Marx’s ‘Illegitimate Son’ ...

Gresham’s Law in the World of Scholarship*

Freddy Demuth

* Gresham’s Law: ‘Bad money drives out good’ (Sir Thomas Gresham, 1558, but not denominated a ‘law’ until 1858).

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Source: “Gresham’s Law in the World of Scholarship” was written for “Marx Myths and Legends” by Terrell Carver, University of Bristol in February 2005, and rights remain with the author, as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.

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Frederick Demuth (1851-1929) has recently become an important character in the (after)lives of Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95); he was certainly no such thing at the time. Freddy, nearly 40 when his mother Helene Demuth (1820-90) died, was the sole beneficiary of her will. She left everything (£95) to her ‘son Frederick Lewis Demuth’, born Henry Frederick, according to his birth certificate, which gave no father.

Helene, known in Marx family circles as ‘Lenchen’ or (in various spellings) ‘Nim’ or ‘Nimmy’, was the daughter of a Rhineland village baker, and at an early age she had become the young Jenny von Westphalen’s maid at home. As such she had joined the Marx family in their Brussels days in the mid-1840s in order to help look after the infants. From all accounts she was good-humoured and literate, and in later years she helped the married daughters Jenny (1844-83) and Laura (1845-1911) with their babies. By 1883, the Longuet children – Jenny’s – were settled with their widower father Charles in France, and the three children of Laura and Paul Lafargue had all died in childhood by the early 1870s. After Marx’s death, Lenchen needed a ‘situation’ and Engels needed (yet another) housekeeper, so she settled there with him in the Regent’s Park Road N.W. until she died at 70 in 1890. Engels spoke at her funeral, and she was buried with the Marx family at Highgate (KM 183; 1 K 278-97; 2 K 429-40; 37 MEW 498).

Freddy was evidently well known to the Marx girls as Lenchen’s son. Jenny wrote to Laura in 1882 about a debt to Freddy and her inability to help ‘Nim’ make a journey to Germany. Shortly after Freddy’s mother died, Eleanor (1855-98) wrote to Laura, mentioning past wrongs and a sense of guilt: ‘Freddy has behaved admirably in all respects and Engels’s irritation against him is as unfair as it is comprehensible. We should none of us like to meet our pasts, I guess, in flesh and blood. I know I always meet Freddy with a sense of guilt and wrong done. The life of that man! To hear him tell of it all is a misery and shame to me.’

In the next few years Eleanor, Laura and their brother-in-law Charles Longuet helped Freddy out financially, and in 1892 Eleanor wrote to Laura: ‘It may be that I am very “sentimental” – but I can’t help feeling that Freddy has had great injustice all through his life. Is it not wonderful when you come to look things squarely in the face, how rarely we seem to practise all the fine things we preach – to others?’

Engels did not mention Freddy in his will of 29 July 1893, in which there were numerous bequests, nor in his codicil of 26 July 1895 (when he knew he was dying). Eleanor and Laura were asked by Engels in a letter to hold one-third (some £3000) of their combined share in trust for Jenny Longuet’s French children, who could not be named for legal reasons. The two women, in conjunction with their brother-in-law Charles, managed to channel some of the funds from Engels’s estate to Freddy.

In late 1897 and early 1898 – just before she apparently committed suicide on 31 March – Eleanor was in a terrible state about money, her relationship with the philandering socialist Edward Aveling (1851-98) and his deteriorating health. She wrote a series of moving letters, confiding in Freddy as Lenchen’s son: ‘I don’t think you and I have been very wicked people – and yet, dear Freddy, it does seems as if we get all the punishment.’ ‘I say to you what I would not say to anyone now’, she continued, ‘I would have told my dear old Nymmy, but as I have not, I have only you’ (2 K 680-8; 2 H 727-30; DKM 224, 240, 285; 39 MEW 318-19).

