Eleanor Marx. Volume I: Family Life, 1855-1883; Volume II: The Crowded Years, 1884-1898.
by Yvonne Kapp.
Pantheon. Vol. I: 319 pp. $10.00; Vol. II: 775 pp. $17.95.
There are many virtues in this comprehensive and scholarly biography of the most likable member of Karl Marx’s family and the only one who did not renounce her Jewish heritage. Through her sympathetic account of Eleanor Marx’s life and letters, Yvonne Kapp succeeds in vivifying all of the Marxes, as well as the large circle of their friends, personal and political. Everyone is humanized when seen through Eleanor Marx’s loving and compassionate eyes—except, strangely enough, Edward Aveling, her common-law husband, whose actions drove her to a tragic death by suicide at the age of forty-three under mysterious circumstances that to this day have not been cleared up. At the same time, we are provided with a veritable encyclopedia of information about relevant and irrelevant details of the working-class movement in Western Europe, especially England.
Nonetheless, for all its virtues, it is hard to understand the chorus of unqualified critical praise this book has received. For as a biography it seems to me to leave more questions unanswered than answered, especially when it comes to Edward Aveling. In 1929 I met the socialist leader Eduard Bernstein in Berlin. Bernstein was approaching senility at the time, but the mention of two names roused him to passionate outbursts of lucid denunciation. The first was that of David Riazanov, the head of the Marx-Engels Institute of Moscow, whom Bernstein accused of stealing manuscripts from the Social Democratic archives. The second was Edward Aveling. To Bernstein’s mind, Aveling was an unmitigated scoundrel, accused not merely of leaving Eleanor but by implication of doing away with her.
Yet the only thing that was indisputably established about Aveling was his infidelity—an old story in those rather unconventional circles. Aveling himself was a paragon of political orthodoxy in the inner group of Marxist socialists, someone who had sacrificed a distinguished professional career for the uncertain life of a labor educator and organizer, with an unsavory reputation that was a result partly of factional hostility among socialists and anarchists opposed to parliamentary action, and partly of insinuations by Eleanor’s friends about his life as a Lothario despite his unprepossessing appearance and his persistent ill health. Aveling was in fact a man of admirable intellectual courage, not only a “dangerous” socialist but a militant atheist at a time when persons of his outspoken views were liable to be jailed for blasphemy.
Despite his background, his wide learning, and his oratorical gifts, Yvonne Kapp portrays Aveling as little better than a fraud and a dead beat, “a gasbag whom time has rudely deflated . . . so far as posterity is concerned a thundering bore.” Perhaps; but this makes it all the more incumbent upon a biographer to explain why such a man could profoundly move contemporary audiences. A tough English labor veteran acclaimed him as “one of the greatest orators this country ever heard.” The more one accepts the author’s assessment of Aveling’s personality and intellectual legacy—“his voice is not merely without character: it is muted, dead. Nothing rings through the words. Nothing at all”—the more puzzling is the fascination he exerted over the vibrant, loving, yet level-headed Eleanor, who slavishly devoted herself to him. “My last word to you,” reads the farewell note she penned in the moments before her death, “is the same that I have said during all these long, sad years—love.” There must have been something about Aveling to account for a love so prolonged, profound, and desperate. We must conclude that the biographer who has not found it has not understood something central in Eleanor Marx’s life.
Even more surprising in a book which is to a considerable extent a biography of Marx himself is the absence of any intellectual analysis of Marx’s leading ideas, or of the criticisms made of them. Miss Kapp’s own Marxism is orthodox Old Left and theoretically primitive. She believes that Marx had a “scientific philosophy” that explains “the processes by which societies develop, applicable at all times and in all places,” and scornfully says of the Fabian society that it “had no more earthly chance to supersede Marx than to reverse the laws of gravity.” What we would like to know is whether Eleanor Marx, whose orthodoxy was as unquestioning as that of Engels, ever confronted the challenges to Marx’s ideas. Miss Kapp’s account pictures her primarily as a tireless and effective popular propagandist. Her letters concerning Eduard Bernstein’s first tentative steps toward revisionism, which now seems scientifically more justified than the traditional orthodox view, reveal pious horror but little understanding.
