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Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief – TLS


Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole’s novella about a trainee psychiatrist and would-be writer returning to Lagos from America, was first published in Nigeria in 2007. Subsequently, his novel, Open City, about a psychiatrist and would-be writer who has travelled in the other direction, was published in the US and UK in 2011. Now Cole has extended his early novella into a novel and published it for the first time outside Nigeria. The back-and-forthness of this sequence is not untypical of Cole’s work which occupies a new ground of uncertainty opening up in twenty-first century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture. Every Day is for the Thief is presented as fiction but is interleaved with Cole’s photographs of Nigeria, heightening the sense of actuality, and pays homage to Michael Ondaatje’s memoir, Running in the Family, about his own journey home to Sri Lanka. As Ondaatje’s book opened with him leaving a snow-bound Toronto for a steamy Jaffna, so Cole’s closes with his narrator returning from the heat of Lagos to a New York where “snow is total.”

More tellingly, Cole steals an image conjured by Ondaatje of acrobats in formation walking through the stately doorways of his family home. For both writers, this is a figure of dislocation and disorientation – on return the houses seem not to have grown smaller, as one might expect with the passage of time, but bigger. The playfulness of the image is also in keeping with Ondaatje’s account of the charmed world his Sri Lankan family inhabited. For Cole’s narrator however – while Ondaatje remains talismanic (spotting another Ondaatje reader on a bus he is overjoyed with a sense of fellowship) – his own feelings about coming home veer more towards frustration and disillusionment. Even before reaching Nigeria he is embroiled in corruption, bribing the consulate to acquire his visa. Once in Lagos, at every turn, he is blocked by people demanding kickbacks, pay-offs and hand-outs. Everyone is involved from the police to the local street gangs (“area boys”), and paying up leaves him humiliated and complicit. Without recourse to external authority or law to make rational sense of life, the narrator finds many Nigerians succumbing to magic thinking – the remnants of ancient shamanism mixed with the revelations of a new Pentecostalism – inventing bizarre explanations for even the most commonplace event.

One of Teju Cole's Nigerian portraits from Every Day is for the Thief.

One of Teju Cole’s Nigerian portraits from Every Day is for the Thief.

This is the quagmire that Cole explores in Every Day is for the Thief. Just as the narrator’s movement is continually hampered, so the country as a whole is stagnating, unable to progress in any meaningful fashion or to become part of international culture, the “civilization” through which nations and people communicate and share ideas. Equally, Nigeria seems incapable of evaluating its own past. On a visit to the National Museum, hoping to discover more about the Benin figures he has seen in New York, London and Berlin, he finds a lamentable state of affairs: the country’s dictatorships lauded as “achievements”, many works of art plundered, and a recent museum director afraid to handle those still in his keeping, spooked by their fetishistic power.

All of this leaves the narrator bemoaning Nigeria’s lack of “order” and clinging ever more tightly to the values he has acquired in the west. Indeed, at times, he seems perilously close to a parody of the “oyinbo”, or white man as foreigners are called in Yoruba, claiming, ludicrously, that there is no music in Nigeria, by which he means there is very little Bach. Yet there is more at stake here. Cole’s narrator is dismayed by Nigeria’s endemic corruption for its own sake, but takes it so personally because it thwarts the kind of writer he is striving to become: one at liberty to saunter, observe and reflect upon the city, just as he is intellectually able to freely associate with the writers of the world whose ideas he would bring to bear upon Lagos. In this light, “civilization” is more than just a colonialist trope, it is an indication of freedom and modernity, a precondition for the literary detachment and cool rationality the narrator prizes. What’s impressive about Every Day is for the Thief is that Cole makes no attempt to abstract such sentiments from the narrator’s position of relative advantage (he, at least, is free to leave), nor from the way Nigeria – so replete with story yet so “hostile to the life of the mind” – exposes the tendentiousness of his humanism and the callousness of his aestheticism. Seeing a young thief set on fire in the market place, the narrator’s horror quickly gives way to a sideswipe at those American writers, such as Updike, condemned to eternal suburbia, while he, by comparison, has the drama of Lagos “where life hangs out”.

Teju Cole, 2013

Teju Cole, 2013

After the narrator has returned to New York, there is a coda. He recalls a stroll through Lagos when he came closest to being the unrestricted flâneur: “People are hard at their work and I alone wander with no particular aim.” Losing his bearings, he finds the heart of the city: at its “meaningful centre”, an alley of coffin-makers. The place, he feels, has “a comforting sense that there is an order to things”, making him reluctant to return to the city’s normal bustle. So the novel closes in what seems like a dead-end: this street of coffins is everyone’s destination, rich and poor, beggar man, thief, and there can be no other magically revealed meaning. Except for this: having learned from Ondaatje, a master depicter of all forms of labour, Cole rounds off Every Day is for the Thief by showing that even in the most intractable circumstances there is pleasure in how things are made, dignity and order in work; just as the carpenters have “borne witness” to the city in all its grief, so, too, has the writer.


This article appeared in the TLS on 23.7.2014 as “Humiliated and Complicit”.

Conversations about Eleanor Marx: Rachel Holmes


Rachel Holmes’s (@TussyMarx) biographies are The Secret Life of Dr James Barry, The Hottentot Venus: The Life of Saartjie Baartmann, and Eleanor Marx: A Life. With Josie Rourke and Chris Haydon, she is a commissioning editor of Sixty-Six Books: Twenty-First Century Writers Speak to the King James Bible, and co-editor with Lisa Appignanesi and Susie Orbach of Fifty Shades of Feminism. She is a a regular writer in residence at Palfest.

What drew you to Eleanor Marx?

RH:     She drew me to her. I’ve done three biographies and it’s always been the same, they come up and tap me on the shoulder. When Eleanor came along I was 18 months into a biography of Conan Doyle and was very happily doing it. I was in South Africa with two very old political activist friends. We were talking about a number of subjects pertinent to our administration under Mbeki, particularly to do with feminism and internationalism.  I was working in the Treatment Action Campaign for affordable treatment for HIV/AIDS, which was the main preoccupation of my life  and internationalism was a integral to all the leaders of that movement, part of their political history. It was also very important to that campaign. We were talking about the support that was needed, discussing gender issues and what was happening after South Africa’s transformation in terms of the promises and expectations, tying to tackle the broad spectrum of patriarchy, violence against women, childcare, and opportunities for women in positions of power. We were thinking, okay, we’ve had this transition to democracy: where do we stand now? And somehow Eleanor’s name came up in conversation. She’s always been around in South Africa and she’s always remembered as an internationalist socialist figure. In England, she’s remembered by the left, but in South Africa she’s much more seen as yes, she’s an important political figure and we understand her role in internationalism and to a lesser degree, as a socialist feminist.

She’s remembered there perhaps because there’s still enough of a left for her to be remembered in?          

RH:       Yeah. I think that’s very true. It’s always interesting in different places when people ask you what you’re doing, and what it says about the culture whether they look at you blankly, or say, oh, how interesting! Of course, in South Africa people hearing the name Eleanor Marx say, yes, that’s right, there hasn’t been anything since Yvonne Kapp’s mighty biography of 1976/9. Yes it’s time for a new one. Whereas here [in the UK] people mostly say, who? The other place where people recognize Eleanor Marx’s name and importance is China. People there said, Oh yes.

My biography is part of an important continuity in the publishing industry because my publishing director at Bloomsbury is Alexandra Pringle, who , as a younger woman had been working with Carmen [Callil] and Ursula [Owen] and Lennie [Goodings] at Virago when they published Yvonne Kapp’s biography. To me there is a feminist story in the production. I’ve been helped very much, not only by Alexandra but Carmen, who has been an important intellectual influence on the book.

Was there something you wanted to say with the book at this particular moment?

RH:       Yeah. I wanted to talk about Eleanor Marx in the twenty-first century in terms of two very specific things. Firstly, internationalism seems to me to be the only viable guarantee of the shared universal values of human rights that we possibly have. If we give up on that, we’re really in trouble. I’m a very engaged member of Liberty, the human rights campaigning organization. As the current director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, put it much more eloquently than I can: capitalism is allowed to be international, banks are multinationals and corporate, there’s so much of the structure of internationalism in organizations that make the world work – God help us patriarchy is another internationalist movement that’s been going a long time. So there are the important principles of social equality and justice that came out of the international socialist movement. And secondly, there’s the question of where are we with feminism today? We can take stock of where we’ve come – thought I don’t want to use progressivist language – but in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the questions are: why are we still living with these problems, why have we seemed to slip back in some ways; what are the failures within feminism that account for the fact that we should have had more changes than we have? Also, and you’ve just touched on this, the feminist movement of the 1970s, like the anti-racist and anti-colonial movements, was taking place in the context where there was still an established, functional, viable left politics. That has now quite clearly collapsed. It seems to me that Eleanor was very interesting in the context of respect for her suffragette sisters, who were reformists. But there is a difference in feminism between the needs for a rights-based reform and a wholesale revolutionary feminist movement that says this is so endemic and so deep that the only way we can deal with our problems is to change the structure. Because the sexual division of labour within the family, in childcare and in the workplace, is something we are still dealing with. So I think she’s a very modern feminist, a century ahead of her time, but because she’s always looking at the macro picture, she’s also a sound economist. This economic analysis is something we are perhaps more familiar with from 1970s feminism than from a later form of feminist. So she’s an internationalist and the first modern British feminist in an internationalist context.

First? There was Wollstonecraft before her.

But Wollstonecraft does not have the political programme that Eleanor Marx has. Wollstonecraft applies an economic analysis only to the situation she knows, which is basically to the education of middle class women. I wouldn’t want to take anything away from her, but male histories of economics and politics and philosophy do not hesitate to distinguish between competing traditions.  One of the reasons I wanted to write about Eleanor Marx was because of this tendency within feminism to flatten everything out, as if all versions of feminism are the same, and they are not. They are part of the same impulse, but there is such a wide range, different interests and different approaches that are cut across – they call it intersectionality now, don’t they? – by different traditions of class and race and geography, and different approaches to politics and economics. That’s one of the things we have to get a grip on and not be all fuzzy about. I hear people collapsing the idea of a feminist movement into the idea of women’s rights constantly, and they are not the same thing. Eleanor Marx stood up and said, I stand before you as someone who is interested in working women. By that she meant all women, not just those hitherto covered in the woman’s debate. I think that distinction is really important to us. For Eleanor of course, it’s regrettable that she could never find Mary Wollstonecraft – where would she have got her hands on Wollstonecraft’s writing?

It’s the whole Gilbert and Gubar scenario of how can we create ourselves when we’re constantly losing our predecessors?

RH:     Exactly.

Kapp’s biography is one of the sacred texts of the left…

RH:      …give me a holy cow and I’ll smash it!

Could you say something about the differences in your approach?