It is not apparent from the reliable evidence that survives exactly what injustices Eleanor thought Freddy had suffered and at whose hands. None of the Marx girls seemed at all occupied with paternity in their dealings with Freddy, and all three accepted him as Lenchen’s son. How long they had known of his existence, and his maternity (as it were) are not known. Possibly they were troubled about him and inclined to thoughts of guilt because he had grown up apart from his mother, so far as is known, and had enjoyed few educational advantages. Any feelings that his mother had been disadvantaged did not occur to them or did not surface in the correspondence that survives. Children were commonly put out to nurse in the 1850s, even amongst poor families like the Marxes, whose little Franziska (28 March 1851-14 April 1852) had been boarded out at about the same time as the infant Freddy. Frau Marx related this in her memoirs written in 1865: ‘We gave the poor little thing to a nurse, for we could not rear her with the [three] others in three small rooms.’ Lenchen, then about six months pregnant, was obviously in much the same position, except that housemaids who became pregnant were lucky to be kept on. Then in her memoirs Frau Marx also refers to an event in the early summer of 1851 – Freddy was born on 23 June – that caused them much distress: ‘It greatly contributed to increase our worries, both personal and others’. But she said that she did not ‘wish to relate [it] here in detail’ and gave no specifics. Marx’s letters of the following August speak of infamies and tales visited on his wife, and he mentions names, but not substance:

My wife will go under if things continue like this much longer. The constant worries, the slightest everyday struggle wears her out; and on top of that, there are the infamies of my opponents ... who seek to avenge their impotence by casting suspicions on my civil character and by disseminating the most unspeakable infamies about me. Willich, Schapper, Ruge and countless other democratic rabble make this their business.

The context here is probably the break-up of the émigré German communists into rival groups who quarrelled bitterly about money as well as politics.

More pertinently Marx had written to Engels on 31 March 1851 about a ‘mystery’ – ‘in which you also figure’ – that had given matters a ‘tragi-comic turn’. But in writing that letter he was interrupted, and in the following letter of 2 April he put off relating the matter until his visit to Manchester at the end of the month. From mid-1850 the Prussian ambassador in London, and the Prussian government itself, had been conducting a campaign to discredit Marx and Engels and other communists, and in March 1851 Ferdinand von Westphalen (1799-1876), stepbrother of Frau Marx and a civil servant in the Ministry of the Interior, was involved in moves to secure the deportation of the chief revolutionaries from Britain. Prussian methods included the use of agents to find compromising material and collect rumours and allegations that might influence the British government to comply with the plan to push the communists further afield, and Marx and Engels were circumspect in their correspondence. But it may also be that the housemaid’s pregnancy was under discussion. Engels, who was supporting the Marxes on his slender resources, was in a position to pay to have the infant fostered, but there is no record of any arrangements to which he may or may not have agreed.

If any of the odd comments in letters and memoirs were really about the pregnant Lenchen, then the affair seems to have been viewed as an inconvenient embarrassment by Marx and as the source of personal distress by his wife, but there is no sense that Marx was intimately implicated, nor that Frau Marx saw him any differently, nor that Engels himself was going to be seriously put out, because the comments that do survive indicate that everyone involved was on much the same terms as usual. The pregnant housemaid and the problem of her offspring were real – but peripheral to the domestic difficulties with money and political difficulties with spies and communists that the Marxes and Engels had to endure (R 23-4; KM 271-3; 38 CW 324-5, 402-3, 626-7).

Freddy would be an altogether minor character in any consideration of Engels’s life or Marx’s, were it not for a document, first published in extracts in 1962. According to the story recounted there, Freddy is suddenly a relation of Marx and his family and – in an ambiguous way – of Engels himself. Ostensibly the tale concerns Marx and his alleged affair with the housemaid, but it is Engels who plays the central role in the supposed narrative.

This typewritten document appears to be a letter dated 2-4 September 1898, written by Louise Freyberger née Strasser (1860-1950), three years after the Engels household broke up. As Louise Kautsky, the recently divorced wife of the prominent German socialist Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), she had been asked by Engels, within a month of Lenchen’s death, to keep house for him, and she arrived post haste from Vienna. In 1894 she married Dr. Ludwig Freyberger, another émigré, and he came to live in Engels’s house, too – much to Eleanor’s displeasure, as she disliked Louise and her influence over Engels, then in his seventies (2 K 444; 2 H 725-6).

