Interview: Alessio Kolioulis on Colin Ward’s The Child in the City and its French translation

A French language translation of Colin Ward’s classic The Child in the City was published in March this year by Etrerotopia FranceL’enfant dans la ville translated by Léa Nicolas-Teboul. Alessio Kolioulis is the author of a new postface for the translated volume (you can check out an English translation of the postface at AnarchistStudies.Blog). Jim Donaghey caught up with Alessio (at a responsible ‘social distance’ of about 361 miles) to talk about the new publication and discuss Ward’s influences, his own subsequent scholarly and professional impact, and how Ward’s work has been received beyond the UK.

Jim Donaghey: First of all, I’d be interested to know if this is the first of Ward’s books that has been made available in French, and how did this particular project come about – who were the people making this idea a reality?

Alessio Kolioulis: The few books by Ward that have appeared in French have been published by Atelier de Création Libertaire, a Lyon-based publisher. But I would say that Ward remains largely unknown in France, compared to the UK or Italy, for instance. A few years ago, Eterotopia France embarked on the lengthy translation of The Child in the City, which is now finally available for the first time in French. Eterotopia France is a publishing house based in Paris, with an editorial collective living across Italy, France and the UK.

JD: Yes, Ward appears to have been more influential in Italy than other places – so is the Italian connection within the Eterotopia editorial collective a key reason for this translation into French?

AK: Yes, it is and I would like to give you a concrete example. The first book I read was Anarchia come organizzazione (‘Anarchy as organising’), which is the Italian edition of Ward’s Anarchy in Action (1973) republished by the Milan-based Elèuthera in 1996 (I think an earlier version appeared for Antistato). It was sometime after the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa. In the years of the social fora and the no-global movement after Seattle 1999 anarchist authors and books were relatively popular in Italy, even in catholic circles! I think I bought my copy in a tiny fair-trade shop, which had books by everyone from Vandana Shiva and the Zapatistas to Serge Latouche and Colin Ward.
As you can see, this story already tells you quite a lot about the importance of movements and networks for people’s self-education. It also shows the importance of small radical publishers and of a good distribution network.

JD: Wonderful! You mentioned that Ward remains largely unknown in France. Does that mean that this book is more of an intervention (echoing your comment about movement networks and people’s self-education) rather than a publication to meet an existing demand for Ward’s writings in France?

AK: We can only speculate on the reasons that Colin Ward is not well known in France. In my view, this is partially due to the different compositions of the social movements across the UK, France, and Italy. The UK’s equivalent of France’s 1968 and Italy’s 1977 is perhaps the miners’ strike (1984-85). On top of that, Communist Parties in France and Italy were a lot more influential than in the UK. This gave rise to autonomous movements that were more pluralist in their nature and open to different ideas beyond the communism/anarchism divide. At the same time, while there have been a lot of exchanges between the Italian and French movements, the UK remained more insular for a while. Today, this is different. There is a lot more attention to ideas and thinkers from the UK.

Having said that, with The Child in the City we wanted to publish what we consider a classic. Thierry Paquot, the philosopher and urban theorist who wrote the preface, is among the few people in France who introduced Ward’s work early on. We are also aware that The Child in the City is a difficult book for the francophone world. The book is centred around post-war Britain, with case studies from other countries such as India and the US. However, I believe that one of the most appreciated dimensions of The Child in the City is its importance for anthropological research. In this sense, the book should be compared to publications by Margaret Mead or Claude Lévi-Strauss.

JD: Yes, I wondered about how Ward’s very ‘English’-focused subject matter would translate across to other languages and contexts. Wilbert and White, in their introduction to their edited Colin Ward Reader (Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility, AK Press 2011), take this point even further, arguing that Ward’s ‘trajectory’ is more akin to ‘English radicalism’ than to classic anarchist thinkers. How do you think Ward’s style and approach will be received by French-speakers? Or if that’s too much speculation, how has Ward’s particular style resonated with you?

