The Path Not Taken - Colin Ward

photo of Colin Ward speaking at the International Anarchist Conference in Venice
photo of Colin Ward speaking at the International Anarchist Conference in Venice, September 1984

Colin Ward contrasts working class self-help with the welfare state.

From The Raven #3, 1987.

Submitted by Fozzie on November 15, 2021

Most writers produce, every now and then, a sentence or a phrase which, to their immense gratification, other people quote. This is my most-quoted paragraph:

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 Co-operative Society, the Trade Union. One represents the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below, the other that of authoritarian institutions directed from above.

My quotable paragraph, which was first published in Freedom in 1956, was not at all original. It expresses what ought to be a commonplace of social history. But it stresses a truth that has been ignored by socialists for generations. And since we are in that season when the heavyweights of the left are filling the feature pages of The Guardian to provide their own diagnoses of why their chosen parties have failed to win the last General Election, it is worth looking, from an anarchist point of view, at the failure of British socialism to win the hearts of the British public.

In this connection the paragraph I most enjoy quoting, and frequently do quote, comes from the fourth Fabian Tract, published in 1886, called What Socialism Is. The anonymous introduction to this document remarked:

English Socialism is not yet Anarchist or Collectivist, nor yet defined enough in point of policy to be classified. There is a mass of Socialistic feeling not yet conscious of itself as Socialism. But when the unconscious Socialists of England discover their position, they also will probably fall into two parties: a Collectivist party supporting a strong central administration and a counterbalancing Anarchist party defending individual initiative against that, administration.

I have always found that to be an extraordinarily interesting unfulfilled prophecy, not because anyone would have expected an anarchist 'party' in the ordinary political sense to have emerged, but because it was evident a century ago that there were other paths to socialism beside the electoral struggle for power over the centralised state. In the nineteenth century the British working class built up from nothing a vast network of social and economic initiatives based on self-help and mutual aid. The list is endless: friendly societies, building societies, sick clubs, coffin clubs, clothing clubs, up to enormous enterprises like the trade union movement and the Co-operative movement. How have we allowed that tradition to ossify?

The Indian politician Jayaprakash Narayan used to say that Gandhi used up all the moral oxygen in India, so the British Raj suffocated. In exactly the same way, I would claim that the political left in this country invested all its fund of social inventiveness in the idea of the state, so that its own traditions of self-help and mutual aid were stifled for lack of ideological oxygen. How on earth did British socialists allow these concepts to be hi-jacked by the political right, since it is these human attributes, and not the state and its bureaucracies, that actually hold human society together?

Politically, it was because of the sinister alliance of Fabians and Marxists, both of whom believed implicitly in the state, and assumed that they would be the particular elite in control of it. Administratively, it was because of the equally sinister alliance of bureaucrats and professionals: the British civil service and the British professional classes, with their undisguised contempt for the way ordinary people organised anything. I can't improve on Ivan Illich's conclusions about the professionalisation of knowledge:

It makes people dependent on having their knowledge produced for them. It leads to a paralysis of the moral and political imagination. This cognitive disorder rests on the illusion that the knowledge of the individual citizen is of less value than the 'knowledge' of science. The former is the opinion of individuals. It is merely subjective and is excluded from policies. The latter is `objective' — defined by science and promulgated by expert spokesmen. This objective knowledge is viewed as a commodity which can be refined, constantly improved, accumulated and fed into a process, now called 'decision-making'. This new mythology of governance by the manipulation of knowledge-stock inevitably erodes reliance on government by people. . . . Overconfidence in `better knowledge' becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People first cease to trust their own judgement and then want to be told the truth about what they know. Over-confidence in 'better decision-making' first hampers people's ability to decide for themselves and then undermines their belief that they can decide.

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, aspiring for a universal public provision of everything for everybody. The contribution that the recipients had to make to all this theoretical bounty was ignored as a mere embarrassment — apart, of course, from paying for it. The nineteenth-century working class, living below the tax threshold, taxed themselves in pennies every week for the upkeep of their innumerable friendly societies. The twentieth-century working class, as well as the alleged 'National Insurance' contributions, pays one-third of its income for the support of the state, quite apart from indirect taxation too. The socialist ideal was rewritten as a world where everyone was entitled to everything, but where nobody except the providers had any actual say about anything. We are learning today in the anti-welfare backlash what a very vulnerable utopia that was.

