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the antithesis was one of personalities as much as ideas: the romantic anarchists and utopian socialists whom Marx superseded were vivid and colorful figures whose turbulent lives were in striking contrast with the “drab, respectable monotony” of Marx’s domestic existence.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 emerge as a grim, inflexible automaton, systematically subordinating feelings and ideals to the principle of orderly inevitability. Instead she was an extraordinarily vital personality, and one of the first to oppose an established Marxist orthodoxy in the name of an undogmatic and humanist interpretation of Marx’s writings.
Ms. Kapp’s work draws on no important sources not already used by Chushichi Tsuzuki in his much shorter biography published in 1967. The value of her book, its relevance to one of the great unresolved questions of our time, lies in the depth and sensitivity of its portrait of Eleanor Marx as a moral personality. This is drawn against the background, meticulously researched, of the British working-class struggle to which Eleanor devoted her life, and through which she made a distinctive contribution to the continuing debate between Marxism as dogma and Marxism as revolutionary critique.
Marx and Engels made no attempt to found a Marxist party in the country in which they spent half their lives; and when such a party began to emerge in the early 1880s they greeted it with a mixture of indifference and hostility. There was personal antipathy between them and H.M. Hyndman, who in 1881 founded the Democratic Federation, out of which the Marxist Social Democratic Federation emerged two years later. But the fundamental reason for their attitude lay in Marx’s belief, outlined in the Communist Manifesto, that “the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself”; intellectuals must do no more than help to organize working-class groups which had already spontaneously formed. Engels pointed out in 1881 that no such movement “in the Continental sense” as yet existed in England. Three years earlier, in a letter to the German socialist leader Wilhelm Liebknecht, Marx had noted the fact that the demoralization which affected the English working class since 1848 had turned them into “merely the tail of the great Liberal party of Capitalists, i.e. their servants.”
Working in this void, the middle-class intellectuals who formed the new British Marxist party endowed it with their own characteristics, most prominent among which were a theoretical purism and an acute xenophobia. The first bred the factionalism which was to be endemic in the party, the second a highly uncomradely suspicion of foreign socialists and the international labor movement. Both characteristics were vividly embodied in the personality of Hyndman, the party’s founder, an English eccentric of the purest water—a barrister and company director, with radical Tory sympathies and strong anti-Semitic, chauvinist, and imperialist views: in a work of 1883, he envisaged the “first real Socialistic combination” as based on “the common interests and affinities of the great Celto-Teutonic peoples in America, in Australia, in these islands, and possibly in Germany.”
With his domineering personality, Hyndman set the tone of doctrinal inflexibility which isolated the party from the working-class movement, when the latter began to emerge toward the end of the 1880s. Basing themselves on a narrow interpretation of Marx’s historical materialism, the SDF theorists believed that capitalism would automatically collapse through its inner contradictions. They gave central emphasis to the “iron law of wages” (unaware that this concept had been repudiated by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme). They argued consequently that, since there was no way in which the workers could themselves affect their material condition, the organization of trade unions and strikes for this end was a pointless exercise. The workers’ organizations would be revolutionary only in the future when used for a direct onslaught on capitalism—a view not shared by Marx or Engels, who believed that the fight for wages would develop into a political battle.
As a result, when the “new unionism”—the organizations of unskilled workers—began in the late 1880s to fight for better hours and wages, the British Marxists turned their backs on the chance of organizing or influencing the first militant workers’ movement in England for thirty years. This movement grew rapidly: mass demonstrations were followed by successful strikes for better hours and wages, the most spectacular being the Great Dock Strike of August 1889. The official attitude of the Marxists was to dismiss the workers’ campaign for immediate gains as irrelevant and even harmful, as it distracted their energies from the revolutionary goal, and they gave the strikers only very equivocal support.
This policy of remaining aloof from the unions until the latter accepted Marxist doctrines was the reverse of the priorities which were then being urged by Engels. In a letter of 1886, commenting on the American scene, he wrote: “A million or two working men’s votes here and now for a bona fide working men’s party is worth infinitely more…than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform.” He greeted the Dock Strike of 1889 with immense enthusiasm, writing to Marx’s daughter Laura:
That these poor famished broken-down creatures who bodily fight amongst each other every morning for admission to work, should organize for resistance, turn out 40-50,000 strong, draw after them into the strike all and every trade of the East End in any way connected with shipping, hold out above a week, terrify the wealthy and powerful dock companies—that is a moment which I am proud to have lived to see.
