Summary: Housing prices are going up all over the world. As a result, many have experienced widespread displacement in process known as “gentrification.” How ought we to understand it? More importantly, how can it be fought? This article claims (perhaps counterintuitively) that great inspiration for answering these questions can be found in Friedrich Engels’s nearly 150-year-old text, “On the Housing Question.” Image: Norra Sorgenfri in Malmö, Sweden — Editors
In 2017, the urbanist Richard Florida—perhaps best known for coining the term “the creative class”—published a book entitled The New Urban Crisis that has since been widely discussed among professional urban planners. The crisis Florida describes is characterized by such trends as sky rocketing housing prices, gentrification, and rural under-development. What he describes, however, is nothing new.
In 1886, a young woman who had travelled from London to the United States wrote the following to a friend about the impossibly difficult housing market she came to know there:
In, or rather near Kansas City we saw some miserable little wooden huts, containing about three rooms each, still in the wilds; the land cost 600 dollars and was just enough to put the little house on it; the latter cost a further 600 dollars, that is together about 4,800 marks [£240] for a miserable little thing, an hour away from the town, in a muddy desert.
The woman was Eleanor Marx-Aveling, one of Karl Marx’s daughters, and the friend back home was Friedrich Engels. At the time the latter was preparing for publication a series of articles he had written in the context of a debate on housing that had gone on in the newspaper Volksstaat. He included Eleanor’s description in the final version of his collection, which bears the title, The Housing Question.
In The Housing Question Engels does not merely describe the bad housing conditions of the poor. Rather, he is primarily interested in describing, and critiquing, the various positions on the housing question on offer at the time. He is mainly focused on those positions held by Proudhon, Anarchists, and the philanthropic bourgeoisie. While he discusses them, he outlines his own (revolutionary) standpoint.
Having spent time studying in a Geography department, and working as a professional urban planner on a municipal level, I have found that much of what Engels discusses is still relevant today. In the following I will project the parts I found most interesting in The Housing Question.
Proudhon and the Anarchists
One of the authors who contributed to the Volksstaat debate expressed what Engels labelled ‘pure Proudhonism.’ This author had claimed that the relation between the landlord and the tenant is identical to the relation between the capitalist and the worker. Nonsense, Engels thought. In the former relation no value is being produced. Rather, the transaction between the tenant and the landlord is only a transaction of already existing values. The capitalist-worker relation is essentially different. There, the worker is compelled to work for the capitalist. The workers concrete labor becomes crystalized in the commodity in the form of a quantum of abstract value. The capitalist then expropriates the value that the worker produces (minus that which is paid in wages). This is the cornerstone of the capitalist mode of production.
Unsurprisingly, the Proudhonist does not see this. Instead he repeatedly mistakes the abstract for the concrete and treats that which is abstract as a material thing. For example, “eternal justice” is one such abstract principle that Proudhon thinks is being violated when the landlord demands rent from the tenant. Proudhon believes that it offends against eternal justice to charge rent that exceeds the initial building investment, and that rented dwellings must therefore be abolished. Instead, everyone should own the house he or she is currently living in. That would be a real progress.
Engels objects vociferously to this line. While Proudhon thinks that every dollar collected by he landlord in excess of the initial building investment constitutes a crime against “eternal justice,” Engels explains that the collected rent is used by the landlord to pay for a number of costs, including the interest on borrowed money, maintenance and cleaning, and the like. The landlord must also store up money for occasional periods when the house might be vacant.
For Engels, housing is just like any other commodity. There are contextual regulations on where it is allowed to be built and who can access a housing loan and so on, but apart from that there is nothing that makes housing essentially different from other commodities on the market. That means that it is governed by the exact same economic rules: prices are set where the supply meets the demand.
In capitalism, where large reserve armies of labor are often created due to, for example, improvements in machinery or economic vacillations, which suddenly throw masses of workers into unemployment, housing shortages are unavoidable and chronic. Indeed, in the very first paragraphs of his text Engels suggests that the reason why the housing shortage gets talked about so much right now, is only because it now also affects the middle class and the petty bourgeois class, and not only the working class.