The document spins a lurid tale of deathbed revelations by Engels to Eleanor Marx, principally the claim that Marx himself was Freddy’s father. Fearing gossip imputing paternity, Engels is said to have declared ‘the truth’, in case he should be accused, after his death, of treating Freddy shabbily. The date on the document is some six months after Eleanor’s suicide, so if there was a letter, Eleanor was conveniently out of the way, though others mentioned as in on the story to some degree – such as Sam Moore (c. 1830-1911), Marx’s English translator, and Eleanor’s sister Laura – clearly were not. The addressee of the supposed letter, the prominent German socialist and trade unionist August Bebel (1840-1913), or anyone else who had been the recipient of such tales from Louise, could have checked with them.

Louise’s ‘letter’ has put Marx and his works in a bad light, and made Engels’s deathbed into high Victorian melodrama. After such a gothic story it is extraordinarily difficult to see the situation any other way, but this now well-known version of events must nonetheless be tested stringently against the facts as we have them. In particular Engels’s actions – attested and alleged – must be carefully scrutinized.

At the time of Freddy’s conception in 1850 and birth in 1851 the four principals in the affair, so far as we know, were Lenchen, Marx, Frau Marx and Engels. The birth of an illegitimate child to the maid was obviously difficult and trying for the household, because the situation precluded any truly humane solution. Frau Marx would not have wanted to lose her long-time maid, and Lenchen no doubt wished to keep her livelihood. Continued residence for Lenchen with the Marxes, together with her illegitimate baby, would have associated the household with ‘free love’ and moral irresponsibility, whoever the father was in fact or by repute. This was especially problematic with respect to the legitimate children, who would have been confronted – according to the standards of the time – with an example of flagrantly immoral behaviour, and one specially relevant to young girls. These were standards held by both conventional conservatives and responsible communists, albeit for somewhat different reasons. In any event such an establishment would have been poor publicity for communism, and a considerable burden for the children to bear, both legitimate and illegitimate. Lenchen could have been set up outside the family with her baby, but this was probably – with or without genuine regrets – beyond Engels’s means, and certainly against his wish to spare his own family the possibility of serious embarrassment, as his connection with ‘immorality’ might well leak out, whether or not he was presumed to be the father. The Engels family were, in any case, his employers. The obvious solution was to board the child out and leave him there, and that is in fact what happened, so far as we know.

Lenchen may not have objected very much, as it was clearly for her own good to keep her situation, for the Marx family to continue unencumbered and for the communist cause to suffer no invidious criticism. The fact that she continued in the household with evident aplomb accords with this hypothesis, and with Eleanor’s evident blankness on any injustice done to Freddy’s mother, whose infant had gone to another home. The grievous injustice, from Eleanor’s point of view, could have been the fact that Freddy had to grow up as a foster-child – no doubt a hard upbringing – away from his mother and the civilized influence of a cultured household.

Throughout their lives all four principals lived very happily together, and Lenchen ultimately served in both the Marx and the Engels households without any suggestion of reluctance. Hers is another unheard voice, as she left no written testimony other than her will, but memoirs of the two households attest to her willing service. If there were difficulties amongst the four principals of the 1850s – about finances, maternity, paternity or whatever – they were swiftly settled and never revisited. Frau Marx would hardly have made her remarks in her correspondence about disturbing events if she knew that Karl were the father, as she was most particular about the obligations of family life and could not have wished to spread such a tale any further. Presumably she made her comments because they were about a situation – one that was outside her immediate relationship with her husband – that affected her deeply.

If Engels were the father, or had taken the rap for Karl, this story would surely have surfaced at some point in the émigré community, since spiteful gossips abounded. Indeed Engels was quite capable of dishing up that sort of thing himself. Writing to Marx in 1846 about their communist contacts near Paris, Engels indulged himself in ribaldry: ‘The best of it is that in the house ... there are 2 women, 2 men, several children, one of them dubious, and despite all this not a thing happens there. They don’t even practise pederasty’ (38 CW 55).