The contrast between this whole-hearted response to the dockers’ revolt as an assertion of human dignity and the SDF’s suspicion of its doctrinal purity expresses an incipient dichotomy within Marxism which was to have enormous consequences in the next century. For Marx and Engels, for all its impressive intellectual foundations, the Marxist movement existed for the proletariat; it should support all genuine working-class movements whatever their doctrinal credentials. By the end of the 1880s, it began to seem that for the SDF the proletariat existed for the movement. In a letter written the year before his death, expressing the hope that a genuine workers’ party would be established in England, Engels asserted: “The Social Democratic Federation…has managed to transform our theory into the rigid dogma of an orthodox sect.”
To charges like this the SDF responded like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, accusing its founders of a heretical interpretation of their own doctrines. Hyndman saw the purity of British Marxism as being dangerously diluted by the internationalism of what he described in his memoirs as “that curious and capable family clique which carried on the ‘Old International’ throughout Europe”—Marx, Engels, and Marx’s daughter Eleanor. Of this trinity of heretics, Marx died in the year in which the SDF was founded, and Engels was too preoccupied with work on Marx’s Nachlass to express more than general disapproval of the SDF movement on his doorstep; but it found a determined opponent in Eleanor Marx.
She was born in 1855, the youngest of Marx’s six children. Only three, all girls, survived childhood, and Eleanor was the only one to spend her adult life in England. The conventional image of Marx is hardly consistent with the accounts by his contemporaries and his children of the exceptionally happy and loving relationships within his family—only once briefly clouded in Eleanor’s case by his successful and somewhat Victorian opposition to an unsuitable fiancé. The children were shielded as much as possible from the sordid poverty of the years in which Marx was writing his greatest work; and with characteristic sober realism he prepared his daughters for the world in which, as offspring of a middle-class family, they would have to live before the revolutionary transformation. When funds permitted, they were given singing, drawing, and piano lessons, and their mother had timid social ambitions for them.
Eleanor was highly intelligent and shared her parents’ enthusiasm for literature, although, like most Victorian girls of her class, she absorbed only crumbs of formal learning. But brought up in a house where, as Ms. Kapp comments, to write Capital seemed the natural thing for a father to do, and where some of the foremost figures of European socialism were regular visitors, she soon revealed herself at a very early age to be, in her mother’s words, “political from top to toe.” As a child she was an enthusiastic supporter of the Polish and Irish liberation movements. The defeat of the first proletarian revolution, the Paris Commune, occurred when she was sixteen. From the refugees who flocked to Marx’s house, she heard accounts of the heroism of the Communards and of the brutality of the repression, and these helped to form a commitment to socialism which was as much emotional as intellectual.
But in her late adolescence another passion, the theater, took first place in her life. She sought to achieve financial independence through a spell of school-teaching, followed by paid hackwork in the British Museum, taking drama lessons in her spare time. After a bitter inner struggle, she gave up a career in the theater when she realized that she did not have the talent to become a great actress; it was then, in her late twenties, that she joined the Democratic Federation, soon after its foundation, and from then on devoted her life to her father’s cause.
In 1884 she began to live with Edward Aveling, a married man, then separated from his wife, and one of the most curious figures in British socialism. Intellectually brilliant, trained as a natural scientist, he had come to socialism through the Free Thought movement. He shared Eleanor’s passion for the theater—he was a very mediocre playwright—and gave her constant support in her battle with the mainstream of British Marxism. But he was morally unsavory, with a strong streak of duplicity and a reputation for financial irregularities, and was universally detested by his fellow socialists. Eleanor’s personal life with him was deeply unhappy. Her discovery that he had secretly married again while continuing his liaison with her seems to have precipitated the crisis that ended with her suicide in 1898.
Any description of Eleanor Marx’s personal qualities reads rather like an outline of the new harmonious and many-sided human type which Marx expected to develop in the socialist society. In appearance she was lively and attractive, with remarkable eyes and a musical voice. Her intellectual interests and attainments were wide-ranging: translations, including a creditable translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, were an important source of her income. She spoke French and German fluently, and she had learned Norwegian in order to translate Ibsen, producing the first English versions of some of his plays. Her knowledge of her father’s works, some of which she edited, and her close study of Marx’s sources for Capital had given her a knowledge of British labor history and the intricacies of factory legislation which, as Ms. Kapp points out, surpassed that of any contemporary British socialist, and she was much in demand as an expositor of Marxism.