But what about Proudhon’s talk about the principle of justice? Engels simply dismisses the validity of the argument by referring to some simple historical facts. He asks why one should believe in Proudhon’s classless idea of justice? Haven’t there always been representatives from every historical era claiming that their social order coincided with “eternal justice”? The Romans certainly did. They claimed that owning slaves was in line with eternal justice, and the bourgeoisie of the 17th century thought that the feudal system was unjust, so why should we believe in Proudhon’s justice now? No, a conception of justice is merely a dogmatic expression of the present material conditions.
But the biggest problem with Proudhon’s position for Engels is not that he doesn’t understand the laws of motion of the capitalist system, but that he ends up blaming specific persons for the crisis, instead of social institutions and systems. In this case he blames land owners for being responsible of the workers housing misery (in other cases, he blames Jews, see for example here). Engels’s point is that it is the very fact that we have a class system which creates a class of people who have nothing but their labor-power to sell, that is the kernel of the problem. Proudhon therefore misguides the working class with regard to the cause of their condition.
The other position Engels discusses and critiques in The Housing Question, is the position of the bourgeois philanthropist. If the Proudhonist position held an element of resistance to power relations, the bourgeois philanthropist position starts is quite the opposite. It is nothing but a conservative, reactionary, and authoritarian position.
Engles points to a widely circulated book at that time, called The Housing Question and Its Reforms written by one Dr. Sax. Dr. Sax acknowledges the terrible housing conditions and describes them quite accurately. He also goes about explaining it roots. Dr. Sax finds two root causes to the housing shortage: 1) Bad moral standards among the working classes, and 2) bad moral standards among the bourgeois classes. Dr. Sax has witnessed the working classes squandering their money on alcohol, tobacco, and other vices. They fail to save up for better housing. The working class, then, has nothing other than its vice to blame for its bad housing situation in most cases. However, in some cases, according to Dr. Sax, the working classes can blame the bourgeoisie. At times, the bourgeoisie has not built decent housing for “their” workers. That, Dr. Sax writes, is bad and irresponsible bourgeois planning!
Further, Dr. Sax suggests that the owner of a factory should know that he needs to have a healthy and a productive work force. If he doesn’t take care of his work force, the work force will become sick and productivity will fall. Therefore, a responsible capitalist should build small communities for workers, preferably outside the town limits were the land is cheap, so that the work force stays healthy and productive!
Engels’s answer to this is that the bourgeois view relies on the false notion that there exists a possible harmony between labor and capital. For Engels this fails to address the kernel of the issue. The capitalist enriches himself through exploiting labor. Working class communities outside the towns would amount to a spatial accumulation of misery, Engels predicts. All Dr. Sax’s talk about bad moral standards only shows that he believes the economic laws are made of iron and cannot be violated.
Engels wraps up his critique with a very important insight about how capitalism works. He says that bourgeoisie has only one method of solving its problems, and that is of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew. He writes:
The breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere! The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place also. As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labor by the working class itself.
Richard Florida’s recipe for how to solve the new urban crisis involves a call for state officials to build more affordable housing, to investment more in infrastructure, investment in rural areas, and so on. Engels would recognize the remedy.
Of course, Engels is never against investments in housing aimed for the working class. Everything that makes their lives a little bit easier is, obviously, good. But what he is trying to get at is that such investments are never going to solve the problem in the long run.
So, how is the problem solved in the long run? How is capitalism abolished?
Engels doesn’t give a direct answer to this, but he does gives hints about what a post-capitalist society could be like. He writes:
It is, moreover, self-evident that, with social production conditioned by modern large-scale industry, it is possible to assure each person “the full proceeds of his labor,” so far as this phrase has any meaning at all. And it has meaning only if it is extended to mean not that each individual worker becomes the possessor of the full proceeds of his labor, but that the whole of society, consisting entirely of workers, becomes the possessor of the total proceeds of its labor, which it partly distributes among its members for consumption, partly uses for replacing and increasing the means of production, and partly stores up as a reserve fund for production and consumption.
