26 June 2022 marks 150 years since Engels wrote the first article of The Housing Question. Gus Woody reflects on the importance of this pamphlet today and how socialists can build on it around housing struggle.

In 1842, a young man arrived in Manchester, the centre of England’s textile industry. He was sent there to work as a clerk for his wealthy father, the owner of a series of cotton mills. It was thought this would straighten him out. You see, this young man was galavanting around Germany, writing and philosophising with radicals, even professing that he no longer believed in God. A good few years in the family business and away from these young Hegelians and atheists, that would set him right.

Of course, as we now know, Friedrich Engels wouldn’t use his time in Manchester to work for the family business. He’d spend his time exploring the slums of the city and other Northern towns, noting down what he saw, often in the company of his partner Mary Burns. The result of this multi-city exploration would be Engels’ first major work at the tender age of 25, The Condition of the Working Class in England. 

Ironically not to appear in English for another 42 years, this book saw Engels pay extensive attention to the spaces in which the working class lived, the effect slums and factories had on their bodies, and the wider way in which capitalism was causing ruin. He impressed Karl Marx with this work, and the two young radicals soon began an intellectual collaboration that lasted their whole lives, leading to the volumes of books, letters, and more, that are the bedrock of modern socialist movements.

The intellectual legacy of Engels has been fought over across the decades. Some attempt to ascribe all errors and undeveloped aspects of Marxist thinking to Engels’ contributions. Others defend Engels’ projects as indistinguishable from Marx’s. From the details of how Engels edited the second and third volumes of Capital, to the metaphysical thrust of works like Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature, the left continues to grapple with Engels and his unique contributions. My contention is that The Housing Question is a neglected piece by Engels, which deserves re-exploration.

150 years ago to this day, the first of a series of his articles appeared in the Volksstaat, a German socialist newspaper. Between June 1872 and February 1873, two further articles would appear, all engaging with the problem of housing under capitalism. They would then be bundled together into a pamphlet in the coming years.

Against the young radical Engels being sent to Manchester to be straightened out, The Housing Question is the work of an older Engels, retired only three years previously in 1869. Since writing The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels had witnessed the revolution of 1848 and the crushing of the Paris Commune, had written several books, and he had been wrangling within the First International against the anarchists and others.

Yet despite these three decades, and lifetimes worth of political experience, The Housing Question represents, in condensed form, many of the issues first visited in The Condition of the Working Class in England, as well as the many works in between. To put it another way, The Housing Question is a mature extension and refinement of some of the key issues of Marxism which Engels engaged with. Within its narrow pages, there are many diamonds – throwaway comments and analyses about housing, how we live and capitalism – which should be urgently taken up by socialists today.

The content of The Housing Question

The pamphlet’s content consists of the three articles written in response to articles by one Dr. Mülberger. The good doctor had written in the Volksstaat about the housing crisis emerging in Germany, where an increasing number of workers could not find places to live in the growing industrial cities. For Engels, Mülberger’s articles contained and promoted many ideas of non-Marxist socialism, in particular the anarchist ideas of Proudhon, who Marx and Engels had repeatedly tangled with. Engels sent a letter protesting Mülberger’s article to the editors of the Volksstaat, who invited him to reply.

Consequently, the first contribution by Engels was titled ‘How Proudhon Solves The Housing Question’. This article is taken up with interrogating both Mülberger’s article, and the wider ideas of Proudhon. In particular, Engels critiques the focus that many Proudhonists had on the abolition of the landlord-renter relationship, and their focus on the ‘injustice’ of the unearned income that is rent. As an alternative, Engels argues that Marxist socialists must see the housing crisis as ‘one of the numerous smaller, secondary evils which result from the present-day capitalist mode of production.’

Crucially, this is not to say that there is no fighting the housing crisis, nor that housing activism is somehow separate to the class struggle, but that socialists cannot lose sight of the wider fight against the capitalist mode of production when they tackle landlordism. For Engels:

In order to make an end of this housing shortage there is only one means: to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class.

As this first article goes to show, Mülberger’s and Proudhon’s proposals to end the landlord-renter relationship often neglect the wider system of capitalism. The proposals to fight landlordism in the name of justice, if implemented, would simply see one fraction of the bourgeoisie (landlords) lose out, whilst another fraction (bosses and financiers) would continue to gain income, influence the organisation of cities and oppress the working class.

