Colin Ward: Anarchism and Social Policy

By Honeywell, Carissa | Anarchist Studies, July 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Colin Ward: Anarchism and Social Policy

Honeywell, Carissa, Anarchist Studies


This paper aims to highlight the contributions made to British social policy debates by thinkers working within the anarchist tradition by focusing on the writing of the post-war British anarchist Colin Ward. It will argue that Ward framed anarchism as a relevant, constructive approach to contemporary public policy dilemmas, and show how this was the basis for his contact with mainstream policy agendas, including council housing, water privatization, and education for citizenship. Ward was a regular contributor and editor for the British anarchist publishing group Freedom Press, and the author of a number of titles which approached problems of social policy in areas such as town planning and education, from an anarchist perspective. He developed a pragmatic, policy-oriented perspective on anarchism and presented it as the reasonable alternative to both bureaucratic state administration and privatization in the twentieth century. The paper will argue that Ward aimed to reclaim for the anti-market left the libertarian terminology adopted by the free-market right. In the case of housing this led Ward to defend private ownership against state ownership. In debate about water privatization, however, he presented a fierce attack on the administration of public goods as market commodities. Both arguments were driven by anarchist principles of independence and mutual aid drawn from key thinkers in the tradition. These principles guided Ward's contributions to public debates in the late twentieth century concerning education policy and public planning policy. In particular, Ward's publications for the Town and Country Planning Association concerning education policy and town planning applied anarchism to mainstream concerns about political engagement.

Keywords Colin Ward, Social Policy, Anarchism, Planning


The conviction reflected in anarchist thought and practice is that individuals and social groups are effective and creative in their attempts to secure their needs. This perspective has immediate implications for our thinking about the promotion of welfare in human societies. These are explored in the work of Colin Ward, who was appointed visiting Centenary Professor in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics during 1995-6. The invitation to deliver a series of lectures at the School represented an acknowledgement of his voice in the academic field of social policy in Britain. The field concerns the distribution of resources, particularly entitlements to social services, and it is linked closely to the existence of the welfare state. Arguing that 'We took the wrong road to welfare', Ward considered the post-war socialist support for state administered welfare a grave mistake of the British left.1 With this claim he was re-opening the terms of the debate that heralded the very emergence of social policy as a distinct field of state activity and academic enquiry in Britain with the publication of the 'majority' and 'minority' reports on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law of 1909. The 'minority report' set the centralized, municipal pattern for welfare in Britain realized after 1945. At this point, according to Ward, 'The great tradition of working-class self-help and mutual aid was written off, not just as irrelevant, but as an actual impediment, by the political and professional architects of the welfare state'.2

Drawing on New Left critiques of the welfare state that raised doubts about the egalitarian impact of state provision, and also drawing on revisions to the historiography of welfare relief that have highlighted the welfare role of mutual institutions preceding the development of state provision, Ward's challenge to British post-war social policy framed anarchism as a viable alternative approach to the state in the sphere of welfare in the late twentieth and twenty- first centuries. Employing his distinctive anarchist approach to society and the individual, which emphasizes association and agency in the development of individual autonomy, Ward envisioned a welfare society of socially embedded economic relationships.

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