The Anarchist Thought of Colin Ward

Center for a Stateless Society Paper No. 18 (Summer-Fall 2014) PDF

Particularity and the Anarchism of Everyday Life

Colin Ward was a libertarian communist. He named Pyotr Kropotkin as his primary economic influence, and described himself as “an anarchist-communist, in the Kropotkin tradition.” This was not empty praise. He produced an abridged edition of Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops with a large body of his own commentary and annotations attached. In his commentary, he explicitly affirmed the validity of Kropotkin’s decentralist views on industrial technology; and particularly on the spuriousness of most “economies of scale” (which he said were dependent either on unsustainable inputs or artificially inflated demand) and the superior productivity of small-scale horticulture.

Ward was also very much a Kropotkinian in his fondness for all the human scale institutions people had created for themselves throughout history. He described his most famous book, Anarchy in Action, as simply “an extended, updating footnote to Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid.”

It is not about strategies for revolution and it is not involved with speculation on the way an anarchist society would function. It is about the ways in which people organise themselves in any kind of human society, whether we care to categorise those societies as primitive, traditional, capitalist or communist.

Compare Ward’s description of anarchism…

Anarchism (the origin of the word is the Greek phrase meaning contrary to authority) seeks a self-organising society: a network of autonomous free associations for the satisfaction of human needs. Inevitably this makes anarchists advocates of social revolution, for the means of satisfying these needs are in the hands of capitalists, bureaucratic, private or governmental monopolies.

…to Kropotkin’s definition in his Britannica article on anarchism:

the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government—harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilised being.

Ward himself cited Kropotkin’s definition as a sort of elevator speech description of his views, and then immediately followed it up by mentioning Martin Buber and Gustav Landauer as major influences:

The next stage in the argument for me, at least, was provided by the philosopher Martin Buber, who wasn’t an anarchist, although he had strong anarchist connections. He was the friend and executor of a German anarchist Gustav Landauer, who made a very profound remark, which I quote from Buber’s book Paths in Utopia…. “The state”, said Landauer, “is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.” Buber wrote a brilliant essay called ‘Society and the State’ which was printed in English in the long-dead journal World Review in 1951, and printed in a book of his called Pointing the Way.

Buber begins by making a clear distinction between the social principle and the political principle, pointing out that “it is inherent in social structures that people either find themselves already linked with one another in an association based on a common need or a common interest, or that they band themselves together for such a purpose, whether in an existing or a newly-formed society.”

Like Kropotkin’s, Ward’s was a communism expressed in a love for a wide variety of small folk institutions, found throughout the nooks and crannies of history, of a sort most people would not think of when they hear the term “communism.” Kropotkin himself resembled William Morris in his fondness for the small-scale, local, quaint and historically rooted—especially medieval folkmotes, open field villages, free towns, guilds, etc.—as expressions of the natural communism of humanity. But as David Goodway notes, “Ward… goes far beyond him in the types of co-operative groups he identifies in modern societies and the centrality he accords to them in anarchist transformation.” This passage could easily have been written by Kropotkin instead of Ward:

People with less education will realise, almost intuitively, that local administration is much older than central administration, that its roots lie deep in the history of any people in the world, and that even the words we use to describe it in various languages, express a notion of the idea that decisions are made locally, however tragically wide is the gap between idea and reality. There is an echo in the very word council of the word commune, variously spelt in the Latin languages, or the word Gemeinschaft in German, or the ancient word mir or, with a heavy irony, the word soviet in Russian, or the phrase town meeting in America, which expresses the idea of a community making decisions, raising the revenue for them, and implementing them, for itself.

Central government, for the greater part of recorded history, has represented some butcher, bandit or warrior chief who has managed to intimidate local communities to surrender their sovereignty and manpower to him to gather the revenue to conduct foreign wars.

Although a communist, Ward was as close in some ways to Proudhon’s petty bourgeois socialism as to the mainstream 20th century model of libertarian communism. For example, he differed from the latter in his support for owner-occupancy in housing—surely a petty bourgeois deviation if anything was. He saw the main sources of Marxist and anarchist opposition to this as 1) a fear that the homely petty bourgeois values of domesticity would distract the working class from making revolution in the streets, and 2) a principled opposition to “private property.” But Ward pointed out in response that even Proudhon, who declared that “Property is Theft,” recognized individual possession of homes, tools of a trade, the land one was cultivating, etc., as sources of freedom. And even some officially communist regimes like Poland recognized the right to possession of living space.

Although Ward cited as the basis for his claim that “I am, by definition, a socialist or what Kropotkin would have called an anarchist communist,” Kropotkin’s definition of anarchism quoted above from his article in Britannica, he went on to add: “But equally, I would always stress the common ground between people who have arrived at anarchist attitudes from different starting points.” The non-dogmatic nature of his orientation is further indicated by his comments on Murray Bookchin:

I… have noticed how other anarchists who happen not to share his opinions, at any particular time in their evolution, are trodden into the ground by his denunciations, thus confirming the outside world’s view of anarchists as humorless, self-important sectarians.

Bookchin and I have opposite ways of coping with people whose ideas have some kind of connection with our own but with whom we disagree. His is to pulverise them with criticism so that they won’t emerge again….

As a propagandist I usually find it more useful to claim as comrades the people whose ideas are something like mine, and to stress the common ground, rather than to wither them up in a deluge of scorn.

His stress on the commonality of the various traditions in the anarchist spectrum reflected an awareness of their common Enlightenment origins with liberalism and non-anarchist forms of socialism. “In the evolution of political ideas, anarchism can be seen as an ultimate projection of both liberalism and socialism, and the differing strands of anarchist thought can be related to their emphasis on one or the other of these.”

