H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter VI
Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling

THERE are certain episodes in the Socialist movement which up to now have been passed over in silence by those who know the circumstances. This is natural enough; for although sad and unpleasant events occur in connection with all parties, anything ugly which happens in the ranks of Socialists is sure to be treated by the outside world as if this were the rule rather than the exception with men and women who hold our obnoxious opinions. When the Communists were imprisoned in Paris the ordinary pickpockets and thieves who were incarcerated with them at once boycotted them. “We,” said they, “at any rate respect private property, though we do now and then effect a change of ownership without consulting the individual proprietors; but these scoundrels would grab all riches and leave nothing for us to steal. Away with such wholesale malefactors!” That is pretty much the view still taken by the ignorant of Socialists and Communists forty years later; so it is perhaps as well they do not advertise one another’s shortcomings unduly.

At any rate, the story of Eleanor Marx’s life and death has never been told, and I think the time has now come for telling it, if only in justice to her. Eleanor was the youngest of the three daughters of Marx and his wife. I first made her acquaintance in her father’s house, when she was quite a girl, and got to know her very well afterwards, until her lamented death; though for some years in the interim I saw little of her. Eleanor’s two sisters, Mme. Longuet and Mme. Lafargue, being married, she was the only one at home, and she to a large extent conducted her father’s correspondence, and became, in a sense, the centre of that curious and capable family clique which carried on the traditions of the “Old International” throughout Europe; after the break-up of the organisation, or its transfer to New York, which meant the same thing.

Eleanor herself was the favourite of her father, whom she resembled in appearance as much as a young woman could. A broad, low forehead, dark bright eyes, with glowing cheeks, and a brisk, humorous smile, she inherited in her nose and mouth the Jewish type from Marx himself, while she possessed a physical energy and determination fully equal to his own, and an intelligence which never achieved the literary or political success – for she was a keen politician as well as sociologist – of which she was capable. Possibly, she felt herself somewhat overshadowed by her father’s genius, whose defects she was unable to see. She was quite angry with me, I remember, when, after the prolonged misunderstanding due to her attaching herself to the Socialist League, we again became friendly, because I would not review the great tome into which she had piously gathered Marx’s letters and disquisitions on the Eastern Question. The book was not, in my opinion, worthy of its author, and as, in any criticism, I should have felt myself constrained to say so, I preferred not to say anything about it at all. She was very angry, I repeat, and declared my refusal was due partly to laziness and partly to incapacity to appreciate the book. I admired her filial devotion so much that I allowed her to have the last word, which, in any case, feminine fashion, she would have taken without my consent.

Her own power of work was inexhaustible, and knowing well all the leading European languages, and possessing an intimate acquaintance with the details of the movement in all countries, especially of course from the Marxist side, she was exceedingly valuable to the cause, and would have been still more valuable in the years which have passed since her death.

About Edward Aveling it is difficult to write with patience, even now that he has so long passed away. That he was a man of ability is unquestionable. His degree of Doctor of Science at London University was, I believe, thoroughly well gained, and though deficient in initiative and originality, his power of exposition in departments which he had mastered was second to that of no one I ever heard. When I first knew him he was one of the members of the great Trinity in Unity – three persons and no God – consisting of Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, and Aveling, which vivified and controlled the most active and influential portion of the Secularist party. The way in which they all three played into one another’s hands and glorified each other’s faculties might be taken as an abiding lesson how to make the most of combined intellectual effort.

After my first debate with Bradlaugh, in 1884, Aveling set to work to study Socialism. I had myself previously supported him for the London School Board, on the secular and free education platform, as candidate for Westminster, and he succeeded in winning the seat. He then discovered that Socialism was the necessary constructive correlative of the purely negative and destructive Secularism, and joined the party. I have never from that day to this thoroughly understood why he did so. That his motives were in the main good I have no reason to doubt, even today; for he was quite acute enough to perceive that no personal advantage was to be gained by it, at any rate immediately, and he had a very promising outlet with the Radicals, which could scarcely have failed to have been advantageous; the rather that he had, as was said of a much more prominent person, “no scruples whatsoever to restrain him.” But he became a Socialist, joined the SDF, and having previously known Eleanor Marx, became still more intimate with her.

I am bound to say I did not like the man from the first. “Nobody can be so bad as Aveling looks” was a remark which translated itself into action in my case. In spite of the most unpleasant rumours about his personal character, alike in regard to money and sexual relations, I put compulsion on myself and forced myself to believe that I was prejudiced unduly by his personal appearance, and that his forbidding face could not in truth be an index to his real character. So he became an influential member of our body and had a seat on its Executive, though several old Secularists, who were then with us, distrusted him utterly. Precisely when he and Eleanor Marx decided to live together as man and wife, without the inconvenient restrictions, as they both considered them, sanctioned by modern bourgeois society and its prevailing creed, I do not know; but it is certain that it was widely and strongly felt that Eleanor’s friends and relations should have done their utmost to prevent the alliance which ended so terribly for her.

