Tussy – Eleanor Marx and the Early Socialist Movement in Great Britain

In January, 1855, Karl and Jenny Marx, their daughters, Jenny and Laura, and their son, Edgar, were living in two rooms at 28 Dean St. Soho Square, London. In 1851, a third daughter had been born, but only lived for one year. But in January, 1855, a fourth daughter, who they named Eleanor, was born. In March, however, much to Karl and Jenny Marx’s distress, the nine year old Edgar died. Nevertheless, the arrival of Eleanor was a great joy to them. “Tussy”, as she was later called, was soon the “idolised darling of the whole house”. And of her, Jenny Marx wrote in a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer in America, on the 11th of March, 1861:

“The child was born when our poor little Edgar died, and all the love and tenderness we bore him was transferred to his little sister, and the older girls looked after her and nursed her with almost motherly care. But then it would really be difficult to find a more lovable child, as pretty as a picture and sweet tempered…the child has learned German, and speaks it with remarkable accuracy and grammatical precision, and, naturally, she has learned English as a matter of course. The child is Karl’s favourite, and her laughter and her merry chatter dispel any of his worries”.

Karl Marx was a great lover of children. He was no authoritarian. The girls treated him more as a playmate than a father; and they called him “the Moor”, a nickname given to him on account of his jet-black hair and dark complexion. “Children must educate their parents”, he would say. And during this period he remained completely aloof from all political activities, and concentrated on his studies and journalism.

Marx would take his three daughters, Jenny, Laura, and young Eleanor, for outings into the country on Sundays; their favourite destination being Hampstead Heath, with a magnificent view of London, and the hills and valleys surrounding the city, from Jack Straw’s Castle.

At home, Marx would read to Eleanor the stories of Bluebeard or Rumpelstilzchen by the brothers Grimm. And he would recount his version of the life of Jesus, in which he depicted Jesus as a poor carpenter’s son who had been unjustly executed by the rich and powerful. In 1856, the Marx family moved to Grafton Terrace, Haverstock Hill, near Hampstead Heath.

When Eleanor was sixteen, a French radical, Prosper Olivier Lissagaray, who later wrote a history of the Paris Commune of 1871, in whose ranks he fought, fell in love with her, courted her, and proposed marriage. Eleanor seems to have been favourably inclined towards Lissagaray; but Karl was doubtful about his reliability, despite Eleanor’s mother, Jenny, approved the match, and in the end, after much hesitation, nothing came of it. Eleanor was obliged to remain at home. As she got older, she became her father’s secretary, and conducted much of Marx’s correspondence with the International Workingmen’s Association. Eleanor Marx loved to recite poetry and to act, and her father encouraged her to take dramatic lessons. In 1875, the family moved again, to Maitland Park Road, in the same area.

In autumn of 1878, Marx’s wife Jenny, became dangerously ill. She was suffering from incurable cancer. In June 1881, Karl went down with a violent attack of pleurisy, complicated with bronchitis and pneumonia. Eleanor nursed them both. She wrote:

“Mother lay in the big front room and the Moor lay in the little room next to it. The two who had grown used to each other, whose lives had completely intertwined, could no longer be in the same room together. The Moor got over his illness once again. I shall never forget the morning when he felt himself strong enough to get up and go into my mother’s room. It was as though they were young again together – she a loving girl, and he an ardent youth starting out together through life, and not an old man shattered by ill-health and a dying old lady taking leave of each other for ever”

And on the 2nd of December, 1881, Karl Marx’s wife, Jenny died. There was no ceremony at her funeral, although Frederick Engels spoke at the graveside.

In June, 1881, a small book, England for All, was published. It was written by Henry Myer Hyndman, who claimed it to represent the programme of an organisation called the Democratic Federation, which he had just formed. This annoyed Marx, as much of the book consisted of English translations of extracts from Marx’s Capital, together with a few summaries of Marx’s ideas; but Hyndman mentioned neither Capital or Marx, and merely commented at the conclusion of the Preface that he was indebted “to the work of a great thinker” for much of the material. Marx broke off all relations with Hyndman.