Literature and the theater were not only her main source of income but also her main recreation, a passionate interest which she used in the service of the socialist movement—giving lectures, organizing entertainments and recitals, and using her dramatic training on public platforms, where she was famous for her ability to attract and hold huge audiences. Her clear mind was combined with a warm and enthusiastic nature, which found an infectious joy in simple pleasures. Her sense of humor and of the ridiculous was devastating in its penetration of pomposity and philistinism among her fellow socialists. But it was balanced by a remarkable tact and kindness in personal relations and a gift for friendship. She lavished love on children and felt painfully the lack of any of her own.
All these qualities were combined in a harmony which would be remarkable at any time, but was especially so in Victorian England, where the number of women in public life was minute, and these—almost all pioneers in the movement for female emancipation—tended to assume a defensive armor of self-conscious stridency or studied eccentricity. As Ms. Kapp shows, the source of this rare harmony, and the core of Eleanor’s personality, was a respect for human dignity and a deep sensitivity to suffering, which characterized all her personal relations: her commitment to socialism was a natural extension of this.
Injustice was never an abstraction for her—it was the misery of sentient individuals, the mass of her own countrymen. The battle against this she believed should take priority over other more exclusive causes, such as that of women’s emancipation. She spent much of her time in London’s East End, becoming personally involved in the lives of its inhabitants. Witnessing slow death from starvation and disease, she found that at such times “the hardness of life comes upon us almost too painfully for endurance”; her visits to the docks were “enough to drive one mad.” She describes dockers fighting like wild beasts for work; in the crush the weaker were impaled on railings put up by the authorities to contain them. The essence of her commitment to socialism is contained in an outburst in a letter written on returning from a visit to the Black Country:
They talk of “Christian faith.” I don’t see how anyone with only Christian faith can bear to see and feel all this misery and not go mad. If I had not faith in this life I could not bear to live.
For Eleanor, Marxism, as the assertion of fundamental ethical principles, was the most unifying of doctrines; she could not tolerate the doctrinal divisiveness of the SDF, its selective support for the working-class cause. Her activity as a Marxist was dominated by two concerns which brought her into direct conflict with the British movement: she identified herself strongly with the working class’s struggle for elementary justice and wanted to link this struggle with its European counterparts.
Because she saw Hyndman’s xenophobia as disastrous for the movement, she was prominent in the opposition to his domination, which led to a split in the party and the founding of the Socialist League in December 1884. When the latter became dominated by an anarchist tendency which rejected parliamentary battle for improvement of the proletariat’s conditions, she and Aveling left it and founded the Bloomsbury Socialist Society. It was characteristic of her faithfulness to her beliefs that she returned to Hyndman’s group in the late 1890s when it began to develop closer links with the working-class movement; she was undeterred by Hyndman’s sustained campaign, during the preceding years, of personal vilification against Aveling, and, by imputation, herself.
From the end of the 1880s, she was alone among the Marxist intellectuals in giving unequivocal support to the “new unionism.” She and Aveling spoke in Trafalgar Square at the first great demonstration of the new militancy—on Bloody Sunday, November 13, 1887, when a mass meeting of the unemployed was brutally attacked by police and soldiers. In the strikes that followed, when workers of one unskilled trade after another began to campaign for an eight-hour working day and higher wages, she was daily involved, going wherever speakers were needed, and giving long hours to more modest tasks such as clerical work for the emerging unions. She became a trade unionist herself. Since typing was then her main source of income she joined the Gasworkers’ and General Labourers’ union, whose first women’s branch she had formed among the workers in London’s dockland. She was immensely popular in the union, greeted whenever she began to speak by cries of “good old stoker”; and was elected to its executive committee at its first annual conference. From then on, one of her main activities was working and speaking for her union.
She was a leader of the campaign for legislation to preserve the gains made by the strikes. At her proposal her union organized a May Day demonstration in accordance with the resolutions of the Paris International Congress, and Eleanor was one of the speakers before a vast crowd of about 300,000 which assembled in Hyde Park. Engels, who was present, claimed that thanks to the organizing efforts of Eleanor and Aveling the real English socialist mass movement had begun that day; he had heard, for the first time in forty years, “the unmistakable voice of the English proletariat.”
As this comment implies, Eleanor Marx’s contribution to the socialist movement of her time was considerable. As a propagandist and educator she was unique; her popularity with working-class audiences was such that the mention of her name was always followed by prolonged cheering, and she was unable to take up all her invitations to speak. She also made a mark in the international socialist movement. She was the only one among the British Marxists who was involved in it, and she tried through journalism and lectures to acquaint the working-class movement with developments on the Continent. In 1886 she toured the United States with Aveling, lecturing on European socialism and acquainting herself with the working-class movement in America. When in 1888 the European socialists decided to found a new international organization, she was, in Engels’s words, its mid-wife, playing a crucial part in organizing the congress in Paris from which, in spite of bitter internal dissensions, the Second International emerged in July 1889.