The feeling about him was wittily expressed when, as he was leaving the SDF rooms one evening a black silk scarf which he wrapped round his throat falling to the ground, it was picked up and handed to him. Quoth Aveling, “I am so much obliged to you for preventing what would have been to me a serious loss: the scarf belonged to the great doctor and came to me from him.” “Then you may rightly say it has descended,” was the retort. As to his influence over Eleanor Marx, it can only be said that Aveling was one of those men who have an attraction for women quite inexplicable to the male sex. Like Wilkes, ugly, and even repulsive to some extent, as he looked, he needed but half an hour’s start of the handsomest man in London; and Eleanor, capable and brilliant as she was, could not be spoken of as by any means the only attractive person who had come under his fascination. Some of the scandals arising from this faculty of his were very serious. His proceedings with regard to money entrusted to him were likewise very objectionable. Notably so in the case of the sum subscribed for a cablegram to the Governor of Illinois, signed by a number of very well-known men in different departments of politics and literature begging that functionary at the last moment to pardon Parsons and his co-defendants. Aveling pocketed the money and the cablegram was never sent at all!

Nevertheless, the man worked hard for Socialism, and lectured, at great cost of time and labour to himself, all over the country. He continued to do this when both Eleanor Marx and he were very short of money indeed, and their existence had become exceedingly trying in consequence of his extravagance. She stuck to him stoutly through all difficulties, though there can be no doubt that she underwent deterioration by close association with a man of Aveling’s character. When, however, she recognised the danger into which she was running, she pulled herself together in a most surprising way and did her best to strengthen him as she recovered her own equilibrium. This in my opinion was the most remarkable instance I ever encountered of strength of character in a woman overcoming, and finally mastering, a pernicious influence which had gone far to wreck her life. It was wonderful to witness. Unfortunately it did not go the length of emancipating her from him altogether. I wish it had.

When the Socialist League, founded by William Morris in 1884-85, fell to pieces, Eleanor Marx and Aveling wished to rejoin the Social-Democratic Federation. By this time the latter had acquired such a very unsavoury reputation that the entire Executive Council were opposed to admitting him. The worst features of his career, however, it was impossible to make public without bringing in other people; but quite enough was known to render his exclusion, to say the least of it, highly desirable. But the facts that he was associated with Eleanor Marx, and that he was a good lecturer, that also Liebknecht, Kautsky, Bernstein, Motteler, Lessner, Lafargue, Guesde, and other esteemed comrades wrote strong letters supporting him as a man of the highest ability and character, induced the members of the body to override entirely the views of the Executive they had themselves chosen, and Aveling became again active in the SDF. We were all of us accused of being jealous of him, and at the next Conference of the organisation he was elected by the assembled delegates at the head of the poll for the Executive Council of the following year! I think it says a very great deal for the self-sacrifice and loyalty of those whose judgment and authority were thus gratuitously flouted, that they put up with this unmerited rebuff and actually worked with the man whom they knew to be a downright scoundrel. But it is very doubtful whether they were right in thus giving way to the wishes of the majority. In fact, events proved that they were wrong. The whole episode increased my own contempt for uneducated and undisciplined democracy.

By the inheritance of a substantial legacy from Engels, the fortunes of the Avelings, who were always considered as man and wife, were, of course, much improved. But Aveling himself, sad to say, did not improve with them. He continued his loose life, extravagance, and addiction to strong liquor, and at length, naturally enough, his health gave way seriously. This led eventually to a crucial operation at the Middlesex Hospital. It was touch and go, and there is no doubt that, but for the extraordinary skill of Christopher Heath in the operation, and the almost equally extraordinary devotion of Eleanor Marx afterwards, Aveling would have died at that time. How Eleanor went through what she did during this period, and kept her health and sanity, I do not comprehend.

My wife, at her request, went to see Aveling as he lay in bed, and afterwards they walked up and down the corridor of the Hospital for a long time. The story Mrs. Aveling told was most distressing. She was not at all the sort of woman to give way under trials, or to make a confidant of another person, no matter how much she may have felt the strain. But she evidently had to open her heart to somebody, and the tale she told of the misery and humiliation she had to undergo induced my wife to implore her to leave the man directly he was out of danger, and to come for a time to stay with us. She said she would gladly do so, and, though my wife was quite unnerved by what she had heard, we both hoped that an end had come to Mrs. Aveling’s martyrdom, and that she really would give up her hopeless fighting against fate.