History itself was rewritten to suit the managerial, political and bureaucratic vision. 'Beatrice Webb admitted doctoring the presentation of her evidence on friendly societies for the 1909 report', remarked Roy Porter (New Society, 28 February 1986), as though everybody knew this. And whether in school or in higher education, whatever is taught about the origins of the welfare state implies that twentieth-century state universalism replaced the pathetic unofficial, voluntary, or philanthropic pioneering ventures of the nineteenth century. However, in the past 20 years or so, a new interest in popular history, exemplified by the History Workshop movement and by the boom in local history and oral history, has uncovered buried layers of our past.

Take education as an example. We have all absorbed as gospel the official line that it was only rivalry between religious bodies that delayed until 1870 (and in effect 1880 or later) universal, free and compulsory elementary education. A centenary publication from the National Union of Teachers explained that 'apart from religious and charitable schools, "dame" or common schools were operated by the private enterprise of people who were often barely literate', and it explained the widespread working-class hostility to the school boards with the remark that 'parents were not always quick to appreciate the advantages of full-time schooling against the loss of extra wages' (The Struggle for Education, 1970).

But recent historians have shown the resistance to state schooling in a quite different light. Stephen Humphries, for instance, finds that these private schools, by the 1860s 'were providing an alternative education for approximately one-third of all working-class school children', and suggests:

This enormous demand for private as opposed to public education is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that working-class parents in a number of major cities responded to the introduction of compulsory attendance regulations not by sending their children to provided state schools, as government inspectors had predicted, but by extending the length of their child's education in private schools. Parents favoured these schools for a number of reasons: they were small and close to home and were consequently more personal and more convenient than most publicly provided schools; they were informal and tolerant of irregular attendance and unpunctuality; no attendance registers were kept; they were not segregated according to age and sex; they used individual as opposed to authoritarian teaching methods; and, most important, they belonged to, and were controlled by, the local community rather than being imposed on the neighbourhood by an alien authority. (Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth, 1889-1939, Blackwell, 1981).

His point of view is reinforced by a mass of statistical evidence in the study of The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England (Groom Helm, 1984) by Philip Gardner, who finds that the working-class schools, set up by working-class people in working-class neighbour-hoods, 'achieved just what the customers wanted: quick results in basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic, wasted no time on religious studies and moral uplift, and represented a genuinely alternative approach to childhood learning to that prescribed by the education experts'. The price of eliminating these schools has been, in the view of the historian Paul Thompson, 'the suppression in countless working-class children of the very appetite for education and ability to learn independently which contemporary progressive education seeks to rekindle' (New Society, 6 December 1984). It is certainly ironical that the centenary of state education was accompanied by a phalanx of sociologists explaining to us that the function of the public education system has been to slot working-class children into working-class jobs.

Another field where the excavation of previously distorted history has yielded surprising facts is that of medicine. David Green's study of self-governing working-class medical societies shows that the self-organisation of patients provided a rather better degree of consumer control of medical services than has been achieved in post-Lloyd George and post-Bevan days (Working-Class Patients and the Medical Establishment: Self-Help in Britain from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to 1948, Gower/Temple, 1986). Not the least of the virtues of his remarkable book is that, as Roy Porter notes, 'he takes that hallowed belief of progressives --- that the improvement of the people's health hinges on state intervention — challenges its historical accuracy, and questions whether it is, in any case, a good doctrine for the Left to hold' (New Society, 28 February 1986).

