Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 9 December 2020

Engels and the answer to the housing question

In the third article in our series on Friedrich Engels, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth, Niall Mulholland of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) reviews Engels' pamphlet, The Housing Question, and explains its relevance to today.

  (Click to enlarge)

Engels published The Housing Question in 1872 as a contribution to debates about the appalling housing conditions facing the working class in Germany, Britain and elsewhere, and what should be done about it. Despite it being nearly 150 years old, Engels' trenchant work remains very relevant in many ways as we face the most acute housing crisis in decades.

The pamphlet is a collection of articles originally published in Der Volksstaat (The People's State), the main newspaper of the German Social Democratic Workers' Party. Engels polemicises against Arthur Mülberger, a follower of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (a founder of anarchism), and Emil Sax, an Austrian bourgeois economist.

Engels explains the link between the housing crisis and capitalist industrialisation and urbanisation: "...masses of rural workers are suddenly drawn into the big towns, which develop into industrial centres... workers' dwellings are pulled down on a large scale. Hence the sudden housing shortage for the workers."

Engels goes on to explain that industrial growth drove up land values and housing rents.

Likewise, in contemporary Britain, and internationally, severe housing shortages, overcrowding, insecure tenancies, and skyrocketing land values and rents have been a feature of the housing crisis.

Wages down, rent up

London has seen a 77% rise in rents in the last decade. Yet wages have stagnated and benefits have fallen sharply over the same timescale. The average benefit income of a family with children is £2,900 a year less than in 2011.

Tory Covid lockdown policies have compounded the crisis, causing sharp falls in workers' incomes and widespread job losses. According to the Joseph Rowntree Trust, in Britain, there are 1.3 million in the private housing sector and 1.2 million in the social rented sector who will struggle to pay their rent over the next three months. Around 350,000 face risk of eviction.

As well as addressing the general housing crisis, Engels sharply criticised Mülberger and Sax's analysis of the housing question and their 'solutions'. Engels brings to the debate important aspects of the revolutionary theory of capitalism that he and Karl Marx developed. These include the differences between the tenant-landlord and worker-capitalist relationship, the nature of the capitalist state, distinctions between interest, rent, and profit, and the role of the working class in changing society.

Engels criticised the 'Proudhonist' moral appeal to 'eternal justice' to solve the ills of capitalism. Mülberger/Proudhon thought the solution to ending private landlordism was for each worker to own their own house through a 'fair payment' to the landlord for the actual cost of the house. By this system of mortgaging, tenants would eventually become homeowners. This would turn social relations on their head, Mülberger argued, as the "tenant is in the same position in relation to the house owner as the wage worker in relation to the capitalist".

Engels refuted this "totally untrue" argument. Rent does not involve the exploitation of labour power and the creation of new value, as seen in worker-capitalist relations. "The worker is always cheated of a part of the product of his labour, whether that labour is paid for by the capitalist below, above, or at its value. The tenant, on the other hand, is cheated only when he is compelled to pay for the dwelling above its value. It is, therefore, a complete misrepresentation of the relation between landlord and tenant to attempt to make it equivalent to the relation between worker and capitalist."

Sax's housing solution was based on capitalism, but like Proudhon his proposal was that each worker should own their own house. Sax advocated factory owners allocating land and resources to workers to build their own dwellings. By becoming homeowners, workers would become 'proprietors' and the class distinctions and conflicts with bosses would dissipate, Sax reasoned.

This is similar to Margaret Thatcher's propaganda just over 100 years later. Her Tory government introduced mass council house sales, at big discounts to tenants. Rather than create the 'property-owning democracy' envisaged by Thatcher, the so-called 'right to buy' policy led to today's chronic lack of genuinely affordable housing. Private landlords bought up many of the three million former council homes, and they rent them out, often in poor condition, at extortionate rates.

For Engels, homeownership meant that "workers must shoulder heavy mortgage debts", and were forced to live in one place.

Mortgage prisoners

Today, millions of workers face job losses or big wage cuts, and are struggling to pay mortgages. There are also two million 'mortgage prisoners' - leaseholders whose buildings are fitted with external cladding and without a fire safety certificate so the banks and other mortgage providers refuse to lend to their would-be buyers. Many workers are also presented with huge bills, of up to £78,000, to replace the cladding on their homes.

For Engels, housing is one of the "secondary evils that result from the present capitalist mode of production." Under the profit system, Engels explains, housing is treated as a commodity rather than a right. Fundamental change is needed in social relations to solve the housing crisis, transforming individual ownership into collective ownership.

Engels describes how capitalism 'solves' the housing question in the same way it 'solves' the other problems it causes " such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew."

He refers to Eugene Georges Haussmann, the 'butcher of Paris', who directed work on the reconstruction of Paris in 1853. Haussmann tore up Paris to create wide boulevards and a 'luxury city' for the rich, while the poor and workers were forced to the suburbs.

What we know today as 'gentrification' and "regeneration' - the poor and working class driven out of their communities to make way for big business developers - was hypocritically deemed 'considerations of public health and beautification' during Engels' time.

