Socialist Worker

Eleanor Marx - the activist who built unions and fought oppression

Sarah Ensor looks at the life of Eleanor Marx, who was key to industrial struggles at the end of the 19th century, and interviews author of a new biography Rachel Holmes

Issue No. 2412

Eleanor Marx (front centre) in 1864 with her sisters Laura  and Jenny. Behind are Frederick Engels and their father Karl Marx

Eleanor Marx (front centre) in 1864 with her sisters Laura and Jenny. Behind are Frederick Engels and their father Karl Marx

Histories tend to reduce Eleanor Marx to a footnote, as the daughter of the revolutionary Karl Marx. But she was an activist in her own right and was crucial to the development of working class organisation at the end of the 19th century.  

Her political activity began from an early age. When she was 16 in 1871 the Paris Commune was at its height. The working class had risen up and taken power in the French capital. 

The Commune was against war, poverty and capitalism and lasted for 92 days before it was crushed by the French state. 

Eleanor and her sister Jenny went to France during the Commune to search for the revolutionary Paul Lafargue, husband of their sister Laura. After it was defeated the sisters were arrested, questioned then expelled. 

Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray had been the last Communard to leave the barricades when his ammunition ran out. He escaped to Britain and in 1872 decided to write a history of the Commune. 

Eleanor became his main researcher for the book and then his partner for the next eight years. She coordinated the Relief Committee for Communards and raised money for refugees. She also researched, edited and translated her father’s work and used it to fight for socialism.  

On the first ever May Day in 1890 she addressed a rally in London’s Hyde Park. She called for the abolition of class society “as a trade unionist and a socialist”. She said, “the unemployed both at the top and at the bottom of society will be got rid of!” 

She was active in the Social Democratic Federation, founded in 1881, and was elected to its leadership. It later split and she helped found the Socialist League.

The League was immediately plunged into campaigns for free speech. Throughout London its members were harassed by police. Newspaper sellers were arrested every weekend.

But it was the surge of workers’ struggle which kicked off with the match women’s strike in 1888 where Eleanor displayed her skills as an organiser. The battle began when women workers at the Bryant and May match factory in east London downed tools and refused to work until they got better pay.

“One girl began, and the rest said yes—so we all went. It just went like tinder,” said one young worker. 

They stayed out for three weeks and won. Socialists suddenly found themselves catapulted into mass struggle—and Eleanor seized on the new possibilities.


The following year the dockers, thought by many to be unorganisable, demanded a pay rise—the dockers’ tanner. They launched the Great Dock Strike and set off an explosion coined the “New Unionism”, which organised unskilled workers previously ignored by craft unions. 

Throughout their strike the dockers left the whole Port of London at a standstill. 

Eleanor role was crucial in the dispute, speaking to workers at huge mass meetings and strikers’ demonstrations. She organised the solidarity collections and distribution of strike funds that kept the strike going.

Trade unionist Ben Tillett later remembered, “During our great strike she worked unceasingly, literally day and night... Among all those who live in my memory, Eleanor Marx remains a vivid and vital personality, with great force of character, courage and ability.”

When 100,000 dockers rallied in Hyde Park in the third week of their strike, Eleanor was on the platform. When the dockers won the strikes spread like wildfire.

Huge new trade unions were formed. 

Eleanor, together with fellow socialist and gas worker Will Thorne, called a meeting to set up the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers. Eleanor was central to the foundation of the union, now known as the GMB.

Over 800 gas workers joined on the day of its launch in east London. In just two weeks over 3,000 signed up, rallying behind the demand for an eight hour day. 

Eleanor went on to set up the first women’s branch of the union and was unanimously elected to the executive at its first conference. She began organising in the struggle of women workers in east London’s rubber industry where thousands struck and demonstrated. 

The strikes spread across Britain to Cardiff, Bristol, Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Hull, Halifax, Tyneside and Manchester. 

And while she played a crucial part in mass industrial struggle, Eleanor was committed to building a socialist organisation. She was also central to the organisation of the Second International of socialist and labour parties in Paris on 14 July 1889 where she interpreted in three languages.

Eleanor was also active in the fight for women’s rights. She wrote pamphlets including “The Woman Question, from the socialist point of view”. 

In it she wrote, “The working woman cannot be like the bourgeois woman who has to fight against the man of her own class…for the proletarian woman it is a struggle of the woman with the man of her own class against the capitalist class.

“Her aim is to obtain the political power of the proletariat. 

“The working woman approves the demand of the middle class women’s movement…but only as means to the end that she may be fully armed for entering into the working class struggle along with the man of her class.”  

It was as a committed socialist that she fought for the emancipation of the working class throughout her life. Her personal life was troubled, with her relationship with Edward Aveling contributing to her early suicide.

Her legacy as an activist is great, and she deserves to be celebrated in her own right. 

A socialist would see class as the critical divide in society

Rachel Holmes, author of a new biography of Eleanor Marx, spoke to Socialist Worker about why Eleanor Marx still matters. Rachel pointed to Eleanor’s development of the ideas laid out by her father and his collaborator and friend Frederick Engels.

“Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State showed the role of the sexual division of labour and unpaid labour—to reproduce the labour force literally. 

“I read it at university in England and it made sense. I grew up in South Africa where Marx and Engels were banned because we lived in a totalitarian state.”

Rachel recognises that Eleanor as a socialist saw class as the critical divide in society. 

However throughout the book she refers to her as a feminist. 

It often seems she uses the term in a wide sense of simply taking up the issue of women’s liberation.  She says Eleanor’s vision of revolution meant revolutionising everything, including “child care, marriage, relationships between men and women.”

She explains that the full title of Eleanor Marx’s pamphlet published in 1886 was The Women’s Question, from a socialist point of view. “Yet when it was republished ‘from a socialist point of view’ was knocked off.” 

But Rachel points out “Eleanor said the Women’s Question was too narrow” saying to her friends who were suffragettes “you’re not addressing economic inequality, getting rights for middle class women is not going to solve the problem.” 

Rachel wants people to appreciate Eleanor’s enormous impact on the working class movement in Britain. 

“People like the drama of her story, the suicide and bad love affairs but it’s not a tragedy.

“Eleanor was an inspirational leader—we need political leadership—she inspired trust and mobilised people. 

“She would stand up in front of 100,000 people rally in Hyde Park but also did the small meetings all over the country. 

“She would do the meetings of trade union chapter meetings and reading classes.

“Eleanor Marx was widely respected by ordinary British workers who understood what she said, that if anyone isn’t free then no one is free.”

Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes is available from Bookmarks

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Tue 15 Jul 2014, 17:15 BST
Issue No. 2412
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