Following his wife’s death, Karl Marx’s health again deteriorated; his daughter, Jenny also died on the 11th of January, 1883, and in the afternoon of the 14th of March, whilst sitting in his easy chair, Karl Marx fell asleep for the last time. As with his wife, there was no ceremony at the funeral, but again Engels spoke at the graveside. Laura had married Paul Lafargue in 1867.

Eleanor Marx was now alone. She, therefore, soon became more socially and politically active. Shortly after the death of her father, Eleanor met Beatrice Potter (later to become Mrs Sidney Webb) who was involved in charity work and freethinking. In 1883, W.G. Foot, the editor of the The Freethinker, was jailed for blasphemy. Eleanor was, in the words of Potter, “very wrath”. It was useless arguing with her, she noted in her diary:

“She refused to recognise the beauty of the Christian religion. She thought that Christ if he had ever existed, was a weak-headed individual, with a good deal of sweetness of character, but lacking in heroism…The aim of socialists was to make people disregard the mythical next world and live for this world, and insist on having what will make it pleasant for them.”

Potter added that Eleanor Marx “lives alone, and is much connected with the Bradlaugh set”. Charles Bradlaugh, although not a socialist, was a well-known radical, republican and freethinker. But within a year of Karl Marx’s death, Eleanor had entered into a “free association”, or liaison, with one of this “set”, Dr. Edward Aveling, a physician and, at the time, a teacher of science, who with Bradlaugh and Annie Beasant, was a leading secularist. Eleanor had by then a secretarial job in “a better class boarding-school”; but when she openly announced the situation, they said that they regretted to have to sack her. “I need work much”, she informed Havelock Ellis, “but find it difficult to get. ‘Respectable’ people won’t employ me”

A number of Eleanor’s friends tried to discourage her interest in Edward Aveling, but without success. But following their association, Aveling became active in the emerging socialist and social-democratic movement, and, in fits and starts, became a lecturer and writer, and later on a translator of some of Karl Marx’s writings. But according to Edmund Wilson there was something odd about Aveling:

“…he was extremely undependable about money::he not only skipped out of hotels without paying the bills, but he borrowed money from his friends right and left, and even when he knew they had little, without ever paying it back; and he did not hesitate to use for his own purposes the funds which had been given to the cause” (To the Finland Station)

At one time, Aveling tried being an actor; he wrote several one-act plays, in which he and Eleanor acted. He also had luxurious tastes

Eleanor Marx joined the Democratic Federation in 1883, as did William Morris who hoped that it would become a socialist organisation. And in August, 1884, at its conference, the Democratic Federation became the Social-Democratic Federation. Its “ultimate” objective was:

“The establishment of a free condition of society based on the principle of political equality with equal social rights for all and the complete emancipation of labour”

To this ultimate objective, the Social-Democratic Federation added a number of immediate demands which it called “palliatives”; these included the abolition of a standing army, free compulsory, secular education, and the means of production, distribution and exchange to be treated as collective or common property. But neither the SDF’s immediate or ultimate objective included the abolition of the wages system as proposed by Karl Marx as early as 1865.

Edward Aveling had also applied for membership of the [Social-]Democratic Federation; and, although the Executive Council, and Hyndman, did not want him in the organisation, they deferred to pressure by Eleanor and a number of her French and German friends, who wrote letters to the Council on Aveling’s behalf, and he was admitted. They, together with William Morris, Robert Banner, E Belfort Bax, and a number of other members of the Council, soon came into conflict with the autocratic leader, Hyndman, whom Frederick Engels called an “extreme chauvinist”

The break with Hyndman, and the Social-Democratic Federation, came at a stormy meeting on the 27th of December, 1884, at which Morris read out a statement which, in part, read:

“…We believe that to hold out as baits hopes of amelioration of the condition of the workers, to be rung out of the necessities of the rival factions of our privileged rulers, is delusive and mischievous. For carrying out our aim of education and organisation no over-shadowing and indispensable leader is required, but only a band of instructed men, each of whom can learn learn to fulfil, as occasion requires it, the simple functions of the leader of a party of principle.

