. Nearly everyone in the Marx family circle had nicknames, which Holmes uses throughout the book, adding to its informal flavor. Eleanor herself is “Tussy,” her father is “Möhr,” and her mother Jenny is “Möhme.” Eleanor had two sisters, Laura and Jenny, the latter referred to as “Jennychen,” little Jenny. Jennychen died two months prior to father Karl in 1883. Two older brothers and one sister failed to survive infancy.
The Marx family’s inner circle also included Engels, “the General,” and its long-time and exceptionally loyal servant, Helen Dumuth, “Lenchen.” Engels, the son of a rich German industrialist with substantial business interests in Manchester, was Marx’s life-long partner and benefactor and akin to an uncle or second father to Eleanor. Lenchen, whom Holmes describes as “history’s housekeeper” (p.342) and the keeper of the family secrets, followed the Marx family from Germany to Britain and shared the progressive values of Eleanor’s parents. Lenchen and Eleanor’s mother Jenny were childhood friends and remained remarkably close in adulthood.
Lenchen had a son, Freddy, four years older than Eleanor, who “grew up in foster care with minimal education” (p.199). As Eleanor grew older, she gradually intuited that Engels was Freddy’s father, although Freddy’s paternal origins were never mentioned within the family, least of all by Engels himself, who always seemed uncomfortable around Freddy. Freddy resurfaced in the tumultuous period prior to Eleanor’s untimely death, when he became Eleanor’s closest confidant — almost a substitute for her two brothers whom she never knew.
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By the time Eleanor was born in 1855, her father Karl was already famous as the author of important tracts on the coming Communist revolution in Europe. Banished from his native Germany as a dangerous radical, Marx took refuge in Britain. The household in which Eleanor grew up, “living and breathing historical materialism and socialism” (p.47), was disorderly but still somehow structured. Father Karl was notorious for being unable to balance his family’s budget, and was consistently borrowing money. Much of this money came from Engels.
Eleanor came of age just prior to the time when British universities began to admit women, and she was almost entirely home-schooled and self-educated. Yet, the depth and range of her learning and intellectual prowess were nothing short of extraordinary. With her father (and Engels) serving as her guides, Eleanor started reading novels at age six, and went on to teach herself history, politics and economics. She also had an amazing facility for languages. The only member of the family who could claim English as a native language, Eleanor mastered German, her parents’ native language, then French, and later other European languages, most notably Russian. She became a skilled translator and interpreter, producing the first English language translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
By her early twenties, Eleanor had demonstrated exceptional organizing skills that her father lacked, along with genuine empathy for the plight of working families (which her father also lacked). The more pragmatic Eleanor seemed to be in all places where workers gathered and sought to organize. She supported dock and gas workers’ unions and their strikes. She became actively involved in London education policy, Irish Home Rule, the evolution of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, and the campaign in France for amnesty for the revolutionaries of the 1870-71 Paris Commune.
Eleanor’s work in mobilizing trade unions provided impetus to the emergence of the Independent Labor Party in the early 1890s, Britain’s first democratic socialist political party. Her work clarified that for Eleanor and her socialist colleagues Marxism was a revolutionary doctrine in the sense that it demanded that people think in boldly different terms about capitalism, the industrial revolution, and the workers who fueled the capitalist system. But it was also a doctrine that rejected violent revolution in favor of respect for the main tenets of liberal (“bourgeois”!) democracy, including elections, parliamentary governance and the rule of law. Her views crystallized as she and her colleagues battled with anti-capitalist anarchists, who did not believe in any form of government. Eleanor saw “no way of squaring anti-democratic anarchism with democratic socialism and its commitment to work within a representative parliamentary system” (p.397), Holmes writes. Eleanor Marx was more Bernie Sanders than Bolshevik.
While involved in organizational activities, Eleanor maintained an abiding interest in the theatre. Unlike her first class talent for organizing workers, her acting abilities were modest. Shakespeare and Ibsen were Eleanor’s particular interests among major playwrights, whose works contained messages for her on going organizing activities. Given her organizational skills, Holmes thinks that Eleanor would have made a brilliant theater director. But such a position was closed to women in her day. Instead, her “theatre for creating a new cast of radical actors in English art and politics” was the recently opened British Museum Reading Room, “its lofty dome a metaphor for the seat of the brain, workplace for writers and thinkers” (p.182). Here, in the aftermath of her father’s death in 1883, Eleanor wrote books and articles about her father, becoming his “first biographer and posthumous exponent of his economic theory” (p.195). All subsequent Marx biographers, Holmes indicates, have based their accounts on the “primary sources supplied by Eleanor immediately after her father’s death” (p.196).
The Reading Room was also the venue where Eleanor first met Edward Aveling, an accomplished actor from comfortable circumstances who became a socialist and Eleanor’s common law husband. Aveling proved himself to be a monstrous villain whose malevolence and treachery dominate the last third of the book, with Aveling the central character in a story that has the intricacy of a Dickens plot coupled with psychological probing worthy of Dostoevsky,
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Holmes describes Aveling as an “attractive, clever cad who played a significant role in popularizing Darwin and steering British secularists towards socialism. It’s easy to see why his anti-establishment, anti-religious, anti-materialist turn of mind appealed to Eleanor” (p.195). But Aveling was also a con artist and the author of a seemingly endless series of scams, stunningly skillful in talking people — Eleanor among them — into loaning him money that was rarely if ever repaid. Eleanor “failed to recognize that his character was the projection of a consummate actor” (p.195), Holmes argues.