But these achievements cannot be said to have had any long-term effect in changing the direction of events. The British trade union movement never acquired the united militancy and the internationalist character which she had worked to develop. The new International was from the beginning infected with the factionalism which she abhorred. As Ms. Kapp points out, the admiration and respect in which she was held were such that, had she desired, she could have become one of the leaders of British socialism. But to seek to impose her personality on the movement was alien to her, and her biographer concludes that she should be seen, as she herself would have wished, as no more than one of the great army of anonymous men and women who voluntarily devoted their lives to the socialist cause. “We happen to know Eleanor’s name—because it was Marx.”
This assessment does Eleanor Marx less than justice. It springs from what is the only serious weakness of the biography—the dominance in it of heart over head. The reader is left with a last impression of Eleanor as representing the instinctive, compassionate heart of socialism, a socialism in which the members of the movement pursue their humane goals while paying minimal attention to the cold calculation of its theorizing head.
This is a sentimental view both of socialism and of Eleanor. The significance of her activity lies rather in the fact that she was notably atypical in the combination of head and heart which she brought to the Marxist movement. A competent though unoriginal theorist, she embodied both in her writings and in her personality a clearly formulated conception of values which, while deriving from the writings of Marx and Engels, went, and still goes, against the mainstream of their movement.
Yvonne Kapp’s book has the defects of its virtues—her meticulous description of Eleanor’s day-to-day involvement with the struggle in London’s East End, which adds a rich dimension to the portrayal of her personality, leaves the author space only for the sketchiest treatment of the theoretical background to it. This criticism applies to the account of the theories of Eleanor herself, as well as to those of Marx and Engels, whose (admittedly long neglected) humanity Ms. Kapp stresses to the almost complete exclusion of those aspects of their ideology which were directly relevant to Eleanor’s battle with official British Marxism. The latter, too, is represented with too much emphasis on personalities, and too little on ideas.
However, the significance of Eleanor’s and Engels’s opposition to the SDF can be appreciated only in the light of the theoretical dichotomy which was fast developing between what is now called “institutional” and “critical” (or humanist) Marxism. Ms. Kapp gives us rich material for a new understanding of Eleanor Marx as a figure whose importance in the socialist movement has been underestimated. But it is left to the reader to define her importance by considering her part in internal struggles over the definition of “true” Marxism which began during her father’s lifetime.
In a recent debate on this subject, Leszek Kolakowski, one of the most prominent of the post-Stalin “revisionists,” defined Marxism’s endemic sickness as that of double standards of evaluation, which, applied to similar acts, allow their users to be “fervent moralists in some cases, and Real-politikers or philosophers of history in others, depending on political circumstances.”2 And depending also on whether victims of oppression have the right credentials. It can be argued that Eleanor Marx’s distinctive contribution to Marxism consists in her having been one of the first in the movement consistently to oppose the principle of double standards. Her most eloquent demonstration of her position took place on her American tour where, harassed violently by anarchists, she nevertheless campaigned throughout the country for the retrial of the eight Chicago anarchists who had been condemned to savage sentences in a rigged trial. She subsequently asserted the principle implicit in that campaign in the face of the silence or hostility of the whole socialist movement at the time of the Dreyfus affair.
That affair, and the polarization of the French public between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, had involved the French socialists in an embarrassing problem of political tactics, and the socialist group in the Chamber of Deputies issued a manifesto calling on the workers to refrain from aligning themselves in the affair, which they regarded as a conflict between rival camps in bourgeois society. To Eleanor it was clear that what was at stake was not politics but basic justice. The day after Zola’s famous indictment of the judgment against Dreyfus appeared, in January 1898, she wrote to the wife of Wilhelm Liebknecht:
It is not a pleasant fact that the one clear, honest note has been struck not by one of our party, but by Zola!… It is a disgrace that not one of our French “Socialists” has dared to do what [Liebknecht], Edward and I demanded in America—i.e. demand basic justice, even though we demanded it for opponents. What does it matter if Dreyfus is “sympathique” or not? The only question is: was he, even according to accepted standards, fairly tried.
