“Dear comrade, I shall be very glad to speak at the meeting of 1 November , the more glad that my father was a Jew.”
Any discussion of the Jewish radicalism of Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, should begin with this remarkable letter. Its single sentence is bursting with historical significance.
First, as her biographer Yvonne Kapp noted, Eleanor’s “awakening pride in her Jewish antecedents” had been “roused… by poverty stricken and persecuted working class Jews” that she met in London’s East End.
The meeting had been called to protest against anti-semitic pogroms in the pre-revolutionary Russian empire. Many of the Jews at the meeting would have been recent immigrants who had fled for their lives.
Second, Eleanor, by posthumously conferring Jewish identity on her late father, was challenging all the claptrap that has claimed Karl Marx was an anti-semite.
She was the person who best knew her father’s attitudes and innermost feelings. The relationship between father and daughter was extraordinarily close.
To be sure, Karl, son of a German Jew who had converted to Christianity, had never expressed any interest in his family’s Jewish history. And the purple passages in his essay on the “Jewish Question” have indeed caused much misunderstanding.
But in fact in the 1840s, he had been the leading revolutionary demanding Jewish emancipation in his native Germany.
And he would have been as impressed as Eleanor at the emergence of a militant Jewish workers’ movement in the very heartlands of capitalism. In any case, Eleanor had a simpler reason for recommending her father in this way. She was hoping this audience would adopt his ideas.
Finally, the meeting had been called in the teeth of opposition from the Jewish establishment, especially the international banker, lord Rothschild, who expected recent Jewish arrivals to keep quiet and avoid politics.
It came at a vital moment for the socialist movement. The Great Dock Strike in 1889 signalled a massive expansion of the trade union movement among thousands of previously unorganised, unskilled workers.
In the same year Eleanor had traveled to Paris with Engels, Karl Marx’s life-long collaborator, to help establish the Second International. They hoped that workers’ internationalism would find organisational expression.
This spirit of internationalism fired Eleanor’s enthusiasm for organising among Jewish workers. Not only would the benefits of trade unionism become obvious, here was also a chance to show that Jewish and non-Jewish workers had a common class interest that could overcome all the old prejudices of anti-semitism.
And this was not abstract theory. Coincident with the dock strike, 10,000 Jewish tailoring workers had come out on strike for six weeks, closing 120 workshops.
Eleanor was a highly experienced agitator. She had been one of the key speakers at the 100,000-strong mass rally in Hyde Park, on 1 September, during the third week of Great Dock Strike.
Will Thorne, Tom Mann and Ben Tillett — the men who were building the new unionism — all paid tribute to her tireless solidarity during the strike.
But she had really come into her own when she formed the first women’s branch of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers.
As Kapp writes, she was no longer on the sidelines, making revolutionary speeches as Marx’s daughter. Rather, “she was now a living part of working class action”.
She was elected to the executive at the first annual conference of this union “by general acclaim without a vote being taken, so unanimous was the welcome, so full throated the response to her nomination”.
Did they care they were electing a Jewish woman? No, they did not. What a potent symbol that Jews were welcome in the working class movement.
There were many other sides to Eleanor’s life. Karl Marx’s household had breathed Shakespeare. Eleanor knew whole passages by the age of four. She had unrealised literary ambitions of her own. At the same time, she had a terrible personal life which led to her early suicide.
But let’s leave her where she would probably most like to be remembered. At the first May Day, Hyde Park 1890, quoting the poet, Shelley, welcoming one of the leaders of Irish liberation movement and calling for the abolition of class society:
“The unemployed both at the bottom and the top of society will be got rid of!”