Towards an assessment of Colin Ward's anarchism

Sometime in 2008  I passed over a chance to go to a talk by Ward and favoured instead the comfort and surroundings of the pub. In reflection this was a big mistake.  Colin Ward died in 2010, I never having got the chance to hear him speak. 

My writing this is partially a reflection on having read a recent collected anthology of his work put out by AK Press, but also knowing a kernel of his thinking and having to deal with the enigma of where to place Ward in a political context. Part of me wanting to write this is because of the role he and his ideas played, in my view probably need some critical overhauling. Having not explored a substantial body of his work, my caveat in writing this is that I am not going to hold myself up as an expert, but reading a substantial selection of his writings in the first instance should speak for itself.

The aforementioned book, doubtless obituaries and even his Wikipedia page allude to the fact that he is Britain's best known anarchist of some years. This is interesting for a number of reasons. The extent of his influence is a first-hand dilemma, because very little of his work appears online and amongst most social anarchists, I know, he is not well read possibly beyond one seminal book (outside of the UK I am sure it's dramatically less). It's also telling on the kind of people who seek out his introduction to anarchism above all others.

Due in large part because of his professional associations, journalism and the content of his politics (which I will deal with later) I believe he his mostly known as critic on education and housing to an audience largely outside of those identifying as part of the radical left. I hasten to add that there is no doubt a chance that as someone reading a left-liberal publication or undertaking a 'professional education' he may have been the only anarchist they may have ever knowingly encountered. This, I feel, contributes someway to his legacy and the level of his influence.

Another demographic who will be more than familiar with the work of Ward are some of the countless networks and influences that were worked out and were emanating from the Freedom collective from around about the 40's onwards when Ward got involved. 

In terms of his work and body of ideas what immediately stands out is the scope of the subjects he covers in detail. These include: co-op movements/friendly societies, social history (covering everything from holiday camps to obscure matters like post-cards, from urban development and allotments to a radical history of housing), architecture, housing, design, education/pedagogy, and environmental issues. In a political active life spanning over sixties years and producing 30 odd books and countless publications, it would almost be as easy to discuss which subjects he hadn't spoken on! But i would say some of the social histories don't necessary have a political flavour which is immediately obvious or possibly explicit. 

In terms of looking at his work, a number of influences are very clear. In a number of pieces he cites the same quotes ad infinitum to make very similar points. It would make sense in particularly to anyone whose read his work to single out Kropotkin as the central influence on his politics. Wards stress on mutual aid is almost undoubtedly the core of his political beliefs, even, in my opinion, to the expense of other anarchist orthodoxies. 

It would also make sense to mention Ebenezer Howard, who tried to popularise suburban development and is regarded as the intellectual heir of new town development; Patrick Geddes, responsible for pioneering theories on urban planning; William Godwins' writings on education; William Morris and Paul Goodman. Contemporaries, or people who he had aided in popularising include, Walter Segal, responsible for a DIY house-building approach to architecture; John FC Turner, who had worked in urban development among shack dwellers; and the anarchist architect Giancarlo de Carlo. 

From reading Wards work a number of themes and ideas resonate, even across the varied topics he discusses. 
An important topic for Ward is housing. Given the post-war restructure and his expertise in housing, Ward was well on hand to capture a flavour of things you won't find in most of the lefts cannon.  One of the attractions of his work is that he provides a clear critique of leftist and rightist orthodoxies over a sustained period. The welfare state does not get a free ride by any means. He covers the emergence of squatting in very favourable terms. Arising from the appalling housing conditions that existed after WWII. When pressure was brought to bear on government, resulting in the clearance of slums and the formation of the welfare state, he later prevails over a critique of housing which exposes its bureaucratic (and collectivist) nature. 

When people are forced to live in lifeless tower blocks, have little input into their environment etc. he converges on a critique of architecture and urban planning which looks at 'spatial possibilities' and is 'lay-person' centred.  To paraphrase Ward, when an architect dreamed up a 15 storey housing project, he didn't envisage himself living there! Having only until recently been oblivious to anarchist approaches on urban development, I was unaware there was even an approach on such matters. With a turn towards DIY and mutual aid, he presents some ideas which veneer too much towards the idea of a philanthropic state, but it opens up possibilities for a strong co-operative movement or urban development in a post-revolutionary society.

