What did the October Revolution do for us? 2. Housing

The second in our series of articles examining the impact of the October Revolution of 1917 on the lives of workers in Britain.

Proletarian writers

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Houses in Minsk built for workers at the local motor lorry factory in 1950s shows the considered approach to design, layout and green spaces given to workers housing.

Proletarian writers

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One hundred years ago the Great October Socialist Revolution began to break down all the lies and myths about how society can be
organised and who can share in the benefit of the wealth it creates. It opened up the potential that can only exist when the contradiction between private appropriation and social production is removed, building a society that is organised with people and their needs as the focus rather than the profit of the few at the expense of the many. Housing is a prime example of this and the focus of this article.

Housing: an essential requirement of life

Before the rise of capitalism humanity constantly suffered a shortage of life’s essentials. In part, this was because primitive techniques prevented people from producing sufficient quantities of the things they needed.

Modern scientific modes of production, however, are capable of producing abundance. Modern science and advanced technique, large-scale industry and machinery can produce many more things than people can consume, and yet, because of capitalism, because of private ownership and private appropriation, workers remain hungry, thirsty, and in need of housing, clothing and many other essentials.

Housing is a primary question for us all today. The terrible fire at the Grenfell Tower in London is a stark example of the importance of how housing is provided and who benefits from it.

At Grenfell, cost savings in a cosmetic makeover, designed to ‘improve’ the area in the interests of the rich rather than for the people who lived in the tower, resulted in the loss of many lives and the devastation of many more. The ‘improvement’ was not carried out for the benefit of the people that lived there; the investment was not in order to make the conditions of life better for the residents, but was instead aimed at raising the aesthetic profile of the area for the benefit of the surrounding private landowners, purely with the aim of increasing their financial returns.

Add to that the cost savings that are worked in to increase the margins for corporations involved in the ‘redevelopment’ and you get the result that working-class people and their lives are worth nothing, while increasing land value and saving money to boost profits is worth everything.

Grenfell is a particularly stark example, but think also about the number of homeless people you see as you walk through any town in Britain. In this wealthy country there are over 250,000 homeless people, of whom it is estimated that at least 4,000 are living on the streets, while the rest are moved between bed and breakfasts and other temporary accommodation with no stability and generally in poor housing.

These figures include a significant number of children, as the number of households in temporary accommodation continues to rise 10 percent annually, to an estimated 75,740 households in the last quarter of 2016. (Figures given by Shelter and Homelessness.org.uk)

Then consider there are more than 200000 homes that have been empty for over six months across Britain, with an estimated value of £43bn – and this is a fraction of the properties available when second homes or those awaiting tenants is included. Government figures puts the total number of surplus houses at over 1 million – that is 1,000,000 more houses than there are households in Britain.

With figures like these you would not expect there to be an issue of homelessness or overcrowding – or, for that matter, the delays in rehousing the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Yet there is. And that is because under capitalism housing is not a right, it is a commodity; it is something that is sold to those who can afford to buy it, not provided for those who need it.

Council housing, introduced in 1919, went some way towards ameliorating the worst effects of the market by encouraging local authorities to provide housing for those most in need. And it is here that we can start to see the impact of the October Revolution on the lives of British workers in the field of housing.

Housing conditions in Britain before WW1

Poor housing was the norm for most workers in the first part of the 20th century, and as populations in inner-city areas grew to a high density, unorganised neighbourhoods and overcrowding were a feature of most cities. In poorer areas many families could be found huddled in dark and unsanitary courts of filthy housing, often without basic facilities or natural light.

Most housing built before 1919 was by private builders. Although councils did have the power to build houses, most had little involvement in providing housing. It was mainly in areas of London, Liverpool and Glasgow that some corporation (council) housing was provided – in the main for those who had to be rehoused as a consequence of street improvement schemes.

During the first world war building activity came to a virtual standstill, making the housing shortage even more acute. With the shortage came high rents for even the most squalid of housing.

A well-known historian of those times documented: “The worst houses were damp insanitary slums. The typical London slum was a two-storey four-bedroomed terraced-type house with a lean-to washroom. The fabric of the house would be porous, the roof leaking, the wall plaster perished, the ceiling sagging. A defective water closet would be in the yard, so would the only tap …

“Towns in the north had even more intense problems. Leeds had scores of thousands of ‘back-to-backs’; houses built at seventy or eighty to the acre, damp, decayed, badly ventilated, dark, with one outside lavatory to every three or four houses. Birmingham too, had 40,000 ‘back-to-backs’.

