Issue 233 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The death of Yvonne Kapp at the age of 96 should be marked with the respect due to the author of one of the best biographies ever written. Kapp's two volume work on the life of Karl Marx's youngest daughter, Eleanor, is both a tremendous history of the working class and socialist movement in the 1880s and 90s and a highly sympathetic account of the life of one woman, her achievements and her disappointments, which ended with her suicide in 1898 at the age of 43.
Yvonne Kapp herself was a remarkable woman who was born into a wealthy Jewish family and whose career spanned periods as the literary editor of Vogue in Paris during the 1920s and as a research officer in the AEU engineers' union during the Second World War. She led what was then called a bohemian life after her marriage at the age of 19 to artist and musician Edmond Kapp, travelling around Europe and earning her living through writing. Like many others of her generation, Hitler's rise to power in Germany led her towards Communism and she held to these ideas for the rest of her life. According to Eric Hobsbawm, she 'never passed so much as a single examination, even at school'--a fact which would no doubt strike terror in the heart of an Ofsted inspector today. Yet her major work would put most academic studies to shame.
The Eleanor Marx biography was not completed until the 1970s and it had a major impact on a whole generation new to Marxist politics. It is very scholarly, going into great detail about minor personal and political incidents, demonstrating Eleanor's unconventional upbringing in the Marx household, and examining closely her role in supporting the strikes in the East End of London which marked the start of the New Unionism in 1889. She became president of the Gas Workers' Union in recognition of her central role--a remarkable achievement for a woman. She was also active in the socialist movement which grew in Britain in the 1880s, mixing with William Morris, Tom Mann and George Bernard Shaw, who modelled two of the characters in his play The Doctor's Dilemma on Eleanor and her lover, Edward Aveling.
One of the great achievements of Kapp's biography is an intertwining of the personal with the political which demonstrates that men and women make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. Eleanor Marx had a fascinating and interesting life: as the youngest surviving child (the Marxes lost several children in infancy) she was both indulged and cosseted by Marx and his wife Jenny. Frederick Engels was like a second father to her, and she fell in love with one of the exiled French Communards, Lissagaray. Her political consciousness was such that she wrote to Abraham Lincoln at the age of ten advising him on how best to win the American Civil War and declared herself a supporter of the Irish Fenians at 12.
But for at least some of her life she was deeply unhappy: as a young woman she seems to have suffered some sort of breakdown and her relationship with Aveling deteriorated, ending with his marriage to someone else and her suicide. The consensus on much of the left was that the relationship had always been disastrous for Eleanor. This was not Kapp's view--she argued that despite Aveling's terrible behaviour Eleanor's life developed a sense of purpose and direction which it had never had before once the two began their relationship. Instead Kapp explained Eleanor's decline through a number of factors: the employers' offensive of the 1890s which left the working class movement defeated and demoralised; the increasing bureaucratisation of the new unions and their estrangement from their socialist roots; and the death of Engels in 1895 which severed many of the connections with her parents and her childhood. All these contributed to a growing unhappiness which her immediate personal situation turned into a tragic crisis.
Yvonne Kapp was born only five years after Eleanor Marx died, and therefore the social and political situation in which Kapp lived must have been closer to the world in which Eleanor Marx had lived. Kapp's German Jewish family was from the Rhineland, as was the Marx family. Kapp spent some years as a translator. Eleanor Marx also worked at translation and spoke several languages fluently. Both were also committed to left wing socialist politics. Kapp must have felt a degree of empathy with Eleanor Marx and also a deep sympathy. Perhaps this is at its best in her description of Eleanor's discovery that Freddy Demuth, who she always imagined was the illegitimate son of Engels, was in fact the son of Marx and therefore her half brother. This was only revealed to her when Engels was dying and when Marx, Jenny and Freddy's mother, Helene Demuth, were long dead. Her shock and her increasing closeness to Freddy in the last years of her life are very movingly portrayed.
Eric Hobsbawm described Kapp's two volumes as 'one of the few unquestionable masterpieces of 20th century biography'. They are the product not just of brilliant historical research but of a woman who was herself a rebel and a fighter, who both understood many of the problems that Eleanor Marx faced as a woman and her achievements as an active socialist. The most fitting obituary to Yvonne Kapp would be for these books to be reprinted so that once again they could reach the audience they deserve.