Although Karl Marx is frequently recalled today, both to his credit and discredit, as the founder of Communism, his youngest daughter Eleanor has mostly been forgotten. But in her time, Eleanor was a figure of world renown, respected both as the primary editor and expounder of her father’s works, and in her own right as a social activist, leader of the burgeoning trade unions, a pioneering feminist, and translator and proponent of such defining works of the 19th century as Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and Ibsen’s entire oeuvre. Her story is finally given the attention it deserves in Rachel Holmes’ exhaustive biography, “Eleanor Marx: A Life” (Bloomsbury Publishing).
Born in 1855 into a family rich in intellect but often impoverished and close to the edge of ruin, Eleanor “Tussy” Marx was the favored child of her brilliant, idealistic and often impractical parents. Eleanor’s mother, Jenny Von Westphalen was from a Prussian family, members of the minor aristocracy, whose pater familias, Ludwig, was surprisingly open to the new ideas that were roiling across Europe following the French revolution. He became fast friends with Heinrich Marx, formerly Hirschel ha-levi Marx, who although the scion of generations of rabbis, had converted to Christianity in 1817 in order to be allowed to practice as a lawyer, which he was barred from doing as a Jew. Heinrich’s son Karl, born in 1818, was duly baptized and accepted into the national evangelical church.
Due to their fathers’ friendship, Jenny and Karl grew up together, and eventually married, despite resistance from both Karl’s mother, who retained her original faith and still held out hopes of Karl’s marrying a Jewish woman, as well as from Jenny’s “patrician half-brother, who was infuriated that she intended to marry a troublemaking Jewish intellectual.” The irony, of course, was that Marx not only didn’t identify as a Jew, he generally expressed an unsympathetic attitude towards them; in fact, of all the Marxes, only Eleanor laid claim to her Jewishness: “I am the only one of my family who felt drawn to Jewish people, and particularly to those who are socialistically inclined. My happiest moments are when I am in the East End amidst Jewish workpeople.”
Jenny and Karl were well suited, both intellectually and emotionally, and their marriage was, by and large, an enduring success. Poverty plagued them, however, through most of their life together. Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” was published in 1848 to “resounding silence.” Although better known by 1867, when the first volume of his magnum opus, “Capital,” was published, Marx still barely eked out a living. He and his expanding family survived only through the generosity and support of Frederic Engels, his faithful champion and collaborator, and a third parent to Eleanor and her siblings.
Whatever the Marx family lacked in material goods, however, they made up with an abundance of affection and education. Jenny and Karl were loving and caring parents, and ensured that their children were provided with an intellectually stimulating and educational environment. Fluent in a variety of languages, with Shakespeare and the classics of Greek and Norse literature her daily fodder, Eleanor grew up breathing and eating the ideas of historical materialism and social equality. In her mother’s words, she was from infancy, “eine Politikerin [a female politician] from top to bottom.”
Raised in such an environment, Eleanor was, unsurprisingly, a committed and determined polemicist and political activist from an early age — the practical embodiment of her father’s ideas and writings. At 18, she set off on her own, supporting herself through writing and teaching, and dedicating herself to righting the wrongs of the oppressed. After her parents’ death in her late 20s, freed from working as her father’s personal secretary and researcher, she became increasingly known for her personal achievements.
As successful as Eleanor was in her professional life, so unsuccessful was she in her emotional life. Although courted by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Israel Zangwill, and close friends with other 19th century luminaries such as William Morris and Havelock Ellis, Eleanor made terrible choices in her selection of love interests. At 18, she devoted herself to a selfish journalist twice her age, living with him openly, and finally leaving him only to fall for an even worse egoist, and scoundrel to boot, Edward Aveling. Although she would have liked to marry, he falsely claimed that he couldn’t get a divorce from his first wife, and they spent the next 14 years living together as a couple but without the benefit of marriage. Throughout their life together, he used her, profiting from both her connections and her earnings. Eleanor continued to make excuses for his frequent pilfering and philandering until the final crowning insult — his secret marriage to a young actress. Holmes makes an excellent case that Eleanor’s supposed suicide at age 43 was in fact a homicide, Edward having poisoned her to ensure that her will, which she changed upon exposure of his perfidy, would not be ratified — a tragic ending for such a noble figure.
Rachel Holmes has written an engaging and compelling account of a figure well worth remembering. Even 150 years later, this estimable woman can offer lessons on what it takes to be a modern woman.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.