Turbulent Londoners: Eleanor Marx, 1855-1898

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is Eleanor Marx, a socialist campaigner and translator, and close friend of Clementina Black

Eleanor Marx was an inspirational socialist campaigner (Source: Marxists.org).
Eleanor Marx was an inspirational socialist campaigner (Source: Marxists.org).

Eleanor Marx was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, one of the most famous political revolutionaries of all time. She managed to cause quite a stir in her own right however, and her achievements deserve to be recognised. She was a socialist activist and translator, but also worked as a teacher and carer for her ailing parents during her short life; she was only 43 when she committed suicide.

Unsurprisingly because of her family, Eleanor took an interest in politics at a young age. The execution of the Manchester Martyrs when she was 12 years old in 1867 sparked her lifelong support for the Fenians. She must have been very intelligent, because at just 16 she became her father’s secretary, travelling with him to socialist conferences around the world. In 1872 she met and fell in love with Hippolyte Lissagaray, a member of the failed Paris Commune living in exile in London. She helped him write a history of the 1871 commune and translated it, but ended in the relationship in 1882, not long after her father finally agreed to approve the match (Lissagaray was 17 years older than Eleanor).

Her father must have trusted her judgement, because after his death in 1883 he charged Eleanor with publishing his unfinished manuscripts and the English translation of Capital, his most famous work. Her political career did not die with her father however, and in 1884 she joined, and was elected to the executive of, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Later that same year she became a founding member of the Socialist League after splits within the SDF, although she later rejoined the SDF the year before she died.

Also in 1884, Eleanor became heavily involved in the Women’s Trade Union League, supporting numerous strikes over the following decade. In 1889 she helped women at a plant in Silvertown form one of the first female branches of a union. The National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers (NUG&GL) was one of the first trade unions to admit female members. She was a firm believer in participation in political campaigns, a view that frequently alienated her from the majority of the Socialist League. She backed up her beliefs with action too, for example she was present in Trafalgar Square during Bloody Sunday in 1887. Known as compelling speaker, she campaigned tirelessly for workers rights and international solidarity. She also wrote numerous books and articles during this period, and took up acting- she believed the arts were a powerful socialist and feminist tool, and even learnt Norwegian just so she could translate the works of playwright Henrik Ibsen into English.

Eleanor Marx with Edward Aveling and William Liebknecht in 1886 (Source: Wikipedia).
Eleanor Marx with Edward Aveling and William Liebknecht in 1886 (Source: Wikipedia).

In 1885 she helped to organise the International Socialist Congress in Paris, and the following year she toured America with German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht and Edward Aveling, raising money for the German Social Democratic Party. Eleanor met Aveling, a prominent British Marxist, when she joined the SDF, and she spent the rest of her life with him.

Eleanor Marx poisoned herself on 31 March 1898. It is not known for sure why, but members of the British socialist community blamed Aveling, as Eleanor had found out that he married a young actress in secret the previous year. Her ashes were kept by various socialist organisations over the years, including the SDF, the British Socialist Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, before eventually being buried with her family at Highgate in 1956. This tribute, whilst bizarre, demonstrates just how much she meant to the socialist community in Britain.

Eleanor Marx’s life was full of relationships with well known, radical men, but her life was not defined by them. She was an influential campaigner in her own right, and successfully made her own mark on a political landscape that was still very much dominated by males. She has my admiration and respect not only because she spoke several languages (I have enough trouble with English!) but also because she made her own name, and didn’t just rely on those of the men in her life.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Datei:Wilhelm Liebknecht Edward Aveling und Eleanor Marx Aveling 1886.jpeg,’ Wikipedia. No date, accessed 17 March 2015.  http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Wilhelm_Liebknecht_Edward_Aveling_und_Eleanor_Marx_Aveling_1886.jpeg

Anon. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 30 January 2015, accessed 17 March 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_Marx

Anon. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ Socialist Party. No date, accessed 17 March 2015. http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/socialistwomen/sw12.htm

Anon. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ Spartacus Educational. No date, accessed 17 March 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/Wmarx.htm

Blunden, Andy. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ marxists.org. No date, accessed 17 March 2015. https://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/

Tully, John. Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2014.

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