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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.

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