AK: Living in the UK, I am more familiar with Ward’s analytical style: you start from concrete case studies, not from theory, to elaborate a critical assessment of society. To be schematic here, French critical theory operates very differently. When you think about Ward’s The Child in the City, for example, it does not go unnoticed that it was really conceived of as a textbook. And the impressive bibliography is, as you say, more an expression of English radicalism than classic anarchist thinkers. Ward has always had a broad audience in mind. However, some of Ward’s publications have had a more classic anarchist audience (take for instance Influences – Voices of Creative Dissent, Freedom Press 1991).

JD: Yeh, you mention in your postface that The Child in the City targets a ‘more professional audience’. Does this translated volume still target a ‘professional’ or more general audience? Or has this book, despite Ward’s claim to being ‘innocent of any academic discipline’ (in Harris et al. 1993), now developed a theoretical relevance/importance? I would draw this back to another point in the postface about a ‘missing engagement with continental philosophy’ – is this publication part of an effort to make connections with the likes of Lefebvre or Foucault?

AK: Let me answer the second question first, which I think is very interesting. The publication is definitely an effort to create a dialogue between Ward’s work and critical theory in general. Now, when you look at British and French scholarship of that time, we rarely see a dialogue of that sort. Further research may be needed in this direction.

However, if we take Foucault for instance, I do think that both he and Ward looked at the same horizon, and this horizon was the US. In my postface, I sketch out this possibility by looking specifically at the notion of ‘government’. I would like to give you an example of this prospect. A key influence on Ward’s thought is the American psychologist, writer and anarchist Paul Goodman. Ward refers to Goodman throughout his life, and his work is discussed consistently in The Child in the City. Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, a must-read book on education written in the 1950s, epitomises the distance between Government and society, felt to this day in the US. Let me quote a short paragraph of Growing Up Absurd.

“Our society has evolved a social plan, a city plan, an economy and a physical plan, of which this delinquent youth is an organic part. The problem is not to get them to belong to society, for they belong a priori by being the next generation. The burden of proof and performance is quite the other way: for the system of society to accommodate itself to all its constituent members.” (p. 50)

The application of a system of knowledge (sociology, urban planning, political economy, factories), as Goodman argues, onto the excluded members of society is the problem of governing. If you know Foucault, this sounds familiar. Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’ deals with the State’s ‘art of governing’, a set of practices to govern, not theories. This is, in Foucault’s words, a concern he has in understanding contemporary liberalism, particularly American and German liberalism. Finally, consider that Foucault starts building these ideas after 1975, after his stays in the US.

So, to answer your question, I think that the insularity of British and French scholars at that time is perhaps more due to the attention of both countries on what was happening in the US, rather than the lack of a direct dialogue.

JD: Interesting – I hadn’t considered the US as a kind of mediator between British and French scholarship! 

AK: Yes and not only that. I think that a lot of ‘French theory’ or ‘Italian theory’, as they call it for market in the US, has entered the UK via the US. And this is valid not only for Foucault but for other philosophers too.

This trajectory had some strange impacts. Some are too long to develop here, but there is one aspect that goes back to the discussion of ‘government’ that had some concrete effects in the Corbyn era. After years of discussion, Foucault (and other French philosophers) had to be sidelined in discussions among radical milieux. Ward and Foucault educate readers not be governed! The Corbyn era, on the other hand, had to form a new type of thinking, one in which government and being governed is encouraged. You can see how the deep but often invisible connections between editorial, academic, and political trends influence each other.

JD: OK, here’s a more provocative question, perhaps. Ward’s style of writing is partly down to his professional involvement. I think it’s fair to say that Ward was ‘outside’ the academy – Wilbert and White say his writing is ‘uncluttered by bombast or theoretical jargon’, Brian Morris (in the special issue of Anarchist Studies journal in 2011) notes that Ward ‘denied being an anarchist theorist’ and ‘never engaged himself in questions of epistemology, metaphysics or political theory’. I take your point about the shared ‘practical’ concerns of both Ward and Foucault, but I think it would be fair to describe Foucault’s writing as jargon-heavy and (I think) also bombastic (that’s not necessarily a negative point, right?). However, with this in mind, even if Ward had been exposed to Foucault in the 1970s, do you think that Ward might have declined to draw on much of his work? Not so much because of what Foucault was saying, but because of how it is presented, and its very academic locus? I guess what I’m asking is: is there an ‘anti-academic’ strand in Ward’s work?

