Book Review from the January 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard
"The Housing Question," F. Engels (Martin Lawrence, 2s. 6d.)
Numerous people who pride themselves upon their practical outlook and their absorption in so-called immediate issues would do well to read and inwardly digest this little book. Written originally as a series of articles in a German workers' periodical, over sixty years ago, it refers in particular to propositions made by two of the author’s contemporaries, viz., Proudhon, the French father of anarchism, and a certain less notable Dr. Sax, whom Engels selects as representing the typical capitalist reformer. Though the former claimed to be a revolutionary, his ideal resembled, with striking closeness, that of the reformer. Both proposed that the worker should own his own house. Proudhon suggested that, after a number of years’ payment of rent, the house should become the property of the tenant; this result was to be achieved by legislation. Sax, on the other hand, favoured Building Societies as a means of arriving at the goal.
Engels had no difficulty in showing the Utopian character of the plans of both these practical people; and further that even to the extent that the workers could and did own their own houses at that time, in Germany and elsewhere, this was the reverse of helpful to them. Once the workers became drawn into the orbit of capitalism every piece of small property in houses or land became a tie which hampered their freedom of movement in times of industrial change. At the same time, the fact that they lived rent-free merely meant that their wages were correspondingly low.
Nowadays only the élite of the working class i.e., those with permanent jobs and comfortable salaries can seriously think of becoming house-owners, and even these can often be found looking at the cracks in the ceiling and speculating as to which will terminate first, the payments or the house.
The stimulus given to industry by the war led to a rapid flow of population from the country to the towns in certain areas, and hence arose the acute post-war housing shortage. This type of shortage can be remedied in time by the operation of normal economic processes under capitalism plus State action through the local authorities. What cannot be remedied, however, is the chronic inferiority of working-class accommodation due to the poverty of the workers, a condition they share with the oppressed classes through the ages. This can disappear only through the transformation of the means of living into the common property of all.
Engels brought these points out very clearly and showed conclusively that no piecemeal treatment of isolated “questions” such as housing could achieve any permanent solution. Slums are destroyed in one district only to appear in another, for the poverty which lies at the root of the slum is not abolished by the mere transportation of the poor. Engels shows up also the severely practical nature of the interest which the ruling class take from time to time in slum clearing.
Apart from the danger of epidemics, which do not always spare the wealthy, the time comes when all the cunning of the rack-renter fails to extract more than a certain amount from the tenants of certain property. The demand for larger, centrally-situated emporiums, banks, theatres, railway stations and traffic accommodation generally, grows and forces the workers' homes towards the circumferences of the big cities. These factors are as evident to-day as when Engels wrote; but just how rapidly our rulers move in such matters may be measured by those who remember that it is just about thirty years ago since Lloyd George told us that if, when the Liberal Party were returned to office, they did not sweep the slums from the land within three years they would deserve to be swept from office. The ruling class are still sweeping slums away, and will, no doubt, be doing so on the eve of the revolution.
The point of Engels’ book is that the solution of the housing problem, as of all problems that affect the workers, lies in the hands of the workers themselves. They cannot afford to leave it to their masters to solve whether by legislation or by Building Societies. They only need to conquer political power in order to remove at once the barriers to healthier and roomier houses.
The reappearance of the book is, therefore, timely, and should in Engels' own words “provide proof of how impractical these so-called ‘practical' Socialists really are.”