A Victorian Heroine

Eleanor Marx

by Yvonne Kapp
Pantheon, Vol. II, 775 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Eleanor Marx
Eleanor Marx; drawing by David Levine

When Marx replaced Bakunin as the most prominent revolutionary figure in nineteenth-century Europe, there took place what E.H. Carr has described as the dawning of a “new age”:

The cause of revolution before Marx had been idealistic and romantic—a matter of intuitive and heroic impulse. Marx made it materialistic and scientific—a matter of deduction and cold reasoning. Marx substituted economics for metaphysics—the proletariat and the peasant for the philosopher and the poet. He brought to the theory of political evolution the same element of orderly inevitability which Darwin had introduced into biology.1

According to Carr, the antithesis was one of personalities as much as ideas: the romantic anarchists and utopian socialists whom Marx superseded were vivid and colorful figures whose turbulent lives were in striking contrast with the “drab, respectable monotony” of Marx’s domestic existence. A typical Victorian savant, he impressed his personality—grim, dogmatic, matter-of-fact—on the revolutionary movement which he founded.

This set of antitheses represents a common approach to the problem of defining Marxism’s extraordinary impact; but when extended to include Marx’s achievements as well as his intentions, it becomes the underpinning of myth. For all the immense difference between his methods of historical analysis and the haphazard approaches of his predecessors, he had no great success in subordinating human nature or history to scientific principles, and was no more accurate than his contemporaries in predicting the location of the next revolutionary outburst. There has been no lack of analysis of the millenarian and evangelical element which links Marxism with earlier “idealistic and romantic” doctrines, but none of it has diminished the power of the myth of “scientific socialism” as a faith which has shaped reality. If Marx did not replace evangelical truths with scientific fact, he began a tradition in which such truths were presented as fact.

The view of “true” Marxism as a rigidly dogmatic system, claiming to subordinate human happiness to scientific principles and to replace ethics by inevitability, is shared both by the guardians of institutionalized Marxism and their enemies. Attempts at “revision” in the name of an undogmatic, humanist, and voluntarist Marx are traditionally regarded by both sides as the first step to apostasy. The specter which once stalked Europe is now pursued by a specter of its own—a grim, dogmatic Victorian savant, reproachfully admonishing those who seek to assert that Marxism has a human face.

The defense of a more humanist Marxism is usually conducted in sophisticated textual exegesis and philosophical speculation. A work of exorcism as notable as any of these but pursued in a very different way is Yvonne Kapp’s biography of Marx’s daughter Eleanor. The myth would seem to require that as a product of the “drab, respectable monotony” of Marx’s family life, and a dedicated adherent of his ideas, assimilated at their purest source (she was the closest to Marx of any of his children), she should…

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