A considerable number of highly communicative people – not all of them life-long friends of Marx or Engels by any means – knew of Freddy’s existence, and it seems to have been no particular secret that Freddy’s mother was a close associate of both Marx and Engels. Had there ever been a serious possibility that Freddy’s paternity would pose problems for either of the two – and hence for the ‘Marx party’ within the communist movement – the principals could easily have passed him off as a Demuth nephew or other relation.

Indeed the adult Freddy was known and loved in the family as Lenchen’s son, who had suffered a great injustice and needed to be helped. Eleanor spoke of him in those terms before Engels’s death and afterwards, and for that reason she is unlikely to have been the recipient of revelations on the subject of Freddy and unlikely to have sorted the Engels papers to remove any proof of Marx’s paternity. If she had learned in 1895 of something scandalous she could hardly have gone on with Freddy exactly as before, and made almost exactly the same kind of comments about injustice. The correspondence that survives concerning Freddy reflects a steady, continuing interest in him on the part of the Marx girls – and vice versa – from sometime before 1882 up to his final correspondence with Laura, shortly before her suicide in 1911. Insofar as Lenchen was a second mother to her, Freddy was a kind of half-brother, and because Lenchen was in effect a member of the Marx family, Eleanor’s efforts to put him on a par with the other Marx legatees of Engels’s will are understandable in those terms alone. Also the Engels estate was probably her only source of spare cash. Eleanor commented quite correctly in 1892 that Freddy was part of Engels’s past, but did not mention the other three principals of the original affair, because by the time of her letter they were all dead. Later when she mentioned again the injustices done to Freddy, she did not mention Engels, because by that time he was dead, too.

Engels’s reported irritation with Freddy suggests that he did not want an old embarrassment exhumed, as there was no way that Freddy’s circumstances could reflect well on himself and the Marxes as communists, and there were numerous ways that it could be construed to bring discredit on the movement. With Freddy on the scene in London questions might arise about his treatment in early life or just possibly his paternity, and the difficult matter for Engels of proving himself or others innocent of all callous behaviour might arise if such an ill-natured and unedifying inquiry were opened.

Engels had already put himself up for criticism in respect of the Burns sisters, Mary (c. 1823-63) and Lydia (‘Lizzie’) (1827-78) and so he was party already to conventional discretion as a first line of defence. His liaisons were never widely advertised, they were never made to look like ‘free love’, and they never involved children – though exactly why not, we do not know. Thus they appeared – to those who were determined to inquire – to be responsible domestic relationships that had merely foregone the formalities of marriage. As he was evidently ‘doing right’ by the Irish girls, not too much could be made of his living arrangements by conservatives bent on gutter politics or communists with scores to settle against Marx. The situation with respect to Freddy might well have been more difficult to explain and less easy to justify.

The most curious thing about Louise’s ‘letter’ is that it contains allegations about Marx and Engels that are quite sensational, but until the 1960s quite unknown. The ‘letter’ was addressed to one of the most prominent socialist leaders in Germany. In any case, why did Louise never raise the matter again? She was nothing if not energetic and determined, and as the intention of the ‘letter’ was plainly to impose a revelation on the world, it seems inconceivable that she put pen to paper once, and then let the sensational story drop for no less than the fifty-two years that elapsed before her death in 1950.

Moreover Louise’s account of the deathbed revelation is as suspect as some of the other ‘facts’ in the document (such as the Marxes stopped sleeping together in the early 1850s – Eleanor was born in 1855 and there was a further still birth – and Louise’s very odd claim that Eleanor knew all this!). And even if the tale of Engels’s death-bed is truly told, the validity of his claim that Marx was Freddy’s father is open to doubt. Of the two, Engels himself is a better candidate than Karl, and he was indeed living in London at the relevant time, September-October 1850. The younger, unmarried and handsomer man was the one with a taste for girls, working-class ones at that, and Lenchen was his exact contemporary. Writing to Marx from Paris in 1847 Engels let rip about grisettes – ‘easy’ working-class girls called after their cheap grey attire: ‘it is absolutely essential that you get out of boring Brussels for once and come to Paris, and I for my part have a great desire to go carousing with you ... If I had an income of 5000 francs I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces. If there were no Frenchwomen, life wouldn’t be worth living. But so long as there are grisettes, well and good!’ (38 CW 115).

