Eleanor Marx – Unrestrained by convention, unafraid to live her contradictions

The recent biography of Eleanor Marx shows she didn’t just interpret the world but acted to change it, says Charlie Burton.


‘Tussy is me’, Karl Marx once said of his youngest daughter, Eleanor. For not only did Tussy (the nickname given to her in infancy) inherit her father’s looks, she also inherited his thrust for revolutionary action. As Rachel Holmes puts it in her remarkable biography of one of Britain’s most celebrated socialist activists: ‘Eleanor went out into the world to put into practice and to test what she’d learned from Marx and Engels at the family hearth.’ If the point her father made that the world needed changing and not merely interpreting, then Eleanor clearly heeded his words.

Declared ‘a global citizen’ by her father upon entering the world in the tiny Soho flat above Dean Street in which the Marx family lived, it was internationalism that would shape her life’s activity. Being born amid the poverty of an urban, industrial mid-nineteenth century Britain (January 16, 1855, to be precise) meant being exposed to the hardships of working-class struggles, particularly as a female; she had little formal education, and her learning mainly consisted at the feet of her father as he laboured away on his pioneering work Capital. ‘He gave Tussy a decisive education through the process of writing Capital during her formative childhood’ Holmes writes. Whilst her two older sisters Jenny and Laura attended a variety of unlicensed girl’s schools, Tussy was growing up alongside the greatest critique of the capitalist system: and the mind that produced it.

Her father encouraged her to read widely and she soon developed an interest in the works of Scott, Balzac and Fielding. Shakespeare, a writer the family enjoyed and admired, became a favourite of Tussy’s. ‘By the time I was six I knew scene upon scene of Shakespeare by heart’ she later professed. Holmes vividly describes her early years living in the Marxes household, surrounded by heaps of literature (of which the children were free to explore), multilingual siblings, frequent visits from her parent’s bohemian friends – with whom Friedrich Engels and Wilhelm Liebknecht would remain close throughout her life – and a family of political radicals, that, together, encompassed a deeply intellectual upbringing. Moreover, her unconventional education was to become a crucial factor in the makeup of her character and future practice. ‘Books and her father’s study became her classroom,’ Holmes writes, ‘Marx her personal tutor.’ Tussy’s childhood, then, coincided just as the components of Marxism were being forged.

Early political interests from her childhood gives us a glimpse as to her developing worldview. Ever receptive to international affairs, she revealed concern for the Polish proletariat during their 1863 general insurrection, writing to her uncle at the age of eight: ‘How do you think Poland is getting on? I always hold up a finger for the Poles those brave little fellows.’ Letters of war advice to Abraham Lincoln would follow: ‘I felt absolutely convinced,’ she later recalled, ‘that he needed my advice’ – referring, of course, to the American Civil War and the fight for the abolition of slavery. At thirteen, she became a staunch supporter of Irish Republicanism, forcing her family to take her to a demonstration in support of Fenian prisoners. Holmes, in the first quarter of the book, provides a luminous picture of the young Eleanor and her evolving political outlook.

Eleanor Marx, booksEleanor Marx

By the time Eleanor surpasses adolescence, her conflictual nature that was to linger for the rest of her life starts to present itself. Avidly independent yet still morally obliged to her family, a short experience away in Brighton attempting to earn a living on her own ends in severe stress, anorexia, and, reluctantly, a return to the family home ‘in a state of nervous collapse.’ Months prior to her move Eleanor had met her first love, French Communard Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, who paid her regular visits much to the dismay of her mother and father after discovering the two had secretly betrothed. It was this arrangement, under the epoch of Victorian sensibilities, that her parents demanded her return; she was forbidden from seeing him. Eleanor, Holmes states, was ‘torn between her father, her lover, and her independence’. This theme, to one degree or another – in her political as well as her personal life – would become a recurring pattern. It is these contradictions, expertly portrayed by Holmes, that surfaces as the story progresses. Due to Holmes colourful prose the book feels almost like a work of fiction. This nonetheless only contributes to the reader’s experience, imparting the biography with a quaint charm.

Although already intellectually astute in her early twenties, her love was not in academic activity. Holmes describes her as a ‘dedicated and tireless researcher of steamrolling ability’ – no doubt after her father – but it was acting that offered her unfixed possibilities of self-exploration. Spurred by her early love of Shakespeare, she aspired to become an actress and would enact Shakespearian plays with family and friends in the Marxes garden on Maitland Park Road (they had left 28 Dean Street, Soho, when Tussy was very young). Politics however was never far behind. Reciting Much Ado About Nothing in front of her father and Engels one day, the next would consist of door to door canvassing for the only female candidate in the London School Board elections, a campaign she took a keen interest in. This, in fact, was to be Eleanor’s first engagement in grassroots activism and depictive of the feminist streak within her: it was during this period she began to question the role of women’s emancipation as an integral aspect to socialism. Throughout her life she had witnessed, first hand, her sister’s talents and ambitions halted by their position as child bearers and the grinding domesticity it demanded. Examples of women as emancipators were many and no doubt an inspiration to her. There was, after all, a large militant presence of woman fighting for working-class liberation during the Paris Commune, an event she was well acquainted, and partly, involved with.

