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Colin Ward, 1924–2010

Posted on February 15th, 2010 in About AK, AK Allies, AK Authors!

Colin WardSad news from our friends at Five Leaves Publications in Nottingham: Colin Ward, the great British anarchist, scholar, and journalist passed away on the evening of February 11.

Ward was always attentive to the ways society already works cooperatively, and pushed us to understand these impulses and experiments as a latent potential for anarchism. Some of what passes for common-sense approaches to schooling, architecture, or social organization are themes Ward touched on in his work and has since been embedded in our popular consciousness. Many of us have been touched by Ward’s work over the years, sometimes without even realizing it.

We wish the best to Colin’s close friends, allies, and especially his partner, Harriet.

Do read Ross Bradshaw’s post about Ward at the Five Leaves Blog if you’re interested in learning more about Ward’s history, or the extended post on Next Left. For our part, we offer below just a small sampling of Colin’s thought, from his classic Anarchy in Action. You can find some of his other books available here.


Anarchy and a Plausible Future

Anarchy in Action Originally published in Anarchy in Action (London: Freedom Press, 1973). Excerpted in Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader (Oakland: AK Press, forthcoming December 2010).

For the earlier part of my life I was quieted by being told that ours was the richest country in the world, until I woke up to know that what I meant by riches was learning and beauty, and music and art, coffee and omelettes; perhaps in the coming days of poverty we may get more of these …
–W.R. LETHABY, Form in Civilisation

This book has illustrated the arguments for anarchism, not from theories, but from actual examples of tendencies which already exist, alongside much more powerful and dominant authoritarian methods of social organisation. The important question is, therefore, not whether anarchy is possible or not, but whether we can so enlarge the scope and influence of libertarian methods that they become the normal way in which human beings organise their society. Is an anarchist society possible?

We can only say, from the evidence of human history, that no kind of society is impossible. If you are powerful enough and ruthless enough you can impose almost any kind of social organisation on people – for a while. But you can only do so by methods which, however natural and appropriate they may be for any other kind of ‘ism’ – acting on the well-known principle that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, are repugnant to anarchists, unless they see themselves as yet another of those revolutionary elites ‘leading the people’ to the promised land. You can impose authority but you cannot impose freedom. An anarchist society is improbable, not because anarchy is unfeasible, or unfashionable, or unpopular, but because human society is not like that, because, as Malatesta put it in the passage quoted in the last chapter, ‘we are, in any case, only one of the forces acting in society’.

The degree of social cohesion implied in the idea of ‘an anarchist society’ could only occur in a society so embedded in the cake of custom that the idea of choice among alternative patterns of social behaviour simply did not occur to people. I cannot imagine that degree of unanimity and I would dislike it if I could, because the idea of choice is crucial to any philosophy of freedom and spontaneity. So we don’t have to worry about the boredom of utopia: we shan’t get there. But what results from this conclusion? One response would be to stress anarchism as an ideal of personal liberation, ceasing to think of changing society, except by example. Another would be to conclude that because no reads lead to utopia no road leads anywhere, an attitude which, in the end, is identical with the utopian one because it asserts that there are no partial, piecemeal, compromise of temporary solutions, only one attainable or unattainable final solution. But, as Alexander Herzen put it over a century ago: ‘A goal which is infinitely remote is not a goal at all, it is a deception. A goal must be closer – at the very least the labourer’s wage or pleasure in the work performed. Each epoch, each generation, each life has had, and had, its own experience, and the end of each generation must be itself.’

The choice between libertarian and authoritarian solutions is not a once-and-for-all cataclysmic struggle, it is a series of running engagements, most of them never concluded, which occur, and have occurred, throughout history. Every human society, except the most totalitarian of utopias or anti-utopias, is a plural society with large areas which are not in conformity with the officially imposed or declared values. An example of this can be seen in the alleged division of the world into capitalist and communist blocks: there are vast areas of capitalist societies which are not governed by capitalist principles, and there are many aspects of the socialist societies which cannot be described as socialist. You might even say that the only thing that makes life livable in the capitalist world is the unacknowledged capitalist element in it. This is why a controlled market is a left-wing demand in capitalist economy – along with state control, while a free market is a left-wing demand in a communist society – along with workers’ control. In both cases, the demands are for whittling away power from the centre, whether it is the power of the state or capitalism, or state-capitalism.