Once he has finished with the Proudhonists, Engels’ second article, ‘How The Bourgeoisie Solves The Housing Question’, focuses on how the capitalist class then approached the issues of housing shortage. Here Engels lampoons many of the municipal reformers and charities that had become increasingly concerned with the poor living conditions found in the cities.

By going through the ideas of another doctor, one Dr Sax, Engels points out how limited many of these charitable and humanitarian approaches to urban overcrowding are. The power of the state to intervene, and the charitable endeavours of the rich are kept in check by the wider interest that the wealthy have in property speculation and rents. In Engels’ words:

‘The state is nothing but the organized collective power of the possessing classes, the landowners and the capitalists as against the exploited classes, the peasants and the workers. What the individual capitalists … do not want, their state also does not want. If therefore the individual capitalists deplore the housing shortage, but can hardly be persuaded even superficially to palliate its most terrifying consequences, then the collective capitalist, the state, will not do much more. At the most it will see to it that the measure of superficial palliation which has become standard is carried out everywhere uniformly.’

He ultimately concludes with the argument that the bourgeoisie really only know one solution to housing crises – the making of ‘breaches in the working class quarters of our big towns’. The end result of this is that:

‘The scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else and often in the immediate neighborhood.’

These two articles led to a reply from Dr Mülberger, who wished to challenge many of the assertions Engels made about him – particularly, the way in which Engels treats Mülberger as a loyal Proudhonist. This gave space for Engels to reiterate and build on some of the statements made in the first two articles, in the final section ‘Supplement on Proudhon and The Housing Question’.

Given the brief length of this pamphlet, the breadth of topics Engels covers is impressive, from urban diseases to the town-country divide. However, across The Housing Question, it is reiterated that simply fighting to end the renter relationship is not sufficient as long as the capitalist mode of production continues. At the same time, limited housing reform, whilst something socialists may welcome, will never be sufficient to deal with the tendency for capitalism to force people into worse and worse housing.

A century and a half of housing under capitalism

In the one and a half centuries since The Housing Question was written, we’ve lived through many decades of housing struggles and, as a result, massive changes to the ways in which housing is organised. The cities Engels experienced were of a fundamentally different scale to the mega-urbanisation we see today.

In Britain, interest in urban housing was already widespread in the 1800s. Both Marx and Engels regularly make use of reports into the health of the urban working class and their homes, whether in The Condition of the Working Class in England or in sections of Capital. The rise of new liberalism and in turn the wider politics of the Independent and Parliamentary Labour Parties in the late 1800s and early 1900s, saw increased local and state-led action around housing and urban planning. This was intensified in the face of increased housing organising and militancy, seen most widely in the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strikes, where working class militants, predominantly women, led the charge against rising rents and poor housing quality.

The post-WW2 period, particularly in cities bombed during the Blitz as well as in the New Towns movement, saw the Attlee government, and subsequent Conservative governments, participate in the construction of both public housing and new private housing stock. This made home ownership more widespread across Britain, and within cities council housing was made accessible for many working-class people.

This came crashing to an end during the Thatcher years. Not only did public housing construction screech to a stop, but with ‘Right to Buy’, council homes were reintroduced to the market. Once homes were bought by their previous tenants, they were turned back into the market after a generation, often to be purchased by landlords. This has led to a widespread resurgence in landlordism in Britain, all whilst public housing waiting lists have become ever bigger, if not outright exclusionary. This has created a situation where working class people are increasingly squeezed not just in work, but by rising rents too.

Where there have remained working-class areas within cities, they have faced the widespread violence from this capitalist organisation of housing. Homes are built to sell, often to buy-to-let landlords, and they are of poorer quality whilst being too expensive for people who already rent in an area. This has led to a widespread proliferation of campaigns opposing ‘development’ and ‘regeneration’ in Britain, particularly against the destruction and moving-on of working-class communities. For example, Focus E15, a group formed by mothers facing eviction in East London, has spent years fighting against the destruction of their estates, including by occupying vacant buildings, all under the simple heading of ‘social housing, not social cleansing.’

The continued pervasiveness of landlordism and the declining quality of housing has led to a resurgence in renter unionism. In the 2010s, Britain saw the emergence of ACORN, London Renters Union, Living Rent, and Greater Manchester Tenants Union. Writing now, in 2022, these have memberships in the tens of thousands, and branches across most major British cities. Through groups like these, and increasingly organically, working-class communities are standing up to landlords, fighting for rent controls, and resisting evictions. But they are doing so in a country indelibly marked by market-based housing provision and widespread landlord power.