RH:        That there should only have been two biographies – and the Tsuzuki is very good, it broke a lot of archival ground – but that there were only two up till now is ridiculous. I hope there will be more, taking different positions, as many as there are now of Marx and Engels. But there were only two previous biographies and I was so damn lucky I was able to stands on the shoulders of both of them. The first two biographies I wrote were from scratch where I was building the archive. This time I really wanted to do something where I was engaging with a figure about which something was already known. The other thing is: the Kapp was written in the time of the Soviet Union and it is written in a cold war environment. The 1970s are caught up in that relation to Stalinsim and post-Stalinism. So now we’re post cold war, the archives have opened up, there’s been an intellectual exchange, what might we find that is new?

Indeed, E.P. Thompson called Kapp an “indomitable loyal orthodox communist”. She writes from a highly partisan position.

RH:       And I’m very partisan towards Eleanor Marx, but I am not a partisan communist.

And looking at her from a different moment also turns her into a different person.

RH:      And the archive is different. It’s not complicated or theoretical. But the Marxist-Leninist Institute in Moscow have now been able to swap all the material with the International Institute for Historical Research in Amsterdam, and that changes the content. It mixes it up. Also Eleanor Marx was not a communist. If you look, particularly in her unionism when she stands up in 1889 and there’s one strike after another – it’s the dockworkers, the gasworkers, it’s Silvertown – and she stands up in Hyde Park in front of 100,000 people and says: you know what, we are exhausted, we want the 8 hour day and parliamentary reform and we want that to go through parliamentary representation. Listen to the language. This is the language of representative parliamentary democracy. It’s the birth of her engagement in the evolution of what became the Labour Party. This is something very different to a communist movement.

Why, then, in Sheila Rowbotham’s phrase, is she still “hidden from history”, still so little known? I’m sure there are an awful lot more people who are aware of Mary Wollstonecraft than are aware of Eleanor Marx. Wollstonecraft has been canonized.

RH:     It’s a bourgeois thing.

Just that?

RH:     Wollstonecraft comes on as a certain kind of romantic, democratic rebel. She is not caught up in the whole perception of Marxism and the democratic left, and the anxieties and threats of revolutionary socialism.

If you look at the appeal of Wollstonecraft and Marx today, at how their lives still resonate, what seems to catch the imagination of many women is the drama of confinement and the female pathologies it engenders: depression, anorexia, entrapment, isolation, suicide. I’m not trying to reduce their lives to this, but I wonder why their neuroses and problems are still so compelling to women.

RH:     It’s so compelling because the majority of women in the world today are still living confined, constrained and entrapped lives under the rule of their fathers from whose hands they are passed on to husbands. You mention for example, eating disorders. Well we have eating disorders on a different scale now, they are a global industry. The constraint to diet, vagioplasty, the rise of FGM, all of the things you describe in terms of constraint – freedom of movement, freedom of choice, control of sexual reproduction, control of labour rights – are still for the majority of women around the world, the common experience. Those of us who have had the advantage through education or class to escape that to some degree are in a minority. Yet being middle class, having the freedom to go to university and get educated, are not going to release you from all these patterns, whether it relates to body image or masochistic relationships to men that behave inappropriately. I’m really interested in the point where democracy starts, but this is a very Victorian story and you have the quite gothic elements which are recognisable and make it feel so contemporary. Those constraints are still with us, even if in different forms. In many ways they are on the rise, particularly in illiberal interpretations of religions. A fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity and a modern invention of a fundamental interpretation of Islam are used as an excuse to suppress women. What’s relevant about Eleanor’s life is that hers is a secular, atheist family. Their secularism is central to their attitude towards the idea, if not the actualization, of a more progressive and equal situation for women. All of which feels very contemporary to me.

Rachel Holmes at the Tolpuddle Festival ,July 2014.

Rachel Holmes at the Tolpuddle Festival, July 2014.

Eleanor talks repeatedly about the need for frankness in sexual relations and about truth more broadly in society. These are important tenets in her life, attempting to blow open the bourgeois niceties and proprieties and to look at the actual relations between people. The tragedy is, she ends caught up in the hypocrisy of her family and her lover. Precisely the position she’s arguing against. It’s a nightmare where one of the things you are most passionate about exposing, ends up trapping you.

KW:    Well that’s the contradiction. There is a quote from Marx, which is one of my favourite, though he’s not the first or the last to make it – it’s at the beginning of my biography – which is: “the family contains in microcosm all the oppressions and all the inequalities that will then play themselves out in the wider society”. We forget this at our peril. This goes back to the public and private platform of feminism. Many gains have been made in the public sphere, but in relationships, in the home, in the family, how much has changed? In relation to the hypocrisy, with reference to [Eleanor's lover, Edward] Aveling, it’s a very interesting question. I don’t think what played out in the public sphere happened in the bedroom. I think the constraints and hypocrisies were about the public face and his conduct elsewhere. One of the things that compelled and impelled Eleanor was that they had a very free and enjoyable sexual relationship in the bedroom and the home. And there was no violence. Although there was violence visited on her in other ways because of his behavior, we have to remember that this is nineteenth century Victorian Britain. You’ve got [Havelock] Ellis and [Edward] Aveling, Olive [Schreiner] and Eleanor, none of whom are married, going on a double honeymoon which is basically a shagfest. They are very open about their physicality, about discussing their sexuality. They discuss how their brains work during their menstrual cycles. They discuss it with their men asking, do you ever feel different at different times of the month? Are we saying that women feel differently in relation to sex because of our reproduction? These are the questions that were asked in the 1970s by Shulasmith Firestone and radical feminism. So I think that in order to understand that contradiction and the hypocrisy, we must see that there was a physical freedom that they enjoyed together in the bedroom that would be a counterbalance to all the crap that was going on in the public domain.

With him she had the permissibility of appetite, which is so key for women.

RH:     Yes, that’s a beautiful expression, I’m going to nick that.

That was [George Bernard] Shaw’s view of course, that the key to Eleanor and Aveling’s relationship was sex. But there’s something more perhaps, which I think Thompson implies in his review of the Kapp. His argument is that Eleanor has to take responsibility, too, for some of what Aveling got up to: Aveling bought the corsage, but she wore it.

RH:     Why does everyone say that? She wore one corsage. Most of the corsages were worn by actresses.

But more interesting than the questions about the American trip – and whether money was nicked or not – along with possibly a happy sex life with Aveling, there is their joint repudiation of bourgeois morality. The sense that in bohemianism – you were describing those four unmarried people having a fake honeymoon – there were freedoms and a subversiveness that broke free of the corseted mind and the corseted body. The hotels and the corsages and the expensive tobacco Aveling brought her, his relish of the pleasures in life, these are all part of his bohemian individualism. He had a free and roaming appetite that she could see, admire and possibly want to claim for herself.

RH:     And was in tension with her politics, with her da. She was trying to work out where does my feminism sit?

Where, then, do the whole politics sit?

RH:     It is a really important aspect of Aveling’s personality. He is a very charming bohemian and she moves in and out of these circles. Also, they work together, they travel together. But there’s another aspect which seems clear to me: what do our mothers and grandmothers visit on us by bringing us up as little girls in households where we see we must stand by our man? That’s what Helene Demuth and Jenny Marx taught her.

And the Burns sisters to some extent, standing by Engels, if from a position of less power.

RH:     Although they got much the better of it. They weren’t ground down by it. But this question returns me to something else: the role that we as women play, particularly as mothers of sons and wives of husbands. This system would not continue unless we collaborated with it and propagated it. There’s no doubt that Eleanor is brought up with this model. But bear in mind that Marx was calumniated, people saying, oh he’s getting all those millions of pounds from the international. She’d grown up with that all her life and knew it wasn’t true. So when she hears about Aveling, unfortunately she makes the wrong decision. The question then arises: if we are in trouble in our relationships in a gendered way, is this because we are repeating the behaviour demonstrated to us by our mothers? If part of that behaviour is, how do you escape?  – the question becomes, where are her alternative models? Her mother was very keen for her to escape but she didn’t demonstrate to her how to do it.

There’s also the division between Victorian morals and the bohemianism that was spreading at this moment with, as you say, men like Ellis and Shaw, and women like her friend, Amy Levy. You can see all sorts of people struggling to live in new and different ways, but falling into the kinds of problems that didn’t really get articulated on the left until the 1960s. By then you finally get a critique of the bohemian world, and the different degrees of freedom it accorded to men and women. In Eleanor’s lifetime, there are vastly different reactions to two friends of Eleanor’s, [Edith] Nesbit/Bland and [Edith] Lanchester, and to the men they are involved with. For women trying to live in a more free and bohemian fashion there were great dangers of exposure, lack of protection and the possibility even of being incarcerated, as Lanchester was, for loving who she wanted. All of this Marx struggled with, and it’s this battle with convention in her private life, together with the war she waged on a public stage, that make her so modern.

RH:     Feels a bit ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies.

But those things are there. You can trace them from Eleanor’s time through to the Parisian left bank of the Twenties, and they carry on among intellectuals and artists, particularly those intellectuals and artists who flirted with communism in one form or another. What’s interesting is that you can see her being entrapped in all this and yet being aware that there are other possibilities for women.

RH:     It’s interesting that you mention Amy Levy in that she stands out from that group in being fairly openly lesbian.

Yes, that is what I was thinking about.

RH:     And there’s a really important aspect in that. It’s not just a patriarchal refusenik position – though that is important because it re-positioned social relations between men and women. Schreiner found [Samuel] Cronwright and he was a good husband for Olive – look, he took her name. But that relationship between Eleanor and Olive, well let’s just say that there were many women who were in love with Eleanor…

In your book you say that May Morris hankered after her.

RH:     Yes. We know the whole Lillian Faderman thing, Surpassing the Love of Men, and how we can’t know [about relations between women] because these things are not documented. Still, there are some interesting silences in the letters between them. But this is Engels’ question: in any revolution or social movement the question of free love will arise and how does it affect people differently? In some ways we are still struggling with that.

In terms of the broader group of women around Eleanor, there is the John Stokes book which looks at Constance Garnett, her sister Clementina Black, Edith Lees Ellis, May Morris, Amy, Olive, Dollie Radford, etc. Yet in your biography, although she’s one of the best-connected people of the late nineteenth century, she also seems such an isolated figure, no doubt because she’s carrying such a heavy mantle. There is one moment of camaraderie that stands out, when a group of women including Marx, Schreiner, Radford and Ellis stand together on the pavement outside the Novelty Theatre after watching the first public performance in Britain of A Doll’s House, feeling “restive and savage”, elated that they’ve witnessed something world-changing. How much do you feel she has a sense of herself connected to or supported by those female contemporaries?