More regrettably, Miss Kapp has missed a golden opportunity to explore and evaluate Marx’s treatment of the “Jewish question,” although she does devote a few pages to Eleanor Marx’s gallant identification of herself as a Jew despite the fact that she was born of a Christian mother and a baptized Jewish father. “I am the only one of my family,” she remarked to Max Beer, the historian of the socialist movement, “who felt drawn to the Jewish people.” This came about as a result of her observing the grinding poverty under which immigrant Jewish workers lived and the birth of socialist consciousness among them; it also arose out of her characteristic impulse to identify with the insulted and injured, and probably too out of a sense of personal guilt over the thoughtless anti-Semitism endemic to the early socialist and labor movement in Europe.
It must be remembered that the concept of a Jewish proletariat was quite foreign to Europeans of the day, who associated Jews with commerce and huckstering. (As late as 1928, German students were incredulous about the existence of a Jewish proletariat in the United States.) Miss Kapp believes that Eleanor Marx’s declaration, “I am a Jewess,” at the time of the Dreyfus affair undid “in four words her paternal grandfather’s years of cogitation and eventual baptism.” If so, only in her own case. It did not undo the effects of her father’s treatment of the Jewish question, of whose drift she could hardly have been unaware. Eleanor idolized her father: there is no evidence that she questioned any of his views about anything.
This is not the place to consider in detail Marx’s discussion of the Jewish question. In the light of what happened to European Jewry after Marx’s time, his views strike one not only as extremely biased but as horrendous. Yet a certain injustice has been done to him in downplaying the fact that his writings on the subject do argue for the extension of all political rights to observant Jews—this, before the era of Jewish political emancipation, and despite his identification of Judaism with money-grubbing, rapacious usury and the worship of Mammon. One of the current translations of Marx’s Zur Judenfrage is entitled A World Without Jews. This is a distortion that borders on falsification. It would have been more truthful to entitle it, A World Without Jews and Christians. For its animus is more against religion as such than against Judaism. It sins against both the historical approach of Hegel and the univeralistic humanism of Feuerbach. And worst of all, it fails to apply to the Jewish question what is sound in the theory of historical materialism toward which Marx himself was groping at the time. It did not require any esoteric scholarship to recognize that the objectionable aspects of the vocational activities of the Jews had been forced upon them by Christian communities. And although the essay belongs to Marx’s younger years, there were ample opportunities to modify his judgment subsequently. The Czarist pogroms had begun before he died, and anti-Semitic literature was not uncommon. Yet scurrilous references to Jews not only persist in his personal correspondence but are echoed in the letters of his daughters.
It is hardly a mitigation of Marx’s insensitivity to the plight of the European Jews that anti-Semitism was rife in almost all varieties of socialism, and that insulting references to his own Jewish origins occasionally appeared in the polemical writings of socialist sects. The man who could sympathize with the exploited masses of India and China, whose compassion was aroused by the sufferings of English workers and Irish peasants, whose imagination was stirred by the heroic resistance of the Poles, seemed utterly indifferent to the periodic excesses against his own people. No one knew better than this omnivorous reader of the annals of the past that his kinsmen had for centuries lived on sufferance beyond the protection of the laws, victims both of arbitrary spoliation by oppressive rulers and of the popular fury of their subjects, the perpetual outsiders and scapegoats whose present condition could not be understood or judged without reference to their fateful legacy. Marx’s utopian internationalism and universal outlook had not blinded him to the realities of European national struggles in their concrete historical contexts. Why had they obscured his vision where the Jews were concerned?
It was certainly not out of moral cowardice or a desire to ingratiate himself with others or to avoid polemical attacks. At the time of the Paris Commune, Marx had braved the obloquy of an outraged European public opinion. We can only guess at the unconscious psychological motivations that underlay his thoughtless and harsh judgments concerning the Jews and Judaism and that inhibited him from reacting as Eleanor did to the pathetic plight of those harried by persecution and living in large part on the margins of society.
