Eduard Bernstein

What Drove Eleanor Marx to Suicide


Source: Justice, 30 July 1898, p.2 & 3, on How Eleanor Marx died.
Translated from Neue Zeit.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford for 2003.

The Berlin Ultramontane Germania, and with it a number of other journals antagonistic to Socialism, have lately taken the opportunity of using the suicide of Eleanor Marx as a factitious argument against Socialism. Dr. Aveling, they relate, had determined to return to his first wife and children, and to induce Eleanor Marx to accompany him and take part in this “marriage of three.” Rather than this she preferred to end her “life failure” in suicide.

Vorwärts has already exposed the extreme odiousness and absurdity of this report through the simple fact that the first wife of Dr. Aveling has been dead this three years, and, further, that from this marriage no children exist. Therefore the reports and inferences of Germania have no basis. In taking this opportunity to return once more to the suicide of a friend, I am impelled to do so by the long-cherished desire to make known some letters, which, if they do not throw full light upon the direct cause which drove Eleanor Marx to suicide, at least put beyond doubt the true and deep motive of her deed.

The letters are addressed by Eleanor Marx to a person who possessed in no secondary degree the friendship and confidence of the daughter of Karl Marx. And justly so. Frederick (Freddy) Demuth is the son of Helene Demuth, the faithful “Nymmy” who was as a second mother to the children of Marx, and in brotherly fidelity stood Frederick Demuth to Eleanor Marx. He is a simple workman, to whom life has not been too kind, and I have strong grounds for believing that in the documents left by Eleanor Marx for her legal adviser his name stood in a prominent position. This letter, as Robert Banner has already shown, has been kept back from the addressee by Dr. Aveling, who, according to his own statement to several persons, has destroyed this important document. Although these statements were published in the Labour Leader, Dr. Aveling has not attempted to challenge or refute the facts, or to clear himself from the suspicion in which these facts cover him. This suspicion is no other than this – that Dr. Aveling, when he left the house at Sydenham on March 31, knew that Eleanor Marx was determined to take her life, and also knew that she had procured poison for that purpose, and knowing this he yet made no effort to hinder her suicide.

If, then, Dr. Aveling bears criminal complicity in the anticipated death of Eleanor Marx, only a judicial inquiry can decide. As regards his moral responsibility, the following will serve as a contribution.

In order to be quite intelligible, I will preface my remarks with a statement as to the relations which existed between Eleanor Marx and Dr. Aveling.

Eleanor Marx became intimately acquainted with Dr. Aveling a few months after her father’s death. As is well known, the death of her father followed in but a brief interval upon the death of her mother and eldest sister – due consideration must be given to these blows of fate to realise the state of mind in which Eleanor Marx found herself at the time. It was the time when the first signs of a Social-Democratic agitation were showing themselves in England. Dr. Aveling, until then a very active agitator in the Freethought movement, had quarrelled with their leader, Bradlaugh, and embraced Socialism. Much derogatory opinion was expressed at the time as to his private life, which was either not substantiated or which, on close inquiry, appeared an exaggeration of trifling peccadillos. It appeared as if these calumnies were dictated by the vindictiveness of Bradlaugh and his friends, and at the time Bradlaugh was in very bad odour with Socialists. It is true that Aveling lived apart from his wife, but this was accounted for by the fact that his wife was a very religious woman, whilst Aveling himself was a very radical Freethinker. Moreover, his wife was not, as was later on widely stated, in poor circumstances. She was of a good family, and inherited a fortune of one hundred and fifty pounds a year. Far from considering Aveling as a man who had brought unhappiness upon his wife, Eleanor Marx saw in him a liberal-minded man, repelled by a bigotted and spoilt wife. A sentimental air in Aveling’s appearance, which later on misled others, strengthened still further this impression. When Eleanor Marx decided to live with Dr. Aveling, although he could not expect to get a divorce from his wife, she was throughout conscious that this step would in many circles be misconstrued, and that she would be made to feel in one way or another their disapprobation.

