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Celebrating socialism’s staunchest sister

People across the labour movement are set to remember Eleanor Marx’s legacy tomorrow, as JOHN CALLOW explains

NOBODY had met anyone quite like her. Beatrice Webb was unsettled by her atheism and her vision of socialism.

Genteel readers at their desks in the British Library sniffed at her Bohemian dress and unbound hair.

The factory owners came to fear her, and the secret policemen — who had haunted her movements almost since she took her first footsteps — continued to file their reports on her activities, friendships and achievements.

She was betrayed and ultimately destroyed by her greedy and unworthy paramour. Yet the poor and the marginal loved her. She had brought hope to the hopeless, and organised those who the leaders of the old craft unions had always deemed incapable of recruiting. Her portrait was carried high by the gas workers on the first May Day march in 1890, and it seemed — for a time — that she was everywhere and inexhaustible, guiding the twin-track developments of the trade unions and an electoral machine capable of expressing their voice.

As teacher, actress, writer, feminist and revolutionary, she was representative of both the “New Woman” and the “New Trade Unionism” of the 1890s. She did as much as anyone to bring the work of Ibsen to British audiences, defended Oscar Wilde at the time of his imprisonment and campaigned for Irish independence. She fought for the legal enactment of the eight-hour day, helped the exiled communards and ran a gauntlet of police batons at the original “Bloody Sunday” in Trafalgar Square, in November 1887. Without her, many of her father’s writings might never have seen the light of day. She acted as his secretary and editor, and was Karl’s first real biographer.

Yet, for a time it seemed as if she might have been forgotten by the very trade unions that she had helped to create. As Tim Roache, general secretary elect of the GMB, explains: “Though airbrushed out of the picture during the cold war, Eleanor Marx was one of the central figures in the foundation of the GMB. She provided much of the inspiration, a core ideology and a real flair for administration.

“She is the first link in a powerful train of women activists and organisers in the GMB that stretches from Eleanor Marx to Mary MacArthur and to Jeyaben Desai.

“Those very struggles that she led on — the defence of vulnerable workers, those saddled with ill-defined or unlimited working times — are those which GMB is at the forefront of campaigning on today.”

As a consequence, the union decided at its 2015 conference to honour Eleanor’s contribution through the establishment of an Eleanor Marx Day, to be celebrated on (or near) her birthday, every January 16.

This year sees Rachel Holmes — Eleanor’s foremost modern biographer — taking the stage alongside historian and Morning Star columnist Louise Raw in an evening event that seeks to link the legacy of “the foremother of socialist feminism” with stories and experiences shared by present-day union activists taking on their employers in the ongoing fight for equality and fair pay.

Nadine Houghton, from GMB South West region, who was instrumental in the creation of the day, is in no doubt about her continuing inspiration for trade unionists and working women.

“There is so much that we can learn from her passion, determination and organising abilities,” she says.

“Eleanor Marx Day is about reviving her memory but more importantly it’s about showing other women that when we look back — or up — we don’t just have to see men. In fact, it was women just like Eleanor and the matchwomen that in many cases played the most radical role in building our movement. If they could do it, against all the odds, then so can we.”

When asked to define socialism, Eleanor once ventured that it is “to live for this world and insist on what will make it pleasant.” That is still a goal to strive for, and to be celebrated by today’s GMB. Certainly the descendants of the women she organised at Silvertown and Northampton — the rubber and brick-makers, the machinists, seamstresses, jam-makers and shop assistants — would agree with her that we all stand upon the shoulders of giants and that “it is only we who come after them who know how much that striving has achieved.”

- The event will start at 7pm tomorrow 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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