AK: Is there an ‘anti-academic’ strand in Ward’s work? I am not sure this is the case. But there is definitely a distance with certain approaches and writing styles – a reflection of his methods and pedagogy. Ward was known for his ability to speak to very different audiences, from the UN and planning officials to anarchists and community educators. He also had a clear interest in early childhood education and in the education of teachers. At this level, the art of radical pedagogy is to be direct and plain. But let’s not simplify the power of language too much. If you take hip-hop or grime or trap, lyrics are often obscure but poetic. With this, I want to say that perhaps it is not in the complexity of language that we have an answer.

In my view, Ward’s approach is more ethnographic. He starts from the real-life experience of people rather than on a philosophy of history and ideas.

JD: No, indeed. Complexity of language is often a tool used by those who really don’t have much of an answer! Perhaps picking up on the ethnography point there, let’s turn from influences on Ward, to the influences Ward has had on others and in other fields. We’ve mentioned Ward’s influence among radical circles in Italy, and his influence on Anarchist Studies in the UK is quite clear. To quote the introduction to Wilbert and White’s reader again (which I do so often because Colin Ward actually read and approved it not long before he died), they also point to a ‘significant influence on progressive and radical planners, housing specialists and human geographers in the UK’. I think we can add an influence on (experimental) anthropologists to this as well. However, thinking about my own reading/research on squats, gentrification and DIY culture, it is striking that Ward is almost never mentioned by scholars in any of these fields. And these are fields heavily populated by anarchists and other radicals who, perhaps, ought to have encountered Ward – and his ethnographic approach should fit right in with these fields too. Why do you think Ward is being overlooked in these academic fields?

AK: This is a very good point! I too am surprised by the fact that Ward is overlooked in these academic fields. Perhaps an exception is the field of urban studies, where Ward (and his friend John Turner) still seem to be read and appreciated.

I think we are going back to some of the points discussed earlier. The work of publishers, editors and journals such as Freedom or Anarchist Studies in the UK is crucial to spread ideas. In the last decades, the liberalisation of academia brought forward commercially driven mega-publishers that push certain authors at the expense of others, further enlarging the inequalities between different voices. It’s what I call the ‘fashion industry of theory’.  In this respect, there is potentially a lot to do. How do we re-launch radical ideas in a digital world that is increasingly surveilled? To what extent can universities work as knowledge factories that can bring the neoliberal agenda to an end?

Projects such as Antiuniversity Now show us that alternatives are always possible in the field of pedagogy. As Ward wrote:
a sad number of teachers […] teach not in the methods they were supposed to absorb in college, but in the ways that they themselves were taught at school. This has sad results in an education system closely related to social class. (Influences, p. 13)

Moving away from national curricula or standard syllabi, we must re-think teaching and education styles to bring the radical change we want to see.

L’enfant dans la ville is available from Eterotopia Press here (and the 1990 edition of The Child in the City is available here). The new postface by Alessio Kolioulis, is available to read, in English, at AnarchistStudies.Blog.


Paul Goodman (1960), Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society, New York: Vintage Books

Carl Levy (ed.) (2013), Colin Ward: life, times and thought, London: Lawrence & Wishart [book version of the Anarchist Studies special issue]

Brian Morris (2011), ‘Colin Ward and Kropotkin’s legacy’, Anarchist Studies, 19:2, pp, 57-68

Colin Ward (1978 [1990]), The Child in the City, London: Architectural Press [London: Bedford Square Press]

Colin Ward (1991), Influences – Voices of Creative Dissent, Bideford: Green Books.

Colin Ward (1996), Anarchia come organizzazione, Milan: Elèuthera

Colin Ward (2000), ‘Foreword’, in Harris, M., Grimshaw, A. Ravetz, A., Solomons, N., Grasseni, C., Walker, N., Ward, C. and Dibb, M., The Child in the City: a case study in experimental anthropology, Manchester: Prickly Pear Pamphlets

Chris Wilbert and Damian F. White (eds) (2011), Autonomy, Solidarity and Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader, Edinburgh: AK Press