So what are the prospects for increasing the anarchist content of the real world? From one point of view the outlook is bleak: centralised power, whether that of governments or super-governments, or of private capitalism or the super-capitalism of giant international corporations, has never been greater. The prophesies of nineteenth-century anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin about the power of the state over the citizen have a relevance today which must have seemed unlikely for their contemporaries.

From another standpoint the outlook is infinitely promising. The very growth of the state and its bureaucracy, the giant corporation and its privileged hierarchy, are exposing their vulnerability to non-co-operation, to sabotage, and to the exploitation of their weaknesses by the weak. They are also giving rise to parallel organisations, counter organisations, alternative organisations, which exemplify the anarchist method. Industrial mergers, and rationalisation have bred the revival of the demand for workers’ control, first as a slogan or a tactic like the work-in, ultimately as a destination. The development of the school and the university as broiler-houses for a place in the occupational pecking-order have given rise to the de-schooling movement and the idea of the anti-university. The use of medicine and psychiatry as agents of conformity has led to the idea of the anti-hospital and the self-help therapeutic group. The failure of Western society to house its citizens has prompted the growth of squatter movements and tenants’ co-operatives. The triumph of the supermarket in the United States has begun a mushrooming of food co-operatives. The deliberate pauperisation of those who cannot work has led to the recovery of self-respect through Claimants’ Unions.

Community organisations of every conceivable kind, community newspapers, movement for child welfare, communal households have resulted from the new consciousness that local as well as central government exploit the poor and are unresponsive to those who are unable to exert effective pressure for themselves. The ‘rationalisation’ of local administration in Britain into ‘larger and more effective units’ is evoking a response in the demand for neighbourhood councils. A new self-confidence and assertion of their right to exist on their own terms has sprung up among the victims of particular kinds of discrimination – black liberation, women’s liberation, homosexual liberation, prisoners’ liberation, children’s liberation: the list is almost endless and is certainly going to get longer as more and more people become more and more conscious that society is organised in ways which deny them a place in the sun. In the age of mass politics and mass conformity, this is a magnificent re-assertion of individual values and of human dignity.

None of these movements is yet a threat to the power structure, and this is scarcely surprising since hardly any of them existed before the late 1960s. None of them fits into the framework of conventional politics. In fact, they don’t speak the same language as the political parties. They talk the language of anarchism and they insist on anarchist principles of organisation, which they have learned not from political theory but from their own experience. They organise in loosely associated groups which are voluntary, functional, temporary and small. They depend, not on membership cards, votes, a special leadership and a herd of inactive followers but on small functional groups which ebb and flow, group and regroup, according to the task in hand. They are networks, not pyramids.

At the very time when the ‘irresistible trends of modern society’ seemed to be leading us to a mass society of enslaved consumers they are reminding us of the truth that the irresistible is simply that which is not resisted. But obviously a whole series of partial and incomplete victories, of concessions won from the holders of power, will not lead to an anarchist society. But it will widen the scope of free action and the potentiality for freedom in the society we have. But such compromises of anarchist notions would have to be made, such authoritarian bedfellows chosen, for a frontal attack on the power structure, that the anarchist answer to cries for revolutionary unity is likely to be ‘Whose noose are you inviting me to put round my neck this time?’

But in thinking about a plausible future, another factor has entered into the general consciousness since the late 1960s. So many books, so many reports, so many conferences have been devoted to it, that it is only necessary for me to state a few general propositions about it. The first is that the world’s resources are finite. The second is that the wealthy economics have been exploiting the unrenewable resources at a rate which the planet cannot sustain. The third is that these ‘developed’ economies are also exploiting the resources of the ‘Third World’ countries as cheap raw materials. This means, not only that the Third World countries can never hope to achieve the levels of consumption of the rich world, but that the rich countries themselves cannot continue to consume at the present accelerating rate. The public debate around these issues is not about the truth of the contentions, it is simply about the question: How Soon? How soon before the fossil fuels run out? How soon before the Third World rises in revolt against international exploitation?

