Colin Ward, RIP


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 by squatters.

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 form.

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  1. Unfortunately, this is the first I’ve heard of this dude. I’d love to hear more about ideas like his in the pages of Reason. There are many ways for people to organize voluntarily, and not all of them rely on financial exchanges.

    1. From the most simple and mundane, to projects like Linux (by man hours, one of the largest and most complex cooperative/self-organizing projects ever attempted)

  2. Agreed with Mr. B.I.G. above, unfortunate first-time to hear of someone.

    Reason is always flirtatious with anarchist ideals, even though many of their columns take a utilitarian approach. Emergent human behavior without a government (either kings, dictators, bureaucracies, or elected officials) always seems to yield provocative and surprisingly optimistic results.

    R.I.P. Mr. Lefty-anarchist, as contradictory as your title may seem!

    1. One that comes to mind is when Stossel wrote about the Nobel prize winner who wrote about how local communities efficiently manage resources to their fullest sustainable use…..owing-that

      I suppose this could be called “left-anarchist”, but I don’t see it as contradicting libertarianism.

      I view these types of agreements arising naturally. In Pure libertarianism, property is acquired either by trade or by homesteading, by “mixing one’s labor with the land”.

      A number of the original individuals who would thus by homesteading individually own the resource, then enter into an oral, unwritten contract which pools the resource, but specifies rules by which each person may use it.

      Note that this is not democracy, whereby 51% can initiate any force against 49% whatsoever, but simply an (albeit unwritten) voluntary agreement among each prior property owner.

      It’s no more contradictory to libertarianism than Wikipedia or Linux, it just all the more shows the power of individual freedom compared to coercive government force.

      1. Dude, you are right. It in no way contradicts libertarianism.

  3. Jesse, what would you consider the factors that make someone a “left-anarchist”? I think I know what you mean, but I’d like to clarify.

    1. So far as I’ve ever been able to tell, it comes down to the issue of owning property.

      1. That’s the crux of the difference, but I wanted to see if Jesse had any other qualifiers.

        1. At the end of the day, the line is not drawn between left vs. right, but statist vs. anarchist.

          1. Your end-of-day line drawing doesn’t leave any room for the individualist.

    2. Wikipedia entry on Libertarian-Socialism

      Libertarian socialism (sometimes called socialist anarchism,[1][2] and sometimes left libertarianism[3])[4] is a group of political philosophies that aspire to create a society without coercive hierarchies.[5]

      Adherents assert that a desirable balance of equality and freedom could be achieved, at least in part, through abolishing authoritarian institutions that own and control productive means as private property.[6] Libertarian socialism also constitutes a tendency of thought that informs the identification, criticism and practical dismantling of illegitimate authority in all aspects of social life. Accordingly, libertarian socialists believe that “the exercise of power in any institutionalized form? whether economic, political, religious, or sexual? brutalizes both the wielder of power and the one over whom it is exercised.”[7]

      Libertarian socialists place their hopes in municipalities, citizens’ assemblies, trade unions, workers’ councils, and other non-bureaucratic, decentralized means of direct democracy.[8] Many libertarian socialists advocate doing away with the state altogether, while others propose that a minimal, non-hierarchical version is unobjectionable.[9]

      The emphasis on decentralization and the general illegitimacy of state power, and especially great hatred of bureaucracy, makes them natural allies with libertarians in a lot of ways. Libertarian-Socialists have a considerable secession movement in Vermont that apparently has 13% popular support.

      I do not really consider the socialism aspect to be a serious threat as long as it is not applied on a federal level. There are 50 states and anyone can vote with their feet.

      1. “decentralized means of direct democracy”

        That quote is why “left”-anarchism to me will always be a complete oxymoron. At best I look at them with fond appreciation with their goals and then chuckle at the naivete of their means. It’s like watching five year olds try to slam dunk or something.

        From the Wikipedia article on Ward:

        “Ward’s anarchist philosophy is the idea of removing authoritarian forms of social organisation and replacing them with self-managed, non-hierarchical forms of organisation. ”

        Well, gee-golly. Who wouldn’t want that? So original! But who “replaces” the organizations and then executes the “non-hierarchical” will of the vote winners after that? I’ll admit I’m being deliberately irritating, but “self-managed” and forced democracy are incompatible concepts. As is “libertarian socialism.” Any concept which gives 51% of the population sovereign authority over the other 49% is not liberty. One can say the minority can “vote with their feet,” but if they have to move their home to do so it is not practical, especially for the poor. In a market you change employers–not residencies–when you disagree.

        So, I curmudgeonly continue to ignore anyone who talks about “democratic” institutions and “decentralized” society. It is impossible to have “decentralized direct democracy” as democracy is by design centralization of political power into the hands of enforcers. The more “direct” it is, the more power is in the hands of the coercive enforcers.

        The alternative to “democracy” as a voting-mechanism is a market: agency and approval are handled on a person-by-person basis and there does not have to be agreement on a centralized outcome. This aligns itself most heavily with the Anarcho-capitalist view, which whatever it’s original foundations, seems to be very much a creature of “the Old Right” nowadays.

        1. Any concept which gives 51% of the population sovereign authority over the other 49% is not liberty.

          That isn’t how libertarian socialism or direct democracy works. Try reading a book.

          1. Yes, seriously, what is up with the readers of this site?

            Left-anarchism is an oxymoron? “Pure libertarianism” as anything other than left-wing?

            Learn your history. In Europe (the home of these words), the terms “anarchist” and “libertarian” are interchangeable and always mean left wing. It’s right-wing variations that require qualification via prefixes.

            See the Spanish civil war, Kropotkin, Bakunin, and so on yadda yadda. Open a fucking book.

    3. Jesse, what would you consider the factors that make someone a “left-anarchist”?

      It could be a variety of things. In this case I’d note that Ward looked for alternatives not just to the state but to hierarchy in general, including in the workplace (though his favorite alternatives to the traditional capitalist firm — Coventry’s “gang system” and Italy’s flexible manufacturing networks — both emerged from the market rather than from expropriation). He also described himself at least once as a Kropotkin-style anarcho-communist, and while I find his writing compatible with my pro-market beliefs I figure I ought to respect his self-description. (Not coincidentally, I like Kropotkin the best of the classical anarchist writers — largely because, like Ward, he spent a lot of his time empirically investigating mutual aid in practice rather than dreaming about how it might work in theory.)

      1. Good stuff, Jesse! I think one of the main factors is the focus on ways that the corporate state narrows the alternatives to selling one’s labor to others.

        1. I should have completed that sentence above with “for wages.”

    4. Left-anarchists in a nutshell:

      Right now we’re proving we don’t need corporations. We don’t need money. This can become a commune where everyone just helps each other.

      Yeah, we’ll have one guy who like, who like, makes bread. A-and one guy who like, l-looks out for other people’s safety.

      You mean like a baker and a cop?

      No no, can’t you imagine a place where people live together and like, provide services for each other in exchange for their services?

      Yeah, it’s called a town.

  4. I didn’t know anything about this guy, but he seems interesting.

  5. Count me among those who have come to an interest in Ward too late. “Left,” “right,” whatever, the world needs more intelligent, articulate anarchists.

  6. Anyone who can increase appreciation of spontaneous order and the effectiveness of voluntary cooperation gets a thumbs up in my book.

    I continue to believe, however, that any anarchist project is an exercise in utopia, whether from the right or left, because anarchism on any scale is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.

    From both sides – if there is no final arbiter of disputes, your society won’t be stable once it grows beyond a certain very small size.

    From the left – if there is no property, then freeloading is heavily incentivized.

    1. if there is no final arbiter of disputes…

      But you don’t get it. Since government is evil, it stands to reason that, if you eliminate government, all disputes among the enlightened people will disappear.

    2. Except that you never get a final arbiter, period, unless God both 1) exists, AND 2) is in the business of dispute resolution. 1 might be plausible, but 2 seems to be plainly false. Without those two things, the most you can hope for is infinite regress: Who decides for The Decider?.

      Of course any society needs some degree of “finality” in dispute resolution. But absolute finality is not possible. Nor is it particularly desirable, unless you think we need to still be doing things the way the very first Maximum Decider ever – and I mean some pre-human alpha male primate – thought we should do things. And there’s no reason prima facie to think that an anarchic order couldn’t provide the moderate degree of finality that’s needed for society to function.

      1. If your concern about dispute resolution is referring to large sized societies or disputes over major issues such as murder, rape, or the like, then I think your critique is well put, but if one looks at small autonomous organizations run by anarchist standards, there is no reason why an organization can’t morph into a hierarchy for specific moments/issues. The person arbitrating this might be thought of as a “bottom liner” or might have particular skills that contribute to conflict resolution. The point is that a society that is founded along non-hierarchical principles is flexible and fluid, with its basis in anarchy. This is not a contradiction, it is not a winner takes all philosophy. And just like democracy, the goal is to socially enforce adherence to the larger principles, with no one person staying in a position of power for longer than necessary.

