Dominique Meeùs
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Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx, 2014

Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx : A Life, Bloomsbury, Londres, 2014, xiv + 511 pages, ISBN : 978-0-7475-8384-4.

Le livre est très bon, mais surtout : Eleanor Marx (1855-1898) V V est une personnalité de premier plan. À lire absolument.


Eleanor Marx changed the world. In the process she revolutionised herself. This is the story of how she did it.

She seems an unfashionable subject. And then there’s her father. Yet the public Eleanor Marx is one of British history’s great heroes.

The private Eleanor Marx was the favourite daughter of an unusual family. She was nicknamed Tussy, to rhyme, her parents said, with pussy not fussy. Cats she adored; fussy she wasn’t. She loved Shakespeare, Ibsen, both the Shelleys, good poetry and bad puns. White was her favourite colour, and champagne her idea of happiness.

The life of Eleanor Marx was one of the most significant and interesting events in the evolution of social democracy in Victorian Britain. Not since Mary Wollstonecraft V V had any woman made such a profound, progressive contribution to English political thought — and action. She left a colossal, although unacknowledged, legacy for future generations.

Eleanor Marx was a revolutionary woman writer ; a revolutionary woman, and a revolutionary. She was a person of words and action.

P. xi.

Eleanor Marx became an adult in the age of collectivism. Collectivism, most recognisable in the trade union movement, was an organised response to unfettered capitalism and the grossly uneven distribution of the prosperity it generated. The labouring poor produced surplus value, for the benefit of the happy few who exploited them. Britain was not yet an electoral democracy. The right to vote was based on property ownership and religion. Working-class men were prohibited from voting. Women of all classes were prohibited from voting. The poor were prohibited from voting.

British government, political representation and Parliament were a closed shop: entrance was restricted to property-owning men of particular religious sects. Trade unions were therefore the first people’s parliaments. Britain had one of the strongest traditions of working-class organisation in the world, despite the collapse of Chartism and, in the 1850s, the Communist League.

In the 1860s the organised proletariat regrouped, renewing the attempt to deal with the consequences of capitalism. A new trade unionism emerged in the 1870s, out of which grew Britain’s first democratic political parties: most significantly, the Independent Labour Party and the Scottish Labour Party. Eleanor Marx was one of the first and most prominent leaders of the new trade unionism. And she brought feminism to the heart of the trade union movement, both in Britain and in Europe.

P. xii-xiii.

Eleanor Marx was born into a Victorian Britain where she had no right to education, was barred from university, from voting for the national government, from standing for parliamentary representation, from most of the professions and from control of her reproductive and psychological rights. The historical conditions into which she was born made her understand from first-hand experience what it meant, and felt like, to be the member of an oppressed class.

She spent her life fighting for the principle of equality. To a cynical generation, this might make her sound tiresome. To the people around the world who are discovering themselves in the new social revolutions today, her fight may seem more familiar.

Eleanor Marx was the foremother of socialist feminism.

P. xiii.

Eleanor lucidly summarised her position in an open letter to the English socialist leader Ernest Belfort Bax in November 1895 :

I am, of course, as a Socialist, not a representative of ‘Woman’s Rights’. It is the Sex Question and its economic base that I proposed to discuss with you. The so-called ‘Woman’s Rights’ question (which appears to be the only one you understand) is a bourgeois idea. I proposed to deal with the Sex Question from the point of view of the working class and the class struggle.

Women’s suffrage lacked a sufficient analysis of the economic base of the division of labour, production and reproduction. Understanding the role of economics in human society was essential to human happiness, and therefore to the emancipation of women, and men — equally oppressed by patriarchy. Happiness — what, Eleanor wondered, constituted happiness? She found the most important element was work.

P. xiv.

I’ve been able to see much further by standing on the shoulders of the two groundbreaking twentieth-century biographers of Eleanor Marx. Chushichi Tsuzuki published the first full-length biographical evaluation of her life in 1967. Yvonne Kapp followed soon after with her mighty two-volume study published in 1972 and 1976*. Both stand their ground as fine accounts and invaluable guides.

P. xv.

Souvent dans une situation de ce genre, on prend la peine d’expliquer pourquoi une nouvelle biographie était nécessaire. Yvonne Kapp y répond d’avance (Kapp 1977a, p. 288) en disant que des lacunes doivent être comblées et en exprimant l’espoir que cela donnera envie à de plus jeunes chercheurs de s’y consacrer. Depuis 1977, Rachel Holmes doit avoir eu accès à de nouvelles sources.

Je relis que Mary Burns a habité Bruxelles. Cela m’était sorti de l’esprit.

Shortly after his arrival Friedrich invited his lover Mary Burns to join him in Belgium. He paid her passage from England and the two set up home together in Brussels**.