By contrast Karl was notably struck on Jenny as his long-suffering wife; and from all accounts he was uxorious in the home – even if he did complain a bit in letters – and desperately anxious for a son. He mourned his two dead ones – Edgar or ‘Musch’ (c. December 1846- 6 April 1855) and Guido or ‘Föxchen’ (after the incendiary Catholic rebel Guido or ‘Guy’ Fox) (c. 31 October 1849 – c. late November 1850) – with particular bitterness. The younger boy had only recently died, and on the occasion of his third daughter Franziska’s birth he commented, ‘My wife, alas, has been delivered of a girl, and not a boy. And what is worse, she’s very poorly.’ When his last surviving child, Eleanor, was born in January 1855, he wrote to Engels, ‘my wife was delivered of a bona fide TRAVELLER – unfortunately of THE “SEX” par excellence. If it had been a male child, well and good’.

Lenchen and Frau Marx were very close – Lenchen was a link for Jenny with the von Westphalens and happier days – and Frau Marx was virtually all that Helene Demuth had in the world. The two no doubt spent more time together than Jenny spent with Karl, who devoted long hours to his work in the British Museum. It seems difficult to imagine Lenchen deceiving her mistress, and if violence were perpetrated on the maid by Karl, it seems difficult to imagine Jenny allowing the household to continue as if nothing had happened.

Marx’s wife Jenny complained on occasion about August Willich (1810-78), one of the expatriate ’48ers, saying that he was lurking around the household with seduction on his mind. Someone like that seems a better candidate for Freddy’s father than either Marx or Engels. At registration Freddy was named Henry, possibly after Karl Heinrich Marx, and Frederick, possibly after Friedrich Engels, who had no alternative Christian name but sometimes anglicized his own. The two were very possibly charged by the unhappy mother and her distraught mistress with doing the best they could for the infant – at a distance (38 CW 326; 39 CV 509; 1 K 21; KM 246-7).

The story of ‘Marx’s illegitimate son’ has been the most obvious reading of Louise’s ‘letter’. But the document should be particularly scrutinized for its allegations about Engels, namely his behaviour on his deathbed and before. In the ‘letter’ Louise says: ‘[Engels] said that he did not wish his name to be besmirched ... He had stood in for Marx in order to save him from a serious domestic quarrel ... I have seen the letter which Marx wrote to General [Engels’s nickname] in Manchester at the time ... I believe that he had this letter but, like so much of their correspondence, has destroyed it’ (R 134-8).

If Engels were genuinely worried at any stage that Freddy’s paternity would be laid at his door – and there is no evidence that he was – he would hardly have wanted to destroy the one piece of evidence that would have cleared him, as Louise’s ‘letter’ suggests. If, as seems more likely, he cared more for Marx’s name within the communist cause than for his own respectability, then – if there were a letter incriminating Marx – he might well have burnt it, but many years before Louise arrived in his household in 1890. However, there is little likelihood that on his deathbed Engels would suddenly demonstrate an overpowering concern for his own moral reputation in the shallowest sense, and then seek to salvage it from an entirely hypothetical attack, by imputing Freddy’s paternity to Marx. Indeed Engels took special care to provide for the Marx children, and if Freddy were one as well, Engels could easily have written another codicil and included him amongst the legatees. He would thus have protected himself from charges of ‘shabby treatment’ with substantial help rather than with unsubstantiated allegations.

Overall Engels was far more concerned for the good name of the communist movement, and for Marx’s good name first and foremost within it, than he was for his own. By the time he died he had devoted fifty years to this cause, and he is unlikely to have wanted to blacken Marx’s name for any reason whatsoever. The personal and the political were far too closely intertwined in his life to come apart so catastrophically, indeed they were virtually one and the same. Louise’s ‘letter’ is instructive because it illustrates precisely the kind of thing that he was least likely to say. Political action played a large part in his personal relationships – what they were and how they were conducted – and indeed the idea of political action completely filled his personal life.