It was not to be. With the tenacity of her race she stuck to her consort; took him down to Margate, nursed him, waited upon him, read to him, petted him – when all the time she knew perfectly well that he was only waiting for his convalescence to go off with another woman! Such fidelity was beyond all question almost criminal weakness, such as might not have been expected from a woman of her calibre. On their return to London we hoped to hear from and see Eleanor, but unluckily for her and us she kept away.

And thus the tragedy hurried to its end. I read the miserable story as follows, and in my opinion no other solution is possible. Aveling told Eleanor that the marriage with another woman, of which she had heard, had been forced upon him. There was nothing for it but that they should commit suicide together. How Aveling persuaded Eleanor to adopt this mad course no one has ever been able to understand. She was in perfect health, and, as the post-mortem examination proved, her body with its organs was so sound in every way that she might well have lived to the age of 90 or 100. Not only so, but the very last time I talked with her, before I saw her corpse, apparently asleep and quite unlike death, lying on her bed, she had spoken enthusiastically of the coming time in which she hoped to be more useful to the movement than she had ever been before. She must have been subjugated by some strange hypnotic influence. However that may be, the end came in this tragic way quite unnecessarily.

Aveling, it may be added, had acquired at this time the power of writing so exactly like his wife that it was extremely difficult even for one who knew them both to tell the handwriting of one from that of the other. Personally, I could not distinguish them. Who actually wrote the order for the poison, therefore, nobody can now say. Aveling always declared he did not. But there can be no doubt whatever that Aveling himself took the message to the chemist for the prussic acid and chloroform, which poor Eleanor thought she and he were both to take. At any rate the poison was bought. Eleanor swallowed her fatal dose and died immediately. Aveling did not touch his. He rushed off immediately to the train, went straight to the office of the Social-Democratic Federation in Bolt Court, Fleet Street, and called Lee the Secretary’s attention to the exact time of his visit.

The funeral, which was largely attended, gave Aveling the opportunity for displaying an amount of histrionic grief and real callousness which disgusted everybody; and none were more bitter against him – for the circumstances of Eleanor’s suicide were now generally known – than the foreign Socialists, who had made him out to be a man of the very highest character. The inquest, of course, had disclosed nothing beyond the fact of the suicide; and as Eleanor’s brothers-in-law did not see fit to rake up the facts, going off, in fact, to drink with Aveling after the inquest at an adjacent public-house, there was nothing to be done.

“God made Napoleon Buonaparte and then he rested,” said one of the French Mayors when he welcomed the great First Consul to his city. “A pity,” quoth Chateaubriand, “he had not rested a little before.” A pity, assuredly, that the same omnipotent influence had not allowed Christopher Heath’s knife to slip or brought about Aveling’s final departure “a little before.” Aveling inherited what was left of the Engels’ legacy, and within a month or so after having taken up with his new wife he was dead himself. “The evil that men do lives after them.”

The death of Eleanor Marx was a very serious blow to the movement. Sorrow and suffering had softened her nature without diminishing her earnestness and enthusiasm. She would have done great things had she lived.

Strange to say, a few years later, in 1911, her sister Laura, the wife of Paul Lafargue, came to her end under circumstances almost equally tragic. When Mme. Lafargue inherited her share of Engels’ fortune, amounting to about £7,000, Lafargue, then an old man, divided it up into ten equal portions – the idea of purchasing a good annuity apparently never occurred to him – and decided that when these came to an end, having reached the age of seventy, he would commit suicide. His wife was determined she would not survive him. So the pair of them went out of the world by their own volition, and were found, both of them, lying fully dressed quite dead in their bedrooms. Lafargue died because, as he said, he could not bear to face the coming period of decrepitude and senility. But he really seems to have prepared poverty quite unnecessarily for himself and his wife, and did not care to live in it. Curiously enough, Lafargue, with all his very considerable ability, never produced a deep impression in Paris.

The Parisians believed him to be a miser, and talked of him as le petit épicier, which was grossly unfair. Neither did he exercise the influence to which his knowledge and capacity entitled him in the general Socialist movement. Why this was so I confess myself unable to say. I always found him clever, clear-minded, pleasing in manner, and with a complete command of easy and witty conversation. He was also a bright, if not even a brilliant speaker. Yet, in spite of all the work he had done for the movement, and his relationship to Marx, the facts were as I state them. Mme. Lafargue was the prettiest of the three Marx daughters, and inherited some of her mother’s charm and knowledge of the world. She also was by no means deficient in ability. The only descendants of Marx now left are the children of Mme. Longuet, of whom Jean Longuet and his family are well known in the movement. Charles Longuet, the father, was a member of the Commune, and became, during his years of exile, thanks to the efforts of the Positivists, Professor of French at the University of London.

Taken as a whole, the record of the Marx family has been one of the tragedies of Socialism.

Last updated on 1.11.2007