Colin Ward and the art of everyday anarchy

Posted on July 9, 2024

This is the first full length biography of Colin Ward, the one hundredth anniversary of whose birth is in August 2024.  Ward who died in 2010 lived for almost half a century with the title of Britain’s most famous anarchist, yet he would have been bemused at the idea that he was famous. This biography both unpacks the modesty of the man and the significant intellectual contribution he made to British political thought.

Scott-Brown sets out the social vision underpinning his anarchism in her Introduction, ‘For Colin Ward anarchy was ordinary, everywhere and always in action. It happened on city streets, allotments and around kitchen tables, in village halls, town squares and pub snugs. It went about its business quietly and beneath official notice.’ The decentralist and localist impulses, the advocacy of mutual aid, and the focus on human need are what she refers to as ‘an ethics of practice’, the anarchy of everyday life.  This approach led to a world view that did not always sit easily with the anarchist and other countercultural trends that exploded around him from the 1960s onwards.  As Scott-Brown puts it: ‘There were significant differences between his invocations of ‘everyday life’ as a sphere of meaningful political action and the ‘personal politics’ of for example feminist activists. Where he laid much stock in invoking ‘common sense’, the latter sought to challenge and disrupt the very notion of it […. ] His favourite characters, allotmenteers, art teachers or housing co-operativists, may have been on the fringes of society but they were not social outsiders; if anything they were quite the reverse.’  To Ward these were people who practiced the anarchy of everyday life and did so in spaces that they carved out themselves from a more conformist mainstream society. Ward was someone who believed in an anarchism that was pacifist, gradualist and above all practical. So he advocated workers’ control in industry, citizens’ control in planning, dwellers’ control in housing and students’ control in education. His approach was heavily influenced by Russian anarchist and geographer Peter Kropotkin, in particular his books Mutual Aid and Fields, factories and workshops tomorrow, which Ward re-edited and introduced to a contemporary audience in 1974.

Ward’s up-bringing in a lower middle class family in Wanstead, East London, where his parents were Labour Party members, meant that he referred to himself later in life as ‘very much a Labour man at heart’, in its ethical and libertarian socialist traditions. His working life initially in an architect’s office, as a Liberal Studies teacher in an FE college and as Education Officer for the Town & Country Planning Association where he edited their magazine BEE (Bulletin of Environmental Education) in the 1970s, ran in parallel with his other life as a radical journalist, editing Anarchy between 1961-70 and latterly as an author, with over thirty books to his name, most notably Anarchy in Action and The Child in the City.

Sophie Scott-Brown is a sympathetic biographer, but not an uncritical one, portraying Ward both of as a man of his time, and also in many ways particularly in relation to his concerns about the environment, children’s play and tenants and worker’s rights, way ahead of it.

This article was first published in Chartist  no 329 July/August 2024.  Sophie Scott-Brown’s book is published by Routledge

Leave a comment on this sitting

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.