How soon will we be facing the consequences of the non-viability of future economic growth? I leave aside the related questions about pollution and about population. But all these questions profoundly affect all our futures and the predictions we make about social change, whether we mean the changes we desire or the ones which circumstances force upon us. They also cut completely across accepted political categories, as do the policies of the ecology lobby or the environmental pressure groups in both Britain and the United States.

The growth economists, the politicians of both right and left, who envisaged an ever-expanding cycle of consumption, with the philosophy characterised by Kenneth Burke as Borrow, Spend, Buy, Waste, Want, have just not caught up with future realities. If anyone has it is that minority among the young in the affluent countries who have consciously rejected the mass consumption society – its values as well as its dearly-bought products – and adopted, not out of Puritanism but out of a different set of priorities, an earlier consumer philosophy: Eat it, up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. The editor of The Ecologist summed up the argument thus: ‘affluence for everybody is an impossible dream: the world simply does not contain sufficient resources, nor could it absorb the heat and other wasted generated by the immense amount of energy required. Indeed, the most important thing to realise, when we plan our future, is that affluence is both a local and a temporary phenomenon. Unfortunately it is the principal, if not the only, goal our industrial society gives us.’ His journal in its ‘Blueprint for Survival’ has the distinction of being among the few com-commentaries on the crisis of environment and resources to go beyond predicting the consequences of continued population growth and depletion of resources, to envisaging the kind of physical and economic structure of life which its authors regard as indispensable for a viable future, drawing up a timetable for change for the century 1975-2075, to establish in that time ‘a network of self-sufficient, self-regulating communities.’ The authors cheerfully accept the charge that their programme is unsophisticated and over-simplified, the implication being that if the reader can formulate a better alternative, or a different time-scale, he should do so. The interesting thing is that they have re-invented an older vision of the future. Back in the 1890s three men, equally unqualified as shareholders in Utopia Limited, formulated their prescriptions for the physical setting of a future society. William Morris, designer and socialist, wrote News from Nowhere; Peter Kropotkin, geographer and anarchist, wrote Fields, Factories and Workshops; and Ebenezer Howard, inventor and parliamentary shorthand writer, wrote Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. Each of these blueprints for survival was more influential than its original readers could have supposed, though less than its author would have hoped. Morris’s vision was totally irrelevant for the twentieth century, but his picture of a post-industrial, decentralised, state-free Britain in the twenty-first century, certainly makes sense for the new ecologically-aware generation, while any American will recognise the force of his backward glance at the future of the United States: ‘For these lands, and, I say, especially the northern parts of America, suffered so terribly from the full force of the last days of civilisation, and became such horrible places to live in, that one may say that for nearly a hundred years the people of the northern parts of American have been engaged in gradually making a dwelling-place out of a stinking dust-heap…’

Howard’s legacy is of course the new towns: his immediate purpose was to mobilise voluntary initiative for the building of one demonstration model, confident that its advantages would set in motion a large-scale adoption of the idea of urban dispersal in ‘social cities’, or what the TCPA calls ‘a many-centred nexus of urban communities’. Lewis Mumford notes that ‘By now, our neotechnic and biotechnic facilities have at last caught up with Howard’s and Kropotkin’s intuitions. Howard’s plan for canalising the flow of population, diverting it from the existing centres to new centres; his plan for decentralising industry and setting up both city and industry within a rural matrix, the whole planned to a human scale, is technologically far more feasible today than it was…

Kropotkin’s own vision of the future, with industry decentralised, and the competition for markets replaced by local production and consumption while people themselves alternate brain work and manual work, is being realised in a political climate he hardly foresaw, in China, but is equally in harmony with the programme of the ‘Blueprint for Survival’:

The scattering of industries over the country – so as to bring the factory amidst the fields, to make agriculture derive all those profits which it always finds in being combined with industry and to produce a combination of industrial with agricultural work – is surely the next step to be taken … This step is imposed by the necessity for each healthy man and woman to spend a part of their lives in manual work in the free air; and it will be rendered the more necessary when the great social movements, which have now become unavoidable, come to disturb the present international trade, and compel each nation to revert to her own resources for her own maintenance.