The challenge of The Housing Question

In this climate of pervasive landlordism and escalating housing crisis, where housing is one of the sharpest, most violent, fronts in the class war, what can be gained from reading The Housing Question? 

A crude reading of Engels’ pamphlet seems to suggest that the struggle against landlordism and rent is inconsequential in the wider struggle against the capitalist mode of production. Engels seems to understate not only the extent to which the struggle against landlordism is a crucial component of the fight for socialism, but that the wider anti-landlord fight does not seriously impact capitalism. This grinds against the growing housing militancy in Britain today and the ways in which it unites working class communities against capital.

Relatedly, Engels’ pamphlet may be accused of failing to completely account for the role that rent has in the stabilisation and development of capitalism. Whilst the extraction of surplus value through the wage relation is crucial to the continued accumulation of capital, rent is not absent from this process, nor has it been entirely supplanted by wage exploitation as a way the capitalist class secure their hegemony.

More recently, attention to the city and urbanisation in Marxist geography has shown how profits are increasingly sunk into the built environment as a way to stabilise markets, as argued most eloquently in David Harvey’s idea of the ‘spatial fix‘. At the same time, political economists like Brett Christophers are arguing we must pay greater attention to rent from land, housing, and other natural resources. This idea of rentier capitalism, whilst certainly in need of refinement, invokes the urgent intellectual challenge that we reconsider how rents are part and parcel of modern capitalism.

Relatedly, the under-theorisation of the household, and household labour’s role in capitalism by Marx and Engels has been repeatedly highlighted for several decades by Marxist-feminists. From the early work of Wages for Housework organisers like Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa to the modern work done by social reproduction theorists, the home, how we live, and how capitalism organises our labour are central to building a socialism suitable for our day.

In this context, what is the relevance of The Housing Question? I would argue that Engels’ work remains just as pertinent today, even where we diverge from his analysis. In particular, its central thrust remains pertinent; that a radical housing movement must see itself as part of a wider class struggle to end capitalism. We make a strategic failure, as socialists, if we assume that the landlord/renter divide can be simply transferred onto a wider class politics or we lazily theorise mass housing struggle as sufficient to ending capitalism.

Furthermore, a Marxist account of society, looking at how the mode of production determines housing and the terrain the housing struggle operates on, is a useful framework for those in the housing movement. Building from The Housing Question to construct a modern socialist politics around rent, housing, and capitalism, is about providing theoretical strategy and ammunition to the movements fighting social cleansing and to transform the housing system.

Threads in The Housing Question

Just quoting Engels or Marx, and attempting to warp their writings contextlessly into today’s terrain, is not a rigorous way to think through the large-scale crises around housing. However, as socialists, we argue that Marx and Engels gave an unsurpassed bedrock which comrades can build upon. Taking this seriously then, what are the points within the bedrock of The Housing Question which socialists today may find of interest? What can we build upon, whether point of agreement or tension?

Firstly, there is the tension mentioned throughout the above; the role of anti-landlord or housing struggle in the wider movement for socialism. Following Engels, we do not supplant the class struggle for the housing struggle. But by bringing his insights into dialogue with the wider literature on the role of rent in modern capitalism and social reproduction theory, we have the theoretical tools to be able to answer questions like:

How does the housing struggle fit into the wider political strategy of class struggle against capital?
How do different forms of housing struggle, such as squatting and renters unionism, relate to each other?
What role does the landlord/tenant relationship have in modern class composition?
How does rent stabilise and interact with capital accumulation? What does this mean for socialist political strategy?

In addition to the strategic role of housing struggle, and the problem of rent in modern capitalism, a further area of The Housing Question may be mined today; Engels’ account of bourgeois housing policy in part two. Here, after dispelling the many philanthropic programs of the wealthy, Engels focuses on the figure of Georges Eugene Haussmann, the major architect of modern Paris. As a civil servant during the mid to late 1800s, Haussmann built many of the famous quarters of the city at the cost of working-class people. Facilitating a glut of property speculation and finance capital, he oversaw the mass displacement of working people, either through compulsory purchase, or in many cases rapidly rising rents.

