Eleanor Marx Viewed Through the Lens of a Twenty-First Century Feminist*

Review Essay by Ludmila Melchior-Yahil

Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 528 pp., $35


I read Rachel Holmes’s book for the first time soon after its publication two years ago and, like most previous reviewers, was instantly attracted to the book’s subject. What a fascinating and dramatic life! What a compelling and complicated woman: Karl Marx’s brilliant youngest daughter, political activist, feminist, labor organizer, writer, editor, translator, researcher, and even occasional actress!

While most reviewers praised Holmes for vivid and ‘ebullient’ prose, I found it sometimes a bit overdone, as in phrases like the one about Eleanor putting “the socialist cat amongst secularist pigeons” or another that her life “changed tense” and “from living in the subjunctive she shifted to living in the present.” This, however, was just a question of literary taste. Much more troubling than the flowery style, I found some of the author’s firm but often unsubstantiated conclusions.

So, when I was invited to write this review, I went back to those parts of the book that I found the most questionable. Most striking among them was the thesis that both Holmes and her publisher put forward as the main achievement of Eleanor Marx, namely that her pioneering feminism was guided by her belief that “sexual equality was a necessary precondition for a just society” (Bloomsbury.com). To my knowledge, only one other reviewer (Charlie Gardner, SocialistWorker.com) also found this questionable. Others, like the publisher, trusted that Holmes’s research substantiated that statement. I decided to take a closer look.

Little did I suspect that my effort to trace the origins of this and some others of Holmes’s statements would often open a Pandora’s box of questions, not only about the logic of her arguments, but also about her methodology, undermining her claim that the book, although not academic, is “very rigorous” (interview for Guernica, May 1, 2015). The publisher stresses that Holmes “has gone back to the original sources.” I cannot claim to have checked every single piece of data that Holmes used in her book and to have found it wanting. All I can say is that every time I did dig deeper into her supporting references, things were not quite as they should be. There also seemed to be a problem with Holmes’s too close reliance on previous biographies of Eleanor Marx, especially Yvonne Kapp’s masterful work published in the 1970s1 and praised by Eric Hobsbawm for ‘exhaustive and flawless research’. (There is also Chushichi Tsuzuki’s earlier concise biography from 1967, and one can find additional biographical information about Eleanor in major publications devoted to Marx’s family or to the lives of progressive women of her time.)

Among many reasons for writing a new biography of a historical figure who has been written about before (in Kapp’s case, in two volumes totaling 1294 pages), the first and obvious one is a discovery of previously unknown materials. But Holmes refers in her book only to two documents as never published: one is a letter to Eleanor asking for her financial help, and the other also a letter, from her housekeeper to her secretary, referring to Eleanor’s death.

The other reason for a new book may be the author’s belief that she has a fresh and different interpretation of already known facts. And indeed, the main reason for Holmes’s book seems to be her wish to reinterpret Eleanor Marx’s life and work from the modern feminist perspective. She attempts to show that in her public life Eleanor was a feminist first and a socialist later, and that her tragic personal life was a result of patriarchal oppression by the men around her and the constraints of the misogynistic society in general. As interesting as each hypothesis may sound in theory, doubts arise when Holmes finds it necessary to mold the facts of Eleanor’s life to fit her preconceived notions.

I will start by presenting some of those precepts on which Holmes builds her case, and then proceed to show, with a few examples, how she applies them to study selected historical events, Eleanor’s political opinions (on the ‘woman question’ in particular) and her personal life (especially her suicide). Uncovering all the details of Holmes’s scholarship would have required an almost forensic investigation, so I will limit my presentation to those problems that seem to be most frequent.


But first a few words about Eleanor Marx herself. She was born in London on January 16, 1855 as the sixth child (and the youngest of the three surviving daughters) of Karl Marx and his wife Jenny. There was another child, Freddy, born to Marx’s housekeeper Helene Demuth and, until Engels’ death in 1895, considered to be Engels’ son. (Holmes keeps this secret from her readers, dropping hints about Freddy Demuth along the way, as if she was writing a mystery novel.)

Eleanor was born a feisty but sickly child, and nicknamed Tussy because of her constant coughing (tousser in French, which was, next to English and German, one of three languages spoken in the Marx’s household). Holmes insists on using this childhood nickname through the whole book, and calls many other characters by their nicknames too, which often sounds overfamiliar or even bizarre. (Marx is referred to as Mohr or Tussy’s father, Jenny is Mohme, Helene Demuth – Lenchen or Nymmy, Engels is General, and Wilhelm Liebknecht – Library. This produces odd results like “she translated from German into French Library’s rather tiresome Reichstag speech” (122).