Significantly, Engels refers to labor, not money capital. Because, as mentioned earlier, capitalism is a mode of production dominated by the production of value. Value is only created when human labor is alienated. Marx understood his unique contribution to the field of political economy to be his theory of the twofold character of labor. Abstract labor alienates the worker from his or her own product. It quantifies the workers’ own being. Therefore, in capitalism, the worker is merely a commodity (a commodity which has the unique capacity of being able to produce value). And the workers’ relation to other workers also appears as a quantitative relation between commodities. Human relations in capitalism become de-humanized and resemble material relations between things. This theory of alienation is something that Proudhon never grasped. And that is why Engels insists that a post-capitalist society would return to socialized humans their human substance.
So, this alienation—the twofold character of labor—must be abolished in a post-capitalist society. That is the historical task of the working class, according to Engels. If they take control of production and organize it according to their own needs, then their mission is accomplished.
But how is that going to happen? Engels believes that in order for the history of mankind to take a step forward into the new era, socialism, the working class must act. Engels also acknowledges that within the proletariat there are subgroups who can act as an inspiring force which can wake the proletariat and bring it onto the scene. In the preface to his text, Engels writes that, at his time, the socialist movement in France originated in the cities around urban issues, including housing. The French social movement had in the Paris Commune of 1871 made the closest attempt of making an exist from capitalism. In Germany, the social movement first established itself in industry. Therefore, he thinks that perhaps the initiative for a Great Revolution would continue to rest in the French, but that the final decision can be fought out only in Germany.
When I read that part in Engels text, I am reminded of a quote by another revolutionary thinker, Vladimir I. Lenin (who also had read Engels’s text, see here). Lenin once said that
The dialectics of history is such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real power against imperialism to come onto the scene, namely the socialist proletariat.
I interpret this to means that almost any revolutionary passion can play its part as the force that starts a revolution against capitalism. Certainly, there are many new passions and new forces out there today that have great potential. Take, for example, the many different movements against racism, the feminist movement, the movement against imperialism, and the one against the destruction of the environment, or why not, maybe there is or will come a strong movement for better housing that has the potential to bring the big masses onto the scene?
The positions Engels critiqued in the nineteenth century remain prevalent today. In order to navigate through them, his text can provide us with many useful insights. One of these appears at the end of his book. In the concluding paragraphs, Engels writes that Proudhon is skeptical about the aim of abolishing of the capitalist mode of production as well as the abolition of the antithesis between town and country (a topic Engels discusses in part three of his text) on the basis that it is “abstract utopian socialism.” On this Engels’s answer is that
It is not utopian to declare that the emancipation of humanity from the chains which its historic past has forged will only be complete when the antithesis between town and country has been abolished; the utopia begins when one undertakes “from existing conditions” to prescribe the form in which this or any other of the antithesis of present-day society is to be solved.
Proudhon and Dr. Sax want to curb the evils of capitalism, to “take the productivity of capital by the horns.” But this becomes really utopian, according to Engels. Capital is merely an immaterial abstraction, and thus, does not have any horns by which it can be taken.
After having showed how unpractical these so-called practical socialists (Proudhon and Sax) are, Engels ends by saying that the working class movement should strive for correct knowledge of how the capitalist mode of production works, since
A working class which is secure in this knowledge will never be in doubt in any given case against which social institutions, and in what manner, its main attacks should be directed.
 When David Harvey writes that capitalism never solves its problems, it just moves them around, he expresses the same insight as Engels is projecting here.
 Engels, p. 40.
 Engels, pp. 37-8.
 Quoted in Dunayevskaya, R. (2000). Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 until Today, New York: Humanity Books, pp. 174-5.
 Engels, p. 124.
 Engels, p. 133.