We say that on the other hand there has been in the ranks of the Social-Democratic Federation a tendency to political opportunism, which if developed would have involved us in alliances, however temporary, with one or other of the political factions, and would have weakened our propagandist force by driving us into electioneering, and possibly would have deprived us of the due services of some of our most energetic men, by sending them to our sham parliament, there to become either nonentities, or perhaps our masters, and it may be our betrayers. We say also that among those who favoured these views of political adventure, there was a tendency towards National assertion, the persistent foe of socialism; and it is easy to see how dangerous this might become in times like the present.

Furthermore, these views have led, as they were sure to lead, to attempts at arbitrary rule inside the Federation; for such a policy as above demands a skillful and shifty leader, to whom all persons and opinions must be subordinated, and who must be supported (if necessary) at the expense of fairness and fraternal openness…

….our view of duty to the cause of socialism forbids us to cease spreading its principles or to work as mere individuals. We have, therefore, set on foot an independent organisation, the Socialist League, with no intention of acting in hostility to the Social-Democratic Federation, but determined to spread the principles of socialism by the only means we deem effectual.”

The first two signatories to the statement were those of Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx.

The Socialist League was formally founded on the 30th of December, 1884. Following the “To Socialists” statement, partly quoted above, “The Manifesto of the Socialist League”, which as largely written by William Morris, was published in The Commonweal, which as edited by Morris with Aveling as sub-editor. The Manifesto set out in some detail the ideas of not just Morris, or Eleanor Marx, but the emerging, still contradictory, socialist movement of the 1880s in Britain. Its main arguments and conclusions are worth quoting.

It begins:

“We come before you as a body advocating Revolutionary International Socialism; that is, we seek a change in the basis of Society – a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities.

As the civilised world is at present constituted there are two classes in society: the one possessing wealth and the instruments of production, the other producing wealth by means of those instruments, but only by the leave and the use of the possessing class.

The two classes are necessarily in antagonism to one another. The possessing class, or non-producers, can only live as a class on the unpaid labour of the producers – the more unpaid labour they can wring out of them, the richer they will be; therefore the producing class – the workers – are driven to strive to better themselves at the expense of the possessing class and the conflict between them is ceaseless.”

And the Manifesto of the Socialist League continues:

“All the means of the production of wealth must be declared treated as the common property of all…Nationalisation of land alone, which many earnest and sincere persons are now preaching, would be useless so long as labour was subject to the fleecing of surplus value under the capitalist system.

No better solution would be State Socialism, by whatever name it may be called, whose aim it would be to make concessions to the working class while leaving the present system of capital and wages in operation: no number of merely administrative changes, until the workers are in possession of all political power, would make any real approach to Socialism

The Socialist League therefore aims at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism, and well knows that this can never happen in any one country without the help of the workers of all civilisation…

…To the realisation of this change the Socialist League addresses itself with all earnestness. As a means thereto will do all in its power towards the education of the people in the principles of this great cause, and will strive to organise those who will accept this education….”