RH:     I think it’s how you read it. There’s a really important questions about how you write history – the writing of the public and the private life. It is perfectly acceptable still to write biographies of great male political figures and for there to be only four references in the index to the wife of thirty years, if even the names of his children. Two things about this interest me. One is, what kept Eleanor going? We focus on the tragedy of Aveling but that relationship with her women friends was important. They were in and out of each other’s houses. It’s like your relationship with your girls’ group that keeps you going. The other thing, and you have put your finger on it, is that there is a strong sense of isolation. It’s partly the Marx mantle, but also for me – and this is where it’s not patriarchal shadowing – is that she has that isolation of the political leader. I recognize it, because I have a couple of people in my life who are like this. They have a very intimate group of friends, but as radicals, outliers, leaders who are public speaking, moving from here to there, working in a collective and communal way with programmes and organizations, being much in demand, there is a sense that they are isolated as a result of their leadership position, of being the stand-out person who defines and leads and takes the risks.

And in that leadership isolation there is often an aspect of anointment.

RH:     Yeah, that’s interesting,

You can read it in many different ways. You might be critical of the certainty which  Eleanor and perhaps all of the daughters of Marx had. But then you need to recognize the determination necessary for any leader to enact something. When I think about the socialist leaders that I knew in the ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties, that sense of rightness about the direction in which they were going, often when they were totally wrong, it was usually men who had it. It’s much rarer for women to display that optimism of the will, that conviction of your own rightness as a primary motivating force.

RH:     You refer to your own context. My point of view is from growing up in apartheid South Africa at the time of a real hardcore, racist, totalitarian regime. So I grew up with leaders, whether they were Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on the island and so isolated in so many ways: Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe or Desmond Tutu. These were all people who had family around them, allies, but you have put your finger on it, it’s the unerring sense of rightness, the sense that “I am absolutely convinced that this is what is necessary to overthrow this form of slavery, this is absolutely critical for now” – and with it, there is a sense of isolation around the leader of people. I think it’s such an interesting aspect of Eleanor that tells us something about how compelling she was. I play this Russian roulette game with myself. The great hand of the biographer god comes down from the sky and says, I’m going to give you an hour with Eleanor Marx and you have a choice. You can have an hour watching her deliver one of her May day rally speeches in Hyde Park, with 150,000 other workers, or you can have an hour with her in the pub or in her house, with no stays on, drinking a bottle of something and chatting. Of course in writing the book, it’s the public and the private, but in the game, which one would you choose? Because both would equally fascinate.

You’re thinking about the purposes of biography, about how you can get people to engage with this person imaginatively, but also which aspects of her life you select in order to honour her as she was, as far as you can ascertain. The Kapp biography has the air of things being set in stone. What you’re describing could be imagined as a computer game. How do you draw people who know nothing of the history of the left, to the life of Eleanor Marx? How do you keep fidelity to that now largely unknown movement, while bringing this woman out in her own right, as someone who can speak to today? Is it her pioneering modernity that is the key thing which will engage people? It’s complicated to know how much of that we should try to take forward and what we should jettison as something we are projecting back onto her. You can do a disservice by pulling someone out of their context and trying to make them accessible. How much are you tailoring someone for now, how much are you pandering?

RH:     Thinking about the Kapp, I loved it because it was so informative. But for any movement of our sort, to have a sacrosanct text tells me that we’re in trouble. It’s very much not in the spirit of Eleanor Marx. You question every text that you engage with. But part of what is so great about the Kapp, and what is different about it, is that she gives this whole context of social history which is not focused on Eleanor individually.

Yes, Thompson points out that Eleanor herself gets lost for a 150 pages while Engels takes over the story.

RH:     Whereas in my book, she’s on every page.

The reason for things becoming sacred is the desire to defend what is constantly under attack or under threat of disappearance. Today there are the new forces pushing our feminism and internationalism. So perhaps you have to try to relate Eleanor to those new forces.

RH:     To me, I am quite an old lefty. I did a speech for UN Women on the origins of International Women’s Day and I spoke about Clara Zetkin and Eleanor Marx and the Second International [in 1889]. That’s how my feminism works. It’s a direct political line from the two of them putting forward that motion demanding the establishment of an International Women’s Day, to when Zetkin says, we are going to take this forward [the first IWD on was held on 8.3 1911]. I think the intellectual and political histories are quite consistent.

I also wrote an article about the legacy of Eleanor Marx and Rachel Holmes’s new biography for Guernica: The Individual Complexity of Eleanor Marx.


Conversations about Eleanor Marx: Kamila Shamsie


Kamila Shamsie (@kamilashamsie) is a novelist: Burnt Shadows (2009) and A God in Every Stone (2014) are her most recent books. She was one of Granta’s Best of Young Novelists in 2013.

When did you first become aware of Eleanor Marx? Did you have some sense of her in Pakistan or America?

KS:      No, I was unfamiliar with her before reading Rachel Holmes’s biography.

What, in particular, interests you about her?

KS:      I was looking at the suffragette movement and getting disturbed by the fact that quite a lot of women who were involved in suffragette activity, and were very brave, were also terrible when it came to internationalism. Someone like Mrs Pankhurst, who we think of as the matriarch of the suffragette movement, was very gung-ho about war and empire once the First World War started. There was this real failure to connect the struggles of women for their rights with the struggles of people from other countries for their rights. I find it incredible disturbing to have to encounter this – which of course you see in contemporary form with people who are very good on feminism in their own country, but then have an inability to see beyond the borders of where they live. One of the things that really appeals to me in Eleanor Marx is that ability to see how all these things are interconnected. If you’re a feminist, it’s not just about, “I am a woman and therefore I believe this”, you’re fighting against structural injustice, and you must fight against it wherever you see it, whether it’s in class terms, in gender terms or in the relation of countries to one another.

In your interview with Rachel Holmes in Guernica you talk about this. How that toxic strain in the women’s movement goes from its origins right up to the present, when, today, feminism is used as a means of supporting war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

KS:      It comes from a very patronizing attitude and an inability to see that you’re supporting one form of inequality and injustice under the cover of another source of inequality and injustice: it just doesn’t make sense. That’s why figures like Eleanor Marx are important, and a generation later, someone who admired her, Sylvia Pankhurst. These women have proper joined-up thinking. If you’re engaged in fights against injustice, then it has to be in all its different forms and you can’t back one while trying to fight another. It’s a basic idea but it seems to be beyond the comprehension of a great many people.

It’s obviously a real danger in feminism and something that needs to be examined. Is there a part of Eleanor’s story that you find particularly instructive?

KS:      For me, as a writer, one of the things that’s very appealing in her is that her deep love of politics was married to a deep love of literature. So often we think of the arts as something separate, or doing something quietly in the corner that no one’s paying attention to, and she was someone for whom Ibsen was central to the way she thought about the question of gender. She was involved in theatrical and literary endeavours and didn’t see that as separate, but understood this is all part of how you talk about the culture of a place. Ideas are disseminated through the form of culture.

She didn’t see this as a lesser form of politics.

KS:        Yes, she didn’t see it as a luxury or indulgence. She didn’t think, “When I’ve sorted people’s rights with the Trade Unions, then there’ll be time to sit and read some Ibsen.” There was a way in which she tried to do it all, it was all interwoven for her.

Her efforts to help improve the literacy of some of the union organizers she worked with, was obviously related to this. She had a great love of literature and understood not just the functional need to be able to read and write, but the potential for liberation and joy in literature.

KS:      Absolutely. I don’t think we can take cultural action out of the equation. Maybe culture had ceded too much ground. But this is very much worth thinking about today.

Well certainly historically, that’s what happened with the left. But with a new generation of activists, the arts seem to be one of the few areas of action they are happy to employ, sensing that it is less polluted. Especially on the hard left, there was a notion that culture was a supplementary thing in politics. But the new generation of activists – in Occupy, the Indignados and the Arab Uprisings – seem to feel that art is their only form of expression because they see traditional forms of politics as having become so corrupt.

KS:      Well I hope they don’t see it as the only form. But I remember when the revolution was taking place in Libya, a Libyan friend of mine showed me a video of people in Benghazi all singing a song that had been written by a young man three days earlier. It had done the rounds, everyone knew it and they were all singing this revolutionary song. These are moments when you are reminded of the power certain forms of cultural expression can have.

Yes, and street art has been important in Egypt and in Turkey. From Gezi Park, some of the most arresting images are photographs of a protest where people stood and read books in the face of armed troops.

Kamila shamsie

If you think about Eleanor Marx as a character she seems to display the whole range of female pathology: anorexia, depression, entrapment and suicide. This Victorian drama of female confinement still exerts an incredible pull on women’s imagination today. I wonder why you think that might be? It seems as if we’ve not come very far.

KS:      Yes, so much of that is still current: suicide, depression, getting stuck with the wrong partner, the one who will leave you for someone else. It’s much more likely to be a man doing that to a woman than the other way around. These circumstances have at their root the fact that we live, and have lived as we look back through history, in a deeply patriarchal world. All these things you’re talking about – and I don’t mean to imply that men don’t suffer from depression too, obviously not – but there are very particular ways in which so much of this comes out of being in a very patriarchal world where you are living with injustice of one kind or another every day. And there are expectations and norms that surround you which, if you’re a woman of intelligence, as Eleanor is, you can see them. It’s one thing to see them, but if you understand this and still can’t entirely fight your way out of it, that makes it even more intolerable – it’s too much, patriarchy is that deep.

And yet in the west a lot of what Eleanor was fighting for, women have now achieved: an 8 hour day, access to education and the professions, the vote, freely available contraception. These are quite fundamental things in terms of women’s ability to control their own lives. And yet we still seem to be locked in the same Victorian psychodrama.

KS:      I think what’s happened is that there have been accommodations within patriarchy, rather than the overthrowing of it. If you look at a parallel in terms of empire: in the early days of empire, what the colonized were asking for were more rights within empire. That’s where feminism is today, and has been in most of its forms: “Give us rights, give us equal access to education.” Yes, you can get in the professions, but how many women are in those professions, how many women are on the boards of companies, how many women earn as much as men. It hasn’t changed. You get so far, and you think therefore that you’re no longer within this structure of patriarchy, then you hit a point beyond which you can’t go, and realize, “Oh, I’m still there.” To continue with the analogy, there’s a difference in saying, “We want more rights within the empire”, and saying, “The empire has to go”. Until you get to that point, regardless of how much you achieve – and even though contraception, education, equal pay, rights enshrined in law are fantastically important – things won’t really change. We’re at a very early stage. People talk about late feminism and feminism having won pretty much everything it needed to but we’re actually within the very early stages, because we’re still saying “Give us rights within the existing structure.”

Another way of looking at this is that a lot of those problems that Eleanor experienced among working class people, during her involvement in the dock strike, the Bryant and May matchgirls strike, and in Silvertown, have just been exported. There is still child labour, still higher rates of female illiteracy, just not over in the East End or in Manchester on our own back door.