Anyone familiar with Ivan Illich, will have an inkling towards Wards suspicion of professionalism and pertaining towards his views on education. Their political views seem to mirror each other in some respects. Being genuine to the idea of voluntary collectivism from below, he favoured and promoted self building pioneers like Walter Segal and John FC Turner and provided amble critiques of the bureaucratisation of professionalism and design. 

He also had an environmental approach which sailed against rural parochialism, since he wrote extensively in favour of a form of local, to some extent, organic development of resources. Since he had ample awareness of housing history and development, he was highly supportive of the new town development in the 60s seeing this as a progressive turn away from high density and squalid city living. 

Reading some of his work chronologically, you would be struck that (despite being a social anarchist) any attachment to the idea of social revolution which is raised briefly in some of his early work(s), but then disappears altogether, is not there. In fact, given his ideas are centred around a form of social and political pluralism and he has an elevated attachment to a means based philosophy, he either waivers between dismissal of anarchism as a totality (to paraphrase Ward), or unhelpful due to his pluralistic vision. 

On the same train of thought is the issue of workers struggles. His references to workers organising as workers is mostly in the context of mutual societies and co-operatives. I raise these things not as an unnecessary bugbear, in many ways this opens up a number of interesting issues. By shelving the idea of 'cometh the big day' it leaves the central motor, or leverage for anarchists to organise around collective interests in areas not covered by the market or the state. It potentially can build something we can all see around us in the social fabric of everyday. And, as far as anarchist writers go, his documenting, and solidifying the political spirit of co-operation is captured second to none. The weakness this provides however is that his anarchism seems to lack any antagonism, and has the editors of his anthology sketch out, there is always the matter of how far mutualist approaches can be rendered before they are recuperated. 

I think it was Bookchin who said that without some sort of moral factor involved, mutual aid was impossible. I think looking at his work as a whole, a real sort of socially responsible, humble (dare i even say it) human spirit that prevails through much of Colin Wards work. It (initially, anyway) seems to form the basis of a sort of practical anarchist social policy session. He covers a number of niche topics with a great deal of expertise, exemplifies the spirit of mutual aid and leaves a sizeable legacy. My prevailing problem is that his politics seem to lack the bite and the thrust of his politics would be near totally unthinkable under anything other than a liberal welfare orientated state.

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Dec 27 2012 05:10


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Rob Ray
Dec 27 2012 14:33


his politics seem to lack the bite and the thrust of his politics would be near totally unthinkable under anything other than a liberal welfare orientated state.

Not sure this is true tbh. I think it's important to understand exactly how complex Ward's situation was as a dual-direction writer who was pretty heavily focused on both scoring ideological wins within the system and recruiting outside it.

As such, he trod a fine line between keeping his most powerful backers happy (the liberal-anarchist set around Vernon Richards and Freedom Press alongside sympathisers within the wider media/political elite) and producing work that would convince normal people that anarchist organising techniques were worth investing in.

As a result, while a chunk of his work certainly aimed at getting state actors/reformers to think about improving welfare/state functions in terms of what's best for the system's own reproduction/self-preservation (eg. in The Child and The City), he takes a very different approach when aiming at budding social revolutionaries (eg. Anarchism in Action). In the latter case, AinA remains one of the most influential of the introductory books on anarchism precisely because it presents the concepts of anarchism as being practical and constructive elements which can operate well in the absence of a state.

Dec 28 2012 11:13

Rob Ray wrote:

As such, he trod a fine line between keeping his most powerful backers happy (the liberal-anarchist set around Vernon Richards and Freedom Press alongside sympathisers within the wider media/political elite) and producing work that would convince normal people that anarchist organising techniques were worth investing in.

I can't really say much about the political relationship between him and the Freedom group. In many ways he surpassed them on two fronts, so I am not sure how relevant it is to talk about them. It's also difficult to contest their impact on his approach.

