January 2017        


“Tussy is me”

Jenny Farrell

Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014).

Reminiscing about Karl Marx in a letter to her soulmate Olive Schreiner, Eleanor Marx wrote: “Our natures were so exactly alike . . . I remember his once saying . . . talking of my eldest sister and of me . . . ‘Jenny is most like me, but Tussy (my dear old home name) is me.’”
     Eleanor, youngest daughter of Karl Marx, has been the fascinating topic of several biographies. For two reasons. Firstly, there is the interest in the everyday life of the Marx family. Secondly, Eleanor Marx—or Tussy, as she was called by her family and friends—played a distinguished role in British socialist history. Following the biography by the Japanese historian Chushichi Tsuzuki in 1967, Yvonne Kapp brought out her two-volume life in 1972 and 1976. Recently, in 2014, Rachel Holmes published her account, entitled Eleanor Marx.
     Eleanor Marx’s life and work is worth keeping in public awareness. It allows the generation of the twenty-first century a close-up look at this family, with whose name is linked the birth of scientific communism, the discovery of historical and dialectical materialism, the laws inherent in capital. In the person of Eleanor in particular, the modern reader learns something of how this theory was implemented in the practice of nineteenth-century Britain and the working-class struggle. As Holmes puts it, “to say that Eleanor Marx grew up living and breathing historical materialism and socialism is therefore a literal description and not a metaphor.”
     Rachel Holmes’s biography of Eleanor Marx is not a through-the-back-door biography of Karl Marx, and his writings are mentioned only in relation to the life of his youngest daughter.
     The account is unashamedly partisan and concentrates on the feminist viewpoint. It takes Tussy’s point of view from beginning to end and alerts the reader to the “baddies” and the “goodies” in her life as they appear. This takes away a little from the book’s value as a piece of historical research but has the advantage of making it a “good read” for those who simply want an informative and entertaining introduction that will engender further interest and reading.
     There is much to be discovered by the newcomer to Tussy’s life and the British working-class movement in the nineteenth century. The Marx family lived in poverty, and Engels was instrumental in Marx’s survival and work in many ways. Tussy, like so many women of her age, was educated at home. What this schooling entailed is noteworthy. At the age of nine she wrote the following to her great-uncle during the Polish insurrection: “I hear from Papa that you are a great politician, so we are sure to agree. How do you think Poland is getting on? I always hold up a finger for the Poles, those brave little fellows.”
     The principles of capital, surplus value and alienation were told by Marx to his daughters in the famous endless family story about Hans Röckle. Tussy writes:
Hans Röckle himself was a Hoffmann-like magician, who kept a toyshop, and who was always “hard up.” His shop was full of the most wonderful things—of wooden men and women, giants and dwarfs, kings and queens, workmen and masters, animals and birds as numerous as Noah got into the Arc, tables and chairs, carriages, boxes of all sorts and sizes. And though he was a magician, Hans could never meet his obligations either to the devil or the butcher, and was therefore—much against the grain—constantly obliged to sell his toys to the devil. These then went through wonderful adventures—always ending in a return to Hans Röckle’s shop.
      As a matter of course she was brought up on Shakespeare and Shelley, and international politics, and knew personally many of the great activists of her age.
     The Paris Commune was one of the central historical events of the Marx family’s lifetime. Eleanor also took a fervent interest in Ireland and the Irish struggle, largely thanks to her friendship with Engels’s partner Mary and subsequently Lizzie Burns. She was a personal friend and peer of George Bernard Shaw. She knew Karl Liebknecht as a child. Further, she did a great deal to promote the work of Ibsen in Britain and was actively involved in working-class education.
     Her supreme work in the collection and protection of Marx’s legacy, along with Engels, her active involvement in trade unionism and the socialist movement, all form an insightful part of Holmes’s book.
     Holmes focuses in particular on Tussy’s experience as a woman in these struggles, and on her theoretical writing on women’s emancipation, which she deemed an integral part of the liberation of the working class as a whole. She was conversant with and built on the seminal texts on women after the French Revolution, when the idea of human equality was put on the historical agenda, beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism (1879)—banned in Germany—and Frederick Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Tussy’s own text is entitled The Woman Question (1886) and was written jointly with Edward Aveling (a serious baddie). And, of course, she experienced at first hand the treatment of women in the nineteenth century, and her emancipatory, truly Marxist stand on this pervaded her whole life and writings.
     The secret about Freddy Demuth is no longer a secret, of course, but I will not reveal “spoilers” here, only that Tussy herself commented on him thus in a letter to her sister Laura in 1892: “I know I always meet Freddy with a sense of guilt and wrong done. The life of that man! To hear him tell of it all is a misery and shame to me.” Towards the end of her life (I withhold more “spoilers”), Freddy became Tussy’s closest friend.
     Do read this book to gain an insight into the history of socialism as it happens in the life of one of its great proponents.

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