"The result is everywhere the same", he writes. "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 neighbourhood."

Capitalism cannot solve the various crises of housing, Engels explains. Money (capital) flows to wherever the rate of profit is highest and leads to 'over-development' of cities or parts of cities. When capital becomes too concentrated and profits are squeezed, investment goes elsewhere. In recent years, big money flowed to cities like Manchester after decades of over-investment in parts of London.

Engels pointed out that many existing properties could be used in 1872 to house people: "One thing is certain: there are already in existence sufficient buildings for dwellings in the big towns to remedy immediately any real 'housing shortage,' given rational utilisation of them."

There are over 600,000 vacant homes in the UK (around 225,000 vacant for six months). During the first Covid lockdown, the Tory government did what it previously said was impossible and housed 14,600 homeless people, albeit temporarily.

The expropriation of empty properties, along with a mass council house building programme, on the basis of quality, environmentally sustainable and genuinely affordable housing, are key demands of socialists today.

The Housing Question does not offer a comprehensive programme on housing, as Engels was primarily dealing with the nature of the housing crisis under capitalism. However, he emphasised that housing campaigns and reforms are based on class struggle.

Revolution from below

Mass council house building of the 20th century was a product of the strength of the labour and trade union movement, and the ruling class feared that if they did not concede such reforms social revolution could come from below. But the dismantling of council housing and the increased 'financialisation' of housing means solutions to the housing crisis are posed starkly again.

Socialists are to the forefront of struggling for every possible improvement in housing for workers. Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, led the Liverpool City council struggle against the Thatcher government, which won significant concessions, such as the building of 5,400 council homes.

Comprehensively and permanently solving the 'housing question', however, can only be addressed through the socialist reorganisation of society.

"As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist," Engels explained, "it is folly to hope for an isolated solution to the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers".

Donate to the Socialist Party

Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • We must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our Fighting Fund.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation £


Your message: 


In The Socialist 9 December 2020:


Fund NHS, not Tory crony contracts

Covid vaccines only first step - fight job losses, austerity and 'virus' of capitalism

High street jobs, safety and pay: We have to fight

Super-rich tax evasion costs 34 million nurses worldwide

Luxury for some, poverty for the rest of us

What we think

Should Corbyn stand for London Mayor?

Workplace news

RMT gen sec election - vote for Steve Hedley

Further education workers win pay rise in Wales

HMRC pay talks - PCS needs to organise members now

Reinstate sacked Unite London bus rep Judith Katera

South London council workers vote to strike

International news

Right populism after Trump

Malaysia: Massive capitalist exploitation of migrant workers exposed by Covid pandemic

International news in brief


Engels and the answer to the housing question

Campaigns news

Welsh trades councils rally against the pay-freeze

Why I joined the Socialist Party

Tenants and workers unite to take on landlords

'Oxford, Cut the Rent!' campaign kicks off

York students determined to build for rent refunds and free education

London Socialist Party hits the streets

Readers' opinion

TV review: Red, White and Blue

The Socialist Inbox


Obituary: Roger Priest


Home   |   The Socialist 9 December 2020   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:


triangleWhy are things the way they are?

triangleChartism: The world's first working-class movement

triangleYork Socialist Party: Engels' book 'Socialism - Scientific and Utopian'

triangleThe Communist Manifesto - A guide to understanding society, and how to change it

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: The May 2021 London elections


triangleStop eviction of Camden homeless collective

triangleSouthampton West Socialist Party: The crisis in housing

triangleEssex cuts racket must end

triangleEviction resistance on the march in Waltham Forest


triangleFor workers' unity against war in Ukraine

triangleWorkers and students unite and fight

triangleCanada: Prime Minister Trudeau invokes Emergencies Act to end 'Freedom Convoy'


triangleUkraine: Workers' unity against capitalist warmongers and imperialist meddlers

triangleMet police boss ousted

Reviews and comments

Reviews and comments



TV review: This is Going to Hurt



TV: 'Death of Two Black Men: Police in the Spotlight'



TV: 'A Killing in Tiger Bay'



How Cardiff Bay's redevelopment led to 'social cleansing'


Trans rights

Does the fight for Trans rights conflict with women's rights?


Socialist Party

Why I joined: I'm tired of austerity and status quo



Belfast: Worth watching portrayal of previously airbrushed workers' unity



Covering basic costs is hard, and it's getting worse



Theatre: Yes Yes UCS



Anne: Hillsborough and the fight for justice



Money Heist: A Robin Hood tale set in modern-day capitalism



Don't Look Up: An entertaining satire on corporate power and the US establishment


Tony Blair

War criminal Tony Blair knighted



Bullying weighing room culture at the races



Free prescriptions? Maybe when you're older

triangleMore Reviews and comments articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: [email protected]

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 020 8988 8786

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 077 7221 5281

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 078 0983 9793



Alphabetical listing

June 2022

May 2022

April 2022

March 2022

February 2022

January 2022