She made this point publicly a few days later in the Marxist paper Justice, declaring: “honour to whom honour is due—even if we do not find these persons ‘sympathetic.’ And so all honour to Clemenceau, and above all to Zola.” (This incident, surprisingly, is not referred to in Ms. Kapp’s book, but can be found in Tsuzuki’s.)
In the revolutionary innocence of the 1890s, there were few who shared Eleanor’s opposition to the principle of double standards. One of these was the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin, who in a speech made earlier in the decade had pointed to the inconsistency of all the radical parties of the time who denounced violence on the part of the state while advocating it against their own opponents. Kropotkin’s anarchism derived from the Russian populist tradition which saw the main goal of revolution not as the triumph of a class, or the destruction of institutions, but as the inner transformation of the personality. With its emphasis on the role of the will and of ethical ideals in history, and its uncompromising rejection of the principle that the end justifies the means, populism was the essence of that “idealistic romanticism” described by E.H. Carr as the very antithesis of Marxism. Yet, of all the revolutionary groups in London, Eleanor’s closest personal ties were with Russian populist revolutionaries. These friendships, which played an important part in her life, are only very briefly referred to by Ms. Kapp. Yet they are interesting not only because they throw light on the importance of ethics in her approach to Marxism, but also because they are closely connected with that episode in her father’s life which has caused the most embarrassment to the proponents of the myth of “scientific socialism”; for Eleanor in her sympathy with these romantic revolutionaries was following in her father’s path.
Marx’s relations with the Russian populists at the end of the 1870s and the beginning of the 1880s have been a lasting embarrassment to his orthodox Russian followers. They show that the sympathies of the founder of scientific socialism were not with the Marxist group which was beginning to emerge in Russia at the time of his death, but with the populist terrorist organization the People’s Will, which abhorred the doctrine of historical necessity and believed in the power of heroic will to change society. Marx and Engels deeply admired the determination of this group, which, they believed, was capable of destroying autocracy in Russia at a period when the rest of Europe was sunk in reaction. They were unenthusiastic about Plekhanov’s group, the precursor of Russia’s first Marxist organization, which Marx held to be too doctrinaire in its opposition to the populists.
When Vera Zasulich, a member of this group, wrote to Marx in 1881 asking if it were true that, as the Russian Marxists asserted, Russia had to pass through all the stages of capitalism to reach socialism, Marx replied strongly denying that Capital contained any universal scientific theory of the development of history. He believed together with the populists that the primitive peasant commune was not threatened by any abstract theory of inevitability—helped by Western technology, it could be the basis of a socialist revolution. This unwelcome document, entirely inconsistent with the Marxist myth, was not made public by Plekhanov; its existence was revealed only when it was published abroad in 1924.
Marx’s sympathy for the populists was reciprocated. They accepted his critique of capitalism, and many of those in exile were frequent visitors to his house at the end of the 1870s, including members of the terrorist organization, the People’s Will. Eleanor was strongly interested in their struggle, and wrote articles on it for a London paper. One of her closest friends was the former terrorist Stepnyak-Kravchinsky. She translated from the French one of his articles on Russia, and reviewed his book Underground Russia. Her relations with the Russian revolutionaries continued throughout her life; three years before her death she contributed a series of articles on Britain to the populist journal Russkoye bogatstvo.
Eleanor’s affinity with the Russian populists is not hard to understand. If Marx’s historical analysis was the basis of her faith in the socialist future, for her as for the populists progress and revolution were not byproducts of an inexorable historical process but the conscious inner transformation of human relations in the present as well as the future. Thus she and the populists were driven not by an abstract vision of a future utopia but by a strong moral revulsion against exploitation and injustice in the present, which made them see as preposterous all selectivity and exclusiveness in the defense of human dignity. Characteristically, Eleanor energetically took up the cause of the one oppressed minority toward whom her father had been consistently hostile—the Jews. She devoted much of her time to propagandizing socialism among the Jewish immigrants in London’s East End—a group ignored by the British Marxists. And it is significant that when she spoke out against a trade union motion directed against Jewish immigration, Kropotkin and Kravchinsky were also on the platform.
Like the populists, Eleanor tended to idealize the “freshness” of the masses. This often vitiated their judgment of political events; but the same moral idealism made them incapable of condoning the sacrifice of whole groups or classes to political tactics. They could never have said, as Lenin is reported to have done at a period of intense famine in Russia: “the worse it is, the better it is”—i.e., the suffering inflicted by starvation on the peasants should be welcomed as making them more amenable to fulfilling the role prescribed for them by history and the party.