But his character year by year deteriorated. Of course, by degrees, Eleanor became cognisant of this. She naturally could not avoid knowing that in money matters Aveling was extraordinarily thoughtless, but she saw in his inexcusable proceedings the thoughtlessness of an artistic mind, which she did her best to make good, and excused many other of his irregularities by the insecure conditions in which they lived for so many years. That the insecurity of their economic condition was but the result of his libertinism, she did not see, or did not see sufficiently well. If in the whole tragedy of her life one fault can be found on her side, it is that she would not or could not see the moral instability of this man to its full extent. She hoped always for his reformation as soon as their circumstances improved. The improvement of their economical condition came, but it brought, instead of moral improvement, the total moral destruction of the man for whom Eleanor Marx had sacrificed the best years of her life.

It is well known that Frederick Engels had provided in his will for the daughter of his old friend Marx. Shortly after the death of Engels, Dr. Aveling became entitled to an income left by his first wife, which again was soon supplemented from other sources, so that together they were possessed of the means to enjoy a very comfortable existence.

Only those who saw Eleanor Marx for the first time in her new home can appreciate fully the tragedy of her last years. An ideal existence seemed to open out before her; her face would beam with pleasure as she welcomed her friends to the “Den.”

But her joy was but the dream of an hour, even before her friends, who had a presentiment of evil, she became conscious of the instability of her surroundings. New demands, always followed again by new demands – for which we are compelled to ascribe the heaviest reproach to Dr. Aveling. It was from the moral point of view the life of Ibsen’s Frau Alving.

In the midsummer of last year the first serious catastrophe took place. The cause of this we cannot go into here; it suffices that Dr. Aveling broke from her and suddenly disappeared from the “Den.” He carefully took with him everything he could find which could be easily turned into money, and left Eleanor in the greatest embarrassment. He told her that, under no circumstances, could she know his address, but that if she had anything to inform him about she could address herself to him through an actor, “M.”

It is a psychological enigma that Eleanor Marx did not at once see that this was a trick. She was driven to the greatest distress and excitement, and in her perplexity she addressed herself to F. Demuth and another friend, praying them to find Aveling in London and induce him to return.

MY DEAR FREDDY, Again this morning not a line! I have forwarded your letter at once. How can I thank you for all your kindness and friendship to me. I thank you truly from the bottom of my heart. I have again written to Edward this morning. No doubt it is weak of me. But one cannot wipe out fourteen years of one’s life as if it had not been. I think that anyone with the slightest sense of honour – not to speak of goodness and gratitude – would answer that letter. Will he do so? I almost fear that he will not.

However, I see that “M” plays to-night at G-theatre. If Edward is in London he will be there. But you are not able to go, and I feel incapable of doing so myself, I have received a letter from “C” [the legal adviser of Eleanor Marx] in which he says – but I will enclose the latter and spare myself the trouble of writing it. Send it back to me, if you please. I have just written to “C” and told him that I will come and see him in Edward’s presence 𔃀 if, as is very improbable, Edward will come. To-morrow evening the meeting of the committee of the S– Federation take place. I cannot go, because, if he is not present, I shall be unable to give a reason for his absence. Could you go for me? The committee meets at eight o’clock and lasts till ten. If you go about nine or half-past, you will be able to find out; you can ask, if he is there. At all events you will then know. If he is there you can go to him – he cannot go out before the others – and wait for him until the sitting is over. Then, when he comes out, if you see that he is alone, go with him to London Bridge Station. Then tell him that you have promised to pay me a visit, and on account of the lateness of leaving off work I had offered to keep a bed for you. Than he must either say that he will not come, and you can then take the opportunity of speaking a word to him, or he will come. I don’t know if it is very probable, but I hope that you will go to – and find out if he is there.– Ever yours,


The Den, August 30, 1897

Not this method, but it may be the first-mentioned letter to Aveling, had the effect of causing him to return to their home, She showed clearly her great weakness for him, which made him absolute master of the situation. Two days after the above, F. Demuth received the following letter:–

MY DEAREST FREDDY, – This morning I received a note: “I am coming back. Will be home early to-morrow.” (That means to-day. Then a telegram: “Will be home again at half-past one.” I began work at once in my room – and Edward appeared surprised and highly offended that I did not throw myself into his arms. So far he has made no attempt at excuse or apology. I have therefore – after I had waited to see if he would begin – said that we must talk over our business affairs, and that I could not forget the treatment to which I had been subjected. To this he did not reply. I said, moreover, that you would probably come, and if you can come to-morrow or any other evening this week I hope you will. It is only right that in the presence of both of us he should come to an understanding. If, therefore, you can come to-morrow, do so; if not, let me know when you can come.

