I had a lovely trip to London at the start of the summer break with my BFF J. (and you probably recall the book shopping and the results of that lack of control…); and part of the visit involved dropping in to the British Library to see a little display of Karl and Eleanor Marx items. Karl, of course, I first read decades ago when I picked up The Communist Manifesto, with a little trepidation, and was relieved to find I didn’t feel thick and it made perfect sense. His daughter Eleanor had I think been on my radar long before that; I stumbled across the Russian Revolution when we studied it at school, and around that time there was a BBC drama based around Eleanor’s life which I watched. This obviously focused on the dramatic and romantic side of her life, and it seems to often be the tendency that people remember the scandal and her suicide rather than her achievements.

Anyway, I spent some of my time in London mooching around bookshops (nothing new there…) trying to see what Eleanor Marx books might be available. As I said at the time, there was a massive biography from Verso that was originally published by Virago in two volumes; but it was humongous and I couldn’t really justify it (or, indeed, carry it…) However, a visit to lovely left-wing bookshop Bookmarks (which was shamefully attacked by right-wingers not long after) revealed a small but perfectly formed volume called “A Rebel’s Guide to Eleanor Marx” by Siobhan Brown. Part of a short series of guides published by Bookmarks themselves, it seemed the ideal way to find out more about Eleanor. Well, maybe…

The book is 57 pages long and sets out to reclaim Marx’s politics from her personal life. On the plus side, it’s concise, puts her life in context, gives a good outline of her work and acts as an excellent introduction to Eleanor Marx’s achievements. She was living in interesting times: much of the life and work of the Marxes was informed by events in France; the Paris Commune of 1871 had a profound effect on left-wing thinking in Britain, and Eleanor translated a first person account by Propser-Olivier Lissagary, amongst other things.

She was very much ahead of her time with her anti-imperialistic outlook and her recognition of the political division between working-class and middle-class feminists with their differing focus and needs. However, I’m not sure I concur with her assertion that women’s interests were best served by them taking part in a working-class revolution alongside men and not one of their own; if that was the case, I think we wouldn’t have needed the Suffragettes and the various waves of feminism that recurred through the twentieth century. I’m afraid I don’t agree that all men of any class are necessarily going to agree to live, work, earn and revolt on equal terms with women – even in the twenty-first century. But that’s just cynical old me.

By Grace Black (National Portrait Gallery, London) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Rebel’s Guide…” was interesting in many ways, and it gave me a strong sense of the world and events Marx lived through, and occasionally her part in them; but the problem was I got no real sense of the woman herself, and the book was too wide-ranging in its focus, not really pinpointing her achievements enough for my liking. There was a tendency to set the political scene, relate the events of the time (and these were all fascinating) and then mention Marx’s involvement as almost an afterthought. I can understand the need to redress the imbalance of coverage only being of Marx’s personal life, but this went so much in the other direction that she appeared a little ghost-like in her own book, popping up here and there to become involved in the action but not really taking on enough of a presence.

So I enjoyed “The Rebel’s Guide…” for what it told me about the political and social world of Marx’s time and for the outline of her active life that it gave me; but I think I will have to look further to see if I can find something else that will give me a more wide-ranging look at Eleanor Marx’s life and work. This was an interesting little book, but not quite what I expected to read! 😀

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