Issue 169 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review


Rebels against the machine

The common view of the Luddites is of mindless machine wreckers. In fact the Luddite movement was a highly politicised response to the assaults of a new ruling class. Here Suzanne Jeffrey tells the real story

'Luddite' is today used as a term of abuse. In their time printers at Wapping and the miners have been labelled as Luddites, accused of trying to resist the inevitable march of progress in the form of new technology, and so called 'cleaner', more efficient industries.

This common image of the Luddites as backward looking machine-wreckers is one consciously fostered by most historians. But to properly understand them we need to locate them historically. The Luddite years were indeed turbulent times. The assassination of the prime minister, Perceval, on 11 May 1812, was greeted with undisguised popular elation.

People celebrated in the streets, and as the assassin was taken away, shouts of 'well done' and applause were heard from the crowd. The only disappointment lay in the fact that the motive had been a personal grudge rather than a political one. The background to such political turbulence lay in the enormous changes being wrought in people's lives at that time. Manufacturing industry developed rapidly, bringing with it not just new machinery, but the wholesale introduction of the capitalist system of factory production.

For working people, this meant not just reduced wages or the need to acquire new skills, but an assault on every aspect of their lives. As the division of society into big capitalists and propertyless proletarians speeded up, millions faced an increasingly precarious existence of poverty and unemployment. Luddism appeared as the only way of defending themselves against the new capitalist order being built at that time.

Pitted against them were the combined forces and legislation of the old landed aristocracy, fearful of a Jacobin revolution of the type that had toppled their fellow parasites in France only years before, and the new rising, powerful class of factory owners with their philosophy of economic freedom and free trade. Together they introduced the Combination Acts, which outlawed any kind of union organisation. The penalties for breaking the law were severe, from transportation to Australia with hard labour, to the scaffold. The Luddites faced the most determined and brutal opponents.

King Ludd does not appear to have been a real person, but rather a name used by the Luddites to avoid detection by the authorities. It was supported by a host of other names capturing the spirit of resistance such as General Justice, Thomas Paine, A True Man, No King and Joe Firebrand with accompanying addresses like Robin Hood's Cave and Sherwood Forest!

The story surrounding the name Ludd is somewhat confused, but one suggestion is that it was the name of a young apprentice framework knitter, Ned Ludd. He had been told by his master to work faster and when Ned refused, his master reported him to the magistrate who ordered a whipping for the boy. On hearing this, Ned is reported to have picked up a hammer and demolished the frame.

Whether this story is true is not important. What is significant are the demands and ideas of the Luddites illustrated in the many letters sent to the manufacturers, signed by Captain Ludd or one of his many counterparts. The following is a typical example.

Hardly the words of uncouth, illiterate workmen motivated purely by fear of new machinery!

Luddism commenced in Nottingham in March 1811 among the framework knitters sometimes called stockingers. They were highly skilled, making exquisite stockings worn by the wealthy. They faced, not the new machinery but the increasing control of merchant capitalists over their industry. They had begun to raise rents on the frames and introduce low paid unskilled labour. The main disturbances began with a demonstration followed at night by framebreaking. Such activities warranted little comment, as they were not unusual for the time.

However although this was not initially an organised movement, the threat of the Combination Acts quickly drove it to develop a high level of organisation and become much more political. By November 1811 Luddism had become a disciplined force. Each attack revealed planning and method. The men were disguised, communicating to each other by watchword or pistol fire, and only frames using unskilled labour or with higher rents were attacked. A calling card explaining their purposes was left in each workshop attacked. In December 1811, the Leeds Mercury commented on the strength of organisation of the Luddites and was prompted to declare 'the insurrectional state to which this country has been reduced in the last month has no parallel in history since the troubled days of Charles I.'

Such activities produced some successes. Many merchants reduced rents and thus increased wages. But just at the moment Nottinghamshire Luddism became inactive, Luddism in Yorkshire and Lancashire was triggered off by its example. Reports from Nottingham had been eagerly followed in Yorkshire, the local newspaper being read aloud in the workshops. The first accounts from Yorkshire came in mid-January 1812, thereafter Yorkshire Luddism appears full grown, modelled on the discipline and tactics of Nottinghamshire, but accompanied by a great many threatening letters more insurrectionary in their terms than anything earlier.

A letter which appeared in Leeds targeting the Prince Regent called on people to follow 'the noble example of the brave citizens of Paris who in the sight of 30,000 Redcoats brought a tyrant to the ground; by doing so you will be aiming at your own interest.' The target of Yorkshire Luddites were the gigmills where machinery was replacing their jobs as woollen cloth-finishers.

Both Yorkshire and Lancashire Luddism, however, faced not just small manufacturers but the large landowners who were both ruthless and determined. The attack at Cartwright's Mill of Rawfolds in 1812 has become legendary and demonstrated the problems faced by the Luddites. The owner, who claimed he wanted to ride in the saddle up to his girth in Luddite blood, had his mill protected by armed soldiers and his own armed workers.

He had barricades of spiked rollers on his stairs and a tub of oil of vitriol (hydrochloric acid) at the top, for use if the Luddites penetrated the mill. About 150 Luddites took part in the attack, led by George Mellor, a young cropper from Huddersfield. After a brave fight, the Luddites were defeated and had to retreat, leaving behind two fatally wounded men.

The actions of John Booth, one of the dying Luddites, sums up the courage and determination of the movement. At the moment of death Booth signalled to the priest Hammond Robertson. 'Can you keep a secret?' said Booth. 'Yes, yes' replied the eager Robertson 'I can'. 'So can I' replied Booth, and shortly after died.

In the end the Luddite movement could not confront the massive forces mobilised against it. By the summer of 1812 there were no fewer than 12,000 troops in the 'disturbed counties', more than Wellington had under his command at the same time in the Peninsular Wars.

Frederick Engels described the situation in which the Luddites were born as one in which 'the conflicts arising from the new social order were only just beginning to take shape' and goes on to say this was 'even truer for the means of resolving them'. As the ruling class forced the working population into a life of degradation, poverty and alienation the means of resolving that conflict, a large urban industrial working class, did not yet exist. But in a society which presented 'nothing but abuses', the Luddites fought with the methods available to them in a courageous and inspiring way.

Luddism should not be a term of abuse, rather we should embrace it as a part of our tradition.

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