The short inspiring reign of King Ludd
Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and their War on the Industrial Revolution
By Kirkpatrick Sale
Quartet, 1996. 320 pp., $21.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
"Luddite" is used these days to deride anyone who resists the march of technology. Those who doubt the benefits of genetic engineering, food irradiation, nuclear power or other marvels of the technological age are treated with disdain like those "silly duffers" who can't cope with ATMs or program a VCR.
Like those Luddites who started it all early last century and went around smashing the new cotton-weaving and cloth-spinning factory machines, today's "Luddites" are written off as "blind" and "senseless", their opposition doomed to futility.
Well, it ain't so, as Kirkpatrick Sale concludes from his study of the original Luddite rebellion in 19th century England. Their activities were a justified, and temporarily successful, challenge to an industrial capitalism which was destroying livelihoods and lousing up the environment. The Luddites have relevant lessons to teach us now, he argues.
The Luddite rebellion was packed into 15 explosive months in 1811-12 in the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Cheshire. Robin Hood territory. The Luddites, too, had their own mythical leader — General Ned Ludd.
Before the days of organised trade unionism, machine-breaking, and destruction of property generally, had a long tradition as a tactic of the labouring poor against agricultural, manufacturing and other employers of labour — what E.J. Hobsbawm called "collective bargaining by riot". From the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution (roughly 1785-1830) raised the temperature considerably with labour-saving (and profit-boosting) machinery threatening to drive vast numbers of cottage workers out of work.
Their answer was the destruction of the new factory machines. This was not only an industrial tactic but also a protest against the whole capitalist factory system and its threat to the non-market self-sufficiency and close-knit community life of the village, where skill, pride in one's work and leisure time made for some measure of personal and communitarian human dignity.
Luddism thus developed into a political movement quite readily. The government, certainly, was alarmed by Luddite oath-taking, military drills, partisan-like raids on mill and factory, delegations to neighbouring counties, and organisational solidarity and discipline, made fast by popular support which no inducements or threats could easily break. The Luddites were "the thousands acting out the resentment of the millions", says Sale.
The Luddites spooked the ruling class with the involvement of radical Painites and Irish exiles, street celebrations of the assassination of the prime minister, red flags and talk of "liberty", "rights" and the overthrow of the government. The government saw the French Revolution in the smashed cotton frame machines and the armed Luddites. Rob Southey, Tory poet laureate, spoke darkly of "that most dreadful of all conceivable states — an insurrection of the poor against the rich".
Others, however, did not see this as so dreadful. Shelley cheered on the Luddites, and the radical aristocrat, Lord Byron, chose in his maiden speech to the House of Lords in 1812 to condemn a bill making frame-breaking punishable by death. "Down with all Kings but King Ludd", he wrote in one poem.
The Luddite protest was not futile. To save their factories and property, many employers raised wages and payments to outworkers and delayed the introduction of new machines. The poor law rates were raised for the unemployed victims of technological change. All the property-respecting middle class agitation for parliamentary reform of the preceding decades had not achieved what Luddite direct action achieved in a year.
These wins, however, were only temporary. The factory system ploughed on after hitting the Luddite rock. The state eventually defeated the Luddites. Fear, discouragement and betrayal dwindled the Luddite ranks thanks to the 12,000 soldiers occupying the counties, a small army of spies and the deterrent effect of up to 40 Luddites killed in action, 24 executed by hanging judges, 37 transported to Australia and 24 slapped in prison.
Countless victims of the machines were left to waste away whilst the new factory working class looked to underground trade unionism and, once more, parliamentary reform to ameliorate their working conditions in the next historical phase of working-class struggle.
What is important, however, is "not that the Luddites didn't win but that they resisted". Though less ready to concede the mass influence of Luddism or its insurrectionary status, Sale adheres closely to E.P. Thompson's lessons from the Luddites — the barbarity of the state, the destructiveness of the capitalist factory system, the moral virtue and effectiveness of resistance.
Sale's other, anti-technological green, reading of the Luddite experience is, however, less apparent as a lesson. The Luddites, says Sale, were challenging industrial progress itself; they were "rebels against the future".
Sale sees "industrialism", rather than its capitalist political context, as the actual target of the Luddites and the proper target for today's neo-Luddites — deep ecologists, tribal communities, return-to-the-land advocates, Earth First! sabotage activists and others who have withdrawn from the "technosphere". The rational "paradigms" of science and technology are, Sale believes, accomplices in the crimes of progress.
This analysis, however, conflicts with the material he presents on the Luddites. They were opposed not to all machinery but, as one of their letter-writers put it, "machinery hurtful to commonality". They left untouched machinery that did not displace workers or whose owners paid a fair wage or rate.
It was the capitalist ownership and control of the machines which caused human and environmental harm, then and now. Labour-saving machinery would enhance human well-being if human need, rather than profit, were the defining values of society. Above all, the Luddites fought; they did not "withdraw".
Sale argues that technology defines the needs and values of society. Yet technologies such as nuclear power are compatible with capitalism, just as the bicycle or renewable energy systems aren't, and vice versa for socialism, because these two social systems have radically different values (profit versus human and environmental need) and get the technology that suits them.
The Luddites raised the question not of industrial progress per se but of industrial progress on whose terms. Although they had no power other than that of machine-wrecking and riot, their disciplined organisation and solidarity, and their spirit of struggle, are values we can apply today to continue their fight.
Long live Ned Ludd! Now, if I just try that VCR once more ...