        1. oh, and again, I’m a skeptic too, but I think it is a mistake to see human nature as inherently competitive or even destructive. Today’s might be, but we have been around for a very long time. On the largest scale, humans have more often excelled due to cooperation and mutual aid, it is just that it is much more exciting in today’s world (for so many reasons) to learn about wars and competition. We should be careful not to be bogged down by this educational slant- primates love more than they war- this has been shown in a number of ways once feminist primatology was able to contribute. Again, not saying all chimps are peace loving hippies, just saying that there is a stronger tendency towards cooperation in the everyday life.

  7. Power vacuums will always be filled one way or another.

    1. Unless you pull out the plug.

  8. I have to concur with the cynics who say hierarchies are gong to develop, no matter what. Human beings, like other social primates, kowtow to those with higher status and dominate those with lower.

    Iceland in the 10th-13th centuries had a governing system that Colin Ward would have liked: no army or police force. Big disputes were settled in a general assembly, and the litigant who won the judgement was responsible for enforcing it, normally requiring the assistance of a troop of friends. As you might expect, this system worked well for people with powerful friends, not so well for others.

    1. I also agree with the cynics, we’ll never stop throwing our feces at each other; like other social primates, its just our nature.

    2. Depends on what you mean by “hierarchy”

      Switzerland’s official name is the “Swiss confederation” because of the extremely high degree of autonomy each canton has, and the weakness of it’s federal government. It’s sort of like what the U.S. was supposed to be.

      They’re in the center of EU, yet did not join it nor went on the Euro.

      Their tax policies treat tax evasion as an administrative crime. Their citizens own automatic weapons.

      Famously, they’re neutral and offer anonymity in many business activities.

      However, they have by far one of the highest standards of living in the Europe.

      I’d have to strongly disagree with you, decentralization and freedom work.

  9. For many people Left vs. Right is about equality vs. aristocracy. A left anarchists or left libertarian would be one who is concerned about equality but also wants no/less government.

    I have argued elsewhere that the Ron Paul movement was left-libertarian. Consider the emphasis on conspiracies, banking and floods of low-wage immigrants pulling down the price of blue collar labor.

  10. Anarchy cannot ever be an -ism. It cannot be an ideology. It has to be an experience.

    That experience is meeting with those in your community, talking openly about the issues you face, and working together to pool the best info so that the best decisions can be made, with the proviso that as new information or data becomes available decisions are reviewed…

    This cannot happen unless people behave with more empathy or less emotional blindness – qualities that Compulsion of any kind quickly stifles, be it taxation, education, service…..

    In effect self organisation requires empathy, and because power in our society is exercised without empathy, and we who have ‘adapted’ to this society have de facto accepted living without that empathy, living as emotionally blind populations, we MUST address the emotional blindness in ourselves, each other, our communities and especially in Institutions that currently hold power….

    Or we will repeat previous patterns, in spite of best intentions…

  11. “This cannot happen unless people behave with more empathy or less emotional blindness – qualities that Compulsion of any kind quickly stifles, be it taxation, education, service…..”

    ie behave as if they were not people?

  12. “R.I.P. Mr. Lefty-anarchist, as contradictory as your title may seem!”

    Oh, the irony! Anarchism as a named socio-economic theory was born in 1840 with Proudhon’s “What is Property?” (“It is theft!”). It has always been socialist. What is “contradictory” is the notion of a right-wing “anarchism”!

    But, then, I’m sure that many people here will be unaware that “libertarian” was also coined by the left, in 1858:

    Suffice to say, we anarchists and libertarian socialists have to keep pointing out the history of our ideas and their obvious socialist nature!

  13. Thank you Anarcho for saying what needed to be said. Anarchism is from the Left. Indeed, even Marx dreamt of an anarchist utopia, believe it or not – he thought proletarian revolution and expropriation was a necessary step toward that utopia.

    At the first Communist International (meeting) anarchists and Marxist socialists split, and the former ended up being called Anarchists with a big A. The latter called themselves Communists (with a big C).