“Liverpool had probably the worst slums in England; here there were people living in cellars and courts whose building had been prohibited in 1854. In Liverpool 20,000 people were living more than three to a room. In Glasgow, where the slums were far worse than the worst in England, nearly 200,000 were living more than three to a room.” (Quoted in Noreen Branson and Margot Heinemann, Britain in the 1930s, Panther, 1973, p203)

Meanwhile, in the USSR

In the Soviet Union no such insanity was tolerated, despite having to start from incomparably worse beginnings. The October Revolution nationalised large homes, and vacant properties were shared amongst the people; rents were kept to less than four percent of workers’ incomes, and a focus on decent living standards for all was the state’s priority.

The Soviet Union tackled at breakneck speed a severe housing problem inherited from tsarism; a problem that had been compounded by the devastation of the civil war, the war of intervention and later by the Great Patriotic War against fascism. The Soviet government put the housing of its people, all across the vast territory of the USSR, as a high priority that warranted focus, investment and planning.

The second decree issued by the new Soviet government, on the day after the revolution in 1917, abolished the private ownership of land. In towns with over 10,000 people the government abrogated the right of private ownership of buildings whose value exceeded a certain limit set by the local organs of power. This meant that before the end of 1917 large residential buildings had been nationalised and hundreds of thousands of workers were moved out of the slums into these nationalised houses.

Having done that the government also redistributed more of the existing stock by sequestering and requisitioning houses belonging to the nobility and bourgeoisie. Just days after the revolution the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs issued an order granting the right to sequester empty buildings suitable for habitation and to use them for people living in overcrowded or insanitary conditions. It also entitled workers to set up housing inspectorates, tenants’ committees and courts for settling disputes arising out of the letting of buildings.

The programme of the eighth party congress in March 1919 declared that: “Soviet power, in order to solve the housing problem, has expropriated completely all housing belonging to capitalists and has handed these over to city soviets; it has brought about a large-scale resettlement of workers from the outskirts of cities into the houses of the bourgeoisie; it has transferred the best of these houses to workers’ organisations.”

The Communist Party went on to state that it was necessary in every way “to strive to improve the housing conditions of the working masses; to put an end to the congestion and insanitary conditions in the old blocks, to demolish the buildings which were unfit to live in, to reconstruct the old houses and to build new houses answering to the new conditions of life of the working masses, and to rationally resettle the working people”.

Housing space was redistributed according to need based on a definition of a minimum requirement and a maximum entitlement of space per person. The Commissariat for Health (Narkomzdrav) in 1919 set the minimum space requirement at 8.25 square metres per person of actual living space and 30 cubic metres of air space for each adult and 20 cubic metres for children under age 14.

A comparison of the average living area per person in workers’ flats before 1917 and in those at the beginning of 1938 shows a striking change. In Leningrad, for instance, the average living area per person doubled; in Moscow it was up 94 percent, in the cities of the Donbas it rose by 176 percent, and in the Urals by 195 percent (information taken from the 1939 census).

Imagine the government here issuing a decree requisitioning the 1 million vacant houses in Britain to house the homeless on our streets, and the thousands of those holed up in doss houses and so-called B&Bs because there are no social houses available – not to mention the increasing numbers who are living in overcrowded houses in rented accommodation across Britain.

Britain needed to do something

It is just such imagining that put the fear of god into the powers that be in Britain in 1919, resulting in the push for councils actually to build houses for those most in need, and which forced the prime minister at the time, Lloyd George, to promise ‘homes fit for heroes’ for the soldiers returning from the war.

It is often declared by British historians that it was the first world war that was the driving force behind the need for councils to provide housing for the returning troops, and certainly this was a significant factor.

After enduring the terrible conditions at the front the troops, who were returning home to worse conditions than those they left, would undoubtedly be discontented … and were, moreover, now trained in combat. Throw into that mix the striking example that was being set by the fledgling Soviet state, and workers’ discontent had the clear potential to be turned into something revolutionary.

This potential was not lost on the British government and, sure enough, the secretary to the local government board openly admitted: “the money we are going to spend on housing is insurance against bolshevism and revolution”. (Annie Power and John Houghton, Jigsaw Cities: Big Places, Small Spaces, Policy Press, 2007)

Through the Town and Country Planning Act of 1919, commonly called the Addison Act, the government introduced state subsidies (aka insurance against bolshevism and revolution) for municipal housing through the construction of 500,000 houses. However, after three years, only 213,000 had been completed.

These houses were supposed to be the fulfilment of Lloyd George’s promise of ‘homes fit for heroes’ and are now seen as the watershed moment in the provision of social housing. Yet, despite the initiative and the determination to distract people from the example of the Soviet Union, fewer than a quarter of a million were actually built. Even when it has a focus and a need, capitalism is inevitably limited by the laws of the market.