Aveling was further a first rate philanderer, with a steady stream of affairs, most frequently with young actresses or his female students. Although these dalliances made Eleanor “emotionally lonely,” she came to accept them. Eleanor and Edward were proponents of what was then termed “free love,” but the freedom was all on Edward’s side. The net result, Holmes writes, was that Eleanor took on the “aspect of conventional stoical wife and Edward of conventional philandering husband” (p.238).
Marx and Aveling jointly published a seminal work on women in the social democratic movement, “The Woman Question: From A Socialist Point of View,” probably the only positive product of their relationship. “The Woman Question” made “absolutely clear,” Holmes writes, that the “struggle for women’s emancipation and the equality of the sexes is a prerequisite for any effective form of progressive social revolution” (p.262). Marx and Aveling aimed in their landmark essay to show that “feminism was an integral necessity, not just a single aspect or issue of the socialist working-class movement, and that sexual inequality was fundamentally a question of economics” (p.260). Aside from their genuine collaboration on “The Woman Question,” just about everything in the fourteen-year Aveling-Marx relationship was negative.
Holmes documents how Eleanor’s family and friends privately expressed doubt about Aveling and his suitability for Eleanor. Toward the end of her shortened life, they were expressing these doubts directly to Eleanor. The couple did not marry because Aveling reported to Eleanor that he was still legally married to another woman who was “emotionally unstable, difficult, vindictive and refused to divorce him” (p.420). In fact, Aveling schemed to preserve the marriage to inherit his wife’s estate should she die. When she died, Aveling hid this fact from Eleanor over the course of five years. Finally, Aveling simply walked away from Eleanor and the house they kept together, “without explanation, pocketing all the cash, money orders and movable values he could find” (p.415), to marry a young actress named Eva Frye.
When Eleanor learned of Aveling’s marriage sometime during the final days of March 1898, she was “confronted by the fact that Edward, after all his fine words about free love and open unions being as morally and emotionally binding as marriage under the law, was simply a liar. And she was a gull, a fool who had willingly suspended her disbelief – because she loved him” (p.420). One of the books’ most puzzling mysteries is why Eleanor, with her keen awareness of women’s vulnerability and their potential for mistreatment from men in what she saw as a rigidly patriarchal society, stayed so long with Aveling. Holmes finds an answer in the deeper recesses of what she terms Eleanor’s “cultural ancestry,” which presented her with the:
questionable example of loyal, dutiful wives and mothers. The formative examples of her Möhme and “second mother” Lenchen, both utterly devoted to her father, shaped her attitude to Edward. Unintentionally, Tussy’s mothers were dangerous, unhelpful role models, ill-equipping their daughter for freedom from subordination to romantic illusions (p.227).
Eleanor’s frentic final weeks were marked by desperate correspondence with Freddy, Engels’s putative son. Realizing that a codicil to a will she had executed a few years earlier left most of her estate to Aveling, Eleanor wrote to Freddy that she was “so alone” and “face to face with a most horrible position: utter ruin – everything to the last penny, or utter, open disgrace. It is awful; worse than even I fancied it was. And I want someone to consult with” (p.418).
Eleanor executed a second codicil, reversing the earlier one and leaving her estate to her surviving sister, nieces and nephews. The codicil was in an envelope addressed to her lawyer, undelivered on the morning of March 31, 1898. That morning, after a vociferous argument with Edward, Eleanor sent her housekeeper Gertrude Gentry to the local pharmacist with a sealed envelope requesting “chloroform and small quantity of prussic acid for dog” (p.431-32). The prescription required a signature to be returned to the pharmacy. Aveling was in the house when the housekeeper left to return the signature to the pharmacy, Holmes asserts, but when the housekeeper returned the second time, she found only Eleanor, lifeless in her bed, wearing a summer dress she was fond of. Aveling had by then left the premises.
What Aveling did that day and why he left the house are among the many unanswered questions surrounding Eleanor’s death. The death was officially ruled a suicide after a slipshod coroner’s hearing, the second codicil was never given effect, and Aveling inherited Eleanor’s estate. Many, including Aveling’s own family, were convinced that Aveling had “murdered Eleanor by engineering her suicide” (p.433). Calls for Aveling to be brought to trial for murder, theft and fraud followed him for the following four months, but were mooted when he died of kidney disease on August 2, 1898.
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If Aveling’s duplicity was the most direct causative link to Eleanor’s apparent suicide, the revelation in Eleanor’s final years of an astounding betrayal on the part of her long-deceased father and Engels, at a time when Engels was dying of cancer, almost certainly contributed to Eleanor’s decision to end her life. But I will refrain from divulging details of the dark secret the two men had maintained with the hope that you might scurry to Holmes’ thoroughly-researched and often riveting account to learn all you can about this remarkable woman, her “profound, progressive contribution to English political thought – and action” (p.xi), and the tragic ending to her life.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 28, 2016