Monday, 23 February 2015

“Eleanor Marx” offers a beacon of hope but also a reminder of how much there is still to do in the feminist/class struggles

This excellent book telling the story of Eleanor Marx grips from start to finish, bringing out the myriad qualities of the daughter of Karl and Jenny Marx.

A socialist, political activist, orator, journalist, actress, translator and intellectual, Eleanor Marx died at a tragically young age.

The book charts the development of the international labour movement with all its different elements in the latter part of the 19th century. Eleanor Marx and Frederick Engels particularly always see the importance of organising with the working class in order that they can emancipate themselves from virtual wage slavery. There is always a wary eye to the middle class inspired actions to help the working class, whilst always remaining in control themselves.

The book has many lessons for a world today which in terms of class consciousness seems to have gone backwards to a period that predates the early optimistic developments of the late 19th century.  Today, the working class are largely written out of the script in many forums, being described in derogatory terms like chavs, whilst the middle classes do charity for the poor.

A fascinating element of the book is the constant battle of Eleanor Marx for feminist liberation. She finds early on, that despite her efforts on behalf of the struggle for socialism she is still getting tied down by the tasks that fell to women, even in the enlightened world of the Marx household.

 She then gets stuck with her “husband” Edward Aveling who proves a drain on her personal and emotional life, acting as the worst type of male parasite. Sadly, he eventually drags her down, bringing about a premature death in 1898 at the age of 43.

Eleanor Marx is a book that inspires but also raises much cause for reflection., The biggest question arising has to be how far have the class and feminist struggles progressed since the 1890s?  

The close of the 19th and beginning of the 20st century were times of grinding poverty but also hope. There were visionary figures like Marx and Engels, the development of the new unions, a fledgling Labour Party and the sight of working people gaining consciousness and really flexing their own industrial muscles. There was the suffragete movement that did much to advance the cause of women to at least receive a vote in the society that they did so much to maintain.

Then came the First World War, which was a convenient way of halting the march of organised labour by dividing the peoples of Europe on nationalistic grounds so that once again worker fought worker on behalf of the ruling elites.

Today, women have gained more rights but they still remain second class citizens in society. The hope must be that as women come to dominate the workforce that they will carry the beacon of Eleanor Marx forward and also lead the trade union movement.

The labour movement generally though needs reinvigorating, reinventing and renewing in the present age. It is a sobering thought that if the labour movement in the form of the unions and representative left of centre parties, like Labour, were functioning in anyway effectively beyond tokenistic status, then the capitalists would not have been able to so easily dump the cost of the banking crisis on the workers. There is much to do.

There have been advances in the status of women but they remain, in the main, second class citizens in a largely male dominated patriarchal world. The largest exploited class. One interesting question that the life of Eleanor Marx does pose, is how far the position of women can ever advance as long as the patriarchal institution of marriage continues to assert such a dominant role in society. There has to be a better way of both sexes living, working and procreating together than this restrictive covenant on life.

Eleanor Marx offers a beacon of hope but also a warning of the need to fight on for justice both in the world of work and the domestic setting in which many people live, work and have their being.

*Eleanor Marx: A Life  by Rachel Holmes is published by Bloomsbury, cost £25

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