In his criticism of Haussmann, there emerges Engels’ proto-analysis of the process we now refer to as gentrification. Led by the state or private investors, the construction of new urban spaces and novelty shopping within neglected working-class areas sees communities bought out and rents rising. For Engels, gentrification is not a novel symptom of capitalist housing policy, but a major phase in its development. He most strikingly refers to it as ‘solving’ the housing crisis ‘in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew’. The drive to make money from housing leads investors to neglect working-class areas, then rapidly gut them and displace the people that live within them, to leave the sort of grey monolithic blocks which emerge across modern Britain, until these are neglected and the cycle repeats.

A further area that Engels’ analysis may bear fruit today, is his refusal to accept home ownership as an equivalent to working class freedom. In part, Engels’ rejection of home ownership as a solution to the housing crisis comes from his opposition to the idea of many non-Marxist socialists of his time, who advocated in various ways for the return to smallholder farming or cooperatives as an alternative to capitalism. In his words, ‘in order to create the modern revolutionary class of the proletariat it was absolutely necessary to cut the umbilical cord which still bound the worker of the past to the land.’ On another level, Engels can be read as rejecting mass home-ownership as a matter of class composition whilst building a wider movement against capitalism.

In Britain, Thatcherite promotion of home ownership attempted to bring about the embourgeoisement of a significant fraction of the working class. Now a wealthier, and predominantly older cohort within Britain regularly act as reactionaries, often by virtue of their attachment to interest rates, monetary ‘good sense’, and other myths peddled whilst they continue to think of themselves as working class. Within The Housing Question Engels describes the rural land worker before the advent of industrial capitalism in detail. It is striking how much this figure can be read as our modern little Englander:

‘The hand weaver who had his little house, garden and field along with his loom, was a quiet, contented man “in all godliness and respectability” despite all misery and despite all political pressure; he doffed his cap to the rich, to the priests and to the officials of the state; and inwardly was altogether a slave.’

Such an analysis must continue to be developed, especially in Britain, where home-ownership has remained a crucial component of the Conservative Party’s class bloc of supporters.

Finally, The Housing Question is almost prophetic in its attention to the bodily impact and the environmental dynamics of housing. Discussing the proliferation of diseases that emerge in poorer districts, Engels states:

‘Modern natural science has proved that the so-called “poor districts” in which the workers are crowded together are the breeding places of all those epidemics which from time to time afflict our towns. Cholera, typhus, typhoid fever, small-pox and other ravaging diseases spread their germs in the pestilential air and the poisoned water of these working-class quarters. In these districts, the germs hardly ever die out completely, and as soon as circumstances permit it they develop into epidemics and then spread beyond their breeding places also into the more airy and healthy parts of the town inhabited by the capitalists. Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers.’

This contains within it a scarily prescient analysis of how coronavirus ripped through working class communities forced to co-habit and live in cramped spaces. Overall, the class impacts of epidemic diseases are partly determined by housing conditions created by capitalism, which Engels rightly opposes to the humanitarian health intervention. The Housing Question, as with Condition of the Working Class in England, treats epidemiology seriously not just as a scientific issue, nor a policy one, but as an aspect of class struggle.

Similarly, when discussing a flood which occurred within Manchester, Engels states:

‘A group of houses situated in the valley bottom of the river Medlock, which under the name of Little Ireland was for years one of the worst blots on Manchester. Little Ireland has long ago disappeared and on its site there now stands a railway station built on a high foundation. The bourgeoisie printed with pride to the happy and final abolition of Little Ireland as to a great triumph. Now last summer a great inundation took place, as in general the rivers embanked in our big towns cause extensive floods year after year owing to easily understood causes. And it was then revealed that Little Ireland had not been abolished at all, but had simply been shifted from the south side of Oxford Road to the north side, and that it still continues to flourish.‘

Again, this reads word for word like an account of how climate change impacts from overheating, flooding and the like are felt in predominantly working-class communities. Cheaper, usually rented, accomodation is more often cramped, subject to poor plumbing, aeration, and flood-proofing. This creates a system where the working class experiences climate impacts disproportionately more than others within their locality.

Turning towards The Housing Question

As the above shows, from issues like climate change to ‘right to buy’, The Housing Question is an overripe text deserving of serious review and expansion. At a time of worsening housing conditions, mass landlordism, and resurgent movements against this, it is high time we revisited The Housing Question. Looking back over 150 years, whilst much has changed, it is striking how many of the problems that faced Engels remain ours. Whether the young man first looking at Manchester, or the retired elder socialist writing into magazines, Engels has much to say to the housing movement today and we have much to discuss with him.

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