What I wanted to look at is how he strategically sees a dichotomy between revolution on one hand and mutual aid, and I thought that presented a number of important questions. I believe Herzen shares a similar critique on this. I am not by the way raising this to slight him btw. I get the tactical winning over of the periphery, and his orientation toeards the practical I am still not sure how wedded his vision is to statism.

More reading to follow...

Rob Ray
Dec 28 2012 13:12

No worries I wasn't looking at the piece as a slight, I was mostly commenting because I think it's worth factoring in that the politics of the anarchist movement through much of his prime period were pretty badly polarised and the writing of most people involved reflected that (Albert Meltzer's stuff sometimes veered into being too hostile towards "allotment anarchism" in the other direction for example).

So in terms of seeing a dichotomy, intellectually I reckon Ward probably went a fair way beyond his mileu (his stuff on squatting is pretty approving of direct action for example) but he would have been somewhat restricted in how far down the road of advocating outright revolt he could go particularly in anything he wrote for the Guardian or for Freedom Press (bear in mind he hung out with the sort of collective who could get an article in Freedom describing striking miners as "extra thick thickies" in '84).

Jan 1 2013 19:25

I have a copy of the Colin Ward edition of Anarchist Studies. I'll upload it to the library next week (when I finish my uni essay) as it goes over some of this stuff.

Jan 2 2013 10:55

FWIW I wrote a (unpublished) critique of Colin Ward's work and his journal anarchy (first series) many years i ago when i was into communist anarchism. Essentially, it went something like Ward is no Kropotkinite because, in contrast to Kropotkin, he is a) reformist b) rejects and overlooks class struggle c) idealist d) lacks an overall, systematic analysis of capital and the state (instead he opts for methodogical individualism and a scattered empiricism) e) has no conception of agency and e) not communist (ie. all the examples he lists of 'anarchy' in action are of anarchism, not communism).

eg i wrote: 'Ward seems to suggest that merely listing a few small anarchistic experiments and a few concrete examples of anarchy in action will be enough to make people realise anarchist communism is possible, and perhaps will eventually spur people into revolutionary action. This idealist strategy has failed historically to produce fundamental changes in society, and Kropotkin explicitly dismissed it in his Small Communal Experiments and Why They Fail. As with the utopian socialists, Ward’s small experiments are solely based upon the “force of example” and seek only to change people on an ethical level rather than changing the material conditions in which people live and work.'

Not sure if that is of much use, as i'm probably just repeating what Meltzer et al wrote. even if they were harsh, there is a lot of truth in what they said. Some of the issues of anarchy were just plain awful, horrid. Even Bookchin distanced himself from Ward and anarchy.

Jan 2 2013 14:02

WoodyG, I have the copy of AS, but it would be helpful if you uploaded it.

Skraeling, it would be great if you uploaded said piece. In putting together a piece on Ward I was careful not to use the word liberal or reformist, because I think he is neither, but I would echo some of your points with the caveat that tactically he identifies with cooperation above all other aspects of 'struggle'.

Jan 2 2013 19:52

I remember discussing Colin Ward with Albert Meltzer, he characterised him (I think paraphrasing Dolgoff) as someone who "stayed awake at night worrying how to solve the problems of capitalism". While harsh, I think there is certainly a grain of truth in it. That said, we need anarchist approaches to all sorts of activities and I've enjoyed Ward's insights. Some people are going to be inspired by the revolutionary ideal, some by the practical approach to everyday problems.

Chilli Sauce
Jan 2 2013 21:48

Joe, I think you're last two paragraphs are spot on. In particular, I think this bit articulates really well the limits of co-ops and the like:


there is always the matter of how far mutualist approaches can be rendered before they are recuperated.

I think having critiques like this are valuable as struggle heats up and interests in radicalism and anarchism in particular grows. It's about, Skraeling says, "changing the material conditions in which people live and work" and while co-ops can certainly have a place in a revolutionary movement, it's imperative that the class (and certainly revolutionaries) understand their limits.