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Last updated:29 September 2015

Edward Aveling

Edward Aveling was born in 1849 in London and through private education and personal tuition received his degree from University College London in 1872. He married Isabel Frank in 1872, but then separated after two years and it is not clear if they ever went through divorce proceedings. He became a school teacher and lecturer, working at London Hospital and other Colleges. He might have had an academic career but was unprepared to deny his atheism in order to obtain employment. He was a member of the National Secular Society (NSS) and worked closely with Annie Besant. He became the editor of the society journal, The Freethinker.

He moved from the position of being a Secularist to becoming a Socialist, a move which upset

Credit: Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Moscow via Marxists Internet Archive

Charles Bradlaugh who was strongly anti-Socialist. He left the NSS after a disagreement with Bradlaugh and in the light of possible financial misconduct. He began actively to collaborate with Eleanor Marx in 1883 and they lived together in what was then known as a ‘common law marriage’. Together they wrote many articles for Progress and other journals, lectured extensively and joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Edward Aveling also wrote a considerable number of school textbooks on biology, botany and chemistry and wrote and lectured on the work of Charles Darwin.

Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx both left the SDF and subsequently joined the Socialist League and then the Bloomsbury Socialist Society. Edward was involved in many of the translations of the work of Karl Marx, who had died in 1883, and although distrusted by many in the Socialist movement was protected by his closeness to Eleanor Marx and the patronage of Friedrich Engels. It is also the case that however he was reviled for his moral and financial laxity he was a hard worker for the Socialist cause and was a talented speaker. Typical of the behaviour of Aveling was that he and Eleanor worked hard on a tour of the United States at the invitation of the Socialistic Labour Party (SLP) - but that was undermined by the fact that Aveling presented the SLP with a considerable bill for the travelling expenses.

Back in England Aveling was supportive of the work carried out by Eleanor Marx in the ‘New Unionism’ period when she worked alongside Will Thorne and Tom Mann and promoted the unionisation of women workers.

At the same time, Edward Aveling used the nom de plume Alec Nelson when working as a playwright and drama critic and it was as ‘Alec Nelson’ that Aveling secretly got married in 1897, using false personal details. Edward and Eleanor had lived together for many years whilst unmarried – something which was in accordance with both of their beliefs – but Eleanor was aware that Edward was not faithful. However, when ‘Alec Nelson’ became seriously ill it was to Eleanor he returned to be nursed but then, when better, went back to his new wife.  In these circumstances, Eleanor Marx apparently committed suicide in 1898. A poorly conducted inquest meant that Edward Aveling – who did not disclose his secret marriage – was not held to account for his actions at the time of the suicide. Many Socialists wished to put Edward on trial but he died four months later, never having collected Eleanor’s ashes. His funeral was not attended by any of the Socialist figures that he worked with over a long period.

Few activists in the Socialist and Labour movement are known by anything other than their deeds and words on behalf of the working class movement. Yet, just about all those who were involved in the movement at the time regarded Aveling with hostility. The most common insult was to refer to him as a ‘reptile’. Many of these assertions predate his involvement with Eleanor Marx but the real anger of the socialist movement was directed to the extent to which he lived off one of the most assertive and active women in the movement. At a time when working people were raising money through subscriptions for trades Unions, journals being produced through voluntary labour and all workers experiencing the hardships and oppression of capitalism, financial and moral improprieties on the part of socialist activists were unforgivable. Tellingly, no full-length biography of Edward Aveling has ever appeared and it is only through the recent biographies of Eleanor Marx that his name has appeared again. Yet, the works that he wrote on Darwin, secularism and, in collaboration with Eleanor Marx, The Working Class Movement in America, The Woman Question and The Factory Hell, are all important contributions to the labour movement.

Although no full study of Aveling has been written, the Working Class Movement Library has a wealth of material for people to come in and read including works by Edward and those written in conjunction with Eleanor Marx. The Library has a number of biographies of Eleanor Marx including those of Rachel Holmes [shelfmark JS47], Chushichi Tsuzuki [B44] and Yvonne Kapp [B43].

Works by Aveling on Darwin [H01], Shelley’s socialism [H01] and The Student’s' Marx: an introduction to the study of ‘Capital’ [B42] are available, as are a number of pamphlets and journal articles. Click here to search the catalogue.