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Eleanor Marx: A Punk in the 19th Century

Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx and herself a socialist activist, was born on this day in 1855. A citizen of the world, she resonated with Shelley and Ibsen and participated in the main theoretical and political debates of her time.

Celeste Murillo

January 16, 2022
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Eleanor Marx — known as “Tussy” — was born on this day, January 16, in 1855. Bearer of a weighty surname, she knew how to forge her own legacy as a propagandist of socialist ideas and an organizer.

Tussy’s favorite maxim was “Forward!” She loved William Shakespeare unconditionally and founded the Dogberry Club, which reenacted and debated his plays. She adored Percy Shelley, included the poet’s work in her political speeches, and fought to have his legacy recognized as part of the socialist tradition. She was as thrilled at seeing Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in the theater as Victorian Britain was scandalized. It was her hands that penned the first English translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

But that was only part of her life.

The neighborhoods of London saw this socialist, trade union, and political organizer argue with Fabians, radicals, suffragettes, and anarchists. She never tired in the fight to reduce the workday, to end child exploitation, and for workers’ organizations to include equal pay for women among their demands. Tussy was not her only nickname; her other was “Our Old Stoker,” given to her by the gas workers.

Citizen of the World

At Eleanor’s birth, her father announced, “A citizen of the world is born.” When she began to speak, she herself declared that she had “two brains.” She was so popular in the neighborhood that her family was called “the Tussys,” even though they were the Marxes.

“I inherited my father’s nose … and not his genius,” Eleanor wrote in a letter. Many people would disagree.

When she died, Will Thorne, a British gas worker and trade union leader, said they had lost their “most important political economist.” A delegate to the conferences of the Second International, she traveled the world at the invitation of trade unions and left-wing organizations to spread the ideas of socialism. She was part of many attempts to build organizations aimed at putting the socialist program into practice. She did not always succeed.

Historian E.P. Thompson praised Eleanor Marx’s militancy in a 1976 article in New Society, but also said that she had not always made the best political decisions and that it was important to say so in order not to fall into some sort of religion-like vindication. Surely, Tussy would have agreed. Thompson wrote, “Much of her international work, not only for the large International but also for smaller conferences of miners and glass-workers, was tedious, backstage, and unrewarding.” He added, “Her practical work among the profoundly exploited women of the East End remains to us as an example.”

Feminism Was Not Invented in the 1970s

One of Eleanor’s biographers, Rachel Holmes, writes in the preface to Eleanor Marx: A Life (1984) that unlike what most think, feminism did not emerge in the 1970s but a hundred years earlier. It’s a notable reminder to movements fighting oppression, a whisper in the ear that says we don’t always have to start from scratch. We can recapture history, less as an academic or nostalgic exercise and more as a search for conclusions that serve as a guide for action, a way to put in a new light “earlier ideas just waiting to return to the arena” (as historian Laura Fernández Cordero wrote1Laura Fernández Cordero, Feminismos para la Revolución: Antologia de 14 mujeres que desafiaron los limites de las izquierdas [Feminisms for the Revolution: An Anthology of 14 Women Who Challenged the Limits of the Left] (Mexico City: Siglo XXI Editores, 2021).).

The fights against oppression in the 19th and early 20th centuries often show (to anyone who wants to see) how unrealistic the promise of gradual progress in capitalist societies really is. And they confirm that legal conquests are too fragile for our struggle to rest upon, much less for them to define what to do.

In 1895, Eleanor had an exchange with the socialist leader E. Belfort Bax that was published in Justice magazine:

I am, of course, as a Socialist, not a representative of “Woman’s Rights.” It is the Sex Question and its economic basis that I proposed to discuss with you. The so-called “Woman’s Rights” question (which appears to be the only one you understand) is a bourgeois idea. I proposed to deal with the Sex Question from the point of view of the working class and the class struggle.

Eleanor adopted this spicy tone because Bax had told her that he would debate with her or “any other accredited representative of ‘Women’s Rights.’” She took the opportunity to make it clear that he believed that oppression could be reduced to a problem of rights, but that it was important to see how it is rooted in capitalism. It was one of the times that she discussed the approach that socialist and workers’ organizations needed to take.

In 1886, Eleanor co-wrote “The Woman Question” with her partner Edward Aveling, although he acknowledged that much of the work was Tussy’s. In 1879, August Bebel had published Woman and Socialism, and, in 1884, Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State had seen the light of day (Eleanor was an early reader of the drafts, serving as critic and contributor). The work of Eleanor Marx and Aveling engaged with those two works, which would continue to be relevant for decades.

It was in a report by the German socialist Clara Zetkin at the Gotha Congress of 1896 that Eleanor found the catch that her ideas of “The Woman Question” needed. As a good translator, she rewrote her words for the British audience, which included suffragettes, trade union militants, and socialists. She was speaking especially to the generation of the new English trade unionism that often did not pay the necessary attention to the reality of the “proletariat’s proletarian women” (as the 19th-century French-Peruvian socialist writer Flora Tristán had put it). Mainstream suffragettes assigned no importance to the obvious intersection of class and gender that fell on most women, and thus alienated potential allies of their cause. She wrote for them.

In her article, she summarized Zetkin and emphasized that the fight against oppression required a struggle of all women, even if they were affected in different ways and each sector had different goals. “The woman of the upper ten thousand, thanks to her property, can develop her own individuality. Truly, as a wife she is still dependent upon the man.” The “true struggle” was in the “middle and petty middle-class,” whose women “are sick of their moral and intellectual subjugation.” With a reference to Ibsen’s play, she continued, “They are Noras rebelling against their doll’s homes.”

She devoted much of her text to what Zetkin had said about women workers: “Machinery replaced muscle [and] so the proletarian woman has gained independence. … But truly she paid the price! … If the man had … the right to ‘occasionally chastise a woman with a whip’ — assuredly capitalism has flayed her with scorpions.” 

Thus, wrote Eleanor, again from Zetkin:

The working woman cannot be like the bourgeois woman who has to fight against the man of her own class. …. With the proletarian women, on the contrary, it is a struggle of the woman with the man of her own class against the capitalist class. She has no need to fight the men of her class in order to break down the barriers that shut her out from free competition. The greed of capital and the development of modern industry have relieved her from this strife. … Her end and aim are not the right of free competition with men, but to obtain the political power of the proletariat.

The struggle alongside the workers did not mean failing to debate in their organizations. These debates translated, for example, into fighting for the unions to incorporate the demand for equal pay for women. They could also be seen in speeches to left-wing trade union circles in the United States, in which she told men that they had a duty to help women with the children and the home to ensure their ability to participate in the social and political movement.

Through these articles, debates, and reflections, it is possible to string together some of the ideas for which those of us dissatisfied with only some rights for some women fight for today, and like Tussy, to think in a different key: socialist.

Punk Is Not Dead. The Fight Continues

The Italian film director Susanna Nicchiarelli made a biopic of Eleanor titled Miss Marx. Some critics say Nicchiarelli abuses the story with punk invasions of 19th-century scenes as some sort of excessive gesture to pop culture. Punk, though, can work as an interesting translation of the ideas with which Eleanor shook feminism and the trade union and socialist world of her time. With her successes, some failures, and — above all — her legacy, every time a punk chord strikes you can almost hear “Our Old Stoker” saying “The Struggle Continues” and Tussy declaring, “Forward!”

First published in Spanish on January 16 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by Scott Cooper

Notes[+]

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Celeste Murillo

Celeste is a leader of the Socialist Workers' Party (PTS) and a founder of the women's group Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses) in Argentina. She is a host of the radio program El Círculo Rojo where she focusses on culture and gender.

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