Eleanor grows up in an intellectually stimulating environment; she reads voraciously and very early shows interest in politics. A precocious child, she writes advice letters to Lincoln and comments on the Polish uprising of 1863. At seventeen she is described by her mother as “a politician from top to bottom.” At the same age she visits her sisters in France during the Paris Commune (both married French socialists – Paul Lafargue and Charles Longuet). She is even briefly arrested on suspicion of being a petroleuse. Back in England she leaves home and starts a relationship with an exiled Communard, Prosper Lissagaray, twice her age at the time. She’s earning their living teaching; he’s writing the story of the Commune, which Eleanor will later translate into English. This striving for independence, plagued by financial problems and her family’s disapproval, ends with her first emotional crisis and a bout of anorexia. Back home, she resumes her previous activities: she participates in various literary societies, gives lessons, translates both political and literary works and helps Marx in his research (she was one of a very few people capable of deciphering his handwriting). She takes acting classes and thinks briefly about a career on stage, but has to abandon her dreams for lack of major talent. This all happens while her mother becomes ill and dies. Eleanor has another bout of depression. Still she works and takes care of Marx, who dies only little more than a year later.

At the time of Marx’s death, Eleanor meets Edward Aveling, an academic and Darwinian, with whom she will spend the next fourteen years as his common-law wife, political partner and literary collaborator. During those years, she continues her literary interests, participates in the activities of many political organizations, such as the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Bloomsbury Socialist Society (where she befriends William Morris and George Bernard Shaw). She translates Madame Bovary into English (still in print, although without credit to her as the translator). She learns Norwegian to translate plays by Ibsen, and Yiddish to address Jewish immigrants’ meetings in London’s East End. She does research and ghostwriting for pennies for other people, gives private lessons for very little money, and tutors for free future labor leaders, such as Will Thorne.

But first and foremost, she becomes one of the major figures of both British and international socialist movements. She is first a member of SDF and then its splinter Marxist group, the Socialist League. She participates as an organizer in many major workers’ strikes, including the London Dock strike, the Silvertown gas workers’ strike, and the onion skinners’ strike. She becomes a member of the Council of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers, and gains the nickname of “Our Old Stoker.” She travels with Aveling and Liebknecht to the US to promote socialism and writes (with Aveling) “The Woman Question” (1886) and “The Working-Class Movement in America” (1888). She puts her heart and talents into founding the Second International, and not only participates, but also works as a translator at its subsequent Congresses.

In 1884, she starts to help Engels and Samuel Moore (along with Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky and Aveling) with the English translation of the first volume of Capital. To illustrate how much effort it required, Kapp details the difficulties: Eleanor was supposed to trace all Marx’s quotations from English to their original sources. He had used extracts from 214 authors (some anonymous), 24 British journals, 80 Blue Books, numerous Royal Commission reports and thousands of statistical abstracts. To make matters worse, some quotes had not come directly from English but from French translations. It takes Eleanor two years to finish the work.

All this time, she supports both herself and her womanizing, spendthrift (and sometimes embezzling) spouse by taking jobs, like proof searching or typing, that do not require any of her numerous talents and abilities. She commented, with bitter humor, that at least since typing was a menial activity, no one could dismiss her now for not being a ‘working woman.’ (This was the pretext under which she was excluded in 1890 from the Trades Union Congress.) Moreover she also helps take care of the children orphaned by her sister Jenny.

After Engels’ death Eleanor inherits a large sum of money and a family secret about Freddy Demuth’s paternity. By then, she had already befriended him, and it is thanks to her letters to Freddy that we know more about the drama of her last days. Aveling, under a false name, marries his current mistress. As the socialist movement in Britain is now moving toward its political union with liberals, he comes to see Marx’s daughter as a career liability rather than an asset. He tries to blackmail her to give him her inheritance, but initially seems not to be successful. Then he falls ill and Eleanor at great expense helps him get better. As in the archetypal tale about a scorpion and a frog, upon his recovery, Aveling issues the ultimate blackmail and leaves. Eleanor, with her old sense of drama, puts on a white muslin dress, and takes poison like Emma Bovary. It’s March 31, 1898. She’s forty-three years old.


Eleanor Marx is compelling in life and tragic in death. The seeming contradiction between her strong and assertive public image and her personal vulnerability had inspired many authors to search for explanations. What approach does Holmes take?

Through most of the book, Holmes follows Eleanor’s life chronologically (with some confusing exceptions in chapters 9 and 14). From the start, she defines Eleanor as a “feminist anti-heroine from a Victorian novel” — “Except she is real, not the aspirational projection of a frustrated intellect that longs to express itself through the actualization of contested freedom” (116). Eleanor presents, according to Holmes, another example of the effects of “patriarchal repression” and “thwarted desire” on “intelligent, ambitious daughters.” The blame starts with the obvious patriarch – Tussy’s father. Holmes declares that “it was a tough call for anyone who loved Mohr to resist his nervous hypochondria and emotional blackmail”. Hence, Tussy “desisted from trying to beard her leonine father in his own den.” Her older sisters might have escaped this ‘den’ into their marriages, but “neither were happy seconded to the demands of motherhood and their husbands’ careers” (118). Tussy’s attempt at independence (through the engagement with Lissagaray) fails and brings her back to the role of a dutiful daughter and tireless secretary.