P. 38.

On présente parfois Jenny von Westphalen comme une épouse dévouée qui a toléré par amour les idées de son mari. Mary Gabriel est d’avis qu’au contraire, Jenny partageait les idées de son mari et y a contribué activement. C’est ce que confirme le fait suivant :

In Brussels, the young allies founded the Communist Correspondence Committee, better known as ‘the Marx Party’, the cultivar from which all subsequent communist parties grew. Of the eighteen founding signatories, Jenny Marx was the only woman.

P. 39.

(1846 précise Mary Gabriel.) Selon Holmes il faut considérer Jenny comme la mère (faut-il dire plutôt la grand-mère ?) de tous les partis communistes jusqu’à aujourd’hui, donc aussi du mien.

Marx and Engels jointly worked out the ideas for what Engels jokingly referred to as the ‘Confession of Faith’, a statement of principles commissioned by the German Communist League. They missed successive deadlines and, in the end, the single most influential text of the nineteenth century was a rushed job written up by Marx, who holed up for a fortnight with his cigars in January 1848 at 42 rue d’Orléans in Brussels, whilst his family lodged nearby at the Manchester Hotel.

P. 40.

Engels avait écrit un catéchisme du communisme et ils ont dû beaucoup travailler ensemble sur ce projet. Cela étant, il n’est peut-être pas exclu que Marx ait assuré seul la rédaction finale.

All over the continent, the labouring poor rose up in social revolutions against monarchies and undemocratic states. The immediate prompt for this uprising lay in a trans-European grain famine that took hold in 1846. More generally, 1848 saw the expression of a long gathering radical movement in Europe of people who wanted more democratic governments, human rights and German unification. Due to the food crisis, prices rose, wages didn’t. Profits nosedived causing a European-wide recession. Mass unemployment and starvation stimulated resentment against undemocratic, unresponsive regimes. Hungry and resentful at the inaction of their rulers, Europe’s poor — the majority — were receptive to the idea of revolt.

P. 40.

Je ne trouve rien sur une famine trans-européenne en 1846, si ce n’est les mots crop failure sous Mais peut-être la famine en Irlande faisait-elle pression sur le marché du grain dans toute l’Europe.

Sur l’exclusion des femmes de l’enseignement :

In later life Tussy would complain that very little was spent on her formal education. In fact her home-schooling with her father was much better than that of her two older sisters, who attended a variety of unlicensed teaching establishments for girls. Whilst Laura and Jenny spent a disproportionate amount of their schooling learning to sing, sew, paint, play the piano and be ladylike, Tussy read widely and deeply, debating everything, in detail, with one of the greatest minds of the age.

After Laura and Jenny left South Hampstead College they continued to take classes in French, Italian, drawing and music. The academic shortcomings of the Misses Boynell and Rentsch’s school were typical of the mid-nineteenth-century British education system. The best on offer were private establishments, accessible only to the fee-paying middle classes, run by dedicated semi—professionals who did their best to provide some kind of structured education to young women in a context where there were no required teaching qualifications or defined curriculum. The first reforms making education for women possible were still a decade away. Tussy would be fifteen when the Education Act (Forster’s Act) was passed in 1870. This was the first legal reform attempting to provide elementary education for all children, including girls. Fees of a few pennies per week were charged, with exemption for poorer parents. In the same year the London School Board was established to provide elementary schools in London. In 1869 suffragist Emily Davies and educationalist and human rights campaigner Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon established Girton College at Cambridge, the first residential women’s college in England. Oxford University allowed the first graduation of a woman a decade later in 1879. Cambridge was founded in 1223 and Oxford in 1187 : thus it took both establishments nearly seven centuries to grasp the startling concept that women were also human beings, entitled to education.

Like so many of the great artists, writers, intellectuals and politicians who followed her into the next century, such as Virginia Woolf, Tussy had no access to formal schooling. However, by contrast with Woolf, whose wealthy scholarly historian father Sir Leslie Stephen did not believe in investing in the education of his daughters, Tussy’s impoverished historian philosopher father was committed to the education of women. Where the rich and entitled Leslie Stephen — with his successful sons — lost no sleep over his daughter’s struggle for an education, penurious intellectual immigrant Marx recognised the material constraints on educational development experienced by the daughters of all classes. Part bluestocking, part leatherstocking, part hoyden, wholly bohemian-in-the~making, Tussy had an unconventional, rigorous intellectual education in freedom of thought critical to her later attitude to life.

P. 52-53.

Sur l’influence de Mary Burns :

How Mary and Engels met is unconfirmed, but it seems that she and her sister Lydia (Lizzy) were working as mill-hands in an Ermen & Engels factory in Manchester. […]

Recent work by Roy Whitfield and Tristram Hunt28 has done much to reconstruct the life of Mary Burns and restore her significance to history. […] Mary took Engels to the tenements and to the heart of the Irish immigrant community of Manchester. She showed and explained to him the conditions of factory and domestic workers. Her role was directive and Socratic.