But it was not sentimentality which made them oppose such tactics. When Eleanor called William Morris a “sentimental socialist,” the criticism was intended to be devastating: service to the people required not just good intentions and a warm heart, but a sound theoretical preparation based on a thorough acquaintance with the political and economic facts and literature of the period, and a rigorous self-discipline—a discipline which Eleanor carried to a heroic extreme. The personal crises in her relations with Aveling which led ultimately to her death were never allowed to affect her work with him, or to intrude into her public life. Only two letters give us any idea of their intensity. The first is written to the novelist Olive Schreiner in 1885, after Eleanor’s early disillusionment with Aveling’s character:
…how my whole nature craves for love. And since my parents died I have had so little real—i.e. pure, unselfish love. If you had ever been in our home, if you had ever seen my father and mother, known what he was to me, you would understand better both my yearning for love, given and received, and my intense need for sympathy….
Eleanor’s sense of emotional deprivation strongly increased in her last years. Her work left no time to form deep personal relationships to compensate for the lack of love from Aveling; and she suffered acutely from the clouding of her relations with Engels, whom she identified with her love and reverence for her father. (Engels had come under the influence of an unscrupulous couple who kept house for him, and Eleanor feared for the fate of Marx’s manuscripts after his death.) Another shattering blow came when Engels revealed on his deathbed that her father had had, by the family servant Helene Demuth, an illegitimate son whose upbringing he had totally neglected. Ironically, it was this son, Freddy (whom Eleanor had earlier befriended and helped), who became her sole confidant in the final crisis with Aveling, to whom she had remained consistently loyal in spite of a clearsighted understanding of his moral shortcomings. One can only infer, with Ms. Kapp, that Aveling told her of his marriage and attempted some form of blackmail in return for a promise of secrecy. She revealed none of the details to Freddy Demuth; but her reaction to this final blow is conveyed to him in a letter very moving in its reticence and restraint:
In some a certain moral sense is wanting, just as some are deaf, or have bad sight, or are otherwise unhealthy. And I begin to understand that one has no more right to blame the one disease than the other. We must try and cure, and, if no cure is possible, do our best. I have learnt this through long suffering—suffering in ways I would not even tell you….
Nothing illustrates better than these words the robust unsentimentality of Eleanor’s humanism.
Ms. Kapp convincingly suggests that Eleanor’s death was the result of the intolerable belief that she was no longer needed either in her personal or in her political life (the mainstream of the British working-class movement was moving into channels other than those of Marxism). But no one in the movement knew of the terrible unhappiness of the last months of her life, and throughout them she scrupulously fulfilled all her public commitments.
The insistence on the consonance of ends with means, dictated by dedication to the ideal of human wholeness, produced in Eleanor Marx a revolutionary type of extraordinary moral harmony and force. In her total self-forgetfulness, the naturalness of her personality, which Ms. Kapp conveys with great sympathy and sensitivity, Eleanor Marx contrasts sharply not only with the theorists of British Marxism but also with those prominent women of her day whose talents were given to the cause of female emancipation. Her activity could be seen as a constant outrageous defiance of the conventions prescribed by Victorian society for someone of her sex and social origins. She describes herself emerging from the police violence of Bloody Sunday, having been knocked down by a blow on the head, with her cloak and hat torn to shreds, urging the fleeing demonstrators to stand their ground: “Only after I had shouted myself hoarse calling on the men to stand and fight, did a few Irishmen close round….”
But while this kind of militancy on the part of the leaders of the women’s movement would subsequently be very largely a personal statement or a strident gesture of group self-assertion, for Eleanor it was devoid of self-consciousness—her energies were concentrated outside herself, on a cause which was not her own. In the simplicity and dignity with which she led a life that in the eyes of many of her contemporaries was scandalous and grotesque, she bears a strong resemblance to the Russian women—figures like Sofya Perovskaya or Vera Figner—who made up a very large proportion of the populists and of the terrorists of the People’s Will. Her unsentimental and entirely practical conception of service to the people preserved from any trace of condescension or constraint in her relations with working people. She could turn easily from an exegesis of her father’s texts to the task of teaching the leader of the Gasworkers’ and General Labourers’ union, Will Thorne, to read and write.
In what she once described as her “capacity, very highly developed, of seeing things from the other side,” a capacity directed by a broad and humane moral vision, Eleanor Marx, had she lived half a century later, might have risked being denounced as one of the enemies of “scientific socialism”—a hypothesis which could serve as a basis for reflection on what Marx meant when he claimed that he was not a Marxist.
January 26, 1978