The top officials of the GMB today would be horrified to know it, but Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor, played a major leading role in the early history of their movement. She was active strike organiser and a member of the executive of the Gas Workers and General Labours' Union, one of a number of unions which later fused to form the General and Municipal Workers Union, which became the GMB. Fran Brodie describes the life of Eleanor Marx and the early days of the Marxist organisation In the British labour movement
Eleanor Marx was born into the workshop and armoury of scientific socialism on the 16 January 1855.
Her father Karl Manx was immersed in the economic research for his great work, Capital. Volume 1 of Capital, which appeared in 1867, was to be decisive in transforming socialism from a moral ideal to a theory based on the most exact analysis of capitalist society and the contradictions driving towards its overthrow.
Meanwhile, the Marx family was plagued by illness and abject poverty. They had been forced into exile in Britain after Karl Marx's active participation in the German revolution of 1848, and Marx was keeping his family through journalistic work supplemented by help from his friend and comrade, Friedrich Engels.
Eleanor was the Marx’s sixth child. They had already lost two sons and a daughter and were left with three girls, Jenny, Laura and Eleanor.
Eleanor Marx, more notably then either of her sisters, was to grow into a dedicated fighter for socialism. She organised and led the unskilled workers of the East End of London, and was for decades one of the foremost fighters in the British labour movement for the cause of working class socialist internationalism.
One of the first international issues which engaged her attention was Ireland. She was 12 years old at the time. Two Fenians, Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasey, had been arrested for their part in the March uprising of 1867 against British rule in Ireland. They were rescued from a prison van in Manchester, and in the incident a policeman was accidentally shot. Kelly and Deasey escaped, but a manhunt was begun which ended in the arrest of over 30 Irishmen.
Three of these men—William Allen, Michael O'Brien and Michael Larkin — were publicly hanged on 23 November — the "Manchester Martyrs".
This atrocity awakened in Eleanor a passionate interest in the "Irish Question", and from then on her political sympathies were strongly with the Fenians.
When she was 16 she went to France. It was the time of the heroic rising of the Paris Commune, the first proletarians to seize power.
During the rising, despite the weakness of conscious socialist organisation in Paris, the Communards carried out policies of a socialist nature: they abolished rents, confiscated the means of production, abolished the standing army and state bureaucracy, and had all social affairs managed directly by workers and their elected representatives.
The Commune lasted from 18 March to 28 May. It was drowned in the blood of the workers of Paris.
The Communards, Marx wrote, "had been starved [during the Prussian siege of Paris, before the Commune was proclaimed] for six months into submission by internal treachery rather than by the external enemy. History has no like example of a like greatness. The first proletarians to seize power, they were storming heaven: the most glorious deed of our party."
This period of revolution was to have a great effect on Eleanor, both politically and personally. Refugees flooded into London from Paris to escape the slaughter there: Paris lost 120,000 of its workers at this time. But there was not much support for them. "The saddest of all is the fact that in England the workers, with a few exceptions, were as bitterly hostile to the Commune as the ruling class," she recalled later. "While all the world was against the Commune, one great organisation stood by the revolution, holding aloft the red flag: the International Working Men's Association. The Communards bore hunger and misery and privation, disappointment and the agony of hope deferred without faltering or falling. All honour to their memory."
Among the refugees, Eleanor Marx met Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. She was 'engaged' to him for nine years (despite her father's resolute disapproval) and translated his History of the Commune into English.
Eleanor's political work began in earnest in 1881.
During the 30 years before 1879, British capitalism had monopolised the world market. Britain was known as the "workshop of the world", and the British working class movement settled down to seeking minor reforms, losing the revolutionary edge that had marked its struggles in the '30s and '40s, in the great days of the Chartist Movement to win the vote for the working class.
In these decades, reformism entrenched itself, growing on the crumbs tossed from the tables of the ruling class, at the expense of workers in other countries, and primarily in Britain's vast colonial empire.
But in 1879 there was a severe trade depression, with repercussions which reverberated throughout the working class. The next decade saw a growth in communist ideas.
Not many people at this time in Britain had thought about independent working class politics, and there was no socialist movement to speak of, unlike in Germany and France. The ideas of socialism were kept alive in a few Working Men's Clubs. And German Social Democratic exiles were in touch with some of the old revolutionaries of the 1840s, who had kept their socialist ideas.
But after 1879 the labour movement was on the upturn; the major organisation in the revival of socialism in Britain was the Democratic Federation.
The DF was founded by Henry Hyndman in 1881. Within three years it evolved from being a Radical movement to adopting generally Marxist positions. In 1883 it adopted the name Social Democratic Federation, following the German Social Democratic Party.
Soon after it was founded, Eleanor Marx joined the DF. At that time the organisation was concerned mainly with the Irish Question, campaigning vigorously in defence of the oppressed nation.
It was also at this time that Eleanor's path crossed with that of Edward Aveling. She lived and
worked wh him until her death in 1898.
