The anarchist writer Colin Ward, who died on the night of 11th February, I later met, I’d been vaguely collecting Colin’s Anarchy (first series), still the best anarchist magazine produced in this country.
The Allotment kept the http://fiveleavespublications.blogspot.com press afloat. Who went on to publish Colin’s Arcadia for All (co-written with Dennis Hardy), Talking Anarchy (with David Goodway) and Cotters and Squatters. Colin also wrote the introduction to our edition of The London Years by Rudolf Rocker, who of course he knew. Rocker in turn knew Peter Kropotkin, whose Mutual Aid had such an influence on Colin as a political thinker
Five Leaves was not his only publisher by any means. Freedom Press brought out – and kept in print – his classic Anarchy in Action and other books on housing, social policy and – in advance of his time – a book on ecological transport. Housing, environment, transport, architecture, unofficial uses of the landscape, the education of children – Colin’s subjects were always full of positive examples of the way some people live now, and the way we could all live later.
He had no time for what he called tittle-tattle. Colin developed a kind of Wardite politics and a close and loyal following ranging from George Mombiot to young libertarians who saw that there was more to life than permanent protest.
There will be many full obituaries, in the broadsheet, the anarchist and the housing press in particular. There are so many things that could be mentioned here, but to simply say that every conversation with Colin was rewarding, educational and fun. He was the most generous of people, strengthened by his many years with Harriet, an activist and writer in her own right. Five Leaves and we know other anarchist have been proud to have worked with Colin over many years and will miss him.
Ken Worpole – another Five Leaves writer (who, like Colin, has been published by several other publishers) – will be fronting communications about any events and memorials. Let Five Leaves know if you would like to be kept informed. Harriet will be putting details of Colin’s funeral in the Guardian. Our condolences to Harriet and the family.
For many people the word ‘anarchist’ is a barrier to understanding and engagement. If it is not the cloak and dagger and smoking bomb image of anarchism from the late 19th century, then it is the mainstream media image of young people in black masks lobbing things at the police, which shapes how many people respond to the word.
Colin certainly believed – as anyone on the left must – that there are times and places when you have to stand up against the state. But these images are particularly misleading so far as his anarchism was concerned. For his was an anarchism that was at once constructive, creative and immensely practical. It drew critical, but sympathetic attention from many outside the anarchist movement. It still holds many lessons for the left.
Born in 1924 in London, Colin gravitated to the anarchist movement while serving in the army during WW2. Towards the end of the war, the anarchist newspaper Freedom (or War Commentary as it was then) published an article which called on British solidiers to hold on to their guns (implication: so we can make a revolution…) The editors were prosecuted and Colin was called as a witness, testifying that although he had received the newspaper in question, it had not dissuaded him from his duty as a soldier. (One suspects that Colin had already determined for himself what the limits of his duty were.) This didn’t stop most of the editors being sent to prison. Maria Luisa Berneri escaped prison only because she was the wife of one of the other editors and, as such, could not in sexist law be guilty of a charge of ‘conspiracy’.
Following the war, Colin moved closer to the Freedom group, becoming a regular contributor to the weekly newspaper. Some of his earliest journalism covered the squatters’ movement in 1940s Britain. Much to the consternation of the Labour government, many thousands of working-class people responded to acute housing shortage by taking over and adapting disused military bases. While his comrades in the anarchist movement struggled to see the point, Colin saw this as an example of what he would later call ‘anarchy in action’: direct and cooperative self-help.
From 1961-70, Colin edited Anarchy, easily the most interesting anarchist theoretical journal published in the UK and one of the most interesting of any political stripe in that interesting decade. Through the journal, Colin laid out the ideas that would culminate in his 1973 book, Anarchy in Action.
All societies, Colin argued, are pluralistic. They solve problems, meet needs, using a variety of mechanisms. They use commercial, market-based techniques. They use authority and directive and bureaucratic techniques. And they also use techniques of mutuality: techniques of mutual aid and cooperative self-help.
