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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 incredibly 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.

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