Letter to Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky, February 9, 1887

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London, February 9, 1887.[edit source]

Dear Mrs. Wischnewetzky:

I reply at once to your letter, postmark 28th January. The preface was sent on January 27th, and to your telegram received Sunday, February 6th, I replied immediately per cable: ‘Sent registered 27th January’.

As to the distorted passage from my letter which the irrepressible Baton could not refrain from publishing, it is no use for Rosenberg and Co. to saddle Aveling with it. The passage about the 100,000’s and the millions occurred in my letter to you[1] and in no other letter. So you will know who is responsible for this indiscretion and for putting this nonsense into my mouth. As far as I am concerned, I have no objection to your publishing the whole passage, indeed the whole letter.

Your fear as to my being unduly influenced by Aveling in my view of the American movement is groundless. As soon as there was a national American working-class movement, independent of the Germans, my standpoint was clearly indicated by the facts of the case. That great national movement, no matter what its first form, is the real starting point of American working-class development. If the Germans join it, in order to help it or to hasten its development in the right direction, they may do a great deal of good and play a decisive part in it. If they stand aloof, they will dwindle down into a dogmatic sect and be brushed aside as people who do not understand their own principles. Mrs. Aveling, who has seen her father at work, understood this quite as well from the beginning, and if Aveling saw it too, all the better. And all my letters to America, to Sorge, to yourself, to the Avelings, from the very beginning, have repeated this view over and over again.[2] Still I was glad to see the Avelings before writing my preface, because they gave me some new facts about the inner mysteries of the German party in New York.

You appear to take it for granted that Aveling has behaved in America simply as a swindler; and not only that; you call upon me, upon the strength of the assertions and allusions contained in your letter, to treat him as such and to do all in my power to have him excluded from the literary organs of the party. Now for all these assertions you cannot have any proof because you have not been able to hear any defence. Still you are better off than we here; you have at least heard one side, while we do not even know what the distinct charge is!

In the early hole-and-corner stages of the working-class movement, when the workingmen are still under the influence of traditional prejudices, woe be to the man who, being of bourgeois origin or superior education, goes into the movement and is rash enough to enter into money relations with the working-class element. There is sure to be a dispute upon the cash account and this is at once enlarged into an attempt at exploitation. Especially so if the “bourgeois” happens to have views on theoretical or tactical points that disagree with those of the majority or even of a minority. This I have constantly seen for more than forty years. The worst of all were the Germans; in Germany the growth of the movement has long since swept that failing away, but it has not died out with the Germans out of Germany. For that reason Marx and I have always tried to avoid having any money dealings with the party, no matter in what country. And when the Avelings went to America, I had very strong misgivings on that point. Only when it was arranged that the tour should be made together with Liebknecht I felt more at rest, because Liebknecht, as an old hand, would know how to deal with such complaints, and because any charges brought against him on that score would merely make the complainants ridiculous in Germany and in Europe generally. Well, the tour was arranged differently afterwards, and here is the result.

From this you will see that I look upon this matter a great deal cooler than what people seem to do in New York. But moreover, I have known Aveling for four years; I know that he has twice sacrificed his social and economical position to his convictions, and might be, had he refrained from doing so, a professor in an English university and a distinguished physiologist instead of an overworked journalist with a very uncertain income. I have had occasion to observe his capacities by working with him, and his character by seeing him pass through rather trying circumstances more than once, and it will take a good deal more than mere assertions and innuendos before I believe what some people tell about him now in New York.

But then. Had he tried to swindle the party, how could he do that during all his tour without his wife being cognisant of it? And in that case the charge includes her too. And then it becomes utterly absurd, in my eyes at least. Her I have known from a child, and for the last seventeen years she has been constantly about me. And more than that, I have inherited from Marx the obligation to stand by his children as he would have done himself, and to see, far as lies in my power, that they are not wronged. And that I shall do, in spite of fifty Executives. The daughter of Marx swindling the working class—too rich indeed!

Then you say: ‘No one here imagines that Dr Aveling put the money in his pocket, or spent it as the bills indicate. They believe that he merely tried to cover his wife’s expenses,’—That is a distinct charge of forgery, and this you give as an extenuating, charitable supposition. What then, if this be the attenuated charge, what is the full charge? And on what ground is this charge made? ‘The ridiculous bills which Dr Aveling sent in.’ I should like to see a few of these ‘ridiculous’ bills. For fifteen weeks they were sent every Sunday to the Executive who gave no sign of disapproval. Nor did they budge when the Avelings, December 19th, returned to New York. It was only on the 23rd when they were on the point of leaving, when they could no longer defend themselves against charges, real or trumped-up, that the Executive discovered these bills, to which, singly, they had never objected, were ridiculous when added up! That is to say they object, not to the bills, but to the rules of addition. Why, then, did the Executive, instead of shortening the tour, try to extend it, and just at the close of it plan a second visit of the Avelings to Chicago which fortunately did not come off? It strikes me that in all this, it is not the bills which are ridiculous, but the Executive.