Marx once wrote that among his daughters Jenny was most like him, but Tussy was him. According to Holmes it means that “he was saying that she was more like a man than a woman” (226). This is only one of many statements in which the author assumes to know exactly her characters’ thoughts, feelings and intentions. She writes: “the demands of being a father protecting his daughter’s sexuality in a patriarchal society had prevented Marx from properly engaging with Tussy on the question of the relations between her political, public, private and sex lives” (124). This patriarchal oversight later supposedly caused Eleanor to allow Aveling to “reinforce the cage of her unresolved femininity” (226). Eleanor was endowed with many traits considered masculine in Victorian England but “her body the house of her femininity, the muscles, pulleys, levers and hormones … combined with the social conditioning of her age made her vulnerable to being caught in the trap of being more like a girl than a boy when it came to her own adult sexual relationships” (226). This convoluted thought on gender characteristics Holmes credits not to Simone de Beauvoir but to Zadie Smith’s novel NW. (The referenced page, however, is not related to the subject – a recurrent problem in Holmes’s book.)

Eleanor’s life is thus presented as reflecting a “contrapuntal desire to break free” from the subservient and unrealized lives of women like her mother and Helene Demuth. Here is Holmes’s comparison of the fate of those women with the lives of Marx and Engels: “For every hundred meals they cooked, Marx and Engels experienced an idea; for every basket of petticoats, bibs and curtains they sewed together, Marx and Engels wrote an article. For every pregnancy, childbirth and labour-intensive period of raising an infant, Marx and Engels wrote a book” (161f). To escape this “imprisonment as a Victorian angel of the house”, Eleanor needed, in Holmes’s words, “to learn how to murder the self-sacrificing, eternally good, dutiful, boiling with resentment, angelic youngest daughter.” Unfortunately, she loved others more than herself, which, while making her likable, was also “one of Tussy’s key failings” (149). In the case of Aveling “she should have known better. Love made her stupid, distracting her into anxiety and pity” (239).

If this sounds a bit condescending and simplistic, that is because Holmes tries to squeeze her heroine into a paradigm which does not fit her. Eleanor Marx, as we could see earlier, had a very complex personality that developed because of multiple factors stemming from both ‘nature and nurture.’ No amount of political training by a “revolution’s most loudly crowing cock”, as Holmes calls Marx, would have ever succeeded if she didn’t have particular traits of character or intellectual capability to understand his teaching. On the other hand, had she been born in a different family, she might have never become the political activist but would have followed a more conventional path. One thing is certain: where she grew up, men were primarily devoted to their Cause and women to men and their ideals. Her whole life Eleanor Marx struggled to live up to both those standards and so it is not surprising to see her torn apart by conflicting values and norms, some specific to her, some affecting women of her era in general. Eleanor’s achievements and failures reflect not only her struggle to solve those contradictions and ambiguities, but also her ability to live with them. She was never easy to pigeonhole. It is a pity that Holmes, as her biographer, has a need to reduce and reconstruct Eleanor’s life to fit her own image of a revolutionary feminist.

Let us proceed to the examples of such ‘reconstruction’ as applied to Eleanor’s public life, and especially to her activities and writings about the emancipation of women. This was for Eleanor definitely one of the most important social issues, and she formulated her views on the subject in a most comprehensive way in her essay written with Aveling on “The Woman Question,”2 which built upon ideas expressed in Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) and August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism (1885, English translation, reviewed by Eleanor). (“The Woman Question” became so popular that in 1887 Sonnenshine was publishing a 4th set of a thousand copies.) Comparing the previous writing of the two co-authors, Kapp concluded that Eleanor was responsible for the phrasing of the political arguments, while Aveling provided the essay with its literary flair. It addressed all the important problems affecting women’s lives at the time, including marriage, divorce and sex education, and called on men and women to join forces in bringing a new socialist society.

On the first pages of the essay the authors state that “those who attack the present treatment of women without speaking for the cause of this in the economics of our latter-day society are like doctors who treat a local affection without inquiring into the general bodily health.”

Holmes disagrees. She starts her effort at reinterpretation by stating that Eleanor, already in her speech on the anniversary of the Paris Commune, “raised the need for women’s emancipation as necessary to achieving the aims of the socialist movement. Not just integral or desirable, but a precondition for the progress of meaningful social change” (256). Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify this statement because Holmes doesn’t quote from the original, but from H.M. Hyndman’s memoir written decades after the event.

To illustrate Eleanor’s views, Holmes uses mostly citations from the “Woman Question” that can be traced. She departs from the text of that essay, however, to arrive at the following conclusion:

The few interpretations of the essay to date have suggested that Eleanor and Edward argue that the overthrow by the proletariat of the capitalist system of production will lead to the end of women’s oppression. In other words, equality of women and men will follow after the revolution that will bring about a classless society. However, this argument appears nowhere in the essay. In fact, Eleanor and Edward advance the diametrical – or rather dialectical – opposite. Eleanor and Edward’s landmark essay makes it absolutely clear that the struggle for women’s emancipation and equality of the sexes is a prerequisite for any effective form of progressive social revolution.  (261f)

There is not one reference to support this statement. More than that, Holmes, encountering in Eleanor’s text parts that contradict her thesis, cuts the inconvenient sentences out. And so, she quotes:  “…Without larger social change women will never be free” (264). What precedes these words, and what she omits is: “But it is essential to keep in mind that ultimate change, only to come about when the yet more tremendous social change whose corollary it will be has taken place. Without that larger social change women will never be free” (Thoughts: 14).

