Eleanor Marx’s England

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I have been reading these letters printed in the Russian left press and written by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling.

Most friends will know the name Eleanor Marx as Karl’s daughter, a leading participant in the New Unionism struggles of the 1880 and 90s, mentor to the dockers’ leader WIll Thorne, executive member of the gas workers’ union, and a key link between the Socialist International and activists in Britain. Aveling was her partner, a secularist and then socialist, and one of the most regular platform speakers for various of the left groups of the time (including the SDF, the Socialist League and the ILP). Notoriously, he ended their fifteen year relationship, making a threat to her – its exact nature remains unknown but has been the subject of intense speculation – in response to which Eleanor died by suicide.

Her death was the most extraordinary comingling of the personal and the political. You see in one scandal, the first disillusionment of nascent social democracy, activists dealing with the phenomena of male violence, scandal, despair… Just to give one detail of it: the London-based socialist who made it his mission to expose Aveling was Edward Bernstein, who had already published the first of his “revisionist” articles which serve as a retrospective justification for the rightward shift of German social democracy, and serve as a distant paternal ancestor to New Labour, Starmer etc – in opposition to Aveling who is almost the epitome of the jaded revolutionary socialist prolonging his career when he would have served his ideals so much better by silence.

And in this context you have to remind yourself – beneath the politics, the squabbling and the egos, was something so much important – Aveling’s cruelty.

She was the greatest revolutionary of her age and – her partner betrayed her.

(There is a good biography of Eleanor Marx by Chushichi Tsuzuki, a superb biography of her by Yonne Kapp, and she is discussed at length in major essays by the likes of Sheila Rowbotham).

Anyway, this collection brings together seven long articles the couple wrote in 1895 – three years before Marx’s death.

They write about politics in London, the school board election, local government, new ideas in novels (Thomas Hardy) and drama, women writers, the stumbling efforts of the socialists to be heard. For people who care about early British socialist politics, the story of the left in London, this is essential reading.

Even for those who don’t, there’s so much of interest here. Reflecting the personalities of the two authors the prose is alternatively vivid and detailed, the stories of people resisting poverty; and it is pedantic, vague and opinionated.

The book explains why in Britain we hold our May Day march on a Saturday rather than the first of the month. Just as the day was taking off at the same time, in Europe, the US, and here – a generation of trade unionists worried about demanding too much, and the socialists who had the job of arguing back at them (ie. Aveling) did so with his characteristic strident, sectarian tone. That’s why the argument was lost. It’s all in here, the hopes of that generation and their defeats.

I tried to read it lightly, for the tone, for the laughter beneath a cloudy sky, for those passages which explain. Because that’s what Eleanor did – right up until the end.

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