Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward [Book review]

How would you feel,’ asks Colin Ward opening his important new book Anarchy in Action, ‘If you discovered that the society in which you would really like to live was already here, apart from a few little local difficulties like exploitation, war, dictatorship and starvation?’


The argument is saved from being palpable nonsense by Colin Ward’s belief that anarchism is always there, something rooted in everyday life, notwithstanding capitalism and war (which he seems to treat as unrelated phenomena). What he is really saying is that anarchism is not something that comes out of the skies like a divine revelation given on high at Sinai; it is the application of certain principles such as solidarity, freedom, mutual aid and so on. But it can hardly be supposed that the belief in, or application of, such principles are exclusive to those who call themselves anarchists, or that people have only to call themselves such to appropriate such beliefs. Indeed, the purpose of the sectarian labelling of oneself an anarchist is surely to lift such principles from idealism and transform them into a positive achievable programme. If one does not do that, the label is meaningless.

Just as St. Teresa of Avila said she walked into the kitchen ‘and there among the plates, is God’ so one could walk into the concentration camps and there, among the gas chambers is anarchism – or rather, attempts at solidarity and resistance before the last flicker of life was beaten out. But having said this, one has merely uttered some words of consolation – which is all ideals ever amount to in the finish – for one could hardly tolerate concentration camps on the grounds that they could not entirely extinguish the basic forces of humankind.

Colin Ward would certainly not do this – he takes the ‘moslems’ [1] – or ‘zombies’ – of the concentration camp as an instance of how this last flicker of life can be beaten out – but he undoubtedly feels that it is not necessary to go to the extreme of destroying capitalism and the State in order to realise an anarchist programme. For him, reform and revolution are ‘false antitheses’: He says, not altogether incorrectly, that one must distinguish between the kind of revolution which installs a different gang of rulers, and the kind of reform that makes oppression more palatable or more efficient, on the one hand, with the kind of social changes – whether revolutionary or reformist, through which people enlarge their autonomy and reduce their subjection to external authority.

But this is to suggest that there can be ‘social changes’ which ‘enlarge autonomy and reduce authority’ within the State, a belief which is pure liberalism – for liberalism is the conception of freedom within the State just as anarchism is its conception beyond it (to put it in class terms is completely beyond Colin Ward’s term of reference). It is here the flaw in his reasoning comes, for viewing liberalism as a sort of complementary philosophy to anarchism (you get as much as you can your way, and we’ll get as much as we can our way) – he comes at times close to losing his way altogether since the deceptive corollary is to get it the easier way – without struggle or resistance.

As editor of the old Anarchy [2] Colin Ward called to his aid, to justify the anarchist philosophy – not to make it more clearly defined for at times it writers were totally incomprehensible in order the better to display their intellectuality – but to make it more respectable – the militant liberals of the nuclear disarmament movement who dashed off their learned articles in the common-rooms of universities. What has happened to them all now? It was a movement that has gone with the wind – what remained of it went, with the sniff of anarchism in the air, with the wind up. Like Kropotkin in An Appeal to the Young (and his outlook is very Kropotkinian) Ward asked them to explain anarchist ideas in terms of cybernetics and sociology and all the trendy subjects – even criminology – and the liberal pundits went to it with a will … to halt with blank amazement when an anarchist inadvertently found his way into the columns and said pointblank – for instance – that prisons should be abolished. Forthwith. But how? ‘He gives no indication of how this should be done’ they cried.

One feels (even if it could have got past the spike!) a formula for the destruction of prison buildings would have upset their non-violent souls even more. But basically their concern was how could one abolish an institution with no concern for the – well, the State, but they wouldn’t put it that way.

An extreme of this liberal ‘anarchism’ is given in Giovanni Baldelli’s unintentionally hilarious Social Anarchism (published by Penguin) when he suggested maybe we (‘we’? The State? The capitalists?) could try dropping a law at a time and seeing if ‘we’ could do without it… if ‘we’ could, and ‘we’ managed OK, maybe ‘we’ could try dropping another … Thus – wait for it, folks, you’ve heard this before – revolution would be ‘outmoded’.

Colin Ward himself would never drop to this level of social liberalism; and in Anarchy in Action he is very careful to prune away the excesses of nonsense of the militant liberals and non-volunteers who filled the pages of the old Anarchy before they disappeared into Academe.

Though the cover gives a picture of anarchists in action, the book has nothing to do with that at all – the blurb offers it as the ‘social theory of the alternative society’ but it is not of that either (the social theory of the alternative society is liberal fascism). What the book is is an honest, though circumscribed, attempt to show how a limited application of anarchist principles may be made within in State preserving some civil rights. It therefore has relevance to many issues of the day, and, while it ignores social change, and therefore, avoids all discussion of a future society – and one suspects (but without proof) the author may have some reservations as to whether that is immediately achievable or not – within those limitations it is a major achievement in the discussion of Anarchism.

Black Flag v3, n8 (January? 1974). Anonymous but we believe written by Albert Meltzer

1, [‘Muselmann’ was camp slang for someone visibly on the verge of death (there are differing explanations of how the term arose). KSL]
2, The new series of Anarchy adopts a very different attitude