Women fighters and revolutionaries
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
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 organisation" 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
organised into trade unions.
However hard Eleanor and her partner found it to make ends meet,
writing articles and translating books, she recognised this was
nothing compared to the absolute poverty of workers. She relished the
opportunity to be involved in mass working-class organisations 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
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 organised, wages and
conditions improved for everyone.
Female labour made up nearly one-third of the total adult labour
force in 1881 and Eleanor saw the economic independence of women as an
important step in the organisation 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 organise 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 labour party was a weakness
in the British labour 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
revolu-tion. 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.