This is not about the co-founder of Marks and Spencer’s.
There’s more to life than shopping!
Nor about Groucho…
Honestly, it’s like getting blood from a stone!
Karl Marx was born in Prussia in 1818. After failing at fiction he turned to essay writing particularly economic and political essays. In 1843 he became co-editor of a radical Leftist newspaper in Paris. Despite the first issue being successful -Prussia confiscated and burned all copies it found- the paper folded acrimoniously before the second issue. Marx went to work for another radical paper.
Marx was already inspired by the principles of fraternity, liberty and equality espoused by the French and American Revolutions, to these he applied ideas from the social and economic philosophers: Rousseau’s Social Contract, Adam Smith’s the Wealth of Nations, John Stuart Mill and Georg Hegel’s ideas of social liberty and ethical politics: providing government for the people by the people.
In Paris he met Friedrich Engels who became his lifelong friend. Engels, the son of a wealthy German textile manufacturer, had recently returned from Manchester. He showed Marx his newly published investigation into living conditions of England’s industrial working class. They were, he concluded, paradoxically becoming worse off as the nation’s wealth grew.
Their friendship resulted in Engels financially supporting Marx while he wrote his seminal work Das Kaptial and collaborating with him on The Communist Manifesto, which stated: in advanced industrial societies wealth should be shared by the workers who produce it.
Pressure from Prussia on France saw Marx expelled from Paris. He fled to Brussels, where his radical views and the social unrest across Europe leading to the 1848 Revolution, saw him flee to Cologne. Harassed by the police, he fled back to Paris where he was expelled by the city authorities. He and his family arrived in London in 1850, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Marx and his wife had 7 children. Possibly due to poverty and insanitary conditions only three girls survived to adulthood. Marx, a doting father, educated his daughters as sons. All were beautiful and clever. All were involved in politics. All died tragically. The apple of his eye and possibly the most brilliant of them was his youngest daughter, Eleanor, born in London in 1855.
Eleanor was a prodigy, who could recite Shakespeare by the age of three. She developed an interest in politics as a child, probably because she played in her father’s study while he was writing Das Kapital. To divert himself, Marx made up stories with political and social morals to entertain her. At sixteen she became his secretary, accompanying him to Socialist conventions.
She fell in love with a man twice her age, a radical French journalist, part of the 1871 Paris Commune, who fled after its collapse, and collaborated with him on writing its history. Her father disapproved of their personal relationship. When it ended Eleanor, suffering from anorexia, returned home to look after her aging parents.
Her mother died in 1881. In January 1883 her 38 year old sister, herself a political journalist and married to a radical French journalist, died of bladder cancer. Her father followed 2 months later, after tasking her to prepare his unfinished manuscripts for publication and translate his works into English.
After her father’s death her political career began in earnest. She joined the Socialist Democratic Federation, leaving within the year to found the Socialist League. The following year found her involved in the Women’s Trade Union Movement. She supported the match-girls’ strike at the Bryant and May factory, where the working conditions were horrific: fourteen-hour days, poor pay, excessive fines and hideous health issues.
Phossy jaw was caused by the white phosphorus used in matches contaminating the women’s lunches. It started with painful toothaches and swelling gums before developing into stinking abscesses in the jawbone, which glowed greenish-white in the dark as the bone rotted away. The only remedy was a disfiguring amputation of the jaw before the poisoning caused brain damage and organ failure.
The following years saw Eleanor publish many political books and articles, organise the Socialist Congress in Paris, tour the United States, get involved with the London Dock Strike of 1889 and organise the Gas-workers Union. She was great friends with the founder of the Arts and Craft Movement William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. She learned Norwegian to translate Ibsen’s plays into English and translated literary works such as Flaubert’s satirical Madam Bovary: about a bored bourgeois housewife who sees herself as a tragic romantic heroine after being seduced by a callous rake.
Perhaps Eleanor translated Madam Bovary because she identified with the ‘heroine’. After her father’s death she fell hopelessly in love with undistinguished Edward Aveling, whose clergyman’s looks masked a dislikeable wastrel and serial lothario. Or at least so his contemporaries claimed, largely due his role in Eleanor’s death, in which he was viewed as being complicit, if not worse.
Various versions of Eleanor’s tragic death were circulated by the Socialists who considered their star a victim of a callous manipulative bully. Aveling was supposed to have married his first wife, an heiress, for her money and had no compunction borrowing, even from those worse off, with no intentions of repaying. He had many affairs and married his mistress in secret before abandoning Eleanor. He was disliked by the socialist circles he and Eleanor moved in and her literary and artistic friends.
According to Eleanor’s letters, Aveling started visiting her after being diagnosed with a kidney disease. He asked her to pay for his operation and could not believe Eleanor was not grateful to do so. Although veiled about details, Eleanor’s letters show she was desperate and considering suicide as a way out. It is possible he threatened Eleanor with an alleged scandal about her father’s illegitimate child with the family’s unpaid housekeeper. The boy had been brought up as Engels’ son.
Aveling got his operation and Eleanor cared for him while he was convalescing, despite the fact he told her he had no intention of leaving his wife. A 1898 article claims Aveling was in the house when Eleanor signed his name on a note to the pharmacist for chloroform and a small amount of Prussic Acid ‘for her dog’. The man, who was bed-ridden the day before, then went to London for 6 hours. When he returned to find Eleanor dead, he turned over her rooms, burning incriminating letters and looking for any money, and her will naming him beneficiary.
Another story claimed he talked Eleanor into a suicide pact. Before they took poison he confessed he could not bear to watch her die. He left while she killed herself promising to join her on his return. Dressed in a white wedding dress, Eleanor drank Prussic Acid and died a slow, lonely and agonising death.
Prussic Acid got its name because it was first discovered in the pigment Prussian Blue. It is not acid, but hydrogen cyanide: fast acting and relatively painless. When it reacts with stomach acid it causes heart failure in less than 3 minutes. Because of this, it is the suicide pill of choice for spies everywhere.
According to her maid, Eleanor signed the pharmacist’s receipt book, and asked her to return it. Eleanor then wrote a brief suicide note, undressed, got into bed, and took the poison. The maid discovered her barely alive and called for a doctor. Eleanor expired before he arrived. She was 43.
The coroner returned a verdict of ‘suicide while temporarily insane’. Although Aveling was cleared of any criminal charges, he was reviled by the Socialists as the cause of Eleanor’s suicide. When he died 4 months later of his kidney disease, no member of the Socialist Movement or Labour Party attended his funeral.
Eleanor’s older sister and her husband committed suicide in 1911 after deciding they had nothing left to give the Marxist movement to which they had dedicated their lives. Theirs was a long planned act, intended to prevent them falling into pitiless old age; stripped of physical and mental powers. They injected Prussic Acid. She was 66 and he was 69.
Vladimir Lenin applauded them, saying: ‘When one cannot work for the Party any longer, one must be able to die like the Lafargues.’ Happily, Lenin was spared the embarrassment of eating his words when, after suffering his third stroke in 1923, Stalin probably had him murdered in case he recovered.