Colin Ward, RIP
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Colin Ward, RIP
by Jesse Walker
February 17, 2010
Colin Ward, 1924-2010
My favorite left-anarchist writer, Colin Ward, has passed away at age
85. Ward was the most practical radical I've ever read: Rather than
sketching out utopian blueprints of a society without a state, he
searched for empirical examples of everyday people organizing to solve
their own problems. Once he started looking, he found that voluntary,
non-authoritarian cooperation was everywhere. Utopia, he wrote in his
1973 book Anarchy in Action, is "already here, apart from a few little,
local difficulties like exploitation, war, dictatorship and starvation."
Because he took his ideals seriously, Ward butted heads regularly with
both the conventional left and the conventional right. In the '80s and
early '90s, his column for New Statesman & Society was peppered with
examples of the Tory government failing to live up to its rhetoric of
liberty and decentralized power. At the same time, he was harshly
critical of the social democratic left. In one of his most famous
passages, he pointed out that
"When we compare the Victorian antecedents of our public institutions
with the organs of working-class mutual aid in the same period the very
names speak volumes. On the one side the Workhouse, the Poor Law
Infirmary, the National Society for the Education of the Poor in
Accordance with the Principles of the Established Church; and, on the
other, the Friendly Society, the Sick Club, the Cooperative Society, the
Trade Union. One represents the tradition of fraternal and autonomous
association springing up from below, the other that of authoritarian
institutions directed from above."
As Stuart White notes in his tribute to Ward, the writer was
"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
These squatters, to be clear, were not self-righteous trustafarians
seizing a private home while the owner took a holiday. They were
ordinary families finding uses for resources the state had left fallow.
Such self-organization was a longtime theme in Ward's work. Quoting
White again: "Much to the consternation of the [postwar] 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." Ward's interest in the
institutions that people build from below took him to areas that radical
writers rarely touched: He wrote appreciative histories and sociologies
of holiday camps, allotment gardens, amateur music-making, even the
street culture of urban children.
Ward had an eye for the creativity of ordinary people and the ways we
use that inventive energy to transform our environments. He didn't have
trouble imagining a society immersed in liberty and spontaneous order,
because he knew that liberty and spontaneous order were what sustained
society in the first place, even if they sometimes had to take a stunted
New book: _Weird Words: A Lovecraftian Lexicon_:
My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"