Her dream of acting never transpired. First-hand accounts confirm she was at least competent. ‘Tremendous voice and wonderful verve,’ Eduard Bernstein remarked upon seeing her perform. ‘Spoken with a great wealth of modulation and earned a great deal of applause’. It is unsurprising that Eleanor’s passion and drive to become an actress eventually succumbed. George Bernard Shaw, a playwright and friend of Eleanor’s, commented that he was born half a century too early; Holmes believes this could be said of Tussy also. She was uninterested in the roles available to woman at the time: she yearned to express her own experiences of which the foremost roles were either male dominated or had yet to be modernised. And, notwithstanding her abilities, events in her personal life were taking effect. Within the space of two years her mother, sister and nephew died, followed by her father. At twenty-eight her life had radically changed.

Henceforth her political and academic activity was vast and ceaseless. The account Holmes gives of Eleanor as an able, vivacious intellectual and activist of great organisational ability is justified. Subsequent to the death of her father, she embarked upon the great task of sorting his papers and securing his legacy, including an ambitious project of composing his first biography. This involved bountiful visits to the British Museum Reading Room where she met many figures including George Bernard Shaw, Henry Havelock Ellis, Olive Shreiner and Edward Aveling. The latter would become her life-long partner, to the dismay of many of her friends. ‘I am beginning to have such a horror of Aveling,’ her close friend Olive wrote very early in their relationship, ‘to say I dislike him doesn’t express it at all.’ Many of Eleanor’s contemporaries expressed similar concerns. Simply ‘repulsive’ according to Karl Kautsky. Shaw held similar views: ‘Short, with the face and eyes of a lizard, and no physical charm except a voice like a euphonium.’ Aveling provoked such hostility from Eleanor’s friends throughout their relationship, and for good reason. He was first and foremost an egoist, ‘infused with passionate enthusiasm and belief in the power of his own performance.’ His own brother described him as an ‘unprincipled windbag’ who asserts that Edwards first marriage, to the daughter of a well-off chicken farmer, was for money: the young woman with whom he betrothed inherited £1,000 of which became available only once the couple wedded. Thereafter he left her claiming, to some, that she had been adulterous, and, to others, that it ended in mutual consent. How Eleanor remained with Aveling was a mystery to her friends. Holmes suggests this may have been a product of Tussy’s ‘unresolved femininity’ (‘Edward really brought out the feminine in me’ she wrote in a letter to Olive) coupled with the social accustom of her era and the loyalty towards men she inherited from her mother and their housekeeper Helen Demuth (‘Lenchen’), the Marxes lifelong companion.

Eleanor’s personal, and often chaotic, relationship didn’t deter her from her work, however. It was with Aveling that they produced the first English-speaking socialist-feminist work The Woman Question: From A Socialist Point of View. Influenced by August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism and Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State – the latter of which Eleanor originally helped prepare – she and Aveling set out to show how capitalism necessitates woman’s oppression. Always her father’s daughter, she spelt out a concrete Marxist analysis: ‘The position of women rests, as everything in our complex modern society rests, on an economic basis. . .The woman question is one of the organisation of society as a whole.’ In the essay they discuss, evaluate and argue the various undermining factors woman face within capitalist society. They support woman’s suffrage and the campaigns co-ordinated around human rights, yet note that most of the campaigners are of the middle class, are confined working within existing frameworks and fail to acknowledge the source of their oppression, the economic relationship. Holmes writes that the essay does not advocate proletarian revolution as leading to the end to woman’s oppression. This is questionable. Both Eleanor and Edward emphasise the economic conditions under capitalism as being, first and foremost, the foundation of woman’s, and the labouring-classes, subjugation. In the concluding paragraphs of the essay they quite clearly outline what needs to be done to overcome this: ‘A society which recognises the full equality of all without distinction of sex. . . we disguise neither from ourselves nor from our antagonists that the first step to this is the expropriation of all private property in land and in all other means of production.’ Practically, acquiring similar economic conditions under capitalism would not change the relationship between capitalist and worker; woman would still be subject, and exploited, by men. Likewise, talk of social revolution is even present in the opening lines. ‘It is essential to keep in mind that ultimate change, only to come about when the yet more tremendous social change whose corollary it will be has taken place. Without that larger social change women will never be free.’ Decisive words. This section is perhaps the only criticism I have of Holmes. Eleanor embodied her father’s theories and remained a proletarian revolutionist until her death.