KS:      And yet some of those things are still at our back door. Just yesterday in the papers I read about how the gap between rich and poor is now wider than it’s ever been.

Yes, Piketty’s data.

KS:      Although certain things have changed, that fundamental economic inequality has got worse.

In the Guernica discussion you quote Sayantani DasGupta on the ways in which feminism has been used as an imperial tool. Given this, you’re speculating about the possibility of international cooperation between women who have very different levels of power and resources. Particularly when some women begin from a ‘West is Best’ assumption. You end up with a question: is the relationship between first and third world women one of sisterhood or imperialism?

KS:      My answer is of course, you can have, and have had sisterhood across nations, but the first belief that has to go is that feminism is a western export. As long as women believe that feminism is a western export, that it belongs to this part of the world, which understands it better and has an obligation to take it somewhere else, things will never change, because if you’re the one exporting, then there’s a kind of control that you have.

That’s a precise repetition of the colonial model, isn’t it?

KS:      Yes, it’s very much the colonial model. Whereas my grandmother was a member of parliament in India in the 1930s so I’m hysterical with laughter when people tell me this. She was corresponding with feminists in Turkey about how to get women more engaged in politics because the idea that these things went together made perfect sense to her. So the idea that feminism is something the West is taking elsewhere is totally ludicrous to me. You need to begin with a starting position that wherever you are from you have to know that other people understand their own countries better than you do, they understand the structure of power they are living under better than you do. So the questions becomes is there some kind of support they need from you – which very often there will be because you do need cooperation across borders because politically countries are so entwined, there may well be times when someone in Afghanistan will say to someone in the UK, this is what you can usefully do at your end.

There was a young white woman who once asked Malcolm X what she could do to support the struggle for black civil rights in America, and he said, “Nothing”. He was discounting the possibility of solidarity until white people had examined their own situation. Perhaps this is what feminists in the west have to do: look much more carefully at the international dimension of their own lives.

KS:      Yes, it isn’t only a matter of what you can do elsewhere, but look at your own political situation. What is your country doing in relation to other countries of the world? How is that creating situations that allows certain things to happen? If your country is propping up dictators, as it has been, maybe you should look to the effect that has on everything, including the position of women. Yes, that first look should be not so much going to another place and feeling like a fairy godmother who has landed from heaven, but looking from within and seeing how you are. How is your nation reacting with these other nations, and is there a detrimental effect being caused that has a knock-on effect on the women elsewhere? Look at that first.

The election results in India today indicate we are witnessing the rise of nationalism, there and also across the world, combined with an increase in politics of personality cult – which historically is often how nationalism is fomented. Eleanor Marx was critical of the British left and trade union movement for its tendency to parochialism and sometimes xenophobia. Do you think this is still the case?

KS:      The position you have to find is the one where you are not being parochial, where you are being an internationalist in your outlook. But I’d make a distinction between an internationalist and an interventionist. Eleanor going to America to talk to trade unionists there, I don’t think of her as being an interloper. She was invited to work with local trade unions: she goes there, she speaks, there’s enough commonality, she’s dealing with people who are already in there doing the work. She never pretends she can parachute in with answers. It’s more a question of: how can we enact solidarity?

Solidarity and curiosity. She’s interested in how these people are faring, how they are organizing, how their struggle compares with others – which is the opposite of the interventionist mode, where people are blinkered and often simply not interested enough in how other people live.

KS:      And I keep coming back to this. We talk of nationalism, but within those nationalisms people are always dealing with other countries. So when you look at how your country deals with other countries that becomes a form of internationalism. I need to consider not only what’s happening in my back yard, but what we’re doing in everyone else’s back yard. Particularly when you come from a country with a democratically elected government, you have a responsibility to look at what the government you voted in is doing elsewhere.

Conversations about Eleanor Marx: Shami Chakrabarti


Shami Chakrabarti, a barrister, is the director of the British civil liberties organisation, Liberty and was an adviser to the Leveson Inquiry. She is Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and writes regularly for the British and overseas press. 

Tell me when you first heard of Eleanor Marx?

SC:      I have a vague recollection of Karl Marx having a youngest daughter but never got to grips with her personality and contribution. I think this is quite an important moment.


SC:      Since the last general election there’s an unspoken feminist concern. There were women of all parties saying, “Why are there no women speaking here?” There was the banking collapse and the left asking, “Where are we?” Rachel Homes’s book comes along at an opportune moment because the void hasn’t been filled. It’s easy to grapple with these things with no sense of history. I don’t think that Eleanor Marx has had her due. Not just in terms of here’s a great woman who hasn’t been appropriately honoured, I mean in terms of learning what there is to be done from her contribution.

What does she mean to you?

SC:      Rachel might not be grateful for me saying this but her great genius is that she’s a historian who writes like a novelist. You read it and think, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen next?” You think you’re reading a great novel that’s about to be turned into a TV mini series, but it all happened and it’s all been very diligently researched. It’s historically true but gripping in terms of drama and humanity. We love that she’s Karl Marx’s younger daughter, we love her pluck, we love her spark, we are moved by her tragic romantic choices – it’s the stuff of great drama but also great politics. The book rehabilitates a brilliant woman who didn’t have her due in history and was so much more than Marx’s youngest daughter or secretary. She had so much to say in her own right. Even more important is the narrative.

My career has been about being a grim and worthy lawyer and political campaigner, but I always thought that it would be stories that shaped the narrative, the campaigns and the agendas. This book proves my point. I believe more people will be moved politically, women in particular, by reading Eleanor’s story, than by reading a thousand Comment pieces from me about how our rights and freedoms are important, and how internationalism is important, how feminism is important. You just have to tell a story. And this is a story that is gripping and romantic, devastating and uplifting, tragic but also historically true, which is what’s so fantastic about it.

It’s interesting what you’re saying about biographical narrative being what grips and moves us now.

SC:      We’re storytelling creatures. It’s Aesop’s Fables and fairy tales. This is how we listen and how we learn. And the great political campaigners are those doing storytelling. In the modern world everything goes into silos: we have fact and we have fiction, politics and the arts, it all gets compartmentalized, but actually we are a bunch of relatively basic creatures who want to sit around the camp fire with a drum listening to stories. It’s not about facts, but progress and our values. The beauty of something like this is that you’re reading it and you don’t really care if it’s true or not. Eleanor Marx is a big figure in history and yet a forgotten figure in history. A lot of people reading the book don’t really know if it’s true or not.

Why do you think she’s so little known?

SC:      Because she’s a woman!

But it’s more specific. There are a lot of women lost to history who haven’t had their due, but even in the feminist movement Eleanor Marx has been neglected. Why do you think that is?

SC:      Because even in the feminist movement she suffers from being Karl Marx’s daughter. We should all be ashamed of that on the left and right of politics. Karl Marx is this celebrated and demonized figure, and the feminist movement has its own ambivalence about its place on the left. There’s a whole conversation here. If feminists are just left-wing, then they are not going to [let anyone] overshadow Karl Marx. If feminists are capable of being right of centre as well, then they are not going to go to Karl Marx’s daughter. So there’s every reason for not celebrating Eleanor Marx and yet there’s every reason for so doing. It’s a classic example of: woman is anonymous.

The idea of men and women working together in intellectual comradeship was at the heart of what Eleanor Marx believed, yet she was ensnared in the sexual hypocrisy of the men she loved most, in the lies that Marx, Engels and Aveling told about their sex lives. Where do you think we are today on this: can men and women work together or should women liberate themselves?

SC:      I think that it’s embarrassing that we’re not further forward, if I’m honest.

In terms of women’s equality or in terms of women and men being able to work together?

SC:      Both. You can’t work together confidently and appropriately together with men if you haven’t got your own confidence and your own equality further advanced. You can’t work together from the position of victimhood. I’m a human rights campaigner, I believe in human rights for human beings. I believe that we’re all in this together, but structures and power as they are, we will not do justice to the human rights movement, let alone the feminist movement, if women are not further organized and further advanced.

Another way that Eleanor Marx looked at this was to say, “it’s not the woman question, it’s the sex question.” It’s not just something women have to deal with, men have to look at themselves, too.

SC:      I think she’s so visionary. This is why it’s so great. It’s a human problem, not, “We are a bunch of victims, give us our rights.” It’s a much bigger, more visionary feel, which is about looking at the world and the human race and the structures of power and how men and women are equally enslaved by patriarchy. Eleanor Marx is saying this 150 years ago, and I’m trying to grapple with its now, and so are you.

She’s more revolutionary…

SC:      …she’s more revolutionary than her father. That’s the truth. This is why you’re right to ask, why is she not more famous on the left and on the right? Because the structures that make Karl Marx either a genius or a devil are the patriarchal structures that affect both left and right, and they are not capable of recognizing his daughter.

You were suggesting that right wing women may have something to learn from Eleanor Marx – which I’m sure they do – but they’re not going to agree with the basic revolutionary proposition…

SC:      …yes, but left wing women have something to learn, too. So many left wing women will not talk to Tory MPs or whatever. If they don’t know what needs to be done, then my heart breaks; if women cannot unite across party parameters even now, then we’re screwed, aren’t we?


There are some women who I’ve been talking to, the novelist, Kamila Shamsie, for instance, who’ve looked to the early suffragette movement, and seen that at the point of the First World War many women abandoned the question of women’s rights and turned into supporters of empire. The feminist movement has been appropriated at different times and women have failed to connect the struggle for feminist rights with the struggles of other people elsewhere. Kamila related this to more recent times when the question of women’s rights has been used as part of the justification for war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Your point that we should all talk to one another is right, but you also have to address these political divisions.

SC:      Yes. Here’s my thesis for what it’s worth. Proposition no 1: gender injustice is probably the biggest injustice in the world. I don’t run a feminist organization, I run a human rights organization called Liberty, as you know. But now in my mid-forties, I look at the world and I look at the balance sheet, and my view is that in Britain and all around the world, gender injustice is the biggest injustice. It’s like an apartheid that isn’t limited to one country, or one continent, or one era, it’s an injustice that goes back thousands of years and is spread all over the world. My second proposition is that we as women are not dealing with this – understandably – because we live in families and communities and all those structures, and we compromise with them. It’s the injustice of the bedroom, and the living room and all the rest of it. I’m not suggesting that feminist solidarity is the be all and end all, and that we shouldn’t be concerned about other kinds of injustice. But I am suggesting that if we cross this barrier more often, I think we could have better conversations about all sorts of other things. They invade countries on the back of feminism and the constitutions that come out of it are not remotely feminist. This will not change until women themselves say, I love my husband and my son and my father and my community and my country, but there is this big injustice in the world. Men, too, because they have daughters and sisters and so on. In my view, this is the greatest injustice in the world and it’s taken me my whole adult life to get to this point. But it’s an injustice which crosses class, national and political boundaries. It’s gone on for so long that changing it just a little would have a huge impact on everything else: on nationalism, equality, peace and sustainability. It’s such an entrenched issue, let’s mix it up a little and see what happens.

