Correspondence: More about Rents
The Editorial Committee is slipping. The reason why Glasgow people won their rent strike had nothing to do with house building having ceased. There had been housing shortage before the war, as indeed there still is, but the tenants did not and do not effectively challenge the landlords as they did in 1915 when the landlords tried to put up the rents; it seemed to them quite a natural thing to do since the butchers, grocers, etc. were all putting up their prices. People had to have food but, as they discovered, they did not have to pay the landlords; indeed, there was a decided advantage in not doing so, they had more money to spend in the shops. That is what forced the Government to step in and save the rent system.
If tenants could not be forced to pay rent in 1915 it is obvious they could not be forced to pay rent today if they stood together and refused to do so.
The Editorial Committee also assume that if tenants refuse to pay rent it will enable the non-landlord members of the capitalist class to reduce wages by that amount. Why? If, by combined action, the workers free themselves against the burden of rents they will find themselves strong enough to refuse to accept reduced wages; in fact, they would rapidly, having realised their strength, demand increased wages, finally making profit taking impossible and so ending the capitalist system. This is the reply to the last paragraph in the Committee’s reply to me; it shows them what the working class would achieve by first of all destroying the landlord class. Certainly, every household would be better off by spending money for themselves instead of giving it to the rent collector.
It is quite likely that I am about the oldest reader of “Socialist Standard” still alive. I started in 1907, I used buy it off “Hutch” ‘a member of the Tooting S.P.G.B., after that I got it in Charing Cross Road and now that I am a refugee on the South Coast I get it by post direct from Clapham. I have always read it to the great advantage of my faith in Socialism. It is only on this matter of rents that I have found the S.P.G.B. not agreeing to any working class struggle. I am well aware that, at the same time, they warn the struggle can’t succeed until all the workers of the World become Socialists which, of course, is absurd. For instance, in Bulgaria today the workers pay no rent or rates or suffer any deduction from their pay for pensions. Why? Because the Bulgarian State owns 80 per cent of all productive work, the present remaining 20 per cent is covered by a very small income tax.
The questions referred to here arise from the article Why Must the Rent Go Up ? in the SOCIALIST STANDARD for January this year. Tom Braddock’s first letter disputing the Socialist Party’s attitude to rent control appeared, with our reply, in the July issue.
On the question of what happened in Glasgow in 1915 having “nothing to do with house building having ceased”, we quote from Housing Finance and Development by A. J. Merrett and Allen Sykes (Longmans, 1965). In the opening chapter they say:
“House building virtually ceased with the advent of war and rents began to rise, particularly in munitions-producing areas. This provoked an outcry such that in 1915 the government passed the first rent restriction Act — the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act, 1915. It froze the rents of all unfurnished tenancies (approximately 85 per cent of the total) below certain limits at the August 1914 level, and landlords were virtually forbidden to evict protected tenants save for obvious defaults such as non-payment of rent.”
This passage also makes clear that Braddock’s assertion in his second paragraph is untrue. It is correct only in the technical sense that — of course — tenants could not be forced to pay rent raised above the level permitted by their wages, i.e. to produce money they had not got. The alternative to the 1915 Act would have been for the government to let wages go up to meet increasing rents; instead, the Act restrained wage demands by keeping rents low — and provided also that workers, in Glasgow or anywhere else, were forced to pay them. Braddock appears not to realize that this “blow against landlords”, as he called it in his previous letter, was struck not by the workers but by the government in the wider interests of capitalism.
Second, our reply did not say that the non-payment of rent would enable employers “to reduce wages by that amount”. Wage cuts have not operated for a number of years. What happens nowadays is that pay increases endeavour to keep up with the cost of living, and where part of the cost of living is artificially held down by subsidies or controls the effect is to check the pressure for pay increases. Braddock must have read, of late, that the Labour Party wants the new rent rises postponed for just this reason: that the keeping down of rents is essential to make “an incomes policy” — that is, wage restraint — work.
Last — leaving aside the remarks about Bulgaria, which show more confusion than is possible to deal with in a short reply — Tom Braddock says the contention that the majority of workers in the developed countries must become Socialists or “the struggle can’t succeed” is absurd. It is nothing like as absurd as the urging that what workers should continue with is rent strikes and attempts to reform capitalism. This sort of “struggle” has been going on for more than a century without the workers’ position in society changing; and we are asked to support more of the same thing!