The text above (26/02/05) is adapted from Terrell Carver, Friedrich Engels: His Life and Thought (Macmillan, 1989), pp. 161-71, and further research since that time.

Update 26/02/05.

Heinrich Gemkow and Rolf Hecker have published a useful article which surveys and reproduces much of the material cited and excerpted above, together with a number of extracts from documents that are difficult to access and in some cases newly added to the list of materials relevant to the ‘Freddy affair’ (GH). In particular they focus attention on three letters from August Bebel to Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932), dated 8 and 18 September 1898, and 3 August 1899 (and on Bernstein’s replies of 11 and 18 September 1898). These are evidently part of the exchange of letters to which Louise’s (lost) original letter was directed, i.e. Bebel wrote to her (letter lost), she replied to him (apparent copy dated 2-4 September 1898). Gemkow and Hecker further consider a letter from Frederick Demuth to Jean-Laurent-Frederick Longuet (1876-1946) of 10 April 1912; a letter from David Borisovich Ryazanov (1870-1934), the director of the Marx-Engels-Institute and editor of the first Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, to Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), dated 20 February 1929, and Zetkin’s reply of 27 February, written from Moscow where she was then living (GH 47). It is rather unclear from their text exactly which of these items was ‘unknown’ and in exactly what sense. While the authors admit that these materials offer no conclusive proof that Marx was Frederick Demuth’s father, and while they note Bernstein’s scepticism on this point (in a previously ‘known’ letter), and refer to Kautsky’s (in a published article of 1929), they nonetheless regard this additional material as weighty enough to close the case (GH 45 n. 7, 49, 51).

The Bebel-Bernstein exchange of correspondence provides a context for Louise’s ‘letter’, namely the activities and thoughts of Bebel and Bernstein in the late summer and early autumn of 1898 when they were dealing with Edward Aveling’s estate (GH 47-50). Aveling had died on 2 August, having been in bad health for some time, one of the factors assumed to have been behind Eleanor Marx’s suicide on 31 March of the same year. Their involvement with Freddy and his (rather usual) attempts to gain money, one way or another, from the Marx family, are perhaps explained (at least in part) by some suggestion that one of the points at issue was a loan from Eleanor to Aveling, which could possibly be recovered in Freddy’s favour (GH 48). Freddy had not figured in Eleanor’s will, despite her declared affection for him (something which troubled Bernstein, who spoke rather ill of the dead on this matter), and as with the Engels estate, there was something of a pattern of trying to secure him some funds (GH 48). As Helene’s son, and friend of Eleanor and Laura, he was at least in that way a family-member. This correspondence was also the occasion for an exchange between Bebel and Bernstein about a possible closer (and scandalous) relationship to the Marx family, namely the ‘information’ (from Louise) that he was Marx’s son (and therefore Eleanor’s illegitimate half-brother). However, as the authors state, these documents provide no direct evidence on this point, other than a rehearsal of their varying opinions about this possibility (and their views on Louise’s reliability as an informant – about anything). The conclusion between them was that Freddy would be getting no money from the Aveling estate, at least through their offices, however needy or deserving he actually was (GH 49).

The letter from Frederick Demuth himself, some years later, to ‘Johnny’ Longuet (Jenny’s son), does not feature in Gemkow and Hecker’s arguments, as it merely relays the thoughts of a man in bad health who is, once again, asking for money, and they do not seem to take his own claim to be Marx’s son with any degree of seriousness (GH 50). In any case, the document relates no new information on the subject, beyond Louise’s account/Engels’s alleged claim, as recounted in the typewritten document from which the current controversy solely arises.

The Ryazanov-Zetkin exchange does actually add a new claim, namely that Zetkin herself, while present at Eleanor Marx’s house (apparently at the beginning of August 1896), was introduced by Eleanor to Freddy as her (i.e. Eleanor’s) ‘half-brother’ and ‘the son of Nymmy and Mohr [i.e. Marx]’. Zetkin also says that Eleanor said that she (i.e. Zetkin) ‘would know the history’ (GH 56-7). Curiously the authors do not focus much attention on this, even though it represents the first claim that someone, other than Louise (who merely recounts Engels’s alleged claim, and her claim that Engels was telling the truth, and that others knew the story), was told about this in direct terms of paternity independently of Louise.

