Marx’s large-hearted daughter
Eleanor ‘Tussy’ Marx emerges in this biography as a vivacious woman who gave generously of her affection
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f a well-written life is as rare as a well-spent one, as Thomas Carlyle declared in 1835, Rachel Holmes has achieved a rare feat. For the 500-page tome of a book, ‘Eleanor Marx: A Life’, is rather well-written. Holmes presents an impressive mass of scholarship on her subject — the youngest daughter of Karl Marx and her times — with the pace of a modern novel, the tone of an engaging conversation, and the finish of a work of art. Her prose, throughout the book, is unpretentious without being pedestrian and stays very readable without recourse to much stylisation. The preface and the afterword, especially, are notable for the cultivated simplicity, elegance and power that imbue them.
The book tells two parallel stories at once — one about the public and intellectual work that Ms. Marx accomplished in her short but rich life, and the other depicting her personal and domestic life. Her childhood, her ‘book-wormish’ adolescence, the intellectual ambience at the penurious Marx household, her correspondences, both political and personal, the lives of her siblings and her parts in those lives, her own troubled love-life, her relations with her parents and with Frederich Engels, who was family to the Marxs, and “her artistic and cultural pursuits”— these are all exhaustively covered in the book, as are the speeches she gave, the political articles she wrote, often for free, and the workers’ strikes she organised. Ms. Marx’s early sympathy with the Paris Commune, her zealous publication of “some of the great urtexts of Marxism”, her abortive association with the ‘Social Democratic Federation’ led by Henry Hyndman, whose brand of socialism she came to scorn, her eventual founding of the ‘Socialist League’, and, above all, her efforts to address ‘the woman question’ are treated by Holmes with the meticulousness they deserve. Holmes’ treatment of Eleanor’s public life and her lifelong socialist activism are handled with the verve that complement the lingering fondness characterising her treatment of ‘Tussy’ Marx’s familial and personal lives.Those aspects of Ms. Marx’s life, in Holmes’ rendition, present her as an endearing mix of enthusiasm, generosity, acuity of mind and warmth of heart. Eleanor ‘Tussy’ Marx emerges in this biography as a vivacious, intelligent and large-hearted woman who gave generously and unthinkingly of her affection, her intellectual services and even of her meagre funds. She, in fact, appears to have been exploited first by Hippolyte Lissagaray and then by Edward Aveling, men whom she loved to the point of exhaustion and who both failed, in their own ways, to give her lasting happiness. Her relationship with Avelingwas especially pernicious in its impact on her life. The womaniser Aveling, after living off Ms. Marx’s reputation, her labour and even her money for years, secretly married his mistress, thus belying her trust and her hopeful tolerance of his flirtations. Aveling’s initials were present on the prescription for the prussic acid that took Ms. Marx’s life at age 43, although it could not be resolved if he really was her murderer. What is certain, however, is his great moral culpability in sapping the mental strength of a loving woman through long years and then in pushing her to the brink of psychological ruin by his unwillingness to make an honourable exit.
The most important point of the book, as the biographer herself highlights in the ‘preface’, is her delineation of Ms. Marx’s engagement with the question of women’s liberty, an issue that did not receive its due importance in Marx’s vision of socialist democracy for the world. Ms. Marx, member of an underclass by virtue of being a British woman of her times, detected this lacuna in the political philosophy of her father and Engels early in her life and questioned their exclusionary focus on the rights only of working men, not women, as the prerequisite for socialist organisation in England.
Ms. Marx saw how talented women, like her own mother and her older sisters, were “short-changed by their political, intellectual men” and how, in the absence of education and opportunities, they were led into the waste of self-criticism and anger, of “babies, domestic drudgery and censorious in-laws”. Despite this, however, Ms. Marx refused to align herself with the movement for middle class women’s voting right, insisting that the women’s suffrage movement lacked a sufficient analysis of what she called the ‘economic base’ of the sexual division of labour. Rejecting ‘Women’s Right’ as ‘a bourgeois idea’ she insisted on seeing the ‘Sex Question’ from ‘the point of view of the working class and the class struggle’.
In her revolutionary text, ‘The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View’ (for which Aveling is credited as co-author) she laid the foundation of socialist-feminism and, with Clara Zetkin, she brought feminism to the top of the agenda of the international socialist movement at the congress of the ‘Second International’ held in London in 1896.
Eleanor Marx’s life, as Holmes puts it, forms ‘one of the significant primary elements’ in the story of British socialism — a story that the world might find to its taste, now that ‘the global triumph of capitalism’ is on the wane. Holmes, in depicting this life, stresses the influence that other women had on Ms. Marx, bringing out how ‘Tussy’ was the spiritual daughter not only of her brilliant and beautiful mother Jenny Marx, but also of her ‘second mother’, Helene Demuth and Angels’ partner, ‘Auntie Lizzy Burns’. She shows too how lifelong female friendships sustained and developed Ms. Marx. Only one charge can be brought against this lovingly and efficiently written volume. Even after allowing for the facts that it covers the life of a Marx, a brilliant and hyperactive one, and necessarily straddles a significant period in the political history of Europe, it does seem a little too long. At times, the reader might almost wish that Holmes had taken a cue from the ace Victorian biographer Lytton Strachey and aimed somewhat at the ‘brevity that excludes everything which is redundant and nothing that is significant’. She, apparently, did not have that as any of her goals. It is to her credit that despite her expansiveness she succeeds in making the book as readable and peppy as it is.
Source: The Hindu