I agree. However you do have this problem of women in the west who use the idea of female solidarity as a reason for invading countries or to evangelize what they believe are their superior political beliefs.

SC:      Then we need the other voices. If they are the only people talking in the room, that’s our fault.

So the answer is greater representation and greater internationalism? We have to open up the room?

SC:      Yes, because I am an internationalist. Not everybody is, including some people on the left. It’s a big question. I’m a human rights person and not someone who believes in right for freeborn English people, the ties that bind and all that. Because the ultimate ties that bind are those of humanity. Gender issues are the keys to the kingdom: every man that’s ever abused a woman, or put down a woman, this man has a mother, sister, daughter, wife, yet he’s done it anyway. This is the system and women have not been best at facing up to that. We have responsibilities too. I have a son and no daughters and I know the awesome responsibility that flows from that. So there we have it. Eleanor Marx, as great a thinker as her father, better organizer than her father, an internationalist, a trade unionist, a feminist visionary and forgotten until this particular book.

We have to be careful. There have been two other biographies, and there are cultural historians like Sheila Rowbotham and Elaine Showalter who have written about her and promoted her life.

SC:      But I think Rachel has done us all a favour in that she’s written something that isn’t grim and worthy, she’s written a rip-roaring biography. Forgive me, I’m a scratchy campaigner, I gave up legal practice in order to attempt to be an activist and a campaigner.

Can you say something about what internationalism means practically in an organization like Liberty?

SC:      There is a choice. The Conservative Party are saying we should scrap the Human Rights Convention, but we mustn’t worry because there will be a British Bill of Rights which will protect British people – and given the way things are going in Scotland, maybe only English people. So you can have a nationalist answer. Look at the US with Guantanamo Bay, and they get away with that in the name of protecting Americans. Everyone will protect their own nationals only. Then there are [the cases of] Snowden and Guantanamo Bay, which demonstrate the way governments cooperate with one another in a dirty trade in our own people’s rights and freedoms. If we choose the nationalist route where we protect only our own, and other people’s nationals will be interned without trial, will be extraordinarily rendered, will be intruded upon à la Snowden, then we basically have a world in which nobody is protected. This is an interconnected world, there is global cooperation between governments and there is the internet. Internationalism is more important today than ever because of the shrinking nature of the planet. It’s very simple: do you want to be a foreigner nearly everywhere in the world or do you want to be a human being everywhere? Choose between English rights and human rights. I’m telling you if you choose English rights, then you choose citizen’s privileges which can be revoked in a heartbeat or traded away by your government because you are choosing a privilege that is given to you by the government of the day.

So what do we have to do to strengthen these international human rights? Are international bodies, which often seem so distant from our lives, the only answer?

SC:      We have to organize from the bottom up. International bodies are not always doing their best by us, but what we have to do in our countries is to make sure that our governments don’t walk away from the table. We have people right now in Britain saying, let’s scrap the European Convention on Human Rights and let’s pull out of the Human Rights Act. That’s on the table and it needs to be resisted.

How do we build from the bottom up?

SC:      People just need to understand what they have to lose. They need to know what’s in the European Convention and in the Human Rights Act and why we ended up with these things, what happened in the holocaust, what happened in the Blitz, why we have the European Convention, the Declaration of Human Rights, why nationalism is not going to do the trick for ordinary people. Powerful interests cooperate all over the world: governments, multi-national corporations, organized criminals for heavens sake! Powerful people understand the need to cooperate and ordinary people need to cooperate too.

But how do they do that? Through the internet? Through community organizations?

SC:      Partly. We haven’t got much by way of an international legal framework but we do have the Universal Declaration, the ECHR. Isn’t it interesting that the only people campaigning to dismantle these things are the most powerful organizations in the world: mega news corporations, governments. Nationalism is being promoted by powerful interests at the expense of the vulnerable. Eleanor Marx was right about lots of things but she was most right in her internationalism. The truly visionary contribution of Eleanor Marx was internationalism.

Conversations about Eleanor Marx: Paul Mason


Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) is the Economics Editor of Channel 4 News. His books are Live Working, Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, and a novel, Rare Earth. 

When did you first hear about Eleanor Marx and why does she matter to you?

PM:     When I first got involved with politics in the early ‘Eighties there was no really good humanist biography of Marx himself so a lot of us read Yvonne Kapp’s life of Eleanor Marx, especially the first volume, as a way of educating ourselves in the social context of Marx, Engels, their circle, and early social democracy in Britain. The one thing you came away with from that biography was the understanding that Eleanor was the link between the Marx of Marx, and the Marxism of the early labour movement. She was a physical link. She goes and lectures in America, she gets involved in the dock strike and the matchgirls strike, and had some authority in the labour movement at that time.

So what are your thoughts about what you’ve been able to glean of Rachel Holmes‘s new biography?

PM:     Let me say this first. One thing about Eleanor Marx is that her internationalism was a working class internationalism and her feminism was a working class feminism. Whether you agree with those things or not, that’s what she stood for. What that means, translated into today’s terms is that people working on that World Cup venue in Qatar, under very bad conditions, have more in common with workers in Britain, than they do with their own bosses. Or, an example from Eleanor’s time, were the Irish workers in the docks. English and Irish and Jewish workers in the East End were set against each other. Proletarian internationalism meant they had more in common with each other than they had with the bosses of their own communities. We have to understand that that’s what internationalism meant. It wasn’t a vague desire for world peace and harmony. It was the understanding that all workers in the world are the enemies of all the rich. It’s there, too, in her feminism. I think the new biography captures that very well. It understands that what she said is that middle class women are right to fight against their middle class men, but working class women should fight alongside ‘their’ men, because they have a common enemy.

When you talk to activists and protesters around the world now, do you feel that people understand Eleanor’s version of internationalism?

PM:     I think, obviously, except in a few places, the days when internationalism simply meant working class cross-border fraternity are in the past. But one legacy of socialists like Eleanor Marx is to understand, as she did, as indeed Marx did, that class struggle is not all about economics: it’s about gender oppression, national oppression, racism. You find in all these lectures she’s doing as she goes around in the USA after the Haymarket massacre, around Britain, talking about women – when you get to 1888/9 and the matchgirls strike, the Great Unrest of British trade unionism, she’s understanding, as are her Fabian colleagues, that the key issues are social. So it’s women’s oppression in the workplace, anti-Irish racism, anti-Jewish racism,she’s attuned to all that. So much of Marxism in the twentieth century became a caricature which reduced itself to economics. The Marxism of Marx, and of Eleanor Marx who was the first authentic Marxist in the world, because she learnt it at source, was much more rounded.

You interviewed her father a while back in the New Statesman, trying to get him to explain the current state of the global economy. If you were to interview Eleanor tomorrow what questions would you ask in order to get her to throw light on how we’re living now?

PM:     I would say, “Eleanor Marx you lived through a period when the left transformed from being tiny groups of mainly artists to mass parties in the space of ten years: what did it feel like and how did you do it?” Because I think that would be the most relevant question. Although I think that it’s great that we have a new biography, with a new exploration of the source material, that there’s more source in there than there was in Yvonne Kapp.

My sense is that what’s important about Holmes’s book is not so much that there’s a terrific amount of new material, but that there’s a new interpretation.

PM:     She does go to the odd personal detail, it’s good that we’ve got that. But one of my criticisms of it is, is that I don’t think it tells us enough about the labour movement that Eleanor Marx was part of. At times, it’s almost as if you could just put the words Vanessa Bell or Virginia Woolf in there – ie it’s all about a woman and her circle: men who like her, men who don’t like her, people she gets on with, people she meets – that’s all very good, but Eleanor Marx met tens of thousands of people because she was an orator and an activist. I do think we slightly miss the Eleanor Marx of the relentless meeting. It’s fair enough to say she had this meeting schedule in America, but if we don’t know what happened in each of the meetings – and obviously we don’t have reports of all of them – but what I want to know is when she goes to Boston, what is the ethnic make-up of the crowd likely to have been?  What newspapers was it advertised in? There’s a lot more to be written, in other words, about Eleanor Marx the political activist. We’ve got well-documented lives of some political activists, like Emma Goldman, because they wrote more, and they survived. The interest for me as a labour historian is situating her in the middle of this amazing changing international labour movement. And sometimes [in the new biography] episodes from that movement simply pop up. She does this speech on the anniversary of the Paris Commune about 15 years later, and it is pointed out that she’s the only one who talks about women – that’s great because the social and gender revolution that went on in the Commune is the real revolution – but I want to know, how did she know? Who were her friends? Which of the anarchists and Marxists that had been returned from exile did she talk to in London? Because of the census, we know where nearly every one of them lived. So we could maybe track down: how many streets away from Eleanor and Edward Aveling did Louise Michel live?

Well, I guess with the Kapp and the Holmes, you’re getting the biography for the time you’re living in.

PM:     Kapp’s biography is influenced by the orthodox Marxist, ie Stalinist-dominated labour movement and it tells that story.

And this tells the story of an individual and a pioneering modernist.

PM:     This tells the story of an individual, a free-thinking woman who wanted to be an actress, and that element of it will appeal to people involved in Occupy. And when Holmes starts talking about Ibsen, it’s one of the best bits of it I think. To have understood Ibsen in his time and to have said, “I don’t understand why people can’t get Ibsen, there are no happy endings.” To say that shortly after the first performance of an Ibsen play was quite insightful. And we get that from this new biography.


Can we explore the idea of her as a pioneering modernist, pushing at the doors of bohemia? She had that formative experience in France in her teens during the Commune and you can see her drawn to those freedoms that working class women had – expressed by women taking control in the Commune, or the Burns sisters wandering around without corsets and drinking in the afternoon. But she’s still trapped by a Victorian bourgeois conformity that’s so terrified of women not being respectable. So Beatrice Webb calls Eleanor a woman beyond the pale and she in turn says the same thing about Louise Michel. I think there is more to say not just about the details of who was where, but about Eleanor’s trap: how women were caught by the hypocrisy of Victorian morality but also, crucially, by the double standards of bohemia.

PM:     The picture painted of her of as a bohemian actress-manqué is an accurate one, and one that we can understand better now we understand history as the lives of individuals and not classes and their representatives: that’s good.  But in the end, the whole Social Democratic Federation, the early left in the 1880s and 90s was engaged in doing one thing. And that one thing was breaking out of bohemia and into the massive working class movement that it then helped to create. That is what we’ll remember them for, even the slight idiots like [Henry] Hyndman and Aveling himself. That’s what we’ll remember that they did.

But it’s not so much Hyndman. The bigger problem is people who weren’t “idiots”, like Morris and others, who left behind the whole question of their creativity when they moved towards building a working class movement.