The body of work she committed herself to and completed during this period is characteristic of her indefatigable nature. Translating Gustavo Flaubert’s Madam Bovary; performing the first show of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; revising a new edition of Lissa’s Commune; co-translating her father’s Capital; and, as well as other projects, acquiring a leadership position in Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation (SDF) a year earlier. This was the party that, a few year’s prior, Marx and Engels had accused of rejecting the class struggle. Eleanor looked to change that. Her membership was a result of the SDF adopting a coherent socialist programme she could agree with, but she nonetheless still tussled with Hyndman over his ‘doctrinaire, simplistic Marxism’. His increasing authoritarianism and anti-internationalism led to a split and the creation of the Socialist League, alongside William Morris among others significant socialist leaders. Holmes states that Eleanor did the lion’s share of the organising. Hell-bent on her internationalism, herself and Edward toured the United States at the request of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) on a four-month tour. Eleanor’s rigorous speeches to American workers and socialists were met with great applause; articulate and commanding, she explained the intricacies of the capitalist mode of production and the socialist arguments for its abolition. Aveling, however, made sure the tour ended in disaster due to his flamboyant spending activity, pay-rolled by the SLP, who, upon discovery, furiously accused him of ‘financial mismanagement’.

Eleanor’s militancy didn’t end in speeches or organising. She was evident at the front-line of demonstrations, illustrated in the notorious march at Trafalgar Square on Sunday 13 November, 1887, where she returned to Engels’ with ‘her coat in tatters, her hat bashed and slashed by a blow’ after fighting broke out. But, as Engels’ wrote, ‘Tussy was not the attacked. . . she was the attacker.’ Her militant attitude was fearless and, at times, careless. She scorned the cowardice of the men involved who ran from the police’s brutality, and even suggested, rather abruptly, that armed police shooting at protesters ‘would be very useful to the whole movement here.’ This I find difficult to believe she actually meant and would be horrified had it happened.

The concluding years of Eleanor’s life played out in similar vein to the drama’s she so eagerly portrayed in her youth (Holmes is well aware of this and makes the appropriate connections throughout the book). On his death bed Engel’s revealed that Freddy Demuth – his son with the Marxes housekeeper Helen – was really the child of Mohr (her father). To say Tussy was devastated is an understatement. Her father was her hero. She had defended him numerously and unequivocally; no daughter ever remained so loyal. Her life’s practice, Holmes reminds us, were his theories come to life. ‘I shall never be good and unselfish as he was’ Tussy once wrote. How could she cope?

matchgirl_strikersMatchgirls on strike

This is the tragedy of Eleanor’s life. As you become absorbed in Holmes wonderfully allegorical narrative, you can sense, almost anticipate, the conclusion. Even if one was unaware of it. Rooted in her psyche was the personal, unbending loyalty she displayed to the men close to her: Marx, Engels, Aveling. And although her personal life often spilled into the public sphere, her devotion to the cause never wavered. After this crushing discovery she devoted herself to political work; editing, archiving, journalism, activism, tutoring, organising – never in her life had she been so productive. With the changing political conditions in the 1890’s she re-joined the SDF and fought Bernstein’s attempt to rewrite Marxism under the SDP; she fought the anarchists, allied with Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, in the second international; and she fought a tireless campaign with the Amalgamated Society of Engineers to establish the eight-hour day. Her work in the Trade Union Movement in particular was significant. An active strike organiser previously, she helped establish the first woman’s branch in the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers.

Eleanor died on the 31st March, 1898, at the age of 43. Suicide by prussic acid. She was discovered in her bed scarcely breathing and passed away by the time the doctor arrived. Months prior her partner Edward had gone missing, returned, fallen ill, and was now, in Tussy’s view, on the verge of death. In his absence, and unknown to Eleanor, he had secretly married his mistress (this she was to find out just before her death); not to mention running up large debts with Eleanor’s friends and blackmailing Freddy over the family secret. Her death for over a century has been a talking point of controversy in the socialist movement. Edward, the man with whom she wished to marry and have children but whom denied her, has always remained a suspect. Holmes gives a good case for. He looked to inherit her money that had been passed down from Engels and therefore had her poisoned. The account she gives of Aveling, his treachery and deceit, evidently exposes his nature and the depths he would go to keep himself content. Bernstein believed that either ‘morally or criminally – or both’ he was guilty. Reading Holmes narrative you cannot but suspect foul play. Eleanor, nevertheless, was a comrade of momentous ability and sacrifice. Her life’s work serves as a point of inspiration and deserves to be cherished. Eleanor Marx: A Life certainly provides that.


Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes (Bloomsbury)




  1. “On his death bed Engel’s revealed that Freddy Demuth – his son with the Marxes housekeeper Helen – was really the child of Mohr (her father). To say Tussy was devastated is an understatement.” To say that this is an unsubstantiated allegation is the least that can be said. The allegation comes from a letter written by Louise Kautsky, divorced wife of the German socialist Karl Kautsky, to August Bebel in 1898, after Eleanor Marx had died. She claims to have overheard the conversation. There is no other evidence for this story – it is mentioned nowhere else – and Kautsky herself died in 1950 without repeating the story.

    I think that the story should be treated with suspicion, in the manner than any gossip is treated. The fact that it has been repeated uncritically by a large number of people does not mean that it is true.


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