Ben Tillett, the future trade union leader, became a friend of Eleanor Marx during the great dock strike of 1889. After her death he recalled that she had 'lived all her life in the atmosphere of the social revolution.' Her early years were dominated by her father writing about capital, and by her family's lack of it. Only three of Karl and Jenny Marx's children survived to adulthood Eleanor was the youngest and most political. By the age of 12 she already supported the cause célèbre of British socialists and radicals, the Fenian Movement for Irish national liberation. After a stay with Frederick Engels and his Irish lover, Lizzie Burns, in Manchester, and a trip with them to Ireland, Eleanor signed her letters 'Eleanor FS' (Fenian Sister). She loved going on all the huge pro-nationalist demonstrations of the 1860s. Throughout her teens, Eleanor was immersed in the politics of Marx's International Working Men's Association and what she learnt then, that 'a nation which enslaves another forges its own chains', she never forgot.
When Eleanor was 16 years old the Paris Commune erupted onto the European political scene. Marx grasped the significance of the Parisians' attempt to 'storm the heavens' and establish the first workers' government. For two months,
Paris was ruled by and for working people. This experiment in workers' democracy was crushed by the capitalist class. The Marx family was personally, as well as politically, involved in the fate of the Commune. Family friends were killed in the bloody suppression which followed and Eleanor's older sisters, Laura and Jenny, were married or engaged to French socialists. Eleanor herself experienced the dangers of being the notorious Karl Marx's daughter. She was arrested and interrogated in France while helping Laura and her children escape. Eleanor later became engaged to a French socialist, Lissagaray, and she translated his brilliant history of the Commune. The memory of this great struggle inspired Eleanor for the rest of her life.
In the early 1880s Eleanor lost her mother, sister, father and four year old nephew Harry within the space of a few years. But these were years of development as well as grief. Two great passions inspired Eleanor. One was her love of literature and drama. She mixed with writers like George Bernard Shaw and Olive Shreiner and she loved acting and staging amateur dramatics. Like Marx and Engels, she particularly liked Shelley's poetry. She recalled:
'I have heard my father and Engels again and again speak of this; and I have heard the same from many Chartists it has been my good fortune to know as a child and young girl... Only a few months ago, I heard Harney and Engels talking of the Chartist days, and of the Byron and especially Shelley - worship of the Chartists; and on Sunday last Engels said: "Oh, we all knew Shelley by heart then".'
In 1888 she co-wrote a pamphlet, Shelley's Socialism, with her lover Edward Aveling.
However, the most important passion in Eleanor's life was her commitment to the working class movement. During the 1860s and 1870s British capitalism had expanded massively and the working class was quiet and compliant. However, the very expansion of the system meant that workers were drawn into expanding industries such as the railways, enduring horrific conditions. The old craft unions had an elitist approach to these workers and had abandoned any idea of challenging capitalism. Instead they concentrated on protecting the sectional interests of the skilled minority of workers they organised. They spent a fortune paying for workers to emigrate, but nothing on supporting strikes. By the 1880s, however, the unorganised, unskilled workers, who had literally nothing to lose, were beginning to turn to radical ideas in their thousands. The seeds of new, militant organisations were being sown.
This was a unique moment in socialist history; utopian socialism was dead, reformist social democracy was yet to be born, so at this key moment it was Marxist politics which dominated the working class movement. The most important socialist organisation was the Social Democratic Federation. The SDF involved talented socialists like Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and William Morris. It succeeded in bringing Marxist ideas to hundreds of thousands of newly radicalised workers for example, 100,000 copies of the SDF pamphlet Socialism Made Plain were sold. However, the SDF was distorted by nationalism and a sectarian attitude to workers struggles. HM Hyndman, its leader and founder, was a factory owner turned Marxist who never really threw off his bourgeois predjudices. While Marx believed that workers must emancipate themselves, Hyndman argued that slaves could never be freed by other slaves. He believed that the only serious task for socialists was to make propaganda for socialism and that the fight for reforms was largely irrelevant.
The SDF was propelled to the left by the radicalisation of the 1880s, but it never outgrew these weaknesses. Eventually, Eleanor, Aveling and Morris split off and formed the Socialist League. She threw herself body and soul into every campaign that could help build workers' confidence and organisation. Firstly there was the Campaign for Free Speech, when radicals and socialists fought weekly battles with the police around Commercial Road and Dod Street in east London in order to establish and maintain their right to hold open air street meetings. When William Morris was arrested during the campaign, Eleanor was a witness for his defence. Then there was the tour of the US she and Aveling took in the summer of 1886. She was inspired by a mass campaign for the eight hour day which focused on mass May Day rallies across America. But Eleanor was not just a witness to working class struggle: she brought the experiences of American workers home to the heart of the British working class, to the radical working men's associations of the East End. In the poverty striken East End Eleanor found her political home she even learnt Yiddish to help her organise the Jewish immigrant workers.
Eleanor's commitment to the liberation of Ireland remained undiminished. At Easter 1887, 150,000 people demonstrated in Hyde park against British repression in Ireland. By the autumn, the tempo of the class struggle rose as the unemployed began to organise. On 13 November 1887, known as Bloody Sunday, the police attacked an unemployed demonstration, killing two and injuring hundreds, including Eleanor. She defended the demonstration unequivocally in the Pall Mall Gazette, 'Karl Marx's daughter writes to us as follows: I have never seen anything like the brutality of the police... I need not tell you that I was in the thick of the fight at Parliament Street.' The intimidation failed: another rally was called by an alliance of socialists and radicals, and on 18 November about 40,000 marched. Wild charges by special constables resulted in the death of Alfred Linnell, a young clerk. His funeral turned into a huge demonstration through central London to Tower Hamlets cemetery. The Pall Mall Gazette reported: 'The throng became so vast as to defy computation... by the immensity of its numbers.'