Frederick Engels, who became Eleanor's chief political guide after her father's death in 1883, was very wary in his assessment of the SDF. He welcomed it, but was concerned that many of the people who turned towards Marxism were of bourgeois origin. They needed, Engels said, to turn themselves outwards, to implant themselves into the working class, if they were not to remain a sect.
To understand Engels' and Eleanor's perspective, we must look at the historical development of socialist ideas.
Since the French revolution of 1789-99, socialist sects had existed, especially in France. At their best they embodied a fiery revolutionary courage and hostility to capitalism. All of them, however, failed to see a link between the daily organisation and struggle of the working class within capitalism and the realisation of the future socialist society based on their ideals.
As industry and the working class expanded, these sects took on a more and more negative role. They were usually indifferent or even hostile to trade union struggle. Instead, they confined themselves to endless discussions on the details of the future socialist society, or in building up conspiratorial organisation for an eventual armed uprising (when they had accumulated enough men and guns).
From 1850 onwards, the guiding idea of Marx's and Engels' was the liquidation of the era of sects and the building of a broad working class movement. That perspective did not mean indifference to theory: on the contrary, Marx and Engels laboured for the utmost theoretical precision. But they wanted their theory to be "not a dogma but a guide to action". The theory would be assimilated by the workers as a result of their experience, not as a result of incessant lecturing by an 'enlightened' few.
In Germany, socialist organisation developed as the working class developed, from the 1860s onwards. The trade union movement in Germany was a direct product of the socialist movement. In Britain, the working class had developed from the end of the 18th century, long before scientific socialism. Its early more or less confused rebellions, such as the Luddite riots, were defeated.
By the 1880s a sizeable trade union movement had developed, but it was a bourgeois-minded, non-socialist movement, confined mostly to skilled workers. In the late 1880s the unskilled workers began to unionise on a large scale. For Eleanor, the touchstone was always this mass movement of the working class. Groups like the SDF would play the role of valuable educating influences, or that of mere sects, depending on how they related to that working class movement.
The SDF was, despite everything, the first, the pioneering Marxist organisation in Britain, and in its time it contributed to the education of thousands of socialists. Later, having changed its name to the British Socialist Party, and having disposed of its old leadership, around Hyndman, it was the major component of the British Communist Party when it was formed.
Engels was very hostile to Hyndman, describing him as "a pretty unscrupulous careerist", Engels observed of the SDF: "In every sect everything turns to scandal-mongering. "
The SDF's policy towards the working class was sectarian too. Though its members were active in the unions, and some of them came to be TU leaders, the SDF leaders tended to see the trade unions as a diversion from the political class struggle. One of the many able workers who joined, and left, the SDF, Tom Mann said of it: "the SDF antagonised the trade unionists without drawing any considerable percentage to socialism."
But the first big clash between Eleanor and Hyndman came over internationalism. In spite of his support for some colonial struggles, Hyndman had strong nationalist tendencies (he ended up as a chauvinist during the First World War).
When Eleanor proposed sending an SDF delegation to the Roubaix Congress of the French Workers' Party, Hyndman dismissed the proposal as a 'family manoeuvre'. Eleanor's sister Laura, and her brother-in-law Paul Lafargue, were prominent members of the French Workers' Party.
In December 1884 things came to the point of a break. There was a 10 to 8 vote of no confidence in Hyndman on the executive of the SDF. But because Hyndman personally owned the SDF's paper, he was able to keep control of the organisation and it was the executive majority who left the SDF with 500 of the SDF's I,500 members.
The breakaway organisation, whose most prominent member was the poet and designer William Morris, was called the Socialist League. In its first Manifesto, the Socialist League took a stand on the bloody war being waged by British colonialism in the Sudan. Its paper, the Commonweal, carried a series by Eleanor under the title 'Record of the Revolutionary International Movement'.
But the Socialist League never progressed very far. Its membership was drawn mainly from clerical workers and the lumpenproletariat. Its very loose internal organisation opened the doors of the organisation to all kinds of political influences. A group of anarchists entered, and it wasn't long before the SL was caught up in internal strife, and then taken over by the anarchists.
Eleanor, arguing strongly against the anarchists, was on the losing side.
More and more, she extended her activity to the broad labour movement. Her next big battle was for free speech.
Socialists in the East End used to hold outdoor meetings, which were regularly harassed by the police. When Eleanor spoke to a crowd of 7,000 at Dod Street, Poplar, the police charged the crowd and arrested many people.
Eleanor went to court as a witness, where she annoyed the magistrate by refusing to promise to keep away from future meetings. The police in the courtroom manhandled her, and there was a violent scene when William Morris of the Socialist League went to her aid.
The next time the 'fight for free speech' mounted a demonstration there was a crowd of 60,000—with no arrests!
Then the Law and Liberty League, which had organised these free speech demonstrations, defied a police ban by calling a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square under the slogan 'Home Rule for Ireland — and for London'. (They were demanding democratic local government for London). This was a different affair: police and soldiers charged the crowd, and a bystander, Alfred Linnel, was trampled by the cavalry and killed.
A 120,000-strong procession followed his coffin to Tower Hamlets cemetery, bearing the green flag in solidarity with the Irish struggle.