PM:     It’s hard for us to know, but they may have felt that that was their contribution. We now can see creativity and activism as going alongside each other because you can create in the morning and do activity in the evening, as it were. But they were faced with a choice: are we utopians dreaming of a better future in a mini-utopian bohemia? Or do we wanna’ go to the East End and get jobs in factories, as Beatrice Potter/Webb did, or address mass meetings and actually change something. Having made that transition then what is there left of bohemia? I don’t think the book ever gets to the bottom of what Eleanor’s unhappiness was. I don’t think it ever explains to us why, having been this vibrant, amazing person, she then becomes a stunted person – apart from her relationship with Aveling.

I disagree. I think there’s quite a good description of the problem for women of the political and public versus the private realm. Eleanor was brought up partly psychologically as a boy and she seems to have had most success in the public sphere. But in the personal, she has the whole panoply of female pathology: anorexia, depression, entrapment, suicide attempts and a father and lover who lied to her. That’s not an unrecognizable story, it fits into a still all-too familiar narrative of many women’s lives.  Indeed, many of the women I’ve talked to relate strongly to her struggle to work effectively in the public realm against just such a background of personal disaster.

PM:     Yup, that’s right. That’s the part Kapp doesn’t quite get. I should say, as a woman activist and a political figure in her own right, it’s still a mystery why what we came to see as classic Freudian pathologies overtake her and maybe it is because the [people in the] labour movement had to make a choice.

Like Wollstoncraft and other women before her, one of the things Eleanor said repeatedly was that what she wanted most between men and women was frankness.

PM:     Yes she does.

But despite this she became entrapped in the sexual dissembling of her father and her lover, covering the tracks of their affairs. I suppose one of the questions to ask is: do you think we’ve achieved anything like the kind of frankness that she was looking for?

PM:     Well I think that if you were to draw a graph of frankness or sexual freedom against the labour movement, it was higher then than it was for much of the twentieth century because once Stalinism and bureaucratic social democracy took over in the mid-twentieth century, effectively, Presbyterian morality took over.

Which only proves the ubiquity of patriarchy: women move from being chastened by Victorian morality – which is why Marx had to lie about his infidelity – to a labour movement morality that also contains and controls women.

PM:     Yes, if she’d lived twenty years later, her class was the exact class that did benefit from the great liberalization of the progressive era. Doesn’t Ellen Terry talk about her at one point? People like Ellen Terry straddle that era, she was already living an amazing, free life.

And there are others around Eleanor, such as Olive Schriener and Amy Levy (though Levy also kills herself), who you can see trying to live that life. But for most of them it doesn’t work out so well as it did by the 1920s.

PM:     If we think about what her relevance is today, she’s one of many women who have thrown themselves against the constraints of both a political life and a personal life. What I think we have to respect in her life is that she saw the political life as more important. She saw it as important to go down to the East End and make up her differences with Annie Besant, who was a bit cranky, in order that those [working] women would have a life. They knew all too well, as did Beatrice Webb, that what those women’s lives were in reality was very, very oppressed. In terms of their family life, in terms of what we would now call child abuse. All of that Webb writes about a lot, though much of it she could never publish, so she writes it in her diary. Webb actually got a job in the factory with the young women. They’re saying: what we can do with the working class is to free them economically and we can have women’s liberation written into the programme of social democracy. Because Bebel wrote his pamphlet, ‘Woman and Socialism’, before Marx-Aveling wrote ‘The Woman Question’. It’s something I always want to remind feminists about now: you can take any quote from either Bebel or Marx-Aveling on women and in terms of the ability to choose your own partner, the ability to live your own life, etc, they are way in advance of most of the practice of the twentieth century labour movement. But again and again and again they fought for those freedoms in the labour movement. What they were absolutely doing was subordinating their own lives to the achievement of programmatic progress for the working class. Because they were surrounded by real bohemians who did the opposite – by actresses, activists, painters, who did live simply to try to create their own personal mini-utopia. It must have been that they understood that there was a choice and they took the choice to sacrifice themselves.

But the problem with that model of self-sacrifice is that it’s one particularly required of women. There may be lip-service to equality, but women’s personal stories are hidden or lost, and the actual lives of the women involved are discounted. The sacrifice, in Eleanor’s case meant that although she had success as a public speaker and union organizer, she also spent much of her time doing the drudgery and the backroom work that’s needed to organize, which men rarely do and which goes unacknowledged. It’s hard to heroise women for their self-sacrifice.

PM:     Yeah, exactly. All I meant by respecting it, is you’ve got to biographically respect it, rather than project your own obsessions. All biographies project the obsessions of their writers upon their subjects. But we’re not going to march around upholding any of the women of that generation as the pioneers of liberation. The ones who really begin to do it are the women ten or fifteen years later. I’m thinking now of somebody like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who comes from the same basic socialist background, she wasn’t working class but was steeped in the New York working class tradition, and they then have more tools. There’s something about the world they are living in that gives them more tools. It’s like what Stefan Zweig writes about in The World of Yesterday: beards disappear, crinolines disappear…

…corsets disappear…

PM:     Well Eleanor had already given up the corset and was noted for that. By 1903 [5 years after Eleanor’s death] we’re talking about an unacknowledged revolution going on in people’s lifestyles. But the 1880s are, I think, a period in which everybody in the world who calls themselves socialist is basically entranced by the sudden possibility of a mass labour movement. You can see it coming: [in America] Haymarket, and the Knights of Labour, the French anarcho-syndicalists, the British dock and matchgirls strike. You can see it happening. You can see it unfolding. It must be like opening a Christmas present. That must have obsessed them to the point where everything is posed around the question of: what are we going to do to make this happen? So, for example, when Eleanor’s going to America, post-Haymarket, I don’t think she thinking, “Ah, it’s all doom and gloom, there’s a massive reaction”. They’re thinking, “Shit, we’re two or three years away from this all blowing up”. As, actually, the very far-sighted activists I was speaking to in advance of the Arab Spring, would say, “We’re not far away from a massive blow-up”: they could see that. Therefore, with hindsight, you have to read these lives in a particular way, according to the history as it unfolded before them.

previously, I interviewed Paul Mason in 2009. It appeared in two parts: Part 1 was published by the British Journalism Review as Neutral Voice, Soul Brother; Part Two, Downturns and Uprisings, is on Nothing is Lost. My review of his third book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, was published by Red Pepper as History in the Making.

Conversations about Eleanor Marx: Zackie Achmat


Zackie Achmat is a South African LGBT and HIV/AIDS activist and filmmaker. He is a founder of Treatment Action Campaign and co-director of  the social justice organisation, Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know).

When did you first hear of Eleanor Marx?

ZA:      That would be in about 1977, I was fifteen and a friend of mine who was an activist and understood feminism showed me a whole range of books on Marx, which included the story of Eleanor. She always said that Eleanor was written out of history. Then, I think it was in the early ‘Eighties when Yvonne Kapp’s biographies were published, my friend Jack Lewis got a copy of those.

Were you living in South Africa at this time?

ZA:      Yes. And most of this literature was banned. You weren’t allowed to have them so you’d store them away so that the police couldn’t find them.

Did these books get passed around between friends?

ZA:      Between activists and friends.

Can you say a bit about what Eleanor Marx means to you? Is there a particular part of her story that seems instructive?

ZA:      The first and most important thing is the terrible personal tragedy she suffered at the hands of that dreadful man Edward Aveling, which left an enormous gap in political activism for a generation because Eleanor Marx embodied an intellectual and activist leadership in both the labour movement and the socialist organizations of the time, and in the small, but growing women’s movement.

When you talk to activists and protesters in South Africa today, what sense do you have of how much history matters to them? What can a historical figure like Eleanor Marx offer them?

ZA:      The interesting thing is that today, in South Africa, at the place where I work we teach a course on Politics, Women, and Society, and the tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa, but also the post-Thatcher world, is that the central intellectual and moral capital that the socialist movement had – its ability to disseminate history, politics, ideas, and a means of organizing – is lost to everyone. In South Africa today, most people, particularly young people who come to university, don’t even know about the major struggle in Pass Laws in 1913. A year after the ANC was founded, women were particularly active, and there was no support from the men for them, so the struggle never gained as much prominence until the 1970s and 80s when women’s history in South Africa came to be seriously written. So in that sense, in terms of creating an internationalist vision and practice, most young people don’t know the name Marx. If they’ve heard about it, it’s only in a passing way, but no one reads the Communist Manifesto, and no one knows about the suffragettes or the early struggles of the labour movement. And it’s so important because at the time Eleanor Marx was living there was a major crisis of unemployment, of hunger, of bad sanitation and bad housing, and all these struggles we are still involved in today. To give people a long historical view, it’s absolutely vital that we recover that history.

So you’re saying there’s an important connection between the nineteenth century struggles that Eleanor was involved in and the problems faced in South Africa today?

ZA:      As far as the question of worker’s right, we have some of the best labour laws for those who are unionized. But the majority of workers aren’t unionized. So, whether it be farmworkers, or casualised labour, or domestic workers, or those in the service industries, there are phenomenal lessons that could be learned about cooperative work. There’s a crisis today, especially for young workers, and the types of knowledge that helped build the labour and socialist movement, and helped build a feminist understanding of society, could all teach valuable lessons. For this reason, I think Rachel’s book will be an enormous hit among young people who are looking for this knowledge. It’s not because people don’t want to know these things. The minute you start speaking, the demand for knowledge far exceeds our ability to supply it.

I understand what you’re saying about the cultural capital of the left having waned and the fear of this knowledge being lost, but there is a lot of information now on the internet. It may not be presented from the left, but it is accessible.

ZA:      And even a phenomenal amount of Marx online. I don’t know if there’s an Eleanor Marx digital archive; I hope Rachel will follow that up as a project. But documents of the left, from anarchism to Marxism, are on the net. People, though, don’t have the basic knowledge of what to look for. They’re searching for Justin Bieber not August Bebel.

And they don’t have the context to understand the material they find.

ZA:      Exactly. It’s not a lack of information, it’s a lack of knowledge.

Olive Schreiner was one of Eleanor’s closest friends, perhaps her closest. Can you say something about the relationship between them, and the legacy of Schreiner in South Africa today?

ZA:      The most important part of Olive Schreiner’s life is that she was one of the people who stood up to Cecil John Rhodes. She was a lifelong friend also of Jan Smuts. Neither of them embodied most of the things Schreiner stood for. Smuts might have embodied her internationalism, but he did so from a very imperialist perspective rather than from a working class perspective. Olive Schreiner campaigned for votes for women, she was also one of the women who had the greatest influence in Cape Town politics.  She tutored a woman who became one of the first women lawyers in South Africa, a city councillor, and a major campaigner against apartheid and pre-apartheid for workers’ rights. So in that sense, there’s a whole range of history that we can recover linking Eleanor Marx with Olive Schreiner, then on right through to a generation of today’s young activists.