Two years after meeting Mary Burns, in 1844, Engels produced The Condition of the Working Class in England. This detailed social survey of the ‘condition, sufferings and struggles of the working classes of Britain and their middle-class opponents’ produced a critique of ‘the cause of contemporary class antagonisms’ and his condemnation of capitalism. Engels left England with his political consciousness awakened by Mary Burns and revolutionised by his experience of the world into which she had initiated and guided him.

P. 60.

[…] Marx optimistically identified the salient point : ‘The main feature of the demonstration […] was that at least a part of the English working class had lost their prejudice against the Irish.’56

P. 98.

On a fait parfois appel aux femmes par manque d’hommes pour la production, comme lors de guerres. Mais on a utilisé des femmes et des enfants aussi simplement pour remplacer les hommes par de la main d’œuvre moins chère, au point que parfois des hommes vivaient en dépendance financière des femmes :

Everywhere they travelled in America, Eleanor met and interviewed working—class women and children about their lives and labour conditions. She also talked with factory owners, foremen and labour superintendents. She found that capitalists preferred to employ women and children. Women took lower wages and were perceived as being easier to bully and subdue if they tried to organise or strike. Children, even more so.

In Fall River, she found entire communities of young men supported by their sisters and mothers because there was so little work in the mills for men. In New Jersey, woman and child labour was more than usually drastically lower-priced than that of men, the hours longer and agitation more violently suppressed. These women, Eleanor observed, ‘merely toil and scrimp, and bear’.

In Pennsylvania, women were permitted to perform heavy manual labour generally reserved for men in order to save on wages. In Utica, New York State, the factory owners saved money by getting young girls to clean the running looms, ‘at the risk of getting their hands taken off’.“ Other women had poisoned hands from the toxins in the paint used for making artificial flowers and were no longer able to work — they were laid off without support or compensation. Women and children with industrial diseases and injuries had to resort to unregulated prostitution in and around the factories.

On a positive note, in Vineland, New Jersey, women had organised and joined the Knights of Labor, which had agreed to their participation. Working together, they succeeded in securing the same wages for women as for men — but this was a rare victory.

P. 280.

Elle voit immédiatement le piège du travail de bureau à domicile :

Eleanor’s prodigious work at the Paris congress was greatly facilitated by her favourite piece of new technology: her typewriter, acquired four months previously on hire purchase. She taught herself how to use the ‘machine’, declaring it ‘very easy’, and advertised her typing services. Typewriters had been mass-produced in America since the end of the 1870s, but took longer to penetrate the British retail market. Olive Schreiner sent the first chapter of her unfinished novel From Man to Man from South Africa and asked Tussy to type it up, for which she insisted on paying the full rate. Twelve copies of a lengthy pamphlet Eleanor typed for Swan Sonnenschein earned her two shillings.

Shocked at how badly the work was paid by hourly rate, Tussy did some investigative journalism into typists’ wages and labour conditions, published as ‘Sweating in Type-Writing Offices’ in People’s Press. Typists who needed to live by their labour ‘must work at high pressure and a good many more hours than eight a day’. She proposed that ‘the unhappy human machine’ should form a union of those who typed in businesses and from home.

P. 318.

At the end of May [1896], Eleanor […] joined Library […] in Manchester […]. […] Sylvia, one of their three daughters [of Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst] […]. The thirteen-year-old was fascinated by Eleanor’s ‘attractive personality’ […].43

P. 397-398.
Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement (1931), Virago, London, 1997, p. 128.

Née le 5 mai 1882, Sylvia Pankhurst a alors en réalité quatorze ans. À la mort d’Eleanor Marx le 31 mars 1998, Sylvia était à un mois d’avoir seize ans.

Commandé le vendredi 21 avril 2017 à World of Books, West Sussex. Reçu le mardi 2 mai 2017.
Kapp 1972 ; j’y donne les différentes éditions. Tsuzuki 1967.
Août 1845. Mary Burns a été longtemps ignorée, mais la page que Wikipedia lui consacre en allemand est assez fouillée. Leur ménage à Bruxelles est mentionné dans une lettre d’Engels à son beau-frère Emil Blank en avril 1946.
(Note 28, p. 455.) Tristram Hunt identifies Burns as Engels’s ‘underworld Persephone, profoundly enriching [his] appreciation of capitalist society […] Mary helped to provide Engels with the material reality for his communist theory.’ Tristram Hunt, The Frock-Coated Communist : The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, Penguin, London, 2009, p. 100-101.
Documents of the first international, Lawrence & Wishart, Londres, 1963-1968, vol. 4. [Yvonne Kapp (Kapp 1977a) donne vol. III. Ni Kapp ni Holmes ne donnent de numéro de page. J’en donne une autre source et un commentaire. D. M.]