However, Zetkin’s narrative contains another ‘surprise’. According to her, Louise Kautsky (as she then was) turned up at Engels’s in 1890 about to become a ‘mother’ (i.e. pregnant), and her marriage to Dr. Ludwig Freyberger was rushed through on Engels’s doing in order to maintain respectability (GH 57-8). A fact not noted by Gemkow and Hecker is that Louise and Ludwig were married only in 1894, though the authors do comment on Zetkin’s speculations concerning the father of Louise’s baby. According to Zetkin the father was definitely not Ludwig, but could have been Bebel or Adler or Engels himself! (despite his advanced age). Gemkow and Hecker merely note that according to evidence from their correspondence Bebel and Adler were not in contact with Louise at the relevant time. Unmentioned, but certainly striking, is the fact that Zetkin’s is the sole account of all this scandal concerning Louise and illegitimacy/fatherhood, for which nothing else survives or fits. This puts Zetkin rather in Louise’s camp as someone who exaggerates and creates fantasies, as Bernstein put it in 1898 (the first time round on this kind of scenario).

Zetkin’s concern in her letter seems to be political in a number of senses: she considers Marx, Engels, and Kautsky all to be cold and callous (males) in their evident disregard for Freddy, whether as infant, youth or adult, whatever his exact relationship to the Marx family; and she also considers Kautsky and Engels to be too influenced by bourgeois niceties and hypocrisies in these matters (and indeed she seems to see that class/gender fault as part and parcel with revisionism in the case of Kautsky) (GH 58). Zetkin also rather indirectly suggests (by giving us remarks she ascribes to Bebel) that Bernstein destroyed or censored letters from Marx to Engels (which could include the one in which the former apologises for asking the latter to accept paternity and thereby avoid a family row), whereas Louise seemed to think that that letter had already been destroyed by Engels (GH 56). Zetkin mentions Bernstein’s scepticism, which also surfaces in Kautsky’s article written about the time the two exchanged letters (and was then published on 20 February 1929), even though Zetkin seems to boast that she got the Marx/paternity story from ‘Kautsky himself’. However, she says that he got the story from Bernstein, who is supposed to have made the crucial discovery of the letter (and then presumably reversed his earlier scepticism about the Freddy-Marx non-resemblance, though we have no record of any of this) (GH 50, 54). The authors note with some surprise Zetkin’s word-for-word recollections (at age 71) of social occasions at ‘Tussy’s’ (i.e. Eleanor’s) some 30 years before, but then according to Zetkin’s account, Eleanor had promised her a ‘surprise’, so it would have been quite memorable (GH 50). In short, Zetkin seems somewhat flawed and unreliable as a witness (rather like Louise), not least because she was writing 30 years after in overcharged circumstances and with certain battles on her mind. Despite her reference to Eleanor as an independent source for the Freddy/Marx/paternity story (other than Louise), Zetkin’s account is very much framed by Louise’s account/Engels’s alleged claim (and so does not count as fully independent corroboration).

The Gemkow/Hecker article displays some telling confusions:

In what I hope is a scholarly manner, I summarise the case for, and the case against, in two paragraphs below, and then offer some further thoughts on the current state of scholarship in this area.

Reasons for believing that Marx was Freddy’s father:

Reasons for not believing that Marx was Freddy’s father:

In short, all roads in this matter lead back to Louise (save for Zetkin’s story about Eleanor’s ‘surprise’, and even that surfaces in a context influenced by Louise) and to Louise’s apparent interest in safeguarding Engels’s ‘good name’ and presumably his money albeit very retrospectively. Possibly there is also an element here of Louise’s concern to cause trouble for Eleanor, even after the latter’s death, in conjunction with the estate of her ‘partner’ Aveling, by making difficulties there and saddling Eleanor with a bastard brother (whom Engels evidently didn’t like, on Eleanor’s testimony). The gossip and scandal, such as we have it, all dates from 1898 (according to surviving materials, which have no anomalies solely soluble in terms of Louise’s account/Engels’s alleged claim).