Well, at the meeting of December 23rd, the Avelings hear for the first time that their bills are ridiculous, and the Executive lay before them a statement of accounts drawn up by themselves. As soon as his statement is objected to, Aveling at once accepts that of the Executive, according to which—as I have seen myself in Rosenberg’s handwriting—a balance is due to him of $176. Then, being again bullied by Walther, he refuses that balance, returns $76 at once, and sends the rest from London. And then you say that ‘Dr Aveling returning the $100 has not helped matters at all.’ Why what in the name of goodness do those people want then? Is Aveling to be treated as a swindler because the Executive appropriate $176 which, on their own showing, belong to him?

Then the mystery with which the Executive envelops this matter, becomes darker and darker. When the article in the New York Herald[3] appeared and was cabled across, the Avelings sent the enclosed circular to the sections, and, at the same time, to the Executive. That circular— unless I take Aveling to be a liar and a swindler, which I decline doing until further conclusive evidence—is in my eyes conclusive against the Executive, at least until I see their reply. But what do the Executive do? They get infamous attacks into the Volkszeitung. They spread rumours and reports behind Aveling’s back, they call meetings of the sections and lay their version before them, and get them to vote resolutions in a matter which cannot be judged without an impartial audit of the whole accounts and a full defence of the absent accused. And having, as it appears, succeeded in their New York circle to slander Aveling, not as a man who has spent their money extravagantly (for such, rightly or wrongly, might be their honest conviction), but as a swindler and forger of accounts. They rise to the level of the occasion created by their own inventive genius, and promise a circular proclaiming Aveling a swindler and forger to the working-class of the whole world! And all this, mind you, behind the back of, and unknown to, the man whom they charge, and who can not only not defend himself, but not even make out the precise facts on which the charge is based! If this is the way people are to be judged in our party, then give me the Leipzig Reichsgericht and the Chicago jury.

Fortunately we have passed that stage in the older parties in Europe. We have seen Executives rise and fall by the dozen, we know they are as fallible as any pope, and have even known more than one that lived sumptuously on the pence of the working-men, and had swindlers and forgers of accounts in its midst. In their circular, the Executive will not only have to define their charge - which perhaps will thus at last become known to us - but also to prove it. People on this side do not take the word of their own Executives for gospel, much less that of Mr Walter and Mr Rosenberg, be it ever so ‘official’.

In my opinion, the Executive have placed themselves in a very uncomfortable position. Had they grumbled at the accounts as merely extravagant, they might have secured a hearing outside their own circle; for that is more or less a matter of opinion. But having never objected to the accounts sent in, they felt they had cut the ground from under their feet, and, as weak people do under circumstances, exaggerated the charge in order to cover themselves. Thus they come to the fresh charge of swindling and forgery which they can never prove and must be content to insinuate. But an infamy insinuated to cover mere weakness, remains neither more nor less an infamy. And having swelled what was originally a mere trifling matter of disputed accounting into a criminal offence, they naturally feel bound to go before the various workingclass parties with it. And naturally, they do it in a sneaking underhand way, preventing the accused from even hearing the charge. One mistaken step leads to another, and at last they arrive in a complete mess and are caught in their own net. And all that not out of inborn malice, but sheer weakness.

You will now see that I must most distinctly decline following your advice as to ‘giving Kautsky a hint, not to let the letters appear which are advertised in the name of Dr Aveling’, because the Executive are going to launch ‘an official circular’ against Aveling, and ‘his name as one of the staff can only injure any organ’. Neither Kautsky nor myself have, I believe, ever given any grounds for anyone to suppose that we would treat thus the friends we have worked with for years, upon the strength of mere assertions and innuendos. And if I was to say anything of the kind to Kautsky, I should simply drive him to the conclusion that I was either falling rapidly into dotage, or that I was no longer to be trusted across the road. Indeed I feel certain you regretted having written this passage as soon as the letter had gone.

I see very well that you wrote your letter in what you considered the interests of the party, and thus were led to represent to me the case of Aveling as hopeless and judged without appeal. But so far he is judged by nobody but the Executive who are themselves parties, accusers, judges and jury all in one; for the resolution of the New York sections, whatever it may be counts for nothing. What the other sections may say remains to be seen, but even they, if impartial, can only declare themselves incompetent until they have the full facts and until the accused has been heard. And I for one consider it utterly ruinous to the party to introduce into it, and even to outdo, the kind of justice practiced by Bismarck and by the American bourgeois, who do at least respect forms and give the prisoner at the bar a hearing—and for us to act thus at the very moment we protest against these infamous proceedings.

No doubt it may suit the Executive, under the pretence of avoiding public scandal, to shirk publicity. But that will not do. Either they must retract the dishonouring charge, reduce the case to its simple dimensions of a dispute about accounts, and settle that honourably and straightforwardly; or they must come out publicly with the charge and have it fought out. There has already too much of it been allowed to leak out, and it cannot remain where it is; nor is Aveling the man to leave it there. And as I cannot allow the Avelings to be accused of infamies behind their back, it was my duty to communicate your letter to Mrs Aveling (he being too ill at present) and to read to her my reply. And if at any time circumstances should require the publication of this my letter, you are at liberty to publish it in full, while I reserve to myself the same right, of course without dragging in your name, unless other people should have done so previously.

I am, dear Mrs Wischnewetzky, very truly yours

F. Engels