Meanwhile, the improvements in housing standards that had been initiated in 1919 in response to pressure from workers and returning soldiers from the war, and out of fear of the spread of socialist revolution, soon subsided during the 1920s and 30s, as Britain and the capitalist world plunged headlong into the worst-yet periodic crisis of overproduction.

In 1924 the Wheatley Act was introduced with the principal objective of securing a continuous building programme to address Britain’s acute housing shortage. The Wheatley Act and government policy had to turn, in some small way, to the question of social housing – or at the very least to planned provision.

The act aimed to tackle the shortage of homes over a period of 15 years and to erect houses that would be let at lower rents to meet the needs of lower wage earners. However, under capitalist conditions, restricting future rents merely resulted in a corresponding reduction in the size and standard of the houses that were built, and they were consequently developed at a higher density.

For instance, during this period, a new three-bedroom house was often only 57sqm, as compared to over 90sqm in 1919, which could be translated as approximately 14sqm per person and 23sqm per person respectively.

By comparison to this downward trend in Britain, the Soviet Union was striving mightily to improve the lot of the workers and peasants. The living space for a worker was increasing from under 2-3sqm per person [!] in 1913 to around 16sqm per person by 1923, through the provision of three-room family homes of over 60sqm.

The Soviet example

In the USSR there were no slum landlords; housing was social and rents were kept low. The lowest-paid workers often only had to find two or three roubles per month, representing perhaps two percent of their income. Moreover, a poor man would pay less for his share of an apartment than someone better off having the same space.

Having nationalised and redistributed large amounts of the existing stock, the state embarked on an extensive building programme. In the five years 1923-27 well over 12.5 million square metres of living space was built, and in the following five years 1927-31 another 28.85 million square metres. And it should be made clear that this construction was not confined to the existing towns.

Great progress in housing construction had also been made during the course of the first and second five-year plans in the formerly economically backward national republics. In Kazakhstan, for instance, state-owned housing increased 5.5 times between 1926 and 1940; in Georgia three times, in Kirghizia (modern day Kyrgyzstan) 6.5 times. In Frunze, capital of Kirghizia, state-owned housing increased 110 times, and in Alma Ata, capital of Kazakhstan 160 times.

Thus from year to year, and from month to month, the rate of construction throughout the country kept growing and housing needs were gradually being met.

The state not only made house building a priority, it also gave every encouragement and support to the design, appearance and layout of the houses, blocks and streets. With land nationalised the incentive that had driven development before the revolution, and what drives development in Britain now – namely, money – had been removed from the equation.

Under capitalism making every last square metre of land ‘work’ for the landowner means getting as much rentable or saleable space onto the land as possible. The result is small houses and high population densities without green space or social facilities, and the use of cheap materials on standard designs that are replicated as much as possible.

Under socialism, for the land to ‘work’, the space is considered, the land is utilised for the benefit of the people who will live there, and those who use it, providing larger houses, better provision of light into the development block, more green space, adequate social and cultural facilities and a consideration of the aesthetic appearance for all buildings.

For example, in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), in streets built before the revolution, the residential blocks consisted of congested tenements, with the living space taking up between 60-70 percent of the total area. In the 1950s the Soviets were building residential blocks with no more than 25-30 percent of the total area built on, 40-50 percent would be set aside for greenery, children’s playgrounds and leisure facilities for the residents. The remaining land would be used to provide anything from nurseries, schools and clinics to libraries and shops. (Figures taken from Yuri Yaralov, Housing in the USSR, Soviet News, London, 1954)

The impact on the streets would be striking. The amount of space and the number of trees visible sets a precedent that has never been followed in Britain, apart from in affluent leafy suburbs where the financial cost of leaving land undeveloped is realised through the high values of the houses.

The Soviet Union also made great headway in developing approaches to construction that would improve the build time through standardisation and prefabrication. The need to build millions of square metres of living space in relatively short periods of time in order to address the massive shortage that the USSR inherited was a significant factor in this area of work.

Through standardisation, the Soviets were able to improve construction techniques and train specialist workers. Even with this approach to construction, the appreciation for design and the need to take into account the specific context of the buildings was not lost, however. Through the use of different cladding techniques, the character and cultural differences across the territories of the Soviet Union was reflected. The use of ceramic or stone cladding was a particularly common form, with detailing, colour and finish resulting in very different buildings across the Soviet Union.

Collapse of the USSR and the overproduction crisis

With the collapse of the Soviet Union the pressure to distract the working class in this country from revolutionary change subsided; the need to keep up the welfare state as a sop to hold back the revolt of the working class in Britain became less significant.

