Colin Ward – an obituary and appreciation of the chuckling anarchist

Colin Ward (1924-2010), the gentlest anarchist of them all.

Colin Ward was one the greatest anarchist thinkers of the past half century and a pioneering social historian. He died earlier this month at the age of eighty-five, leaving a legacy of over thirty books and a huge following of activists, educators and writers – amongst them myself – who were inspired by his approach to radical social change, which always favoured practical, grass-roots action over utopian dreamings of revolution. The outpouring of obituaries in The Guardian and elsewhere are testimony to his influence.

I first came across his work in 1997 in the anarchist newspaper Freedom, which I had started reading as an antidote to the mainstream papers which were obsessed with the general election of that year. I quickly became addicted to his books, from the classic Anarchy in Action (1973) to more quirky titles like Goodnight Campers! The History of the British Holiday Camp (1986). Later I became friends with Colin and his wife Harriet (herself a formidable thinker and writer) and for a decade made regular trips to stay with them in Suffolk. Colin was a gentle man and a wonderful storyteller. He had a boyish chuckle, a mischievous glint in his eye, and would often break out into song while munching on a sausage, drawing on his astonishing memory – which unfortunately faded in his last years – to recollect lyrics from his 1930s Essex childhood. It is no wonder that his son and two step-sons all ended up as musicians.

Although he developed an international reputation and was invited to speak all over the world, Colin rarely took the opportunity to travel abroad. Instead one of the highlights of his week was a bus trip (he couldn’t drive) from his rural home to the town of Ipswich, where he would go to the cinema with Harriet and raid the local library, of which he must have been their most fanatical user. Back at home, when he wasn’t reading, he would spend most of his time clattering away on his old typewriter knocking out yet another Colin Ward book or diligently responding to correspondence from Korean anarchists, Norwegian allotment experts and others amongst his global following.

What I really loved about Colin was his capacity to see the good in people. He didn’t expend his energy attacking those whose views he did not share, and could usually find a kind word for them. Of the notoriously prickly American anarchist Murray Bookchin, he once said, ‘I am quite happy that we only meet every fifteen years or so, because we enquire about health and family rather than about those things which might unite or divide us’. That was about as far as Colin could go in terms of personal criticism, and he made a point of avoiding the infighting within the anarchist movement.

My favourite story about him – which I may have unconsciously embellished over the years – concerns his period as a teacher of the new-fangled subject of Liberal Studies at Wandsworth Technical College in South London during the 1960s. Most of his students were young apprentices in the building trade, and when he walked in to teach his first class he asked them what it was they wanted to learn – what difficulties did they face in their lives that he could really help them with? It turned out that their greatest concern was with lack of sleep. So Colin duly crammed his brain full of the scholarly literature on sleep and set about teaching a term of classes on the art of sleeping. It is a story that has always stayed with me as a teacher, the ultimate example of making an effort to meet your students’ needs.

For most people the typical image of an anarchist is a bomb-throwing Russian from the nineteenth century or a black-masked youth at one of today’s anti-capitalist demonstrations. Colin was neither. He came from a different anarchist tradition, one which saw social change emerging not from violence and revolution, but from expanding social cooperation and mutual aid in everyday life. His writings celebrated worker cooperatives, tenant housing associations, allotment holders, children’s adventure playgrounds, Friendly Societies and organisations like the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. This is where he saw ‘anarchy in action’ – people organising themselves on a voluntary, non-hierarchical and decentralised basis –  a social model reflecting the anarchism of one of Colin’s major influences, the Russian writer and geographer Peter Kropotkin. Colin believed that an anarchist society was not an imagined future state, but rather something that existed in the here and now, all around us. It was a latent force, ‘like a seed beneath the snow’ as he used to say, that had the power to push back the boundaries of the centralised state and the capitalist system.

Colin was fond of quoting the early-twentieth century German anarchist Gustav Landauer, who wrote:

‘The state 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 by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.’