Eleanor and Aveling further develop this thought, as one may expect Marxist socialists to do: “What are the evolutionary changes in society that we believe are already close at hand? And what are the changes in the condition of woman that we anticipate as consequence of these?” (25) What has to be done first is “the expropriation of all private property in land and in all other means of production. With this would happen the abolition of the State as it is now.… And now comes the question as to how the future position of woman, and therefore of the race, will be affected by all this.… Clearly there will be equality for all, without distinction of sex. Thus, woman will be independent: her education and all other opportunities as those of man” (26f).

The authors struggle to find a balance between their views that while, on the one hand economic and social conditions affect both sexes (although clearly not in the same way) and therefore require their solidarity, on the other hand, women, like other oppressed classes, have to count on themselves for their own emancipation. Only exceptional men will help women in their struggle, just as only exceptional members of the middle class will identify with the fight of the workers. They write: “Women are the creatures of an organized tyranny of men, as the workers are the creatures of an organized tyranny of idlers” (14). Holmes, using the same citation substitutes “men” for “idlers” (262), which is probably just an error, but by now seems a bit like a Freudian slip.

The question of how feminist goals should be connected to the general struggle for economic and social change is as important today as it was during Eleanor’s lifetime. There are many different opinions on the subject among modern feminists, and it is clear that Holmes’s views are very strong and very partisan. As much as this is her right as a thinker, her duty as a biographer is to report truthfully on her heroine’s opinions, even if she disagrees with them personally. Instead, by manipulating the data to fit her hypothesis, Holmes not only simplifies what for Eleanor was a very complex problem, but reverses her views altogether: What for Eleanor was a consequence, in Holmes’s interpretation becomes a prerequisite of the same process.

It seems as if for Holmes it is not enough that Eleanor Marx was one of the first socialist feminists. She wants to prove the unprovable: that Eleanor was a feminist first and a socialist – and especially Marxist – later. Eleanor fought for women’s rights all her life, on the streets of London, in its workhouses and slums; she organized working women, helped them financially when she was able, taught them and even entertained with plays and poems. She raised the ‘woman question’ in all her major political speeches and essays. She was the first to translate into English great works of European literature addressing the dilemmas facing women of her times. Holmes, while acknowledging Eleanor’s efforts, needs still more to consider her a worthy feminist. Eleanor should also put the woman question as an a priori condition of any further social change. Nothing in Holmes’s book substantiates those claims.


 Holmes doesn’t stop at Eleanor in her efforts to prove the fundamental place of feminist issues for the early Marxists. She co-opts Engels to her idea by saying, “Engels hints that feminism was probably a necessary a priori to socialist revolution but he doesn’t quite get there in proposing a practical programme” (262). No reference is given.

Then Holmes reaches even further: “The necessity for women’s emancipation as a primary requisite for free and equal societies is also a foundational precept of Marx’s own work.” Here she provides a reference to page 239 in Terry Eagleton’s impassioned 2011 book, Why Marx Was Right. But what we actually find there does not support Holmes’s argument. The author simply says on Marx that “There has been no more staunch champion of women’s emancipation, world peace, the fight against fascism or the struggle for colonial freedom than the political movements to which his work gave birth.” Eagleton concludes with a question that seems quite appropriate here: “Was ever a thinker so travestied?”

Holmes’s factual misrepresentations are often accompanied by methodological negligence. Here are a few examples. On page 257 she uses a citation from The Woman Question that has no mention of Kant, but follows it with a sentence: “So far, so Kant, but Eleanor and Edward are not seeking to reconcile materialism (objective reality) and idealism.” Where did Kant and idealism suddenly appear from?  Had she continued the quote, it would have read: “According to Kant, a man and a woman constitute, when united, the whole and entire being: one sex completes the other.” So, this explains Kant. As for idealism, etc., one can find it in a reference provided by the editors of the essay (“…The object of cognition is therefore only the outer appearance of things, but not its essence, objective reality. ‘The main feature of Kantian philosophy is the reconciliation of materialism and idealism’ (Lenin).”) (55). Holmes doesn’t acknowledge using a paraphrased quote from Lenin from a book she doesn’t acknowledge as a source (Thoughts, cited here in footnote 2), and which, while referencing it more than 20 times, she does not include in her bibliography.

