The socialist origins of co-living

25 May, 2020

Rental housing cooperative (owned by the cooperative itself) in Munster, Germany Founded in 1904 by socialist workers.

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.

August Bebel was one of the last German guild craftsmen, father and theorist of pre-war German social democracy, and in 1879 he dedicated his main work to a history of the place occupied by women in each historical period, showing how it was neither the result of intellectual differences between the sexes nor the evolution of moral ideologies which had placed the working woman of his time in a situation of true domestic slavery, but rather the legacies and needs of the different modes of production.

It was the first work that approached the “female question” from a materialist perspective. And it did so at a time when feminism was reduced to a few small groups of wealthy women in Britain. It is difficult to realize today how groundbreaking it was and how much impact it had throughout Europe; in Russia it was tirelessly disseminated by Alexandra Kollontai and in Spain it was edited by Emilia Pardo Bazán.

“Woman in the Past, Present and Future” -released today as “Woman and Socialism”- is still a powerful work today. In its final chapters Bebel tries to imagine a society in which domestic work disappears as a result of the application of science and technology to everyday tasks. He builds an imaginary for socialism for the first time from what were then cutting-edge technologies.

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

Bebel does not forget that domestic work is a productive activity, even if it is not commodified, that the social form of organizing it is the one that is cloistering the women of her time in a subordinate place, and that the key to their emancipation, like that of all of society, is in transforming social relations as a whole. Not in order to make this work invisible and deny it, but in order to free it from its wage-earning nature under capitalism, to emancipate it from its subordination to capital and its accumulation, and to turn it into a free and generic human activity dedicated to the satisfaction of universal human needs.

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

Bebel understands, and understands well, that the home and production are linked by the degree of development of the productive forces of each society and therefore share the same logic of scale, the scale that given a certain productive capacity of work allows an efficient use of resources. The social work necessary to manufacture a washing machine or an oven in 1879 was proportionally much greater than now and therefore, the way to socialize domestic work went through the collective laundry and the communal “kitchen-factory”.

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.

Bebel was right that the organization of leisure and “reproductive” time in a society aimed towards abundance reflects the logic of productive organization. That is precisely why nothing lies further from abundance today than the support systems for upbringing, the nursing homes, the houses we live in and, of course, the domestic work we perform in them, the product of which is our own labor power. When any of these needs can be turned into profitable placement, capital commodifies them and socializes them in its own way: exacerbating their scarcity to generate dividends and expanding a culture of loneliness, dependency, vulnerability and isolation from the nursery to the grave. And yet… the material possibilities of abundance are, as in all society, within reach.


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