It’s important, you’re saying, to make these connections so that younger activists can see that they stand at the end of a line of people, that they are not out there on their own.

ZA:      The critical thing for young activists, whether you’re in Egypt, whether you’re in Ukraine, in Chile, in the East End of London, or in Zimbabwe, is that the questions of internationalism, of where our history of struggle comes from has never been more urgent. Today’s young people have freedom that we never had: we never had access to the internet, we had to type everything, we had to search for books, import them. These days we have the ability to access knowledge with ebooks, books that are available on the internet that are out of copyright, rare books still in copyright but no one wants to reprint them. These can all be made accessible to people. I learned a great thing decades ago when I picked up an article. I was with Rachel Holmes at the queer conference in Toronto when I picked up an article on Bayard Rustin, who was one of the greatest activist in the United States and was the chief organizer of the march on Washington. The reason none of us knew him is because he was queer. There was a struggle over his sexuality in the movement. The FBI had him arrested for indecency and so on and that’s why he was written out of history. Now there are two biographies. He spent an enormous time in jail for refusing to serve in the Second World War. He got out, and became one of the greatest labour organizers as well as organizers of sit-ins across the United States, long before Martin Luther King. He was regarded as King’s mentor. Having knowledge of people like Rustin and Eleanor Marx, their intellectual labour as well as their organizing work, should enable young South Africans today to take control of their own lives. But unfortunately we have lost much of the knowledge of that global moral left.

Zackie Achmat and Nelson Mandela, 2002.

Zackie Achmat and Nelson Mandela, 2002.

In Rachel’s biography she describes Eleanor giving a speech but managing to do it without appearing strident or bossy or putting off men. Women still face the problem of being belittled or denigrated when they speak publicly or act powerfully. I wonder if you could assess the situation for South Africa women activists today? How much of a leadership role do you think they are playing?

ZA:      I think women played a fantastic leadership role in the anti-apartheid struggle. But the problem of the patriarchal values and practices remains one of our most serious problems, both in organizations and in the wider society. Today women have immense freedom, freedoms that they never had: almost 50% of households in South Africa are headed now by women. This gives them much greater freedom over their reproductive choices, and, if they have an income, over how to spend it. At the same time you have enormous and powerful institutional survivals in both formal and radical politics. It remains a constant struggle. In classes at Ndifuna Ukwazi I’ve witnessed older women who’ve spent decades working at community level, and working to raise their family, being laughed at by young men because they can’t speak English properly. They have a greater knowledge than any young man would ever have. It’s not because those young people are naturally bad human beings, they’re good human beings, but they’ve been raised having a class attitude and a masculinist attitude. Whether it’s public speaking, or speaking privately in a meeting, there is a constant need to assist any vulnerable group. Today in South Africa the most vulnerable group is black women and girls, but the most marginal and demonized group is black young men.

Demonised by the media?

ZA:      Demonised by all of us. If you see a group of young black men walking toward you, you will assume that they are criminals. That is true for black people, and particularly white people, then it’s reinforced by the media and society. Because the question of labour market absorption – which is a fancy phrase for mass unemployment – the failure to create employment through the capitalist system, is a huge problem. So the demonization and the criminalization of young black men in South Africa is phenomenal. What those young men do is to retreat into a mythical idea that they have power and this reinforces the problem. So the question is how one bridges the enormous divide between women and men, based on class. And that is what’s vital about Eleanor: connecting the struggle of women for freedom to the struggle of all people for social equality and dignity.

Which links to my next question. One of the problems that her life throws up is the difficulty of people with different levels of power trying to work together across classes and sexes, and obviously in South Africa this would include races. Engels loathed what he saw as bourgeois feminists who only wanted to reform the system.

ZA:      And he had a terrible xenophobic attitude toward the Irish.

Even though he lived with and loved two Irish women. What’s the situation like in South Africa between women of different classes and races working together? Are there such organisations?

ZA:      I think that’s one of the most difficult questions: the struggle of working class women to assert themselves in any context, whether it is with middle class women, or middle class men, or both. It is particularly reinforced by race and language and status. For instance, if a woman from say Khayelitsha or Manenburg entered a meeting with a government official, whether they are black or a woman, and people speak English, they are likely to feel silenced and not up to speaking. Yet, if they were to speak in their own language, they would be not only far more eloquent, but far more knowledgeable. The cross-class/race organizing is very limited. And even in organizations that I work in, it’s a constant struggle because we have to remind white children or young people that this might be the first time they’ve met a black working class person, outside the context of meeting a domestic worker or gardener. And there’s an equality that you have to assert. You come from a position of superiority and there’s a duty of humility on you. I’m a strong reinforcer of that! On the other hand I try to break the ice when sitting in a meeting by saying to someone who’s black working class, and there are a lot of white people sitting in the room, “Now don’t be afraid of speaking to white people.” People have that fear on both sides, but particularly for vulnerable people, there’s an enormous fear of power, whether it’s the power of education or the power of wealth. If you’re a very confident white woman with a really good understanding of socialism, you could so undermine a group of black working class men if you do not understand how to engage in a non-patronizing way on the basis of equality. Because power is always embodied through presence, and the problem with the presence of power is very significant. Put it another way. I was in jail by the age of fifteen under apartheid and I was jailed by white men. If I looked at every white man as a jailer, any white man in my presence could represent that fear. So if I had to struggle against it, just think how much more a black working class woman who lived through the Pass Laws and was arrested by white police, must feel when she looks at a white man, any white man. You look at them with fear of that time, and so you have to overcome that fear. Similarly, a white person raised to see black people as a source of danger, looking at a sort of smart young black human being who gets up and speaks confidently, will either act with paternalism or fear. So in working organizations what Eleanor Marx showed is a complete socialist irritability with bourgeois feminism on the one hand and socialist patriarchy on the other. It’s her ability to acknowledge those two things that made such an enormous contribution. And I think that’s why I can’t say enough about why Rachel’s book is so important.

The fact that Eleanor Marx went out and practiced what she believed: her relationships with those women that she met in the East End of London was so important.

ZA:      With dockworkers, seamstresses, laundry workers: she showed an ability to engage with working class women on the basis of equality.

And to defuse her own advantages in front of them in order not to be threatening.

ZA:      Exactly.

I’ve been talking to other people about the idea that solidarity and internationalism can be a kind of evangelism or meddling. A bit like the way in which some working class people in the 1880s reported that the middle class women coming into the East End to establish settlements or homes for ‘fallen women’ were meddling do-gooders. Kamila Shamsie compared the imperial affiliations of some of suffragettes to the contemporary use of feminism as an excuse for war in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are the failure to connect which we’ve been talking about that socialist feminists of the ‘Seventies criticized and which today intersectional feminists rail against. How “joined-up” do you think politics is in South Africa today? How does internationalism work in South Africa at the moment?

ZA:      I think we’ve had some great examples of it working and continuing to work in recent history with the subject of HIV.For instance, the most important achievement of the Treatment Action Campaign, apart from defeating government denialism, was to put an enormous check on corporate power, particularly the pharmaceutical industry.

Was this something that happened in part as a result of internationalist pressure?

ZA:      It could never have happened without the defeat of drug companies. The thousand-fold reduction in prices could not have happened if the poorest of women with little or no education, without knowledge of international property law and science, were not connected to advocating activists around the world in Europe, in North America, particularly in Brazil, in Asia, Thailand, India, and throughout Africa. If we weren’t linked none of this could have happened. And that’s where the internet was so helpful to us in organizing such a phenomenal protest. I remember, I think it was 2003, when we were  having a defiance campaign in 140 cities across the world, because people were dying in South Africa. In most of these protests people took 600 pairs of shoes to put up outside South African consulates and embassies and the drug companies. This linked people and put an enormous pressure on the international pharmaceutical manufacturers and associations. In Paris they blockaded the factory of a pharmaceutical manufacturer and shut it down for a day. But then there was the support that Clinton and Gore gave to the drug companies. So when Clinton started speaking in New York he was followed all over with a placard saying, “All greed kills” and people chanting about access to anti-viral medication. Those sorts of struggles linked us directly to  the world. Then we worked with North American activists with knowledge of science and medicine, and British activists like Polly Clayden, who loves Sylvia Pankhurst. Working with people like that helped us win, and helped us put two million people on treatment in South Africa.

Are there any drawbacks to working internationally?

ZA:      Our campaigning represented the best side of internationalism. The difficult side is what I call managing imperialism. I remember going to a conference where we needed to raise money for the global fund on AIDS and one of the international NGOs came up to me as I arrived in Paris and put a speech in my hand and said, “Here’s what you have to say”. And I looked up and said, “Fuck off!” That’s traditionally, I believe, how organizations like Oxfam behave.

So what you’re saying is that individual support internationally seems to work with a better understanding of these problems of power, whereas institutional internationalism that takes place through big organizations, charities and NGOs, tends to retain more imperialist elements in their relationships?

ZA:      Yes exactly.  It’s not intentional and a lot of it has to do with working class activists from poorer countries, whether it be in Greece or Malawi or South Africa, not asserting our presence. Can you imagine if a South African NGO did a human rights report on Guantanamo Bay, on what is happening in Iran, in Israel, in Afghanistan, in Nigeria, in the jails, in the streets, how women are treated? That could have a much more important status than a report by Human Rights Watch. Not because the HRW people are bad, or because HRW is bad, but because of the colonial and imperial history of the United States and Europe. It’s not just the imperialism on their side; it’s the lack of imagination from our side. To create such reports of course takes money and organization. But also, as you say, you need to be able to see yourself in that role of acting and speaking out against injustice not just in your own country but globally – having an internationalist mind rather than a nationalist mind. And this work shouldn’t just be left to the imperialists.

Conversations about Eleanor Marx: Sheila Rowbotham


Sheila Rowbotham is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and was, until recently, Professor of Gender and Labour History at Manchester University. She has written many books including Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Love and Liberty and Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century, about which I interviewed her in 2011. She also wrote the Introduction to The Daughters of Karl Marx: Family Correspondence, 1866-1898.

When did you first hear of Eleanor Marx?

SR:      I certainly came across her when I was doing Women, Resistance and Revolution which I began in 1979. What I think is relevant to people now is the fact that she connected the emancipation of women to really significant and economic changes. She was always arguing that women’s emancipation was connected to the redistribution of wealth, access to resources and the importance of ending low pay and challenging values that were based on competition and profit. She connected the emancipation of women to changes which to her were connected to socialism. These are still important issues, whether people use the term socialism or not, the inequalities and problems that women face globally are still there. I think often global movements of women in poor countries have not been presented in feminist terms, they’ve been presented in terms of access to resources like water, forests and land. Eleanor would have completely understood these struggles if she’d have been conscious of them, but she was thinking more of the inequalities in Britain.

This seems to link to what today is called intersectional feminism.