I suggest the following methodological principles for investigation of the ‘Freddy affair’:

  1. no reading of Louise’s tale into the evidence without rigorous testing as to whether other circumstances fit equally well or better.
  2. rigorous separation of factual and hearsay claims, and testing of these separately, e.g. what does Louise say and should we believe it? what does Engels (supposedly) say and should we believe it? What does anyone else actually say in their own words and from their own experience?
  3. source material should be reproduced in full, rather than excerpted, not least to establish the context of remarks, i.e. what questions the writers are asking and answering and with what result in mind, which is seldom the same as a (much later) scholarly enquiry into a (not very simple) fact. (In a short article, of course, this is not always possible; however, I am aiming to collect all the relevant documents for publication in full in English translation.)
  4. due attention to the commonplace idea (as it was then before DNA testing, anyway) that ‘maternity is a fact, and paternity is an opinion’! We have no testimony at all from the one person whose account would command special credence – Helene Demuth – even if there might still be room for doubt about her exact knowledge or veracity. I suspect what concerns contemporary scholars is the answer to a different question: did Marx have an affair with, or perpetrate violence on, the housemaid? Again the one person whose account would command special credence has apparently left us nothing.
Frederick Engels

We will never know about this ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Why we should care is another question. Marx might appear a model family man, in a qualified sense (given his need to ‘do right’ by them all in a bourgeois world), but has there been an industry devoted to projecting him in the guise of model heterosexual male? He was notably low key on these issues (though not entirely silent; see P-MMx ch. 9).

Moreover, if Louise’s account/Engels’s alleged claim is accepted as read, Engels emerges as shabby, shallow and pathetic, and there is some implied criticism of him along these lines in the Bebel-Bernstein exchanges as they consider the possibilities and consequences of Louise’s account/Engels’s alleged claim. Engels may very well have been that way late in life (or indeed somewhat earlier), but it is in some ways more shocking, given his youthful polemics against the ‘bourgeois family’, an area where Marx had rather less to say (and also, so far as we know, rather less to do in terms of ‘womanizing’, given his long courtship and ‘childhood sweethearts’ sexual trajectory; see PMMx ch. 10).

At this stage of the investigation I am personally more persuaded by Bernstein’s view in 1898 (the father was someone unacceptable to the family) and by Kautsky’s comments in 1929 (Marx’s paternity of Frederick was ‘wholly improbable’) than to Louise’s account/Engels’s alleged claim. It fits much more plausibly with the correspondence, events, feelings and character of everyone concerned ... except Louise’s. While it is difficult to see quite why Louise would deliberately construct such a spiteful tale, it is significant that there was scepticism about it amongst the inner circle at the time (as well as credence). There is an undoubted element of gossipy invention and speculation in the document, anyway, which even Louise’s most ardent supporters (such as Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx’s biographer) have had to acknowledge. However powerful the tale, and however well it ‘seems to fit’ into other ambiguities, historians and scholars have a duty to formulate clear hypotheses and to mount clearly constructed tests.

In sum, historians and biographers should sharpen up the tools of their trade, and not be seduced by the evident narrative power of gossip and scandal, however much they are vicariously involved with their socialist celebrities.


CW — Marx and Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975-2004).

DKM — The Daughters of Karl Marx, Family Correspondence 1866-1898, trans. Faith Evans (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984).

GH — ‘Unbekannte Dokumente über Marx’ Sohn Frederick Demuth’ [‘Unknown Documents concerning Marx’s Son Frederick Demuth’], Beiträge zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung 4/1994, pp. 43-59.

H — W.O. Henderson, The Life of Friedrich Engels, 2 vols (London: Frank Cass, 1976).

K — Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx, 2 vols (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1972 and 1976).

KM — David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (London: Macmillan, 1973).

MEW — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1956-68).

P-MMx — Terrell Carver, The Postmodern Marx (Manchester: Manchester University press, 2004).

R — Fritz J. Raddatz, Karl Marx, trans. Richard Barry (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978).