Dear Freddy, how can I ever thank you? I am very, very grateful to you. When I saw you I will tell you what “C.” said.


Ever, dear Freddy, yours,
The Den, Sept. 1, 1897

Soon after this letter had been delivered, the following came:–

MY DEAR FREDDY, – Come tonight if you can. It is a shame to worry you, but I am so lonely, and I am face to face with a most dreadful situation: Absolute ruin – everything, even to the last penny, or deepest shame before the whole world. It is frightful. It presents itself to me even worse than it is. And I need someone with whom I can take counsel. I know that the final decision and responsibility will rest with me – but a little counsel and friendly assistance will be of immeasurable value.

So, dear Freddy, come. I am broken-hearted. – Your


September 2, 1897

Naturally Demuth hastened to Sydenham. But his visit was almost fruitless, Eleanor had by the time he arrived lost courage to tell him anything, and as regards the question of money, Aveling had the advantage that neither Eleanor nor Demuth understood all. His declaration that the last penny of Eleanor’s fortune was not claimed disarmed them.

Eleanor lacked the power to follow the advice of her friends and leave him. She was moved to renew even more firmly their union on his promise of reformation. But this promise, if for a moment made in earnest, was observed for only a very short time. Shortly after Aveling’s return to her he began anew his life of lewd enjoyment.

On one occasion he caught an attack of influenza (December, 1897). He went to Hastings to recover, and from there returned home. In the beginning of January Eleanor invited Demuth to Sydenham but he was ill and could not go. It is quite probable that he would not have gone had he been able. He loved Eleanor too much to reproach her for her weakness, but he did not desire to see Aveling any more. To one of his letters of excuse he received the following:–

The Den, January 13, 1893.

MY DEAR FREDDY, – We are very sorry that we have not seen you, and are doubly sorry to think that you are ill, Indeed, I have sometimes the same feeling as you Freddy, that nothing will go right with us. I mean you and me. Truly poor Jenny [Mme. Longuet] had her full measure of trouble and grief, and Laura [Mme. Lafargue] has lost her children. But Jenny was so fortunate as to die but this was so sad for her children; but there are times when I should take that as good fortune. I would not wish that Jenny should have passed through what I have endured. I do not believe that you and I have been particularly bad people, and yet, dear Freddy, it really seems that all we gain is punishment. When can you come? Not this Sunday? Then the next! Or during the week? I do want so much to see you. Edward is better, but very, very weak. – Yours,



The Den, Jews Walk, Sydenham, February 3, 1893

MY DEAR FREDDY, – I am glad that you are at least a little better. I wish you were well enough to come here from Saturday to Monday, or at least on Sunday evening. I know it is brutally selfish of me, but then, dear Freddy, you are the only friend with whom I can be quite free, and whom it always gives me pleasure to see.

I am so surrounded with trouble and quite without help (for Edward himself does not now help at all), that I scarce know what to do. Demands are daily being made upon me for money, which, together with the operation and the other things, I do not know how to meet. I am a brute to plague you with all these things; but, dear Freddy, you know what lies before me, and I tell to you what I would tell to no other person. I would have told it to my dear old Nymmy – but I have lost her, and have only you. So forgive me my egoism, and be so kind as to come when you can. –



Edward has gone to London to-day. He will see his doctor, and so on. He would not allow me to go with him. That is sheer cruelty – and there are things that he will not tell me. Dear Freddy, you have your children. I have nothing, and I see before me nothing that makes life worth the living.