Even more suggestively, he dissociated himself from the grim mass-production workerism commonly associated with anarchist communism:

Syndicalists… tended to exaggerate the extent to which manufacturing industry was dominated by vast Ford-type factories, organized with military precision, when, as Kropotkin stressed a hundred years ago, the typical workplace is a small workshop. Probably, when syndicalists succeed in abandoning historical romanticism, they will be exploiting the new communications technology to fight international capitalism on an international scale.

(He went on in the next paragraph to praise Bookchin for winning an audience based on his treatment of issues “summed up by shorthand words like green, ecological, environmental, or sustainable, [which many believe] will be dominant in the politics of the 21st century…”).

In his commentary on William Morris’s The Factory As It Might Be, Ward quoted with approval a passage from Paul Thompson’s life of Morris:

Socialism was originally the product of the age of the factory, and it bears that mark in its primary focus on work. This is a major reason why socialism has always had a more direct appeal to men than to women, and equally why, with the growth of leisure and a home-centred way of life, its significance to ordinary life has become less and less obvious. But Morris stands alone among major socialist thinkers in being as concerned with housework and the home as with work in the factory. The transformation of both factory and home was equally necessary for the future fulfillment of men and women. Morris wanted everyday life as a whole to become the basic form of creativity, of art: “For a socialist, a house, a knife, a cup, a steam engine, must be either a work of art, or a denial of art.”

Much like David Graeber, Ward can be said to have taken an anthropological approach to anarchism. Ward’s approach to anarchism, and his understanding of its basic concepts, is a direct outgrowth of his experience of everyday life as a working person, and his personal observation of others going about their normal business.

Ward himself called his approach “sociological”: “My knowledge of the sociology of autonomous groups would tell me that it is always more sensible and conducive to the effectiveness of such groups to stress the large areas of agreement, rather than those of differing propaganda emphases.” And he cited as an influence the American anarchist Paul Goodman, “who related anarchism to ordinary decisions of daily life…”

A major part of his writing on anarchism concerns housing issues (especially squatting and self-built housing). Ward’s first three jobs, before he was drafted in WWII, were “a clerk for a builder erecting (entirely fraudulently) air-raid shelters,” a position in the Ilford Borough Engineer’s office (“where his eyes were opened to the inequitable treatment of council house tenants”), and working as a draftsman for the architect Sidney Caulfield (who had learned his occupation through the Arts and Crafts Movement of Ruskin and Morris and worked on Truro Cathedral). After the war he wrote nine articles on the post-war squatters’ movement for Freedom. Later, in the 1960s, he was a teacher in various technical colleges, which brought him into direct contact with practical issues of education and pedagogy.

Most of his work, not only on housing but all other aspects of social life, accordingly deals with the practical anarchism of ordinary people interacting with each other in search of solutions to problems and needs in their everyday life. As David Goodway describes it: “It is Ward’s vision of anarchism, along with his many years of working in architecture and planning, that account for his concentration on ‘anarchist applications’ or ‘anarchist solutions’ to ‘immediate issues in which people are actually likely to get involved….”

Ward is primarily concerned with the forms of direct action, in the world of the here-and-now, which are “liberating the great network of human co-operation.” Back in 1973 he considered that “the very growth of the state and its bureaucracy, the giant corporation and its privileged hierarchy… are… giving rise to parallel organisations, counter organisations, alternative organisations, which exemplify the anarchist method”; and he proceeded to itemise the revived demand for workers’ control, the de-schooling movement, self-help therapeutic groups, squatter movements and tenants’ co-operatives, food co-operatives, claimants’ unions, and community organisations of every conceivable kind. During the following thirty years he additionally drew attention to self-build activities (he was been [sic] particularly impressed by achievements in the shanty towns in the poor countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia), co-operatives of all types, the informal economy, and LETS….

This set him apart from the rest of the writers in the Freedom Press Group; his preoccupation with everyday life and ordinary people solving practical problems didn’t fit in with their conception of anarchism at all. “When he tried to interest his comrades in the late 1940s in a pamphlet on the squatters’ movement… he recalled that ‘it wasn’t thought that this is somehow relevant to anarchism.’” The incomprehension was mutual; Ward had no use for an anarchism that didn’t grow from the practical experience of everyday life:

One of his greatest regrets remained that so few anarchists follow his example an apply their principles to what they themselves know best. In his case that was the terrain of housing, architecture and planning; but where, he wanted to know, are the anarchist experts on, and applications to, for example, medicine, the health service, agriculture and economics?

In keeping with his generally inclusive and empirical approach, Ward’s idea of a viable anarcho-communism for the future was a communism that incorporated not only the best of other liberatory traditions that people brought with them, but the actually-existing small-scale institutions that ordinary people have already built for themselves.

I believe that an intelligent 21st century anarchism will draw on its links with the worlds of the Green movement and with the unofficial and informal economies of the poor world, as well as those of the poor in the rich world, to draw anarchist lessons on human survival.

Above all he denounced “a socialist movement [that] got itself into the position of dismissing as petit-bourgeois individualism all those freedoms which people actually cherish; everything that belongs to the private niche that people really cherish…”

I merely want to stress that there is room in the garden of the informal economy for both co-operators and individualists. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the paradoxical anarchist, would have taken this for granted. His vision of industrial organization was that of a federation of self-employed craftsmen. We certainly get echoes of the Proudhonian view in Robert Frost’s observation, “Men work together, I told him from the heart / Whether they work together or apart”. …

Center for a Stateless Society Paper No. 18 (Summer-Fall 2014) PDF

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