Housing is another area where there is a buried tradition recently re-discovered. Just at the moment when the building societies (the normal source of private housing finance in Britain) are getting rid of the last vestiges of their non-profit, friendly society origins, it is worth reminding ourselves that they too began as organs of working-class self-help. We have had almost two centuries of popular aspirations to get out of the landlord-tenant relationship, beginning with the `terminating' building societies begun by people who clubbed together to house themselves. What kind of ideological idiocy in the labour movement has allowed the Conservatives to present themselves as the champions of council tenants against municipal paternalism? We actually reached such a degree of absurdity that when Lewisham's Labour council decided by one vote to turn over those sites which were too small or uneven for its own housing programme to the Lewisham Self-Build Housing Association (formed by people on its own waiting list), the leader of an adjoining borough, faced with the immense success of this enterprise, remarked, 'We aren't going to turn our tenants into little capitalists' (see my book When We Build Again, Pluto Press, 1985). In Liverpool, a whole series of co-operative initiatives have shown the ability of poor people to find a site, select their own architect with whom to design their own housing, and then to commission their own builder, and finally to run their own estate (see Alan McDonald, The Weller Way: The Story of the Weller Street Housing Co-operative, Faber, 1986). Faced with these achievements of working class self-organisation, you would expect their socialist councillors to rejoice. Instead they have responded with absolute hostility.

How sad that in Britain, birthplace of friendly societies, trade unionism and the Co-operative movement, socialists should have been so intoxicated with power and bureaucracy and the mystique of the state that they should dismiss their own inheritance as a path not worth taking! Social welfare has been surrendered to the state as well as the income to pay for them, the state's way. For most of the post-war decades there was a consensus between the political parties on state paternalism in welfare. The advent of Thatcherism ended that and, if you believe that continued electoral success implies the popularity of a government, Thatcher's three terms of office, even though the politicians of the left tend to exaggerate the extent of the onslaught on welfare, certainly indicate, first, that the intention is there and, second, that the British public hasn't risen in outrage to defend the threatened edifice.

Thatcherism has two opposite characteristics: its rhetoric and its actions. The rhetoric is about lifting the burden of the state and encouraging local enterprise and individual initiative. The action is about destroying the pretence that local government is local and imposing central government's will on more and more areas of life. A dissenting Conservative MP, Ian Gilmour, sums up current policy as `Manchester liberalism minus the idealism and plus a centralising State' (quoted in The Observer, 9 August 1987). If it is confusing to the citizen, it also provides difficulties for anarchist propagandists. For decades people responded to our propaganda about the nature of the state with the observation that our views were out of date: it was a benign organisation for social welfare. If we now use the new historical research, as I am seeking to use it, people tell us that it is very like Thatcherism. Philip Gardner's comments on those parent-controlled schools sound like the 'Parent Power' sloganising of the Conservative Secretary of State for Education. But the shallowness of the slogan is revealed by his intention to impose a National Curriculum on all state schools.

It is the same with housing. My own agitation for many years for dweller control as the first principle of housing is echoed by the language of the Thatcher government, and is bitterly opposed by the political left. But in fact the co-op housing movement, as a contemporary survey shows, is 'caught in the crossfire between local authorities and central government'. Jose Ospina goes on to remark: 'The irony of foisting co-ops on councils that don't want them, while blocking the schemes put forward by the councils that do, must not be lost on us. But such opportunism is bound to undermine and demoralise those who are promoting such initiatives seriously' (Housing Ourselves, Hilary Shipman, 1987).

Maybe it was the advice of their advertising agents that enabled the party of big business to exploit deeply felt popular sentiment with such triumphant cynicism. But the fault is that of the labour movement in rejecting its own history and origins for the sake of a version of socialism which is governmental, bureaucratic, paternalistic and unloved. The Sociologist Ray Pahl put it well when he suggested:

Not only have those with a collectivist ideology imposed this as the so-called natural or 'instinctive' political response of ordinary workers, but they have managed to imply that those who object to the tyrannies of the town hall have been de-radicalised. . . . People have been puzzled to discover that what they most wanted — a home of their own — was in some way a betrayal of a greater goal. 'Privatisation' was scorned by the municipal socialists, who thus alienated themselves from their natural supporters (Division of Labour, Blackwell, 1984).

It's going to be a long haul for the political left to unburden itself of all that Fabian, Marxist, managerial and professional baggage, and rediscover its roots in the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below. We anarchists ought to be around with our signposts, pointing the way.

A shortened version of this article appeared in The Guardian on 12 October 1987.