At the same time as the Manifesto of the Socialist League was written, a draft constitution was prepared, with encouragement by Engels, by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. It committed the Socialist League to “striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Local Governments, School Boards and other administrative bodies”. Their draft, however, was rejected by a majority of the membership at the League’s first annual conference in July, 1885

Despite the Socialist League’s official policy of the working class conquering “political power”, and opposition to “palliatives”, or what socialists now refer to as “reformism”, the organisation soon demonstrated that, among its active members, were anarchists whose main concern was the destruction of the state, and reformers whose policies included the passing of the Eight Hour Bill. Furthermore, the Socialist League was not entirely opposed to the idea of nationalisation; and socialists such as William Morris and Eleanor Marx, and the socialist movement generally, had not, as yet, completely rejected the notion of leadership as a principle, although they were opposed to the “arbitrary” leadership of people like Hyndman; this was partly understandable at the time, and was due to the fact that many workers, including active Trade Unionists, were still illiterate or , at least, only semi-literate. Another weakness of such people as Eleanor Marx, William Morris and Edward Aveling, was that although they had left the Social-Democratic Federation, and formed the Socialist League, they had “no intention of acting in hostility to the Social-Democratic Federation”. It was twenty years before socialists realised that a party organised solely for the establishment of socialism would have to oppose other parties, including the SDF.

The Socialist League appeared to get off to a good start; indeed, just before its founding, Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky that Ernest Belfort Bax and Edward Aveling had “the best intentions and learn a lot too; but everything is confused and by themselves these literary people can do nothing; they are both thoroughly sound, intelligent and sincere although needing great assistance”. However, by 1886, Engels noted that Bax was strongly influenced by the anarchists. Indeed, Engels wrote in April, 1886, that “…the anarchists are making rapid progress in the Socialist League”. The main arguments were between those who considered that the working class, through a socialist organisation or party, could, or should, use parliament as a means to emancipation, which included Eleanor Marx, and those such as the anarchists, who did not. Morris attempted to reconcile both camps, writing in 1887:

“I am trying to get the League to make peace with each other, and hold together for another year. It is a tough job.”

Edward Aveling had already resigned as sub-editor of Commonweal early in 1886. He had been encouraged in this by Eleanor, who, by 1887, was calling the League “a swindle”. And Bax, whom Engels had accused of being influenced by the anarchists, and who had succeeded Aveling as sub-editor of Commonweal also resigned, and supported the policy of the League contesting elections. William Morris was concerned with “making socialists”, and considered that the only time that socialists should enter parliament was when a majority had become socialists and parliament should be abolished or “broken up”. Morris was also opposed to the Socialist League advocating palliatives [he changed his mind some time later]

By the time of the 1888 conference, the various factions within the League had grown even more irreconcilable. However, while the various factions were tearing the League apart, working-class discontent was growing. John Quail comments:

“In the Trade Unions a sharper, more militant note was being struck. At the TUC conference the young Keir Hardie clashed with the Liberal’s lap-dog, Broadhurst. A determined attempt to get an Eight Hour campaign under way in the Engineering Union and the TUC was made. John Burns and Tom Mann were active in this campaign. New organisations in the provinces, the Labour Federation on Tyneside and the Knights of Labour in the Midlands, proved surprisingly effective and grew rapidly. New organisational attempts also met with some success among the seamen. This new militancy was both spread by socialists and proved responsive to them” (The Slow Burning Fuse)

Not surprisingly, this included Eleanor Marx.

In 1883, in his The Historical Basis of Socialism, H.M. Hyndman explained his, and to some extent the SDF’s, view of Trade Unions. He wrote:

“The waste of the Trade Union funds on strikes or petty benefits to the individuals who compose them is deplorable. Enormous sums have been lost, directly, or indirectly, in consequence of strikes which, if applied by Unionists to active propaganda against the existing system…would long since have produced a serious effect.”

However, others, including Eleanor Marx, held a view that workers should resist the attempts by employers to depress their standards of living and, here circumstances were favourable, improve them, yet at the same time they should, through a political organisation or party, strive for the abolition of the system, capitalism, which exploits them.

Nevertheless, a “new” unionism was beginning to take over from the “old” unionism; the general from the craft. In 1888, the mainly female workers of the match factory of Bryant and May went on strike, which was largely successful. The dock strike of 1889 was probably the most dramatic conflict of the period, as it was a struggle of the most depressed section of the working-class who, hitherto, were considered unorganisable. The victory of the dockers was a victory for elementary Trade Union rights which led to a vast movement among both skilled and unskilled workers. The Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union was formed out of the strike. Even agricultural workers revived their unions.