‘Anarchy’, for Colin, is simply any social space in which the techniques of mutuality predominate. It is a social space which people enter (and leave) freely; relate as equals; and do something creative, to solve a problem, meet a need, or just enjoy creativity for its own sake. And the aim of anarchism is to try to push and shove society in the direction of greater anarchy in this sense.
Thus, Colin emphasised that anarchy is, in fact, already very much part of our social world. Anarchy is there in the meeting of a 12-step group, whose members grapple together with a shared problem of addiction. It is there in the adventure playground, the Friendly Society, the RNLI, and in thousands upon thousands of other free, egalitarian and cooperative social spaces. And his propaganda – not a word he was ashamed of – was frequently aimed at showing how some outstanding social problem could be better addressed by techniques of free, cooperative self-help.
In one respect, this made Colin a formidible and dedicated opponent of what is often understood as the Fabian tradition. This comes across very clearly in his work on housing where he was always highly critical of state-heavy efforts, led by middle-class housing professionals, to provide housing for the working-classes. In this context, he argued for the alternative left tradition of cooperative self-help in the form of tenant cooperatives, self-build projects and squatting. He pointed repeatedly to the illogicality of local governments – often Labour-controlled – who would rather destroy unused council housing stock than allow it to be occupied by squatters. As a recent report at OurKingdom shows, this illogic remains very much with us today.
On the other hand, there are at least two senses in which Colin’s anarchism had a certain Fabian quality. First, he was strongly opposed to anarchist perfectionism, the view that anarchy should be ‘all or nothing at all’. His conception of anarchy and anarchism enabled him to present anarchy not as ‘all or nothing’ but in terms of ‘more or less’. This opened up a more incrementalist take on anarchy and anarchism.
Second, Colin was always deeply interested, and concerned to ground his own work, in empirical social science. The availability of anarchist techniques for tackling social problems was, for Colin, a working hypothesis. But it could not be just asserted as a dogma. It had to be tested by looking to, and doing, relevant research.
His own research gradually took on an increasingly historical character as he sought to document and explore the way ordinary people have made ‘unofficial’ uses of their environment. As well as a history of squatting, he co-wrote a wonderful social history of that great social institution – at once anarchistic and social democratic – the allotment. Perhaps his most influential, widely-read book is The Child in the City, which lovingly explores the way children make their own creative uses of the urban environments they are confronted with. (I have a particular fondness for this book because the original photography by Ann Golzen for the Penguin edition was done in the mid-1970s, and consequently takes me right back to my own childhood, shaping little worlds of my own in the nooks and crannies of Bedworth’s Miners’ Welfare Park and its environs.)
Colin really stood at the confluence of two traditions (as did the post-war Freedom group more generally). On the one hand, he was of course shaped profoundly by the theoretical tradition of anarchism. He knew his anarchist classics – especially Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops – and he drew on them. On the other, Colin was also animated by the diffuse traditions of working-class and popular self-help – resolutely practical traditions concerned to get things done, to make the world better in some simple but important and measurable way, and which have little time for theoretical niceties. He sought to bring the traditions into dialogue, for their mutual benefit.
The idea of mutualism has undergone a revival of late, on left and right. Some in Labour claim it as a key theme for the future. Red Toryism also seeks to occupy some of this terrain. All those interested in this topic would do well to engage with Colin’s work. Not least, as an anarchist, Colin reminds us that if we want mutualism we don’t have to wait for benign politicians to legislate it. In certain respects, we can enact it now just by (in the words of Colin’s hero, Gustav Landauer) ‘contracting other relationships’.
It is now almost fifty years since Colin first wrote about prospects for the mutualization of state welfare provision in the pages of Anarchy. And I am sure there is still a huge amount for us to learn from the work of this remarkable man.
They say the older you get the more deaths but 2 in one week, is somewhat hard to get your head round it is a very sad loss that of Colin Ward, he was the person who got me to understand Anarchy introduced me to likes of Emma Goldman Burkman Kropotkin another grate loss now we owe it to build the biggest DONT VOTE CAMPAIGN to introduce anarchist thought and practice to a wider group of people time to rise comrades..
This was for you Colin Ward and John Rety rest in peace comrades..