Sunday 14 February 2010

Colin Ward: pioneer of mutualism

Colin Ward, the leading anarchist thinker and writer of post-war Britain, died on February 11.

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, who want to understand what mutualism really entails, 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.

Colin is survived by his wife, Harriet, and I am sure all readers of Next Left would wish to join me in expressing condolencies and in wishing her, and Colin's and Harriet's children and grandchildren, the very best wishes at this time.


Some other remembrances of Colin can be found here and here. And there is a good Guardian profile of Colin here.

More remembrances here, here, here and here. And here.


Robert said...

It's sad , but imagine him now living under a New Labour idealism in which if you even say your left of center your a commie.

We are losing to many of of great people.

Leo said...

Great article, about a really great man. Colin Ward was also (alongside the spiritual anti-institutionalist & practical convivialist Ivan Illich) one of the early serious advocates of peer-to-peer models of education, and was a rare radical who was never afraid to call a real existing commons space exactly that. Many of my fellow young idealists could do well to receive a hearty slap in the face from him!

I also think that his ideas will take on a greater and greater relevance in a future shaped by a great ecological crisis (that may follow the warming effect of current carbon emissions), a vast empancipatory opportunity (in the Internet & WWW, that remains still largely untapped), and an as-yet-unresolved intellectual failure (of neoliberalism &c &c). It is a relevance (if even in a different incarnation) that I strongly hope will eventually manifest itself within the Labour party as it begins the process of refreshing its thinking & key personnel.

I imagine too he would have been heartened to have seen Elinor Ostrom win the Nobel Prize for Economics last year (whose similar, if more systematic, empirical studies of commons governance and economics are gaining wider traction in scholarly & policy circles). Yeh, Colin Ward, top top man. My sentiments the same, RIP Colin!

Sunder Katwala said...


Thank you for this excellent appreciation of Colin Ward's work from which I learnt s lot.

I am not at all well versed in the anarchist traditions, perhaps partly because of the antagonistic relationship with social democratic and Fabian traditions which you describe.

As one point of connection, I did very much enjoy the 'Orwell at home and among the anarchists' book which you recommended last Spring, which included Colin Ward on Orwell's interest in anarchism as part of his libertarian socialism.

Perfectionism does strike me as perhaps the biggest problem for anarchism as politics, especially if it leads to an instinct to reject the messiness of democratic politics as inevitably compromising and corrupting. (Perhaps there are similar issues for libertarianisms of the right as well as the left).

So this argument for the contribution of a gradualist and empirically rooted anarchism, as a pluralist attempt to tilt the social argument much further towards participation and mutualism is an attractive one, and, as you say, relevant to debates which are emerging within the left.

Stuart White said...

Thanks to Robert, Lee and Sunder for the above comments.

Lee is right to stress Colin's interest in environmentalism and his relevance to green politics. He started writing about energy issues in the 1950s and environmental concerns inform much of his work on the 'thinning' and greening of the city.

Ray Sawhill said...

Super appreciation, many tks for it.

aliqot said...

Thanks for the excellent appreciation of Colin Ward. I used to read Freedom and Anarchy, in the early 70s.

The gradualist approach must be the only way, and it gets difficult to hold on tyo ideals sometimes. Colin's life and work is an inspiration.

Unknown said...

Colin Ward obituary at Freedom Press: