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The socialist origins of co-living

2020-05-25 | History

The real slaughter that we witnessed in the nursing homes during the Covid pandemic has brought media attention to more or less cooperative "co-living" models, whose functioning has been shown to be much more reliable than the average nursing home. As always, they try to get us excited about the idea that "everything could be better" without having overcome the economic system. This is not true. Production in this society is guided by the placement of capital and the realization of profit. And nursing homes are excellent placements of capital. They are not going to become anything else. On the other hand, the "alternative" models that today are presented as novel, were not born precisely from capital and its state, but from the workers' organizations of the end of the 19th century. It might be a good idea to recall their history now.

Rosa Luxemburg, August Bebel and Louise Kautsky joke during a break at the International's congress in Amsterdam in 1904.

mode of production|modes of production

historical materialism|materialist perspective


The kitchen equipped with light and electric stoves is the ideal one - no more smoke, burns or unpleasant smells! The kitchen looks like a furnished workshop with all kinds of technical and mechanical applications which quickly perform the hardest and most unpleasant tasks. We see fruit and potato peelers, kernel and seed removers, meat and butter cutters, coffee and spice grinders, ice cutters, corkscrews, bread saws and hundreds of other machines and applications, all electric, that allow a relatively small number of people, without excessive work, to prepare a meal for hundreds of diners. And the same is true for household cleaning equipment and even for cleaning dishes.

Community kitchen in an einküchenhaus (lit. “one-kitchen-house”) in Vienna


It is also striking that, when faced with the chronic malnutrition of the European workers and peasants of her time, Bebel insisted on combining gastronomy with nutrition, a science that at the time was just emerging.

The preparation of food has to be carried out as scientifically as any other human activity with the aim of making it as advantageous as possible. This requires adequate knowledge and equipment.

Bebel brings the technological development of his time to the material culture. But he cannot imagine such technologies other than at the scales at which it was then viable, which led him to postulate "the abolition of private cooking" as a logical corollary to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production.

For millions of women, the private kitchen is an institution with extravagant methods, which limits them in endlessly monotonous tasks and makes them waste time, robbing them of their health and good spirits, an institution that is nothing but an object of daily anguish, especially when the means are scarce as they are in most families. The abolition of the private kitchen will be the liberation for countless women. The private kitchen is an institution as old-fashioned as the small mechanical workshop. Both represent an unnecessary and useless waste of materials and working time.

The Einküchenhaus movement

productive forces

The debate he opened soon merged with "hygienist" urbanism - which was inspired like Bebel himself from the Fourierist Familistère at Guise - and ended up giving rise to a small movement that tried to advance, controlled and directed by the workers themselves, the socialization of domestic production that he had described in his book and that had been discussed massively throughout the network of German social democratic organizations, newspapers and clubs of the time, which organized more than a million workers.

In 1901, a follower of Bebel, Lily Braun published "Frauenarbeit und Hauswirtschaft" where she defended the "Einküchenhaus", the single kitchen building, as a way to free working women from domestic work. Braun organized a donation campaign in the Social Democratic press which resulted in the commissioning of plans by a team of architects and the founding of a society to finance its construction in the form of a cooperative (Haushalts Genossenschaft). She never obtained the capital to move on to the next phase: building the sixty-house block with communal dining room, nursery and cooperative kitchen which, seen today, is the first documented "co-housing" project in history. However, from the original movement, worker cooperatives emerged all over Germany in which the members were collective owners and tenants. Some of them are still in operation today.

socialism|a society aimed towards abundance