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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.


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