Holmes demonstrates the same ‘free interpretation’ of facts and nonchalant treatment of sources when reflecting on various historical events. The book is peppered with inaccuracies that may sometimes escape notice, but are not less troubling. She claims that Marx went to study in Berlin “to follow his desire to be taught by …  Hegel, who earned his living as a professor at the university” (32). True, except that Hegel was by then long dead. The same applies to Owen whom Holmes lists (72) among the visitors in Marx’s home after the founding of the First International, which occurred in 1864, six years after Owen’s death. This last bit of information about the “aged patriarch of socialism” is referenced to Liebknecht, who indeed refers to him as such, but reminisces on seeing him at Marx’s in the early fifties. (These and more examples of factual inaccuracies are mentioned in an Amazon review of Holmes’s book by Charles Pigden.)

Even more serious than the inaccuracies that result from lapses in fact-checking are the   misrepresentations of historical events and processes. The problem is not Holmes’s political sympathies or dislikes, but rather how well she understands the ideological credo and political views of her own heroine, Eleanor Marx. She was not only Tussy – Mohr’s daughter – but also Karl Marx’s collaborator, translator, biographer and follower. Marxist ideas on history and society played an absolutely crucial role in her public and personal life. Some of Holmes’s statements raise serious doubts as to whether she is adequately informed regarding the historical events and political writings that shaped Eleanor into the person she was.

Commenting on the failure of the revolutions of 1848, Holmes writes that, “To their disappointment, and contrary to the predictions of their so recently published Communist Manifesto, the bourgeoisie in whom Marx and Engels had placed their hope had failed as a revolutionary class” (42). This makes one wonder whether Holmes had actually read even the first chapter of the Manifesto before dismissing it as the authors’ “early agitprop” (3). The text certainly recognizes that “the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part” in changing both the modes of production and social relations. This, however, is not to be confused with the current and future class struggle when “the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.” While supporting “every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order,” Marx and Engels consider these other movements only a “prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.” The fact that the Manifesto appeared at the time of the 1848 revolutions was not “a happy accident of timing” (3), but rather an expression of the growing dissatisfaction among social movements with the status quo.

Writing about the Paris Commune, Holmes concludes that its “military organization and discipline were shambolic [sic]” (110). She writes: “as a general political event, the Commune was a failure, but as a gender event it was an extraordinary landmark in the history of the emancipation of women” (214). Compared to Kapp, Holmes provides much more information on the role of women in the Commune, with interesting quotes on the subject from Lissagaray’s memoir. She mentions the feminists (105) – Communards like Nathalie Lemel and Elisabeth Dmitrieff (the latter, as an actress, maybe because in Wikipedia she is indeed described as an “actress of the Paris Commune”). Most questionable, however, is Holmes’s condescending dismissal of the Commune’s military and political effort. Her conclusion that the Commune was “above all … a great gender event” (105) doesn’t show much understanding either of French culture and history or of the tradition of the European socialist movement.

Holmes in general doesn’t seem comfortable writing about ideological and political complexities of the socialist and Marxist movement in the late nineteenth century. Cultural life in Britain of the same period seems to be more her forte and she devotes a lot of space to Eleanor’s literary friendships in London and the Bloomsbury Socialist Society, somewhat exaggerating the importance to Eleanor of people like Shaw or Olive Schreiner. What is significantly lacking throughout the book is a comprehensive panorama of economic and socio-political conditions framing Eleanor’s personal and public life. Such information is provided in an ad hoc and accidental manner. While Kapp’s biography has been charged with burying Eleanor under mountains of historical data (e.g. by E.P. Thompson, who also thought Kapp dismissive of the British socialist movement), Holmes, on the other hand, often omits even those facts which must have been very important for Eleanor personally, such as Lafargue’s political scandal during his electoral campaign in 1891, which rattled the whole family and the international socialist movement. By and large, however, Holmes follows Kapp’s narrative so closely that reading Holmes’s book along with Kapp’s gives one sometimes a feeling of déjà vu.3

Paradoxically, there are some parts in Holmes’s book where one wishes she had stayed even closer to Kapp than she does. The best example is the fiery speech Eleanor gave during her 1886 visit to Chicago at the meeting of the Liberal League. She talked about the unfairness of the Chicago Eight trial and then gave a short lecture on the principles of socialism and their misrepresentation by its enemies. She tackled such questions as private property, law, equality and the woman question, ending her speech with a call for a strong labor organization in the US (the AFL was right then being founded) and recited a quote from a Byron poem. Kapp chose to present this text in its entirety, rightly deciding that it shows Eleanor as a brilliant thinker and orator (Kapp, 2: 161-165). Holmes, on the other hand, chops the speech into short pieces to be used wherever they might fit. One could wish she put it in at least as an appendix. (Here also Holmes’s claim of using the original source of the speech, i.e. “Knights of Labor, 4 Dec. 1886,” sounds suspect, in view of her otherwise complete reliance on Kapp for this episode.)

