Eleanor Marx was a revolutionary socialist who played an enormous role in developing working class organisation in Britain.
Her ideas are relevant to the fight to combat anti-migrant racism and building resistance to austerity today.
Siobhan Brown’s new book, A Rebel’s Guide to Eleanor Marx, brings these ideas to life and uncovers the contribution Eleanor made to socialist politics and organisation.
And it shows how Eleanor was shaped by momentous events that occurred during her life.
Eleanor’s father was the revolutionary Karl Marx. She was born in 1855 and grew up in poverty in the east end of London.
Many issues Eleanor focused on remain key—such as how to win women’s liberation or fighting imperialism.
She stressed that working class women had to organise “not as ‘women’ but as proletarians; not as female rivals of our working men but as their comrades in struggle”.
Eleanor was just 16 when working class people in Paris rose up and formed the Paris Commune. She saw that ordinary people could organise society in a different way.
In the 1880s she threw herself into building the Social Democratic Federation, a new socialist organisation in Britain.
Big struggles took off—but there were disagreements about the way forward.
Eleanor didn’t flinch from taking on leading SDF member Henry Hyndman over racism. “Mr Hyndman, whenever he could do so with impunity, has endeavoured to set English workmen against ‘foreigners’,” she complained.
Hyndman also thought more educated types would improve workers’ conditions. But as Siobhan shows, for Eleanor “workers’ self-agency was always at the centre”.
From an early age she identified with the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland, signing off letters as “Fenian Sister”. But it extended beyond Ireland.
In 1885 she helped organise a meeting against Britain’s war in Sudan and contributed to a pamphlet against imperialism.
She wrote that wars were waged so ruling classes could conquer “new lands for exploitation, fresh populations for pillage”.
This is remarkable given that 30 years later the outbreak of the First World War would see many socialists line up with their native ruling classes.
In 1888 a strike wave broke out and signalled the start of the modern trade union movement.
Many strikes involved workers who were previously dismissed as impossible to organise, particularly those without permanent jobs.
Eleanor consistently argued for unity—between men and women workers, British-born and migrant workers, and between skilled and unskilled workers.
Many writers have focused on the “troubled” parts of Eleanor’s personal life, instead of her political achievements.
Eleanor killed herself in 1898. A rising tide of class struggle had receded, many close comrades had died and she discovered her long-term partner had married someone else.
This book draws out how Eleanor was motivated by a desire to see socialism and an understanding of where the power lay to bring it about.
It is a great introduction to an important revolutionary who doesn’t always get the attention she deserves.
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