Engels on the relationship of landlord and tenant

A correspondent, Mr. C. E. Berry, Torquay, draws our attention to a statement made by Frederick Engels in his “The Housing Question.” Mr. Berry writes:—

“It appears that a landlord confronted by a tenant is not, per se a capitalist nor engaged in exaction of surplus value.”

Mr. Berry refers to the mention of “land” in our Declaration of Principles and asks:—

“Does this mean that ownership of houses apart from land, such as leaseholds, is not contrary to Socialism? Where does common ownership of property divide off from property in personal ownership, i.e. personal property, under Socialism?”


1. The relationship of landlord and tenant

The passage referred to is one in which Engels criticises the statement of a German follower of Proudhon who had written:—

“As the wage worker is in relation to the capitalist, so is the tenant in relation to the house owner.”

Engels points out that the above statement is incorrect. People who rent houses (whether they are workers or capitalists) are buying a commodity (the use of a house) from the house-owner. They are not in the position of worker to capitalist, for in this relationship the worker is the seller of a commodity (labour-power) and the capitalist is buying it

The capitalist exacts surplus value when he buys labour-power. He does not exact surplus value when he sells commodities, though it is in the act of selling commodities that he realises surplus value. If the Proudhonist argument were correct then all sales, not only sales of accommodation, would be an act of exacting surplus value—which would produce the odd result that the capitalists exploit each other, and also that the workers are exploited in production and everybody, capitalists and workers alike, is again exploited in the act of buying commodities.

2. That the landlord is not per se a capitalist

Our correspondent’s conclusion from Engel’s statement is that “a landlord confronted by a tenant is not, per se, a capitalist.”

This overlooks the fact that the capitalist is still a capitalist after he has exploited the workers in production; he is still a capitalist when, as a seller of commodities, he confronts workers or other capitalists—but in the latter act he is a capitalist who is realising surplus value by turning commodities into money.

3. Landlords mid Socialism

Our correspondent’s further conclusion is in the form of asking whether the ownership of houses is compatible with Socialism.

Socialism requires that the means of production and distribution shall cease to be privately owned and become the common property of society. This relates to the means of production and distribution and the consequence of their common ownership will be that the products will be freely accessible to the members of society.

In those circumstances the members of society will take the products in order to consume them. They will consume the accommodation by living in houses and will of course not do so by permission of an individual house owner any more than they will eat bread by permission of a bread owner. There will be no such owners.

Nothing that Engels wrote in “The Housing Question” is in conflict with this. Engels was merely correcting an erroneous statement. He did not draw or imply any conclusion such as these in the question.

Editorial Committee

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