Will Thorne of the Gasworkers’ Union, writing in 1925 about Eleanor Marx’s suicide on 31 March 1898 said: “But for this tragedy, I believe Eleanor would have still been living and would have been a greater women’s leader than the greatest of contemporary women.” The life of Eleanor Marx, youngest daughter of Karl Marx and a woman brought up as a revolutionary, is inspiring. Absolutely committed to the ideas of socialism she fought for every reform and against any injustice.
Eleanor comes across as a woman you can relate to. She detested housework and also thought that the first public lecture she gave would be her last. In fact she was an excellent public speaker and in much demand. She had a knack of adapting to her audience to raise socialist ideas in a relevant and comprehensible way. When anarchists were tried after a bomb killed a policeman Eleanor explained that the bombs needed were “agitation, education and organization” to be thrown amongst the masses.
Eleanor was active in the workers’ movement during a key period of British working-class history. On Bloody Sunday 13 November 1887, when police attacked workers converging on Trafalgar Square, Eleanor was in the thick of it urging workers to stand firm against police charges. 1889 saw the period of New Unionism, of unskilled workers getting organized into trade unions.
However hard Eleanor and her partner found it to make ends meet, writing articles and translating books, she recognized this was nothing compared to the absolute poverty of workers. She relished the opportunity to be involved in mass working-class organizations when the new unions were taking off, rather than the small socialist groups with their dry theoretical discussions. She did not want to just talk about socialism but also to take action to build for it.
For her there was no artificial division between work for constitutional reform, such as a legal eight-hour day, or building a trade union to force employers to concede a shorter working day. The leading trade union leaders at the time paid tribute to the amount of hard graft that Eleanor put in during the dockers’ strike, from public speaking to the unceasing clerical drudgery that went along with the dispute. Eleanor was most involved with the Gasworkers’ Union. In 1879, Will Thorne could only write his name. Ten years later he was the general secretary of that union. Eleanor helped him improve his reading and writing to cope with all the union paperwork.
She also helped draw up the formal rules of the Gasworkers’ Union and the first half-yearly report and balance sheet for 30,000 members. She formed the first women’s branch of the union whilst being involved in the three-month strike in Silvertown.
At the annual conference in May 1890 she was the only nominee to be unanimously elected to the union’s executive council, a post she held until June 1895 without missing a meeting. At the second annual conference she came top of the poll in the election for the ten-seat executive and was elected to go with Thorne to the International Congress.
There she delivered the first national report to be done by a woman. Eleanor worked tirelessly for working-class unity and internationalism. She campaigned for unity between male and female workers, fighting against the idea that male workers should be the sole breadwinners and showing that where women organized, wages and conditions improved for everyone.
Female labor made up nearly one-third of the total adult labor force in 1881 and Eleanor saw the economic independence of women as an important step in the organization of the working class at a time when, as she said, men looked on women “as domestic animals, more or less his personal property”. She explained that the double burden women carried of work in the home and for starvation wages, made it difficult to organize women, but was vital nonetheless.
A resolution on equal rights for both sexes was passed at the 1891 International Congress. But she made it clear that passing a well-intentioned motion was not enough, it had to be campaigned for as well. Eleanor raised issues to advance women workers wherever she went. In a speech supporting Crosse & Blackwell onion skinner strikers she urged the women to check that their partners had a fully paid up trade union card or else they should show them the door.
The lack of a mass workers’ press and labor party was a weakness in the British labor movement but Eleanor saw the possibility of achieving these through the New Unionism movement. Unfortunately, she did not live long enough to see the formation of the Labour Party in which she could have played a vital role as well as in the campaign for the women’s vote.
In 1917 she would have seen the Marxist politics developed by her father and continued by her coming to life with the Russian revolution. It is our responsibility to ensure that Eleanor’s campaigning for workers’ unity and internationalism is put back on the agenda as we go into a new century.