During the dock strike of I889, writes Tom Mann,

“Offers of clerical help were numerous during the strike. One of these volunteers who rendered valuable service was Eleanor Marx Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx, a most capable woman. Possessing a complete masterly of economics, she was able alike in conversation and on a public platform, to hold her own with the best. Furthermore, she was ever ready, as in this case, to give close attention to detailed work, when by doing so she could help the movement” (Tom Mann Memoirs)

The Gasworkers and General Labourers Union was the first of the “new” unions for mainly unskilled workers. Formed in 1889, by sheer eight of numbers, the union exchanged their twelve-hour shifts for an eight hour day without a strike. Although, they subsequently lost it again, the old hours were never resumed. Shortly after the union’s founding, Eleanor Marx became a member and, later, as a member of its first women’s branch became a member of its Executive. Will Thorne, the union’s general secretary, had no education as a child; and he recounted who Eleanor helped him to improve his reading and writing, “which was very bad at the time”

In 1892, a Preamble To The Rules of the GGLU as drafted by Eleanor Marx and probably Edward Aveling. It reads:

“Trade Unionism has done excellent work in the past, and in it lies the hope of the workers for the future; that is the Trade Unionism which clearly recognises that today there are only two classes, the producing working-class and the possessing Master class. The interests of these two classes are opposed to each other. The Masters have known this a long time; the workers are beginning to see it, and so they are forming Trade Unions to protect themselves, and to get as much as they can of the product of their labour. They are beginning to understand that their only hope lies in themselves, and that from the masters as a class they can expect no hope; that divided they fall, united they stand…the interests of all workers are one, and a wrong done to any kind of labour is a wrong done to the whole of the Working Class, and that victory or defeat of any portion of the Army of Labour is a gain or a loss to whole Army, which by its organisation and Union is marching steadily and irresistibly forward to its ultimate goal – the Emancipation of the Working Class – that Emancipation can only be brought about by the strenuous and united efforts of the Working Class itself. Workers Unite!”

Eleanor Marx was not, however, blind to the limitations of trade unionism; nor to the necessity of workers studying the economics of the system that exploited them. Far from it.

From the 16th of August, 1856, to the 1st of April, 1857, Karl Marx wrote a series of articles, under the title of “Revelations of Diplomatic History of the 18th Century” for the Free Press. These articles were later edited by Eleanor Marx in a book, “Secret Diplomatic History of the 18th Century” was published in 1899. Eleanor also published, under the title of the “Eastern Question”, a series of articles Marx wrote in 1855 for the New York Tribune.

More importantly, from the working-class viewpoint however, was the debate that Karl Marx had with John Weston, a member of the General Council of the First International, in 1865, in which he read a paper on wages, profit, prices, value, labour and labour-power, and the production of surplus value. At the time, Marx did not agree to its publication, as he had not finished his studies on Capital. The manuscript was then forgotten until after Engel’s death in 1895, when it was discovered by Eleanor Marx, who edited it, with assistance from Edward Aveling, under the title of Value, Price and Profit; and it was published early in 1899.

It was in the ultimate paragraph, and well-known to Eleanor, that Marx had expounded his view on Trade Unions, wherein he wrote:

“Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised forces a a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system”

It was during the mid-1890s that Eleanor Marx, again with some assistance from Aveling, conducted economics classes. These, or at least some of them, were held at 337 Strand, London, which at the time was the head office of the SDF. (see, for example, Eleanor’s letter to Mary Gray, a prominent member of the SDF, dated, 25.9.96, regarding “classes” http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/1990s/1999/no-1139-july-1999/mary-gray-and-eleanor-marx )

Indeed, it was at such classes that Jack Fitzgerald and two or three other younger members of the SDF, who later founded the Socialist Party, first learned their Marxian economics in general and the theory of value in particular