A further example can be given of the content/comment confusion, also related to the similarities between the two biographies. It embraces two different political events and one unfortunate metaphor. One event is the 1889 First Congress of the Second International in which Eleanor took a very active and productive part. Kapp compares the event to a birth: “Though of fragile constitution, it was the perfectly legitimate child of the healthiest bodies of the working-class movement – the most progressive trade unionists and socialists of the time.… Eleanor was one of its most efficient midwives, providing antenatal care from the earliest stage and present, of course, at the birth” (Kapp, 2: 291). Holmes uses the same metaphor but for a very different event – the founding of the “mighty Independent Labour Party” in 1893 – in which Eleanor participated only as a spectator (much more involved later that year in the Zurich Congress of the International). Holmes insists that the ILP “begins with the birth and coming-of-age of non-identical twins: in this case, the new trade unionism and the Second International. Other siblings, such as the Fabians, initially hung back with nervous trepidation and joined the party later. Eleanor was midwife to the twins of trade unionism and socialist internationalism” (313). If anything, rather than delivering those movements, Eleanor herself was born into the traditions they embodied. She was also first and foremost a Marxist, and as such, her relationship to the ILP and even to her own SDF was quite complicated. This did not exclude being on good terms with their leaders (even more so with LDP’s James Keir Hardie than with SDF’s H.M. Hyndman).

In the mid-1890s Eleanor was active much more on the grassroots level than in party politics. She certainly did not approve of the direction in which the socialist movement in Britain was going – away from Marxism and toward coalition with less radical groups.

It is difficult to know whether Eleanor’s political disappointment was strong enough, as Kapp suggests, to become one of the factors contributing to her suicide. As for Holmes, she dismisses both the political and the psychological reasons alike. Eleanor’s depressive moods, she claims, “always had a counterexample of her stamina and joie de vivre. Her gloom at the global victory of capitalism and man’s inhumanity to man could be dispelled by a bus ride through London” (447). It would make Eleanor quite a shallow person if this unreferenced statement was correct. Instead, it repeats a reminiscence by Marian Comyn about a bus ride taken with a very young Tussy to help her recover from the disappointment of a failed acting career.


Let us now examine how Holmes applies her precepts to Eleanor’s personal life at its very worst final moment. Eleanor’s suicide has always triggered a strong reaction from feminist writers because it seems to show a contradiction between her public strength and private weakness.4 Sheila Rowbotham, in her introduction to The Daughters of Karl Marx, adds that this contradiction reflects a deeper one, facing every woman who struggles against existing ideas of femininity. Talking to Kate Webb, Rowbotham stresses very strongly that Eleanor “connects feminism to wider economic and social change” and “raises through her own life the dilemma of women who want to act in the world and who also want to live free personal lives.” This is a very important point: Eleanor Marx was fighting more struggles than those of a woman and for women. She was a militant Marxist, so her struggle was also against most of the existing social norms, laws, and values, starting with the international capitalist economic order. There were very few women like her in those days and a comparison of their personal vs. public choices would make fascinating reading. Vivian Gornick, in her review of Holmes’s book (New York Times, April 3, 2015), points out that these women, acting in the predominantly male environment, were often perceived as ‘neither fish nor fowl’ and therefore easy prey to opportunistic immoral men, if only those men enjoyed their femininity and genuinely respected their brilliance. (She provides Rosa Luxemburg and Emma Goldman as examples.)

Holmes, however, as shown above, dismisses political factors, and also, in the words of Kathryn Hughes, glosses over Eleanor’s history of dramatic behavior and previous attempted suicides  (Guardian, May 16, 2014). She focuses on the main culprit, Edward Aveling, this “container of all the patriarchal attitudes.” Holmes insists that “If only Eleanor had removed her rose-tinted pince-nez when inspecting Edward, she would have seen that his enormous abscess was moral turpitude that might have been far more efficiently treated by two punches with her fist rather than calling the doctor” (371). Thanks to Eleanor’s letters to Freddy Demuth we now have a very precise record of her last months, and all the reasons why she would never have considered such an option.

Engels’ death in 1895 had many dramatic effects on Eleanor’s life. She lost a friend, a mentor and a surrogate father, but inherited a large sum of money that, for the first time in her life, allowed her to focus on her political and creative work. She also learned about Marx’s paternity of Freddy, which Engels confirmed. She buys a house, hires a housekeeper and a secretary. Holmes, instead of being happy for her heroine who finally has ‘a room of her own’ and time free from demeaning jobs, accuses her of “snobby kvetching” and behaving “like a true aspirant petit bourgeois.”

Eleanor works on Marx’s manuscripts, edits his Value, Price and Profit, gives lectures, teaches at Socialist Sunday School, attends meetings. In July 1897 when she is at the 8th Miners International Congress, Aveling under an assumed name marries his mistress. He still lives with Eleanor, they even travel together to visit her sister in France. All this time Eleanor confides to Freddy about being unable to wipe out 14 years of her life. She tells him of Aveling forcing her to choose between “utter ruin, everything to the last penny or utter open disgrace” (418). Aveling gets sick and Eleanor takes care of him thinking that he’s dying (he later outlives her only by four months). She tells Freddy that she is now beyond forgetting or forgiving all the suffering Aveling has inflicted, she can only love him. How can she still love him? “In some, she writes, a certain moral sense is wanting, just as some are deaf, or have bad sight, or are otherwise unhealthy.… We must try and cure, and if no cure is possible do our best … and so, I am trying to bear all this trouble as best as I can” (428).