The authors of the ‘Blueprint’, having set out their analysis of the crisis of population, resources and environment, sketch out what they see as a necessary and desirable future for the human habitat. They argue for decentralisation on several grounds. Their first reason is that it would ‘promote the social conditions in which public opinion and full public participation in decision-making become as far as possible the means whereby communities are ordered’. Their second reason is that, on ecological grounds, they foresee a return to diversified farming instead of prairie-type crop-growing or factory-type livestock rearing, with production for a local market and the return of domestic sewage to the land, in the setting of ‘a decentralised society of small communities where industries are small enough to be responsive that ‘the decreasing autonomy of communities and local regions, and the increasing centralisation of decision-making and authority in the cumbersome bureaucracies of the state, have been accompanied by the rise of self-conscious individualism, an individualism that feels threatened unless it is harped upon’.

They see the accumulation of material goods as the accompaniment of this self-conscious individualism(what others would call ‘privatisation’) and believe that the rewards of significant relationships and mutual responsibilities in a small community will provide ample compensation for the decreasing emphasis on consumption which will be essential for the conversation of resources and the minimisation of pollution. Their final reason is that ‘to deploy a population in small towns and villages is to reduce to the minimum its impact on the environment. This is because the actual urban superstructure required per inhabitant goes up radically as the size of the town increases beyond a certain point.’ Affirming that they are not proposing inward-looking, self-obsessed, or closed communities, but in fact want ‘an efficient and sensitive communications network between all communities’, they conclude with the splendid declaration:

‘We emphasise that our goal should be to create community feeling and global awareness, rather than that dangerous and sterile compromise which is nationalism.’

But will it ever happen? Will this humane and essentially anarchistice vision of a workable future simply join all the other anarchical utopias of the past? Years ago George Orwell remarked:

If one considers the probabilities one is driven to the conclusion that anarchism implies a low standard of living. It need not imply a hungry or uncomfortable world, but it rules out the kind of air-conditioned, chromium-plated, gadget-ridden existence which is now considered desirable and enlightened. The processes involved in making, say, an aeroplane are so complex as to be only possible in a planned, centralised society, with all the repressive apparatus that that implies. Unless there is some unpredictable change in human nature, liberty and efficiency must pull in opposite directions.

This, from Orwell’s point of view (he was not a lover of luxury) is not in itself a criticism of anarchism, and he is certainly right in thinking that an anarchist society would never build Concorde or land men on the moon. But were either of these technological triumphs efficient in terms of the resources poured into them and the results for the ordinary inhabitant of this planet? Size and resources are to the technologist what power is to the politician: he can never have too much of them. A different kind of society, with different priorities, would evolve a different technology: its bases already exist and in terms of the tasks to be performed it would be far more ‘efficient’ than either Western capitalism of Soviet state-capitalism. Not only technology but also economics would have to be redefined. As Kropotkin envisaged it: ‘Political economy tends more and more to become a science devoted to the study of the needs of men and of the means of satisfying them with the least possible waste of energy, – it is, a sort of physiology of society.’

But it is not in the least likely that states and governments, in either the rich or the poor worlds will, of their own volition, embark on the drastic change of direction which a consideration of our probably future demands. Necessity may reduce the rate of resource-consumption but the powerful and privileged will hang on to their share – both within nations and between nations. Power and privilege have never been known to abdicate. This is why anarchism is bound to be a call to revolution. But what kind of revolution? Nothing has been said in this book about the two great irrelevancies of discussion about anarchism: the false antitheses between violence and nonviolence and between revolution and reform. The most violent institution in our society is the state and its reacts violently to efforts to take away its power. (‘As Malatesta used to say, you try to do your thing and they intervene, and then you are to blame for the fight that happens.’ Does this mean that the effort should not be made? A distinction has to be made between the violence of the oppressor and the resistance of the oppressed.

Similarly, there is a distinction not between revolution and reform but on the one hand between the kind of revolution which installs a different gang of rulers or the kind of reform which makes oppression more palatable or more efficient, and on the other those social changes, whether revolutionary or reformist, through which people enlarge their autonomy and reduce their subjection to external authority.

Anarchism in all its guises is an assertion of human dignity and responsibility. It is not a programme for political change but an act of social self-determination.