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A rare gift for friendship and a passion for social reform

Eleanor Marx biographer Rachel Holmes talks to the Star about the brave socialist and her special connection to the GMB

ELEANOR MARX was the mother of internationalist socialist feminism.

She put together the ideas of her father Karl and her “second father” Frederick Engels with a radical economics-based analysis of the social and industrial inequality between men and women at home and in the workplace.

It was one that recognised the absolute centrality to capitalism of sexually dividing reproduction and labour.

The lives of Victorian women of all classes were extremely constrained by the sexual and economic discrimination that operated at every level of society. Working women, all dismissed as unskilled labour, had the hardest lives and the least opportunities in both the workplace and the home — if they had one at all.

Eleanor profoundly understood the absolute priority of unionising women and valuing their labour, both as workers and mothers. She also recognised their essential right to representation in both the workplace and Parliament, on equal terms with the fight for rights and suffrage for men. How could the concept of adult suffrage even exist without women being included? 

Eleanor combined her socialism with feminism because, as she insisted, economic inequality underpinned patriarchy — capitalism itself depends upon the gendered division of labour. Inequality between men and women in the workplace did not just favour or support capitalism, it made capitalism possible.

She saw the trade union movement as the greatest opportunity to make change from the ground via mass demand. In fact, the trade unions were effectively the first “people’s parliaments.”

The warm welcome that Eleanor Marx: A Life has received from the GMB has been a homecoming for the internationalist, socialist, feminist Marx who helped to found the union in the late 19th century and hone its politics.

Eleanor’s legacy is to champion the absolute priority of the role of women as organisers and leaders of the union and — in these challenging times — to focus on the importance of the rights, pay and conditions of working women. Her return to her rightful place in the history of the union and the history of working people in Britain is, for me, the most important outcome of the many years I spent researching and writing the book. I am honoured and delighted to be speaking, tonight, at a celebratory event — the very first Eleanor Marx Day, organised by the grassroots of the union.

Eleanor had a gift for friendship and an instinctive sense of generosity. She loved light and life. Her socialism was not a matter of dry formulas, concrete certainties and humourless mantras. It stemmed from the highest of human aspirations and offered then, as now, the potential to transform lives, remould society for the better and deliver the thoroughgoing political, economic and sexual equality that her whole life — and every fibre of her being — set out to deliver.

Despite her tragic end, Eleanor would never have wanted to be remembered with sadness. I hear that tonight there will be a birthday cake with red roses for Eleanor. I am sure she would have loved that! 

  • Eleanor Marx: A Life, by Rachel Holmes (Bloomsbury 2015) is available from online bookstores including www.hive.co.uk.

nThe Eleanor Marx Day event will start at 7pm tonight at the GMB National Office, 22 Stephenson Way, London, NW1 2HD. Tickets are free and the event is open to all, but priority will be given to GMB members and women. For further information contact: Nadine.houghton@gmb.org.uk. To book tickets go to: tinyurl.com/GMB-Eleanor-Marx-Day-2015.

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