All Eleanor’s letters to Freddy are quoted by both Kapp and Holmes, and with one exception, they are identical. Kapp explains that the letters were published simultaneously by two British newspapers, Justice and Labour Leader. Justice retranslated to English the text that Eduard Bernstein used in his article “What drove Eleanor Marx to Suicide.” Labour Leader published an article by Keir Hardie, who used the same letters but not in full. Since “the originals have not been seen,” Kapp has carefully compared all three versions, in the hope that she has “arrived at a reasonably complete and accurate transcription.” Holmes gives as her source the Labour Leader, with no mention of Keir Hardie. Reading first Holmes and then Kapp, I noticed a discrepancy in the text of a particularly moving passage. Kapp quotes Eleanor (and I format it on purpose exactly the way it is in her book):

“Yes – I sometimes feel like you, Freddy, that
nothing ever goes well with us. I mean you and me. Of course,
poor Jenny had her full share of sorrow and trouble, and
Laura lost her children.… I don’t think you and I have
been very wicked people – and yet, dear Freddy, it does seem
as we get all the punishment.” (Kapp, 2: 687)

Holmes brings in the very same letter, but the beginning is different:

“I sometimes feel like you Freddy, that
poor Jenny had her full share of sorrow and trouble…” (427)

The second line, as printed in Kapp’s book, is elided. Why, if Holmes’s text supposedly comes from the Labour Leader? To complicate the matter more, when a few pages later Holmes quotes from Bernstein’s article, she strangely refers to him as a Labour Leader (in italics).

Bernstein wrote his article to protect both Eleanor and the movement from the accusations that her life (that of a socialist and a Marxist) was a failure. He had a strong political motivation to accuse Aveling of wrongdoing, maybe even of murder. Holmes agrees, but for a very different reason. Aveling pushed Eleanor to suicide because theirs was “the oldest story of the emotional abuse between man and woman in the book.” He couldn’t just leave taking all her money. He needed to destroy the woman who had become bigger than him, was “taking his space,” as the author explained in her interview for Guernica. But, she continues, Aveling was only part of the problem. There was also Eleanor’s childhood and her “two mothers, who both had relationships with the same man. A ‘marriage of three’” (446). This statement is referenced, which made me expect that Holmes discovered some new data about Marx’s marital life. Unfortunately, the reference points to the same article by Bernstein, who indeed in the very first paragraph uses the term “marriage of three,” but absolutely not in relation to Marx, Jenny and Helene. He’s quoting some political enemies who gossiped that Aveling tried to talk Eleanor into a ménage à trois.

Again, Holmes misrepresents the facts and then supports them with a non-existing reference. Further, her insinuation that Bernstein at that time could have written anything so damaging about Marx is simply ridiculous. It would have been considered detrimental not only to the image of Marx himself, but also to the cause of socialism. This is why the whole issue of Freddy remained a secret for so long and why it provided Aveling with a powerful weapon against Eleanor. Had he revealed ‘the secret’, it would mean, in her eyes, a disgrace not only for her and her idolized father, but for the whole Marx legacy.

Holmes concludes the book with another unsupported claim. Writing about the lasting contribution of Eleanor Marx to the socialist and feminist struggle, she states: “Eleanor outlived the classic dialectic invented by her revolutionary family: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. She named the next stage, with characteristic humor, ‘the sequel’” (449).

This could be just one more convoluted sentence in which Holmes strings together many not precisely defined terms, but here again she provides a reference, this time to Eleanor’s own “Woman Question” (Thoughts: 21). And again one discovers that Eleanor and Aveling do not write there anything that would support Holmes’s thesis. They discuss divorce under the “socialist regime” proposing that “the union between men and women, to be explained in a sequel, will be seen to be of such a nature as wholly to obviate the necessity of divorce.” If anything, this is the ‘classic triad’ in action: existing marriage – its dissolution through divorce – new socialist union between men and women. And the word ‘sequel’ is clearly used in its basic meaning, as a follow-up to what they have just been discussing. And follow up they do, returning to the question of this new union on the last pages of their essay and stating that such a new contract “will be of purely private nature, without the intervention of any public functionary” and based on “love, respect, intellectual likeness, and command of the necessities of life.” (28) Only one of those elements was consistently present throughout their own life together. They also condemn suicide, as one of the five “diseased forms of the distinction of the sexes” (the others being “lunacy,” “morbid virginity,” “effeminate man,” and “masculine woman”). Suicides, both those due to pregnancy and those due to “ungratified sex instincts, often concealed under the euphemism ‘disappointed love,’” are considered condemnable results of the existing social system (23f). Eleanor did not fall into either of those categories when she took her own life twelve years later.

It is not clear why Holmes finds it useful to erroneously reference statements that sound suspicious to begin with, and thus bring unnecessary attention to the failings in her methodology. As Napoleon supposedly said, “it’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.”