SR:      But that’s exactly what the left version of feminism in the ‘Seventies was saying. We didn’t use the term intersectionality, we just took it for granted that you had to see those connections. Women’s liberation, in its inception, was very much influenced by the American New Left, which was also about making those connections. The American movement sprang from people who went down to the South who were concerned about issues of race and inequality there. It was later reframed in terms of a getting-women-up-through-the system-approach to feminism. But the early people initiating women’s liberation groups came from those activists in the New Left around civil rights.

It got entangled in the concerns of middle class women, something which Engels was concerned about from early on.

SR:      Yes. Marx and Engels and Eleanor following from them, were I think far too dismissive about what they called bourgeois feminism. They dismissed the different aspects of that kind of feminism. One of the things that was important about that kind of feminism was that it asserted individual expression, which was quite denied in the Marxist tradition that Eleanor was part of. The feeling that your personal desire for expression was less important than dedication to a cause, and that was pretty understandable given the circumstances that people had to struggle with in those times, and also, later on in Russia, because it seemed terribly indulgent to talk about personal expression. But that element, which had also been part of socialism I think got suppressed. The point about Eleanor is that she raised issues through her own life about how you would live as a woman with sexual freedom but also with respect as a human being. That dilemma is there for women still, regardless of class or wealth.

That division between the public and the private life is so important.

SR:      What I’m saying is that in the Marxist tradition of the 1880s the personal was not seen as so important as loyalty to a wider cause, to building a party or organization. One of the significant things that came from 1960s feminism was that they did assert individualism. What has transpired, in matter of fact, is that the individualism was the only thing that was left, and the much more associative, collective connection to other human beings has been pushed aside. In the present context, I think probably that the things Eleanor is talking about – how you combine economic and social justice with individual freedom – have got a new life today, explaining why people are reacting with interest to the new book. That’s good.

This follows from renewed interest in Marxist economics after the Crash of 2008?

SR:      Whether it’s Marxist ideas or not, it’s the awareness that emphasis simply on individual competition can have very destructive consequences for so many people and the environment. This awareness has been forced on people through all these decades since the 1980s.

Kapp wrote: “She went her own way, without fuss, feminism or false constraint.” While Holmes has her as the matriarch of socialist feminist, and regards her feminism as key to her development of her father’s ideas. Can you say something about these two different points of view?

SR:      Kapp’s coming from an older communist woman’s suspicion of feminism. I think it’s always a dilemma, whether you say people in the past were feminists who wouldn’t consider themselves to be feminist because they saw feminism as something different. In the late nineteenth century, the women’s movement had a different meaning from feminism. Feminism was seen as women who were hostile to men, who thought women were superior to men, because of their superior inner moral values. This kind of feminism would have been something Eleanor wouldn’t have liked because she wanted men and women in the working class to be combined in union struggles. She wouldn’t have had the idea that you needed separate structures. In fact the Gas Workers were very advanced in accepting women because a lot of unions didn’t allow women to join. Men were worried about competition from lower paid women. The Gas Workers Union innovated by not only having women members, but by having male workers who were often higher paid subsidizing lower paid women in the union struggles. They were also pioneering of equality and the struggle for equal pay for women. I’m sure that comes from the influence of Eleanor Marx

You’re saying that the origins of distaste for feminists in the late nineteenth century had to do with essentialist notions that women were superior, and that these were connected to Victorian bourgeois ideas about the virtue of women?

SR:      It’s only in the late 1890s that they start to call themselves feminists. The meaning of feminism came to be women who distinguished themselves from the main women’s movement of the time in suffrage campaigns and so on, and they were arguing that women were a superior breed and sometimes used eugenic arguments. Socialist feminism in the recognizably modern form developed in the 1920s with somebody like Dora Russell. For that reason, the question of who the mothers of socialist feminism are, is very loose. You could claim somebody like Alexandra Kollantai, who certainly wouldn’t consider herself a feminist, but was very similar to Eleanor Marx in looking at sexual freedom and also at class inequality and social and economic changes. There’s a tradition of women within a Marxist tradition who did really face a lot issues not only about class inequality but also sexuality. In Germany, particularly, there were some women, not so much the Clara Zetkin lot, but the women who were within the more revisionist wing of the German party who were very much aware of the personal forms of oppression of women and they talked about them as well. They get dismissed by the Bolsheviks because they were seen as reformists.


You’re talking about socialists and feminists at different historical moments which makes it seem like an encompassing movement, but one of the striking things about Eleanor’s story is that although she was a fantastically well-connected woman, she also seems to have felt isolated.

SR:      Most of her friends inclined toward the more Fabian reformist approach to change. One of the people that Yvonne Kapp really loathed was her friend Olive Schreiner. That was one of the reasons that made Ruth First write a biography of Olive Schreiner, because, as a South African woman, she was interested in Schreiner and wondered why Kapp was so hostile. Schreiner is very mystical, her writing is quite emotional, she expressed things in an almost psychological way. And of course she did have a relationship with Havelock Ellis. It’s interesting that there’s an aspect of Eleanor that related to that. But it didn’t come out in what she wrote.

It surfaced perhaps in her acting and creativity. Part of the problem with Eleanor is that she didn’t leave a large written legacy, perhaps this is one of the reasons she’s been so ‘hidden from history’. If she’d published more she would have had a surer historical footing. Clearly, though, her Ibsenism and her interest in the theatre and creativity is one of the reasons people are responding to the book now. This all seems very modern. She appears in the Rachel Holmes book as a pioneering modernist.

SR:      Yes and John Stokes’ book (2002) emphasized her interest in the art and in the theatre. Lynn Pickett calls her a socialist feminist intellectual and quite a few of the writers use this phrase.

There’s an idealising in the communist movement of men and women working together in intellectual comradeship. This was at the heart of what Eleanor believed. It went again the bourgeois, separatist feminism you’ve talked about. It was a key factor in her relationship with Aveling – that they worked so collaboratively is perhaps one of the clues to it.

SR:      In bourgeois feminism there are the women who are interested in suffrage and social reform and in America did work after the 1900s with working class women. There aims were to try to improve capitalism. The Marxists were opposed to that, thinking it too reformist. Then there’s this other strand which goes into the WSPU which is more like what we would define as separatism.

Then it becomes imperialist too. At the point of the First World War they abandon the suffragette claim to wave the flags of war.

SR:      Yes, many suffrage organizations divide on that. The people who are arguing for reform and change in the 1890s were the Fabians, so she was isolated from those women. Ordinary women never had enough money so it was difficult to organize them and to sustain regular union payments. Yet there were advantages to women being in their own union because it enabled them to talk and take a more leading role. In a mixed union there was a tendency for the men to take a dominant role in the leadership, even where there was a commitment to equality. Therefore, often, women’s issues and complaints did get pushed under the carpet.

But in Eleanor’s own life, this question of working together and loyalty to men, meant that she became ensnared in the sexual hypocrisy of the men she loved most. She said repeatedly that greater frankness and truth were what was wanted in relations between men and women. This seems to me one of the central tragedies of her life: the thing she wanted most, openness and frankness between men and women, perhaps being influenced very much by Ibsen in this, was the thing she was lest able to attain in her own life.

SR:      But frankness is a theme that runs right through all of the radical free-love arguments. Wollstonecraft really wanted frankness, as did many of the  eighteenth century women novelists. The thing that came from the free-love tradition of the late nineteenth century was that they wanted relationships to be such that you could actually have friendships with men. The struggle that not all relationships between men and women should be seen as sexual was really important. Among the Marx group they did have that: the idea that men and women could have friendship. It may seem normal now but in some societies still it’s actually very difficult for men and women to have friendships and for it not to be seen as sexual. They got to that because they were advanced intellectuals but at the same time there were problems: if Marx had admitted openly his relationship with Helene Demuth that would have been really humiliating for Jenny. And Jenny, he knew had been already indescribably humiliated by living with a revolutionary who was so poor, having to go and beg from men for money to give to Marx – that must have been a terrible thing for both of them. His desire to protect and conceal her, is not that he suddenly becomes a bourgeois hypocrite, it’s recognizing the reality of how society views things, how unsympathetic they would be to the life of a Jewish revolutionary exile. If you read the biography of Jenny, Marx is concerned. He puts his cause before everything and everybody, including his own physical health.

Equally important for Eleanor is the concern for the legacy of her father’s work. Not wanting this to be destroyed by the idea that people would then say Marx was an adulterer and a liar, and that this would invalidate what he’d written. That’s what I meant about the hypocrisy that she’s ensnared in.

SR:     There’s a strong belief on the left don’t wash your dirty linen in public, people who’d lived through McCarthy knew what it was like to be attacked.  I would sum it up in the fact that Eleanor Marx connects feminism to wider economic and social change, in terms of changing the distribution of wealth and inequality in society as a whole. And she 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 still so relevant because the contradictions are still very much with us if in a different context but the questions remain the same: how women balance having children and living a free sexual life and also work for broader social change.

Ah, I’ve just found that quote from Engels talking about the bourgeois women: “The drivel of the swell-mob ladies”.

SR:      Both Marx and Engels used this awfully blokey language in their letters, they attack men in the same way. Engels was pretty hopeless about trying to understand that kind of feminism as a political movement. He just didn’t see it as a political movement.

In terms of Eleanor’s article, ‘The Woman Question’, how far do you think she departs from Engels and [August] Bebel?

SR:      It is very different from her later 1890s stuff. The real argument that comes up between the left and feminists in America and Britain is over protective legislation. The feminists believed in individual equality, and hated the idea of regulation – partly because their politics are liberal-radical which hates any intervention from the state; whereas Marxist, socialists and some liberals by the 1890s, were arguing for some kind of state intervention. So there’s a hidden division going on which is about politics and not just about what your attitude to feminism is. The American and British women feel that if you have protective legislation it will be used against women to justify not having equal pay. That is a really difficult question. Some women tried to resolve it by arguing that you had to look at every specific situation to see whether it was in the interests of women, rather than having a blanket thing. The problem is that policy tends to be a blanket thing, covering everybody.

The idea that Eleanor or anybody could solve these more intractable and specific dilemmas about what positions to take is ridiculous.

SR:      Yes. I think the way to approach it is not that anybody is totally right or wrong on those issues but that we need to look at the warnings they made.

And to look at the way they pushed their interest in the debate and their attempts to work it out.

SR:      I do think it’s interesting to see how questions that are often seen to be about women are about wider politics, that’s why you always need to look at the wider politics in the context of the specific time. It wasn’t that the middle class women ignored the working class, although they were probably quite condescending towards them, it was that often these radical liberal women, were often also personally linked into the social milieu of their liberal employers, some of whom felt they were philanthropic and advanced. But the question of protection or intervention on behalf of women remains complicated: recently it is also true that there was a revolutionary movement of women in Afghanistan demanding intervention.