This letter says more than any other two – indeed, it in reality says all. We clearly see expressed the longing for death as her deliverer. But we see that it is not the fear that Aveling will succumb to his illness that awakens this longing, but the torture of the “other things.” In every way she suffers from his selfishness – “Edward does not even help me!” – and in every way he trifles with her feelings. When he returns, and tells her it is a matter of life or death with him, she at once writes in a different tone. The apparently death-stricken one is forgiven everything. Aveling also expressed his wish to see Demuth, but it will be easily seen from the former letters that Demuth felt very little inclination for his society. A little later he received the following:–

MY DEAR FREDDY, – I was very sorry that you did not come this morning. Bare justice compels me to say that Edward had no idea, in wanting to see you, of borrowing money. He wished to see you because he believed that after the operation he might not see you again.

Dear Freddy, I know well what friendship and sincerity you have shown toward me. But I do not think you fully understand. I see ever more and more clearly that unjust dealing is simply a moral disease, and that the morally healthy (as you yourself) are not capable of judging the condition of the morally sick, in the same way as the physically healthy can seldom represent the condition of the physically diseased.

There are those who possess a certain moral sense, as others are deaf, or see badly, or in some other way are unhealthy. And I begin to perceive that one is as little justified in reproaching one form of sickness as the other. We must endeavour to cure them, and, if no cure is possible, to do our best. I have learnt this through long suffering – suffering which I would not describe even to you.

Dear, dear Freddy, do not think that I have forgotten what Edward owes you (I mean in money), and you can take my word that you will receive what is yours. I think Edward will go into the hospital at the beginning of next week. I hope that he will be able to go in soon, as this waiting affects him awfully. I will let you know what is decided open, and hope with all my heart that he will soon be better. – Yours


Sydenham, February 5, 1898

Demuth could not wholly digest this theory of moral disease and its applicability to Aveling, although he could understand Eleanor’s feelings. To a further letter he received the following reply:

MY DEAR, DEAR FREDDY, – I must say that it has really troubled me that I did not express myself clearly. You have not understood me at all, and I am how in too great anxiety to explain. Edward goes to-morrow to the hospital and the operation will take place on Wednesday. There is a French proverb, “To understand is to forgive.” Much suffering has taught me to understand – and so I need not first to forgive. I can only love.

Dear Freddy, I am going to live near the hospital, 135 Gower Street, and will let you know how matters go –


Your old TUSSY
Sydenham, February 7, 1898

The operation (the removal of an ulcer) took place in an hospital because Aveling could there have constant medical attention. Eleanor took a room in the neighbourhood, and waited upon him after the operation, sparing neither devotion nor expense to nurse him once more back to health. The following letter will show Eleanor’s love and hope on this occasion:

MY DEAR DEAR FREDDY,- I have brought Edward home on Thursday because the doctors think he will have more chance of improvement here than in the hospital (oh, what a horrible place a hospital is), and they order him to be sent to Margate.

And I will give up the little that remains to me for this purpose. You will understand me. At every occasion I see my escape, and yet I am compelled to look after him. Dear Freddy, do not blame me. But I am sure you won’t do so. You are so good and so true – Yours,


The Den, Jews Walk,
February 10, 1898

And now the last letter. It is dated from Margate yet it still, as far as the invalid is concerned, sounds very pessimistic, and expresses anew the wish for death as a deliverance. It is as if she fears the physical recovery of Aveling. The healing of his “moral disease” is her hope.

8, Ethelbert Crescent, Margate, March 1, 1898.

DEAR DEAR FREDDY, – Do not interpret my not writing to you as negligence. The fact is, I am exhausted, and often have not the power to write. I cannot tell you how glad I am that you have not reproached me, for I esteem you one of the greatest and best men that I have ever known.

It is a bad time for me. I fear there is little hope left for me and the pain and suffering are great. Why we hasten is unintelligible to me. I am ready to go, and would do so joyfully, But so long as he needs help I am bound to remain.

The only thing that has helped me is the friendship that has been shown me on every side. I cannot tell you how good different people have been to me. Why, I really do not know.

And I am proud about it; the Miners’ Federation and the Miners’ Union have presented me with a beautiful little writing case and a stylographic pen because I refused to take any payment for the translating work at the International Miners’ Congress – I am ashamed to take such a present. But it gives me pleasure, nevertheless.

Dear Freddy, how I do wish I could speak with you but I suppose it cannot be yet – yours,



Here end the letters that threw light upon the mental life of Eleanor Marx during the last few months of her existence. The sea air of Margate and the care he received did Dr. Aveling good, but did not fully restore him to health. He was still suffering much pain and when he left the house he had to be taken in a bath chair.