The book has many misspellings of foreign names (to mention just Anna Kulishov who appears also as Anna Kuliscioff) and grammatical errors that bring a touch of comic relief, e.g., “… General was the father of Lenchen’s only child, and named for him,” or “His first job, aged eight, was as a laborer in a brickyard,” and so on.

There are some serious omissions in Holmes’s selected bibliography, of which the most important is the already mentioned Thoughts on Women and Society. Others include Reminiscences of Marx and Engels, Moscow 1957 (referenced 32 times); Harald Wessel, Tussy oder zweiunddreisig Reisebriefe über das sehr bewegte Leben von Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Leipzig 1982; and Mary Gabriel’s truly interesting Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of the Revolution, Back Bay Books, New York, 2011.

There are some statements of dubious logic, e.g., “She couldn’t pretend to be anyone other than herself’” and “Death can help people discover who they are.” As Michelle Dean notes in her piercing review (Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2015), we can only presume that Holmes “does not mean it helps the dead person,” but maybe it is not bad logic but rather a belief in ultimate after-life self-discovery. I agree with Dean that “Holmes has not managed to help us discover who Eleanor is, either.” For this we need a biographer who, instead of rejecting those parts of Eleanor that do not serve her purpose, could look at her life without preconceived notions. The result would be a portrait of the real Eleanor with all her complexities and contradictions and not a biased interpretation. Once, at an international congress, Karl Radek, when asked how he managed to know all the exotic languages of the delegates whose speeches he translated, answered: “I have no idea what they say, but I know what they should be saying.” Similarly, Holmes in the closing paragraphs of her book states: “Above all else, Eleanor knew that without bringing the question of feminism to the center and heart of every imaginative act and movement for social and economic change, the sequel would remain indefinitely in the making.” This is supposed to summarize the life struggle of a woman who, after the Congress in Brussels, wrote in the Vienna women’s paper that women “must organize not as ‘women’ but as proletarians, not as female competitors to their working menfolk but as their fellow-fighters” (Kapp, 2: 488).


Eleanor Marx was one of the most interesting women of her time, and, had she lived longer, would certainly had an even bigger influence on the world around her, especially on the British socialist and feminist movement. On the other hand, she might have been murdered like Rosa Luxemburg, or retired in the Soviet Union like Clara Zetkin.

Eleanor was born with a brilliant mind and physical beauty, but also frail and sickly. She grew up in a family where there was love, understanding and intellectual stimulation, but also financial strain, illness and death, conflicting values, betrayal and secrets. She belonged to the small group of the Jewish/German immigrants in London and to the minority of internationalist socialists in a capitalistic society. She was an ambitious, gifted woman in Victorian times of gender inequality. She was an atheist in a religious society and culture. She was a progeny of the upper classes working among the poorest men and women in England. An essentially English woman who supported the Irish cause. A girl raised very much like a boy. A sexual “new woman” in times of prudish mores. A childless woman who provided loving care for her nephews and Christmas gifts for disadvantaged children. An outspoken feminist who took a back seat (or stand) during male-dominated congresses and meetings. A failed actress who translated plays to be performed by others. A gifted writer forced to anonymously write and research for meager pay. To each of her life-contradictions she tried to find a positive solution.

She was by all accounts a lively, funny and friendly person with striking emotional intensity. She was also prone to depression, theatrical and insecure in her femininity. She needed to be needed and, once committed to people or causes, was fiercely loyal and devoted. She approached her ‘morally ill’ partner as another cause worth her total devotion. Maybe she treated it as a challenge to her strength or maybe she also fancied herself a sacrificial martyr admired by all for staying with such an unworthy man. At the time of her death, she found herself in a predicament for which she couldn’t see any solution other than suicide.

Her dramatic life provides us with an insight not only into nineteenth-century social, political and cultural movements, but also into the tragic complexities of the human condition in general. Had she not been the daughter of Karl Marx, by now she would have been the subject of Hollywood movies and popular novels. Instead, this intrepid socialist has been all but forgotten.

Whatever the flaws of Holmes’s book, it reminds us that we ought to know more about Eleanor and her struggles, which are still relevant today, despite all the achievements in the fight for gender equality and social justice that have occurred since her time.


*All italics in quotations are mine.

1. Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx, 2 vols. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1972, 1976).

2. First published as “The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View” in Westminster Review 1886, vol.125, no.138: 207-22, easily available on the Internet. Holmes claims the original source as her reference. However, the page numbers she supplies do not correspond to this source, but can be tracked to the same essay as reprinted in Thoughts on Women and Society, eds. J. Muller and E. Schotte, International Publishers, New York, 1987. In order to avoid confusion, all my citations of “The Woman Question” also refer to this latter publication (Thoughts).

3. Holmes’s account of the first May Day demonstrations in American cities (283f) – whose aftermath in Chicago Eleanor experienced directly — almost exactly follows that of Kapp (2: 147f), but without any reference to Kapp.

4. An interesting survey of such views has been done by Kate Webb in a series of interviews on Eleanor Marx available on her blog “Nothing is Lost.” 

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