    Historically, anarchists have opposed capitalism and Fascism. Anarchists fought in the Russian revolution to establish the USSR. They fought in the Spanish Civil War alongside Trotskyists, against the Fascists and interests of big business. They also had a conflict with Stalinists during that war, but, were on the same side. Anarchists supported the development of left politics in the US during the 1890s to the 1930s. They again influenced the Left students in the SDS, and more recently in opposing the WTO/IMF/World Bank.

    Anarcho capitalism was coined in the 1950s. I think it was by Murray Rothbard.

    So, for a century or two prior to the development of the ideas of “anarcho capitalism”, plain old “anarchism” was busy plaguing monarch, elitists, and big business.

    It’s too bad there aren’t any American anarchists around anymore, taking direct action to bomb some banks.

  14. …i can think of one living american anarchist, though his approach is much more constructive and rational than the senseless violence and destruction that many ascribe to anarchism, including some self-styled and, in my opinion, misguided anarchists. his response in a recent interview:

    very substantial social changes (are) in order, and anarchists ought to be thinking about it. thinking about it doesn’t just mean i’d like to have a free and just society; that’s not thinking about it. we have to make a distinction if we want to be effective. that’s the question: if we want to be effective, we have to make a distinction between what you might call proposals and advocacy. i mean, you can propose that everybody ought to live in peace, love each other, we shouldn’t have any hierarchy, everyone should cooperate, and so on. okay? it’s a nice proposal, okay for an academic seminar somewhere. advocacy requires more than just proposal. it means setting up your goals (proposal), but also sketching out a path from here to there — that’s advocacy. and the path from here to there almost invariably requires small steps. it requires recognition of social and economic reality as it exists, and ideas about how to build the institutions of the future within the existing society, to quote bakunin, but also to modify the existing society. that means steps have to be taken that accommodate reality, that don’t deny it’s existence (“since i don’t like it, i’m not going to accommodate it”). these are the only ways to be effective. (

    in regards to the so-called problems of ‘incompatibility’ and ‘finality’ in libertarian socialist schemes, i would recommend that you read alternative perspectives on human nature and history. in fact, it is highly plausible that our moral constitution developed alongside our biological one in a manner that placed a great deal of importance on mutual aid and cooperation, without denying the existence of other human tendencies, such as greed and egotism. it is these competing tendencies that we should strive to offset and control through the design of our most elementary institutions. i’m reminded of this eloquent passage, written in defense of a much more general conception of socialism:

    i have now reached the point where i may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. it concerns the relationship of the individual to society. the individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. but he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. all human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society. (

    as jesse points out, to achieve such a society requires searching for and improving upon “empirical examples of everyday people organizing to solve their own problems.” and, as ward found, these examples are everywhere. keeping to the american context, gar alperovitz has collected a wide array of resources that demonstrate how ordinary people are building “the institutions of the future within the existing society” ( furthermore, organizations like americaspeaks are developing methods of public engagement that may well represent a step towards a more collaborative and participatory form of truly democratic yet decentralized self-governance (

    finally, contrary to the claims of some of its critics, anarchism does not assert that there is a single, ‘perfect’ way to organize society. it is simply a commitment to the idea that a better society can be built along less authoritarian and hierarchical lines while appealing to common sense and decency.

  15. …one last point: one-to-one market relations do not provide an adequate mechanism for collective decision-making. there are many areas of life that necessitate a higher degree of deliberation and coordination than markets can offer in order to produce the most effective or socially ‘optimal’ outcomes, thus creating the need for citizens’ assemblies, workers’ collectives, decentralized planning, etc. admittedly, these arrangements are not without fault but they provide a much more sensible base upon which to reform society.

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  17. Human wisdom is so foolish sometimes… scrabble solver

  18. Any form of democracy is coercive; I hate when I hear “anarchists” espousing democracy.

    Ward has damn good writing, and if anyone on this page is interested in anarchism after reading this, check out The Anarchist Library online. They have tonnes of great anarchist reading material.

    To Kant feel..
    Most of the time, cops are not defending the community. They’re defending the people that give them their coercive power – the rich. Whether it’s through the war on drugs bulking up private prisons or by attacking looters in New Orleans after Katrina, just trying to get some food for their family, the police work day in and day out to defend the Existent and its masters, the rich.

  19. Ward was really a Stalinist, his thought was therefore completely useless, and your positive comments are just more evidence that market anarchists are really Marxists.Just kidding, but I didn’t want you to suffocate from 16 minutes of holding your breath.
    He could be the most devout Stalinist,and if he had something good to say, I’d still listen and learn.I enjoyed the article.

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