The morning of the 31st March coincides with the letter which Robert Banner has given in his declaration. Whoever the person is upon whom this letter throws a “very bad light,” the only fact disclosed is that as soon as it was received by Dr. Aveling he destroyed it. Whoever would destroy a document that gives the cause of the suicide of a closely connected person must bear the suspicion that he had grounds to fear its publication. It must be treated as a matter which overshadowed all preceding ones – as an action whose public exposure Eleanor could not endure, thus leaving her only one step open: flight from life.

Is it probable, indeed, is it in the smallest degree credible, that she took this step without the knowledge of Aveling, behind his back, so to speak? Every indication points to the contrary.

Take Dr. Aveling’s own assertion before the coroner. The deceased when in difficulties had often invited him to: “Let us together put an end to this trouble.” Again, the fact that she sent for poison whilst Aveling was in the house, and in his presence signed her name in the (to him) well-known register of the apothecary. Then his journey to London and his long delay, and much more. It will be remembered that on the day previous he was too weak to stand, and had to be drawn about in a bath chair. Yet he suddenly finds strength enough to take a journey to London and stay there six hours. It does not appear for what reason he went to London. If, however, Eleanor had said to him: “This time I am in earnest. Here is the poison. Come, let us end this misery together,” and if he had himself no taste for death as long as there was a prospect of physical recovery then is the journey to London and much else, which in many circles has not yet been explained, sufficiently clear. But, then, it must be apparent that Dr. Aveling is guilty of allowing a suicide which, had he done his duty, he could have prevented.

The question then follows, – Did Dr. Aveling desire or had to any interest in the suicide of Eleanor Marx? That her death has not disturbed his equanimity, is without doubt. It does not often happen that a man who, having left his companion of a lifetime in full health, finds her dead on his return, yet gives no single glance at her corpse; there are few men who would on the morrow of the death of a lifelong comrade destroy the last letter they had left behind them; there are but few men who, immediately after an inquest upon the truest and most self-sacrificing nurse and companion, would seek the noise and profanity of a Public-house; and there are indeed very few men who, the day before the burial of such a comrade, would seek relaxation at a football match.

Dr. Aveling knew that she had nominated him testamentary as her heir, and executor of her will. He knew her helplessness in juridic and financial matters; and he knew better than she did the value of the deposited documents. He knew also that with all her weakness in money matters, she always resisted the sale of any of the documents, which to her were a kind of heirloom. Dr. Aveling, by his own confession, destroyed the letter which Eleanor Marx left for her lawyer. In the condition of things, this letter would have contained instructions respecting the disposal of her property. This letter may have altered the forms which gave him power by the last will. But he kept back the last expression of her wishes. And the fact that he got rid of this as quickly as possible shows what he had proved before – that after her death one thing of hers only was of value to him: her property, her money.

So much for the personal side of this tragedy. That it has a general useful application, I shall be the last to deny. Above all, the opponents of Socialism will fail in their efforts to make political capital out of it, for politically, the case of Aveling remains a purely individual case. Unworthy people find their way into all parties, ant numerous counterparts of Aveling could be found in all the other parties. Dr. Aveling has, moreover; been shut out from the English Socialist workers party for the last four years, while the Social-Democratic Federation, only with reluctance, re-admitted him in 1896, merely because it was thought that in entering their organisation he had said farewell to his old life ... The letter of Eleanor Marx of February 5 tells us in what degree of comprehension she acted. Was she fully convinced of the theory of “moral disease” developed therein? The drowning man will clutch at a straw; and in despair men commonly give way to quibbling. This much is certain, that the morally-diseased should be kept under luck and key, or at least under strict observation. Personal responsibility is an essential of social existence. No ordered commonwealth is possible where this is not understood.

This is one of the general questions to which contemplation is called by this case; and, indeed, because the maintenance of personal responsibility is a common interest, it appears to me that it is a double duty imposed on her friends to clear up the crime committed against Eleanor Marx.

ED. BERNSTEIN, in Die Neue Zeit


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