The housing question (study guide)

Mar 26, 2020

Public housing tenants in NYC protest on Aug. 23, 2019 against De Blasio's plans to demolish two apartment buildings and replace them with "market rate" apartments. Photo: Joyce Chediac, Liberation News.

Friedrich Engels published “The Housing Question” first in 1872. It is a collection of three articles originally published in Der Volksstaat (The People’s State), which was the main newspaper of the German Social Democratic Workers Party. Engels was responding to a series of articles on the housing question that appeared in the newspaper. One set was informed by Proudhon’s theories and the other was informed by liberal bourgeois theories.

The following study guide will assist readers in discerning and keeping track of the ideas Engels’ critiques and the responses that he offers, as well as in identifying the key overall arguments and insights of the pamphlet.

For more background, context, and explanation of the text, see this Liberation School article.

Preface to the 1887 German edition

  1. How does Engels describe Germany’s housing crisis in the late 19th century? What factors were at play?
  2. Why did Engels choose to republish his three essays in the form of a pamphlet?
  3. What contemporary resonances can you find in his last justification for publishing the pamphlet?
  4. Engels writes that, in Germany, workers’ home ownership provided “the basis for an unexampled depression of wages.” What’s the reason for this?

Part 1: How Proudhon solves the housing question

  1. What problem does Engels have with the idea that the transaction between tenants and landlords is the same as that between workers and capitalists? What’s the difference between the two relationships? Why does this matter?
  2. Engels says that Proudhon romanticizes the individual owner/producer. What are some problems that stem from this? How might Engels’ critique here apply to our era of robotics, automation, and digitalization?
  3. Describe the essence of Marx’s critique of “eternal justice.”
  4. What is the Proudhonist solution to the housing question?
  5. Why does Engels refer to Proudhon’s solution to the housing question as a counter-revolution?
  6. In what ways does Proudhon’s solution omit a challenge to capitalism?
  7. Why is the idea that capital itself has productivity a bourgeois “absurdity”?
  8. Why would the abolition of interest not abolish profit or surplus value?
  9. What does Engels say about reform and revolution in this chapter?

Part 2: How the bourgeoisie solves the housing question

Section I

  1. What connections does Engels draw between housing conditions, epidemics, and capitalist “concerns”?
  2. What relevance does this have for us today amidst the Covid-19 pandemic?
  3. What is the point of the second paragraph of the text? What does it say about reform and revolution?
  4. Why do bourgeois socialists retreat from the economic sphere to the moral sphere? What function does that serve?
  5. Dr. Sax blames workers for their own housing and hygienic conditions. What connections can we draw between this and the demonization of China during the Covid-19 pandemic?
  6. Why does Engels argue that working-class homeownership is a way to “break their power of resistance?”
  7. What does Engels mean when he notes that solving the housing question won’t solve the social question, but that solving the social question allows for solving the housing question? What is he getting at?

Section II

  1. Why is Dr. Sax’s solution to the housing question both nothing new and a source of great profit for the capitalist?
  2. Why does the capitalist “not desire to abolish the housing shortage even if it could”?
  3. How do these same principles show up in the U.S. context?
  4. What argument does Engels offer against the doctrine of so-called “self-help”?
  5. What argument does he offer against “building societies”?
  6. Why doesn’t bourgeois state intervention offer a real solution to the housing question?

Section III

  1. What does Engels mean by “Haussmann” as the method of solving the housing question? What is the other interpretation of Haussmann?
  2. How does this relate to what we call gentrification today?
  3. Read the description Engels gives of Manchester from his book, The condition of the working class in England, and compare and contrast it with the situation in the U.S. today.
  4. In the beginning of this section, Engels writes that “the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion-that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew.” What does this mean, and how does it happen?
  5. Engels concludes by insisting that the only real solution to the housing question and poor housing conditions is the abolition of capitalism. How does this relate to what Engels wrote about social revolution and reform so far?

Part 3: Supplement on Proudhon and the housing question

Section I

  1. Why is it important to remember that the “driving spirit” of “the working class movement nowhere lies in ‘principles,'” but in the actual material conditions of the productive forces and the working class? Think about this in relation to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Section II

  1. How does Mülberger falsify economic relationships by “translating them into legal terminology”?
  2. How does Engels utilize the concept of use value to refute this?
  3. What is the difference between scientific socialism and Proudhon’s socialism?
  4. Do you see this divide play out today? Where?
  5. Why is this important for properly understanding Mülberger’s position on the housing question?
  6. Why is this important for our agitation today?

Section III

  • What is it about Mulberger’s formulation that Engels finds reactionary?
  • Can you think of any reactionary arguments of today’s liberals regarding the housing question?
  • Why does Engels continue to argue that Mulberger’s position is utopian?

Section IV

  1. How would you summarize Mülberger’s so-called positive statements versus Engels’ responses?
  2. What new arguments does Mülberger introduce here, and how does Engels address them?
  3. How can you use Engels’ polemic to formulate slogans in housing struggles today?