Frederick Engels was devoted to “Tussy”, as he called Eleanor, and often continued to entertain both Eleanor and Edward Aveling when other guests told him that if Aveling came they would not. Edward Bernstein seems to have found Aveling “very clever”, and that he and Eleanor were of “great service to the socialist movement”; but Olive Schreiner wrote to Havelock Ellis, saying “I am beginning to have a horror of Dr. Aveling. To say I dislike him doesn’t express it at all. I have a fear and horror of him when I am near. Every time I see him this shrinking grows stronger…I love her, but he makes me so unhappy”.

He also made Eleanor unhappy; but she did not desert him. In 1893, the “disreputable” Edward Aveling joined the newly-formed Independent Labour Party. Engels was, by then, living in London. He would have nothing to do with Hyndman, who he accused of taking money from the Tories. However, Engels enjoyed his remaining years in London; and he entertained freely. But by 1894, he was aware that he was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus, and was unable to speak, but could still write. He died on the 5th of August, 1895.

Aveling was unfaithful to Eleanor. Every so often he disappeared. Towards the end of 1897, he disappeared again. On the 24th of January, 1898, Eleanor Marx wrote to Mary Gray, in which she said:

“I would have been to see you, but as you know, Edward has been dangerously ill. He is now at Hastings, but though the lung trouble seems better, it seems certain that he must soon – in a year or so – undergo a most dangerous operation…the operation is so dangerous that there is the utmost danger. But without the operation there seems no hope at all.”

Eleanor nursed him following his operation until he was well, although she was, by then, aware that he was in love with another woman. Aveling informed her that, during the time that he has been away in Hastings, he had – his first wife having in the meantime died – married a young actress. On receiving the news, Eleanor Marx committed suicide by taking poison. Aveling inherited the small amount of money that Engels had left Eleanor, and went to live with his new wife. A few months later he too died – in an easy-chair, in the sunshine, reading a book.

Just four years after the death of Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling, Jack Fitzgerald, who had been one of Eleanor’s students at her economic classes, together with a number of other London members of the SDF, rebelled (they also had been, like Eleanor Marx holding economic classes!) and, by early 1904, had either been expelled or had resigned; and, together with around 150 others former members of the Social-Democratic Federation, founded the Socialist Party of Great Britain, which opposed the advocacy of reforms or palliatives. It adopted an object and declaration of principles, largely drawn up by Fitzgerald. It was socialism – and nothing else!


Some Quotes of Eleanor

“It is a truism, and therefore it is constantly repeated, that no social movement is worth much until it has enlisted the sympathies, aesthetic and practical, of women. The Socialists are constantly preaching this obvious doctrine. They are constantly appealing to women, not on the basis of woman’s rights as against man’s, but of the rights of men, women, and their children of the working classes as against the capitalists. That is the essential difference that marks off the women’s rights movement on the one hand, and the socialist movement of men and women together on the other.”


“There are those who accuse us of being, to say the least, “unpractical,” because instead of trying “to help where we can” we demand a revolution. I maintain that we Socialists alone are truly practical, because we alone dare to go to the root of the ill. Ask a doctor to cure a patient living under absolutely unhealthy conditions in the midst of pestilential air and unsanitary surroundings. He will tell you you must change these surroundings if you would save the life of the individual. We but apply to many, to all individuals — i.e., to society — what the doctor applies to the one. We say so long as human beings are the slaves they now are — whether they be the slaves of wealth or of poverty — this disease must continue.”


All the hideous evils of our modern society in which the small class of unproductive exploiter fattens upon the unpaid labour of the workers; in which men, women and children are driven to compete against each other for a starvation wage, and in which the women — the wives and daughters and sisters of the wage-slaves — have to sell themselves to the man of family and property, all these monstrous conditions render “Social Reforms,” in Bebel’s opinion, an impossibility. They can only be cured by a Social revolution.