Colin Ward: Writer and social theorist who espoused a gentle brand of anarchy

Wednesday 03 March 2010 01:00

Colin Ward was an anarchist without a sinister cloak and fizzing bomb and without a penchant for rioting and street-fighting. His methods were his intellect, vast research, and above all words. He turned out well-written books and articles in which he argued against big government and in favour of initiatives by individuals and small communities. He was described by Paul Barker, in his 1989 review of the book Ward wrote with Ruth Rendell, Country Life Force, as a man who made "gentle attempts to educate us into a freer, kinder society."

Ward was on the less extreme shores of anarchy, advocating revolutionary ideas in a non-revolutionary way. Some might say he was a peculiarly English type of non-militant anarchist – committed, radical, but not fanatic. He thought and wrote much about subjects such as town planning, housing and transport, advocating the abandonment of centralised authority, which he regarded as suffocating. He wrote of schools, holiday camps and, endearingly, the value of allotments. His version of an anarchist plot, in other words, was not a violent conspiracy but a peaceful piece of land.

His approach was summarised in another review of one of his many books: "It is a pragmatic form of anarchism, a theory of organisation, a combination of self-help and mutual aid, of do-it-yourself and do-it-together. Ward is calling not so much for a political revolution as for social transformation – though not all that much of one, since he sees anarchism all around us, and likes to find examples wherever ordinary people put freedom into practice in their daily lives."

Born in Essex, the son of a teacher and a shorthand typist who were both Labour supporters, Colin Ward worked in an architect's office before being conscripted in 1942. Posted to Glasgow, he was transfixed by the city's contrasts of wealth and poverty, marvelling at its "monumental buildings clad in velvety soot, its short, stocky men, bent be-shawled women and barefoot children."

Impressed by open-air political oratory, he gravitated towards an anarchist bookshop and attended meetings where he listened to "comrades who were responsible for sowing the seeds of anarchy in my thoughts." Those seeds led him to spend two months behind bars for what he recalled as "some act of bloody-mindedness."

During the Second World War Scottish activists such as anarchists often found themselves in trouble with the law, facing charges such as refusing to carry out fire-watching duty and inciting others to evade military service. Ward gave evidence in the trial of a group who produced an anarchist magazine, many of whom received prison sentences. He visited Glasgow's Barlinnie prison to persuade the anarchist prisoner Frank Leech, whom he particularly admired as a "gentle giant," to end his hunger strike. The military authorities acted quickly, Ward relating: "My visit to Barlinnie had evidently been noted. I was immediately posted to Orkney and Shetland for the rest of the war."

The decades after the war saw him combining anarchy with architecture. In the 1970s his day job was as education officer for the Town and Country Planning Association. He also worked for the journals Freedom and Anarchy as writer and editor. Fellow contributors included individuals such as the broadcaster Ray Gosling, who was in the news recently over a reported case of euthanasia.

Ward was at odds with post-war socialism, complaining: "How sad that in Britain socialists should have been so intoxicated with power and bureaucracy and the mystique of the state. It's their own fault, of course, for rejecting their history and origins for the sake of a version of socialism which is governmental, authoritarian, paternalistic and unloved."

He later lamented: "It was the political left that opened the door to primeval Thatcherism. Socialists have to unburden themselves of all that Fabian and Marxist baggage, and rediscover their roots in the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below."

Although occasional Tories voiced a sentimental regard for his approach, Ward had no reciprocal fondness for them, saying of the libertarian right: "Freedom for the pike means death for the minnow."

In one pamphlet he set out his dream of how the East Anglia village where he lived would ideally be organised by the year 2051. All public finance would come from a tithe, with locals taking part in intense discussions about how to allocate the revenue "in the village hall, the church, the Shoulder of Mutton and Cock taverns, and on the green." In this rural utopia, "the local schools have reopened, the mill now generates local electricity, the village shop thrives again. Trains run again, revived by the Democratic Railway Movement."

It might be thought that none of the brands of anarchy, of which Ward's was one of the least abrasive, have accomplished much either in practical or theoretical terms. But he insisted: "An anarchist society, a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism."

He himself has been described as one of those seeds. One admirer wrote: "He has acted like a yeast, fermenting ideas in the minds of countless others. His influence in areas from housing to teaching and planning has been immense, and will continue to grow." More ironically, Ward himself wrote in 1973 that utopia "is already here, apart from a few little local difficulties like exploitation, war, dictatorship and starvation."

His decades of work led to one description of him as the most prominent and interesting English anarchist writer, while another observer called him "a lifelong anarchist of the sweetest, gentlest kind."

David McKittrick

Colin Ward, writer and anarchist: born 14 August 1924; married 1966 Harriet (one son, two stepchildren); died 11 February 2010.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in