Here was the idea that social change was not about new laws, governments, or policies, but about creating a revolution of human relationships from the bottom up, and shifting the way individuals treated one another. It was an approach that had a profound impact on my own thinking, drawing me away from my early interest in traditional party politics and state power (I used to be a university politics lecturer) and towards developing my ideas about empathy as a force for social change. Colin’s writings on the social philosophy of Martin Buber in his book Influences (1991) introduced me to another thinker who has deeply shaped my beliefs about the power of empathy.

Outside anarchist circles, Colin had a major impact as a social and oral historian, taking his readers into unexpected landscapes to hear voices that mainstream historians generally ignored. His book The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture (written with David Crouch, 1988) showed vegetable gardeners as ingenious improvisers, while The Child in the City (1978) revealed the extraordinary creativity of kids who played in urban slums. One of his last books, Cotters and Squatters (2002), which chronicled the history of squatting in Britain since the seventeenth century, was typical of his work, bringing to life a whole social subculture about which few people have any knowledge. Part of what made Colin’s books so compelling was not only the extraordinary range and originality of the subject matter, but also his conversational style and accessible prose: he was highly allergic to theoretical and academic jargon. Despite these virtues, he found it hard to persuade mainstream publishers to take interest in his books, making it difficult for him to eke out a living as a writer – although he managed to achieve an underground cult status, with his fans including the likes of George Monbiot, Richard Maybe and Roger Deakin.

Colin had an extreme distaste for nationalist, religious or political separatism. He rejected the ideologies and simplistic patriotisms that led people to kill one another. In 1942, as a sixteen-year-old during the darkest days of the Second World War, he made a point of copying out the following lines written by the columnist Bill Connor in the Daily Mirror:

‘Our children are guarded from diphtheria by what a Japanese and a German did. They are saved from smallpox by an Englishman’s work. They are saved from rabies because of a Frenchman. From birth to death they are surrounded by an invisible host – the spirits of men who never served a lesser loyalty than the welfare of mankind.’

While Colin cherished this humanising quote as central to his own vision of the world, he gradually came to inhabit its very lines himself. Colin Ward is now part of that invisible host surrounding our lives, whose work will keep quietly shaping human welfare and creating the revolution of human relationships that we so desperately need.

If you are new to Colin Ward’s writing and want to know where to start, you could begin with his explicitly anarchist works such as Anarchy in Action or Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction (part of the Oxford University Press series). Alternatively you could try his more general books, such as The Allotment: It’s Landscape and Culture (with David Crouch) or The Child in the City. A more complete list of writings appears at Wikipedia, including Ken Worpole’s great edited book Richer Futures: Fashioning a New Politics, containing essays by people across a range of fields influenced by Colin Ward’s ideas.

5 thoughts on “Colin Ward – an obituary and appreciation of the chuckling anarchist

  1. Thanks for this. I feel like I’ve got to spend a little time with him, and am interested now to read his writing.

  2. Thank you, Roman, for this lovely appreciation, which told me many things about Colin I didn’t know, hadn’t realised, or had forgotten. It’s a truly lovely piece.

  3. I was working in the library at Wandsworth Technical College whilst Colin was a Liberal Studies lecturer. He once confided in me that his two sons sang in the church choir but he couldn’t stop them because he was an anarchist and believed in freedom. I did a couple of book reviews for Anarchy and later he did a talk to a Library Association meeting for me. I remember that the head of Liberal Studies considered it his duty to complete the Times crossword by the morning coffee break or the Principal would want to know why. Often Charle Fellows the librarian and I as well as numerous reference books were called in to help. His ideas were a great influence and I remain, at heart, an anarchist because of his ideas.

  4. Your remembrances of Colin are greatly appreciated. I met the gentleman only once while visiting London 12 years ago, but volunteered to be his US distributor of Anarchy in the early 60’s – which simply meant that I received bulk copies to place in bookstores in Chicago. His work has been a guide to me for all these years. For me he was an intellectual companion of Paul Goodman – another writer who saw the innate goodness in people and their expressions of social creativity that are oblivious to most intellectuals. And I am pleased to find your blog by chance (a Google Alert) and want to commend you for carrying on in Colin’s tradition.

    I look forward to your review of Jeremy Rifkin’s .

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