Added to that is the deep overproduction crisis into which imperialism is presently spiralling, whereby far more is being produced than can be bought on the market, and increasing numbers of workers are without work or only just making ends meet. This means the ability for capital to expand and accumulate is slowing and the amount of profit in the capitalist coffers is not as readily available as in times of boom to maintain such a sop for the working class.

Hence the destruction of the welfare state (which is, after all, a tax on profits) and the drive to create new opportunities for private finance to turn a profit on public services that had for a while been run for the benefit of the people rather than for the benefit of capital.

We have seen the impact of this on housing over the past decades, as the provision of council housing has rapidly declined. In 1979, councils in Britain built 21,386 new houses; in 2006, they built just 277. In 2016, the number of ‘affordable homes’ being built dropped to a 24-year low.

Private developers are now primarily responsible for the construction of ‘affordable houses’, with local authorities building fewer than two percent and registered social landlords just under 20 percent. The term ‘affordable’ itself is far from accurate, as it can represent a rate of up to 80 percent of the market value.

Moreover, recent government changes mean that ‘starter homes’ can now be considered as part of the 30 percent ‘affordable’ provision in any new development, which means even fewer social rented houses are built year on year.

Unsurprisingly, council waiting lists have continued increasing, as the need for housing has not miraculously disappeared. Since 1997 the number on the waiting lists has increased from 1 million to 1.6 million households.

Private rents are high, related as they are to the high cost to the private landlords of buying the properties in question, and to the appreciation that this most basic of human needs provides an opportunity to gouge huge profits. On average, private rents are 35 percent of household income, social rents are 8 percent of household income and mortgage repayments are 18 percent of a household income – nowhere near the 4 percent that was the norm for rents in the Soviet Union.

It is clear in the following quote from a British economist that the example set by the Soviet Union was one that far exceeded expectation. This is an example that the capitalist class would not like the working class to know about, lest it should inspire us to revolutionary action.

Decent homes for all

Paul Winterton, a British economist and Labour Party member who lived in Russia for a year in 1928 and returned to visit in 1933 and again in 1937, reflected in an article in the News Chronicle after his visit in 1937: “The Soviet Union’s startling rise from an extreme of miserable poverty to a standard of life which in the towns begins to approach a western level must always rank as one of the major miracles of history.”

He remarked: “electricity, water and gas were … very cheap. One man I met was earning 225 roubles a month and paying only seven-tenths of a rouble for his electric light.”

“The lowest paid Soviet worker – the entirely unskilled labourer – receives about 125 roubles a month. Rent, at two or three roubles a month, is a negligible part of his budget, and the remainder would provide for a basic subsistence in terms of food and clothing.

“My first inclination,” he recalled, “was to compare this lowest-paid Soviet family with an unemployed family in England. As regards food and clothing, their expectation would be approximately the same. There are, however, several qualifications which disturb this comparison.

“In the first place, the wife in such a Russian family would almost certainly be at work, earning not less than 125 roubles a month herself. Her children, if young, would be in a crêche all day where they would be looked after and well fed for a nominal payment. Russia does not allow undernourished children.

“In the second place, both husband and wife would probably be attached to some club where all kinds of amusements would be available virtually free of charge. They might obtain cheap meals at their place of work.

“The whole family would have a good chance of spending a week or more at some rest place in the country during the summer free of charge. Husband and wife would have complete security in their job. Every facility for education, the best of care during sickness without charge, and modest provision for old age would be their right.

“Shall I put it this way? On balance, I would definitely prefer to be a Soviet worker with a wife and two children living on 125 roubles a month, with all the additional assistance, opportunity and security that the Soviet state affords, than an unemployed man with the same family in England, with no hope for the future and nothing but the dole for the present.

“I would make that choice notwithstanding the housing conditions in which at the moment such a Soviet worker would have to live.

“Deliberately I have started my comparison with the lowest-paid (there are no unemployed in Russia) worker. But the average wage of the Soviet worker and employee this year is about 270 roubles per month. If the wife works, the family income doubles this amount. Life on such a level would take on a very different aspect. Small luxuries would be possible. Clothes would be things saved up for. Such a family would have ample to eat and drink and money enough to enjoy their leisure.” (Paul Winterton, Russia – With Open Eyes, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1937)

We have seen how capitalism, under governments led by Tory and Labour alike, has failed to provide for the working class: the rich keep getting richer while the poor only get poorer. It’s time for us to go beyond temporary measures and refuse any longer to be duped by the likes of the local government board with its ‘investment in housing as an investment against bolshevik revolution’.

Let us follow the example of the Soviet Union and take control of our own future so that we can build the decent and secure homes all workers have a right to enjoy.