The Trafalgar Square experience scared off some of the 'big names'. George Bernard Shaw became convinced that the workers could not take on the state, Ernest Rhys editor of the Everyman series of books, wrote the next day: "The Fabians for me!"
But Eleanor Marx remained a leader of the most militant wing of the movement.
In 1888 the Socialist League split and by 1889 it had effectively ceased to exist.
Meanwhile, the workers on strike at the Gas, Light & Coke Co in East Ham were celebrating victory.
The gas workers had tried in the past to organise themselves and failed; 1889 was the first decisive victory, with the establishment of the Gas Workers and General Labourers' Union.
Eleanor had helped and led the strike, and was centrally involved in the new union, one of the most important of the growing unskilled workers' organisations. She drew up the founding Address and rules of the union, working closely with Will Thorne, a major leader of the union, whom she taught to read and write.
As a member of the union executive, Eleanor took special responsibility for two of its branches, which were composed entirely of women workers. She was also mainly responsible (as she had been in the Socialist League) for the movement's international connections. In 1889 she had been deeply involved in organising the first congress of the 'Second International', an international union of socialist parties and workers' organisations.
The life of a union official in those days, especially in the new, unskilled unions, was very different from the life of such a person today. Eleanor was ceaselessly active, building the union and helping strikes; meanwhile she scraped a living as a typist.
The Gas Workers' union fought for an eight hour day. While Eleanor was heavily involved in strikes for this demand, she, and more so her companion Edward Aveling, also tried to create a general class movement for an eight hour day by law. The Legal Eight Hours and International Labour League organised huge demonstrations around this demand.
Eleanor's main work was in the East End, then the main working class area of London and the centre of the new movement of unskilled trade unionism. Racialism existed in East London in those days, too— mainly directed against Jewish immigrants. Eleanor campaigned against anti-semitism, openly proclaiming her own Jewish ancestry, and learning Yiddish to help her organise among the Jewish working women of Whitechapel.
She and Aveling also spoke and worked among the Radical clubs of London—which, though tied to the Liberal Party, included a large proportion of the most politically conscious workers.
Their aim was always to establish a theoretically and politically trained grouping of people within the mass movement, people capable of ensuring that the movement took a socialist direction. After the collapse of the Socialist League, they did not give up on the project of building a socialist party.
When Keir Hardy founded the Independent Labour Party in 1893 Eleanor was at the founding conference as an observer. Aveling attended as a delegate.
In contrast to earlier socialist movements, the ILP had its main base in the industrial north and in Scotland. Engels found this especially encouraging and wanted the SDF to fuse with the ILP. He was fed up with the self-contained sect-like approach of the SDF, and believed that the duty of Marxists was to assist every step forward in the 'real labour movement'. He did not mean by this that Marxists should lose themselves within movements like the ILP, but that they should integrate themselves into it, helping its members forward to revolutionary conclusions.
The SDF, however, resolved to "preserve an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards the ILP". Aveling and a few other Marxists got positions on the leading committee of the ILP, but they were left as a small minority by the SDF's aloofness. Once again, as with the rise of trade unionism among unskilled workers, Hyndman's group proclaimed itself to be the only custodian of the real interests of the working class, abstained from the actual struggle, isolated itself from most of the working class, and thus left the field clear for anti-Marxist forces, who were able to establish themselves as the leadership of the labour movement.
The ILP remained dominated by attitudes like those of its main leader, Keir Hardie, closer to Christian Socialism than to Marxism. Eleanor, Aveling, and their few comrades were not strong enough to stop this.
This sectarianism was a recurrent pattern to be repeated by the SDF at the time of the formation of the Labour Party, by the early Communist Party in its attitude to the Labour Party, and in Britain today by the SWP. It set up a specifically British 'Marxist' tradition of sectarianism, against which both Karl and Eleanor Marx fought unrelentingly.
After the mid-1890s the political outlook became bleaker for Marxists. The long depression ended and there was a new boom for British imperialism. Reformism became well established throughout the unions and in the ILP. The Eight Hours League faded away.
For Eleanor there was a special blow when Engels died in 1895. The Marxists lost a wealth of experience going back to the revolutions of 1848.
Eleanor and Aveling rejoined the SDF in 1897, as did the two other most prominent members of the SL, William Morris and Ernest Belforth Bax. As revolutionaries they saw the need to be inside a socialist organisation.
With the death of Eleanor in 1898 and that of Aveling, from septicemia, a few months later, the British labour movement lost two of its best Marxist leaders. Eleanor committed suicide. No-one knows for sure why, though her betrayal by Aveling is usually taken as the main precipitating cause of her death.
Aveling was an unpopular figure, and widely blamed for Eleanor's suicide. Nevertheless, for the 14 years that they were together they did dedicate themselves utterly and whole-heartedly to the working class.
Throughout, they understood that a conscious Marxist leadership does not fall from the sky ready made, nor is it a spontaneous product of the labour movement: Scientific class consciousness is not automatically generated in the minds of workers in struggle. Marxists have to take their ideas into the working class and its labour movement and relate them to the struggles and experience of the working class.