At any rate, no man is all of a piece. Those not already familiar with some of the incidents in Marx’s life that seem to diminish his stature as a human being will find them here as they relate to Eleanor and other members of his family. Some of them have their amusing sides. Miss Kapp reproduces Marx’s letter to Paul Lafargue, who was paying court to his daughter Laura, in which Marx appears in the role of a heavy-handed Victorian father protesting Lafargue’s unseemly public displays of ardor and warning him off the premises if in his daughter’s presence he is unable “to love her in a manner that conforms with the latitude of London.”
More important and self-revealing was Marx’s demand that Lafargue offer some guarantees of his economic prospects; and—since “as regards your family, I know nothing”—that he furnish information about his parents’ social and economic status. Fear of poverty and a bad conscience over having imposed poverty on his wife accounted for Marx’s concern. “You know that I have sacrificed my whole fortune to the revolutionary struggle. I do not regret it. On the contrary. Had I my career to start again, I should do the same. But I would not marry. As far as lies in my power, I intend to save my daughter from the reefs on which her mother’s life has been wrecked.” Marx refused to give his daughters the freedom to make their own choice. He succeeded in breaking up Eleanor’s engagement to Lissageray, one of the heroes of the Paris Commune, despite Eleanor’s deep emotional attachment to him. In all likelihood, despite “the shortcomings of French husbands,” on which all the members of the Marx household seem to have been agreed, had Eleanor married Lissageray she would have escaped her tragic entanglement with Aveling.
Other incongruities between the social ideals of Marx, his family, and his intimate circle and their social behavior are observed by Miss Kapp with a suppressed inquietude. Their attitude toward servants, for example, was hardly different from that of their unenlightened English neighbors. And although one cannot expect socialists to abolish or even to modify the institutions under which they have been brought up, still one does expect them to exhibit a certain fraternity of spirit in relation to their fellow humans regardless of station or birth.
There was something positively feudal in the Marxes’ relationship to Helene Demuth, Mrs. Marx’s old family retainer, who did indeed become a member of the family, so to speak, as did so many old servants at the time who had no life of their own. The fact that Helene Demuth bore an illegitimate son to Marx is not as significant as the way in which the child, and necessarily the mother, were treated. The child never crossed the threshold of the Marx domicile after he was sent out to foster parents, never met Marx, saw his mother only clandestinely, and enjoyed none of the cultural advantages of the other Marx children. He had a rather rough time growing up and was treated with aversion by Engels even after Helene Demuth became Engels’s housekeeper upon Marx’s death. He became friendly only with Eleanor, from whom the knowledge that he was her illegitimate half-brother was kept until shortly before Engels died.
It is not altogether clear whether Mrs. Marx was aware of all the facts, although it is difficult to believe that the situation could have escaped her notice. Here, too, what may be shrugged off as customary behavior when ordinary mortals are involved, seems odd and unseemly on the part of those heralding a new era in human relationships. One cannot but sympathize with Eleanor Marx’s shock and incredulity when apprised of Freddie Demuth’s parentage, not because her father was involved, but because of the ignorance in which she had been kept and the cowardly truckling to the cruel social conventions of the time by those who, like Marx himself on many occasions, had denounced the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality.
Eleanor Marx herself seems in every way to have been an admirable person, capable only of small spites and jealousies, and overburdened by too great a piety toward her father and his work. The world was too much for her partly because she approached it with the oversimple determinism derived from the Marxist tradition. Moral evil appeared to her to be no more than a physiological defect remediable perhaps by medical and social means. Shortly before her death she wrote to Freddie Demuth:
In some a certain moral sense is wanting just as some are deaf or have bad sight or are otherwise unhealthy. And I begin to understand that one has no more right to blame the one disease than the other. We must try and cure and if no cure is possible, do our best. I have learned this through long suffering.
Such a view makes the concepts of moral good and evil unintelligible, and the quest for social justice the pursuit of a chimera. It fails to do justice to what inspired Karl Marx and his followers as well as to the life of Eleanor Marx herself.