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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 Potter/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 Potter/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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 19/01/2015 5:01 pm

    Inspiring. Terrific: so much more illuminating than a mere book review. Much appreciated.

  2. 19/01/2015 5:13 pm

    Thanks. Though I hope my reviews aren’t so mere.

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