In the summer of 1888 anger at all these grievances galvanised into a new movement inside the working class. The bitterly exploited match girls at the Bryant and May factory in Bow, east London, went on strike and won a historic victory, encouraged by a socialist, Annie Besant. The following March Will Thorne, a member of the Canning Town branch of the SDF, organised a union at Beckton Gasworks. At the first meeting 800 joined the union, by July there were 60 branches, with a membership of 20,000. All previous attempts to form a union had been crushed but this time the tide was unstoppable: the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers was established, later to become the General and Municipal Workers' Union. Without even striking, the gas workers won the much coveted eight hour day. These victories had a huge impact in the East End which became the cradle of the great revolt known as New Unionism.
The most decisive event of New Unionism was the great dock strike, which began in August 1889. The dockers were among the most downtrodden, poorly organised workers in the country. Every morning they jostled at the dock gates desperately competing for a day's work. When they decided to strike for the 'dockers' tanner', it was natural that their leader, Ben Tillett, turned to socialists, like Eleanor, Tom Mann and Will Thorne, for help. Within three days, 10,000 workers had joined the strike.
The strikers had no union funds. They were completely dependent on support from other workers and the solidarity they won was extraordinary. At its height 50 miles of docks were picketed by 16,000 pickets with 100,000 other workers out in solidarity. Support was so strong that even pawnbrokers stopped charging interest and many landlords remitted their rent. The strike discredited the 'old fossils' of the craft unions: all the sectional divisions between the workers on the waterfront were broken down, unskilled workers showed that they could organise, and that militancy, not conciliation, won the day.
Eleanor was at the heart of this strike. In September she addressed a dockers' demonstration of 100,000. Eleanor was not just an orator. She helped organise the collections which brought in nearly £12,000, and the international solidarity, which included £30,000 donated by Australian unions. As Ben Tillett remembered, 'During our great strike she worked unceasingly, literally day and night... Among all those who live in my memory Eleanor Marx remains a vivid and vital personality, with great force of character, courage and ability.'
She and other socialists helped forge lasting union organisation from the heat of the struggle. In 1889 the dockers established their own union which had 154,000 members within two years. It became the Transport and General Workers Union. Eleanor helped Will Thorne set up the Gas Workers Union. When women workers in West Ham struck, Eleanor formed the women's branch of the union, and was unanimously elected to its executive council. Many new unions were established, for example on the railways. Other old, moribund unions, especially in engineering and mining, were transformed by the wave of radicalisation. For the first time women, shop workers, factory workers and transport workers had unions. During this time 10,000 Jewish textile workers won a 72 hour week!
Around this time, Eleanor also threw herself into a campaign for the eight hour day launched by the Second International (a newly formed body of socialists) in Paris, 1889. On May Day 1890, 300,000 marched through London in support of the campaign. The following year 500,000 marched and Engels argued the campaign was 'all Eleanor and Edward's work'. These were the crowning years of Eleanor's life. As her biographer, Yvonne Kapp, wrote, 'Her voice, that of Marx's daughter, had reached the masses many a time before; now she spoke as a member and representative of a mass organisation she had helped to bring into being.'
However, the working class strength demonstrated by the New Unionism was met by an employers' offensive in the early 1890s. The movement declined and Eleanor became increasingly unhappy. While individual socialists had a decisive influence on New Unionism, they did so despite their organisations, not because of them. They tended to act as individuals. Local branches of the Socialist League, like Eleanor's Bloomsbury Branch, were very active in supporting workers' struggles but the leadership was resolutely opposed to involvement in strikes. The organisations did not link general calls for socialism with building the day to day struggles. In 1888 the League had collapsed and Eleanor formed the Bloomsbury Socialist Society. However, she remained deeply frustrated by the sectarianism of the socialist groups which were incapable of relating to workers' struggles on a national scale. Her isolation increased after the death of her dear friend Engels in 1895. Her resignation from the executive of the Gasworkers and Labourers' Union severed her vital connection with the working class. On top of all this, her letters testify to her growing unhappiness with the behaviour of Aveling, who after living with Eleanor for 14 years had secretly married another woman. On Thursday 31 March, 1898, Eleanor committed suicide. She left two suicide notes. In one she sent her love to Aveling who survived her by only a few months. The other was to her nephew in which she encouraged him to be worthy of his grandfather. Eleanor was only 43 when she died, but in her short life she made a massive contribution to the socialist movement.
Theoretically, she built on Engels' work to develop a Marxist analysis of women's oppression and she worked tirelessly to ensure that Marx's works were published and translated. She fought to turn her internationalist politics into real organisation. In 1896, for example, she helped to organise a conference in London at which, 'the list of those present is as a bridge from the 19th to the 20th century: here were Jean Jaurès; George Lansbury; Rosa Luxemburg; James Ramsay Macdonald; George Bernard Shaw; the Webbs and Clara Zetkin.'
Above all, she brought Marxist politics to the great struggles of the 1880s and helped shape a generation of socialist leaders. Whether in the Jewish sweatshops of the East End, or addressing thousands of striking dockers, her message was always the same: 'When the revolution comes and it must come it will be by the workers, without distinction of sex or trade or country, standing and fighting shoulder to shoulder.' At a time when many socialists downplayed the self activity of workers, Eleanor brought to the movement an unshakeable faith in the working class. In the words of Yvonne Kapp: 'Her distinctive contribution was precisely in that she was zealous to work for any and every practical reform without for a moment losing sight of the revolutionary aim; to agitate for the total overthrow of the system without brushing aside a single immediate demand for which the working class was prepared to fight... In Eleanor's view, only those who tried their wings would ever learn to fly.'