Frederick Engels
The Housing Question

Abstract of Chapter One

[The Historic Position of the Proletariat]



That the situation of the workers has in general become materially worse since the introduction of capitalist production on a large scale is doubted only by the bourgeoisie. But should therefore look backward longingly to the (likewise very meager) flesh-pots of Egypt 1), to rural small-scale industry, which produced only servile souls, or to "the savages"? On the contrary.

Only the proletariat created by modern large-scale industry, liberated from all inherited fetters, including those which chained it to the land, and driven in herds into the big towns, is in a position to accomplish the great social transformation which will put an end to all class exploitation and all class rule. The old rural hand weavers with hearth and home would never have been able to do it; they would never have been able to conceive such an idea, much less able to desire to carry it out.

For Proudhon, on the other hand, the whole industrial revolution of the last hundred years, the introduction of steam power and large-scale factory production which substituted machinery for hand labour and increased the productivity of labour a thousandfold, is a highly repugnant occurrence, something which really ought never to have taken place. The petty-bourgeois Proudhon demands a world in which each person turns out a separate and independent product that is immediately consumable and exchangeable in the market. Then, as long as each person only receives back the full value of his labour in the form of another product, "eternal justice" is satisfied and the best possible world created.

But this best possible world of Proudhon has already been nipped in the bud and trodden underfoot by the advance of industrial development which has long ago destroyed individual labour in all the big branches of industries and which is destroying it daily more and more in the smaller and smallest branches which has set social labour supported by machinery and the harnessed forces of nature in its place, and whose finished product immediately exchangeable or consumable, is the joint work of many individuals through whose hands it has to pass.

And it is precisely this industrial revolution which has raised the productive power of human labour to such a high level that — for the first time in the history of humanity — the possibility exists, given a rational division of labour among all, to produce not only enough for the plentiful consumption of all members of society and for an abundant reserve fund, but also to leave each individual sufficient leisure so that what is really worth preserving in historically inherited culture — science, art, human relations is not only preserved, but converted from a monopoly of the ruling class into the common property of the whole of society, and further developed.

And here is the decisive point: as soon as the productive power of human labour has developed to this height, every excuse disappears for the existence of a ruling class. Was not the final reason with which class differences were defended always: there must be a class which need not plague itself with the production of its daily subsistence, in order that it may have time to look after the intellectual work of society?

This talk, which up to now had its great historical justification, has been cut off at the root once and for all by the industrial revolution of the last hundred years. The existence of a ruling class is becoming daily more and more a hindrance to the development of industrial productive power, and equally so to science, art and especially cultural human relations. There never were greater boors than our modern bourgeois.

But all this is nothing to friend Proudhon. He wants "eternal justice" and nothing else. Each shall receive in exchange for his product the full proceeds of his labour, the full value of his labour. But to reckon that out in a product of modern industry is a complicated matter.

For modern industry obscures the particular share of the individual in the total product, which in the old individual handicraft was obviously represented by the finished product. Further, modern industry abolishes more and more the individual exchange on which Proudhon's whole system is built up, namely direct exchange between two producers, each of whom takes the product of the other in order to consume it.

Consequently a reactionary character runs throughout the whole of Proudhonism; an aversion to the industrial revolution, and the desire, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly expressed, to drive the whole of modern industry out of the temple — steam engines, mechanical looms and the rest of the swindle — and to return to the old, respectable hand labour. That we would then lose nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our productive power, that the whole of humanity would be condemned to the worst possible labour slavery, that starvation would become the general rule — what does all that matter if only we succeed in organising exchange in such a fashion that each receives "the full proceeds of his labour," and that "eternal justice" is realized?

Fiat justitia, pereat mundus!

Justice must prevail though the whole world perish!

And the world would perish in this Proudhonist counter-revolution if it were at all possible to carry it out.

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 labour," so far as this phrase has any meaning at all. And it has a meaning only if it is extended to mean not that each individual worker becomes the possessor of "the full proceeds of his labour," but that the whole of society, consisting entirely of workers, becomes the possessor of the total proceeds of its labour, 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.




(1 This refers to the expression of Marx's: "to sigh for the flesh-pots of Egypt", which refers to a legend in the Old Testament. During the Isrealite exodus from Egypt the faint-hearted among them wished they had died in slavery, when they sat by the flesh pots of Egypt, rather than have to undergo their present trials and suffer from hunger on their way through the wasteland.

Written: May 1872 - January 1873
Original text: How Proudhon Solves the Housing Question

Abstract by: T. Borodulina in Historical Materialism (Marx, Engels, Lenin); p. 155 - 156; and Brian Baggins
Edited: Brian Baggins (paragraphs introduced: see page source, and title)
Transcription/Markup: Zodiac / Brian Baggins
Online Version: Marx/Engels Selected Works ( 1999