Today in London radical history: betrayed by her lover, socialist Eleanor Marx kills herself, Sydenham, 1898.

Eleanor Marx, Karl’s daughter, a socialist and trade unionist, was heavily involved in leftwing politics, both domestically and on the burgeoning international scene, from her teens until her death. She was a member of the pioneering socialist organization, the Social Democratic Federation, and then part of the large minority that split away, disillusioned with the authoritarianism, racism and opportunism of the SDF’s founder HM Hyndman, to form the Socialist League in 1885. With lover Edward Aveling, she founded the Bloomsbury branch of the League. To great scandal at the time, Eleanor and Aveling lived together in Bloomsbury, unmarried.

Although Eleanor did see her open co-habitation with Aveling as rejecting “immoral bourgeois conventionalities”, she wasn’t really a campaigner for Free Love. She did view women as being the most oppressed in the capitalist society of her day, but didn’t believe it was best addressed on a domestic or personal level, focussing instead on collective solutions – especially to the struggles of working class women.

Setting up home with Aveling, Eleanor discovered that she hated housework. Uniquely among Marx’s family (and the middle class generally then), she had no servants – she couldn’t afford it, and again, unlike Marx and most of his family, she was reluctant to continually tap Marx’s well-financed mate Friedrich Engels for cash. She attempted to support herself writing essays and reviews, lecturing on Shakespeare, and teaching.

The Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League, which grew to 80 members at one point, met for a while (February 1886) at the Eagle and Child coffee house in Soho’s Old Compton Street; layer at the Arlington Hall, Rathbone Place, (June 1886)l but they also held events at other nearby venues, including the Athenaeum Hall, 73 Tottenham Court Road, where they put on an evening of Musical and Dramatic Entertainment. Eleanor also lectured in Bloomsbury’s Hart Street (now Bloomsbury Way), in Neumeyer Hall, for the annual socialist commemoration of the Paris Commune in March 1885 (a speech praised even by the SDF’s HM Hyndman, no mate of Eleanor, who called it “one of the finest speeches I ever heard”. At another Commune commemoration, held at the ‘Store Street hall’ off Gower Street in March 1888, she spoke on a platform with Hyndman, William Morris, Kropotkin, Annie Besant and John Burns. Interestingly Eleanor and Aveling also celebrated an earlier sometime Bloomsbury resident, Shelley, in two lectures on ‘Shelley and Socialism’ in 1888, later published as a pamphlet.

But if the Socialist League was united mainly by opposition to Hyndman, it was divided by many principles and tactics. Eleanor and Aveling, as well as others of the membership, especially in the Bloomsbury branch, were in favour of parliamentary representation and campaigning in elections, a minority position in the League, which increasingly became dominated by anarchists or anti-parliamentary socialists. From the start Eleanor and Aveling were hostile to the anarchists, not only politically, but because they saw them as easy meat for the many police spies sniffing round the broad socialist movement. Growing internal differences manifested as bitter faction fighting and attempts by the Bloomsbury branch to capture the League for their position; at the SL’s fourth annual conference their resolutions proposing the standing of candidates in local and parliamentary elections, and for moving towards uniting with other socialist groups were defeated. The widening split to led to their eventual departure in 1888 (they were suspended after it emerged they had put up local election candidates jointly with the SDF that April, and had encouraged joint membership, despite League policy), after which they reformed themselves as the Bloomsbury Socialist Society, which helped to organise the first British May Day demo in 1890. The Society met weekly at the Communist Club in Tottenham Street from 1890 to 1893.

Eleanor was very active in trade union work, especially with the Gasworkers Union and with striking East End matchgirls in 1888; and while on the one hand the Bloomsbury ‘faction’ undoubtedly intrigued and supped on parliamentary illusions, they also rejected the purist attitudes of the Socialist League towards workers striving for immediate improvements in their day to day lives, which isolated some socialists from much working class organisation.

Eleanor may have been down on the anarchists; she was more complimentary about the Fabians, many of who were personal friends, though she thought their politics misguided, and even the Christian Socialists, who she considered sincere, though again she called their mix of Christianity and socialism “ludicrous”.

But Eleanor’s long-time lover Edward Aveling was a cad, as they used to say; infamous in the secularist and socialist circles the couple moved in, for philandering, poncing (and sometimes embezzling) money and never repaying, two-timing Eleanor and generally behaving anti-socially. At the same time he genuinely dedicated his sharp mind to both Darwinism and Marx’s ‘scientific socialism’. Shaw called him “an agreeable rascal… who would have gone to the stake for Socialism or Atheism, but with absolutely no conscience in his private life…” “In revolt against all bourgeois conventions, Aveling did not replace them by any moral concern, but simply filled the vacuum with his own egotism…” (EP Thompson) His amoral attitudes gradually alienated many fellow socialists – for instance William Morris, who worked with Aveling closely in 1883-6, was by late 1887 calling him a “disreputable dog”; admittedly, though, they had fallen out politically by then.

For all their shared life, unmarried in defiance of bourgeois convention, he later betrayed Eleanor by secretly marrying someone else, after a number of other affairs, and a despairing Eleanor, who had long defended Aveling against the criticisms of fellow socialists, killed herself at her home in Sydenham in 1898, by swallowing prussic acid. Aveling himself died later the same year.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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