Socialist Feminism

Eleanor Marx

Dana Naomi Mills & Kaufman

[Lucy Kaufman’s new play about Eleanor Marx (the daughter of Karl Marx who was an important artist as well as activist), which makes this a valuable moment to re-examine the life and thought of this important revolutionary socialist feminist.]

Eleanor marx changed the world. Foremother of socialist-feminism, trade unionist, internationalist, her father’s first biographer and editor of his key works, she had left a colossal heritage in many spheres of life. Rachel Holmes, in her extraordinary Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury, 2014), gives us a glimpse into Eleanor, the woman. She was called by her family and friends Tussy (Holmes tells us, her parents said, to rhyme with pussy not fussy; cats she adored, fussy she was not). She loved Shakespeare, both Shelley’s, good poetry and bad puns; white was her favourite color and champagne her idea of happiness. (She was in fact the first champagne socialist!)

Holmes’s new biography of Eleanor Marx was a major intervention in the field of historiography and feminist theory on the left. Since Yvonne Kapp’s monumental two-volume 1970s biography, Eleanor had not received significant scholarly attention. Holmes’s book captivated minds and hearts around the globe. Eleanor’s formidable work touches upon so many realms of life and Holmes’s intervention allows her for long overdue recognition; the GMB, the trade union she help founded (as the Gas Workers Union), now celebrates Eleanor Marx Day on Tussy’s birthday, January 16; and gives away the Eleanor Marx Award to an outstanding woman campaigner at its annual congress. Tara Bergin wrote a multiple award nominated poetry collection, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx,” in which she explores the life and death of this formidable woman in an art form Tussy cared about deeply. (It was Eleanor who first quoted from Shelley’s eponymous Masque of Anarchy, later recited by millions of young people after the Labour Party Leader followed in her footsteps in the 2017 election campaign.) It is apt that Tussy gets a tribute in the art form she cared about so much. Since she produced and wrote about theatre throughout her life, the effects of the book would not be perfect until Tussy got her play.

Eleanor Marx was very busy around 1886-1887. She wrote and published the first two enunciations of socialist-feminism in the English language, “The Working-Class Movement in America” and “The Woman Question (from a Socialist Point of View).” She also translated the first-ever English edition of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and put on the first ever production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

Through all these actions, as Holmes argues forcefully, Eleanor intervenes in debates over [what was then called] the “Woman Question.” Like her friend and Clara Zetkin, Eleanor argues in the essay, “The Woman Question (from a Socialist Point of View),” middle-class bourgeois feminism treats the symptom, not the cause of inequality between men and capitalist structure hence answers to the woman question are based in economics. At the same time, she critiques her comrades who argue that socialism will remedy the woman question in time; she shows forcefully that the Woman Question as a socialist question must be attended to here and now. The patriarchy isn’t a necessary structure of society, just as capitalism is not, writes the woman who grew up with Das Kapital.

Writing and producing a play on Eleanor Marx is an important, radical and timely intervention in her legacy and her writings. Eleanor Marx understood early on, before bourgeois poets discovered their politics while sitting in cafes, that there is no such thing as art which is disengaged from life, and life cannot be separated from the ethics and politics that underpin the humanity. In Eleanor Marx’s political programme, theatre—its writing, production, and education—was significant; her pioneering work on Ibsen as well as her translation of Madame Bovary need to be examined together with her groundbreaking text “The Woman Question (from a Socialist Point of View).” It is not just that Tussy loved the theater; she understood its force and wanted to mobilise it for the good. Holmes reads Nora Helmer and Emma Bovary together with the “Woman Question” as essential to understand socialist-feminism, an intervention which is forceful for understanding of politics in theory and practice. Thus, the work on the play is a much-needed intervention into the contemporary world also; a world in which the radical force of art is being silenced so often; and the categories of elitism or populism are being exploited by a hegemony that tries to propagate hatred and division. Tussy worked for a just world out of love and faith in humanity; thus, a play on her life is a hugely significant double gesture; reminding all of the radical force of the theatre as well as recognising her oft-neglected legacy within the world of dramatic arts.

In a cultural climate where the stories of men dominate (The Young Marx was the inaugural play at the brand-new Bridge Theatre, London) and the British film industry churns out movies mainly about the British aristocracy and royalty, and the majority of dramas include only small speaking parts for women, it is the place of fringe theatre to offer an alternative.

Back to Home Page

Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021