This month marks the 200th anniversary of the brutal crushing of the Luddite movement in England. Wool and cotton mills were destroyed in reaction to the introduction of new machinery which put many people out of work and reduced wages. With weavers often living and working in geographically disparate areas, traditional Trade Union organisation and strikes were very difficult to organise. This can therefore be seen as a form of ‘collective bargaining by riot’ as Eric Hobsbawm but it. Food merchants and magistrates were also attacked. This was not, as it is often portrayed, a backwards looking, anti-technology protest but an attempt by radicalised weavers to protect their standard of living.
These events cannot be seen separately from their early nineteenth century political context, namely the radicalisation and political crackdown which followed the French revolution. Twenty years earlier the corresponding societies had seen their attempts to convoke a parallel revolutionary government in solidarity with France crushed by the government, amidst a raft of reactionary new legislation. The works of radical writer Tom Paine were being widely read by workers. Britain was a political tinderbox. Revolutionary conspiracies, some the work of agent provocateurs, some genuine, were regularly being uncovered. It was in this context that violent protest rapidly spread across large swathes of Nottinghamshire, West Yorkshire and Lancashire, stockpiling arms as they went. The government was well aware of the revolutionary threat posed by Luddism and deployed troops to fight them. At one point there were more soldiers fighting Luddites in England than fighting Napoleon in Spain! In 1812 the breaking of frames became a capital offence.
The government was widely mocked for its failure to deal with this rebellion. The poet and prominent Luddite supporter Lord Byron gleefully ridiculed their failure both in verse and in a famous speech in the House of Lords. The right needed to act decisively and orchestrated a farcical mass trial of alleged West Yorkshire Luddites. The trials took place in York from 2 January 1813, well away from any areas of mass Luddite action. 64 men, many of whom seem to have had no connection to loom breaking whatsoever, were charged. 17 were executed and another 25 transported to Australia after predetermined show trials. The rest were released without trial. The state had already made the point that it was able to punish with impunity. Although frame breaking in Lancashire continued into March of 1813 fear of state retribution had its effect and the movement tailed off.
While the story of Luddism doesn’t begin in Nottingham in 1811, neither does it end in York in 1813. Jeremiah Brandreth, an unemployed stokinger from Nottingham, who had probably been a Luddite, led the Pentrich rising in 1817, an armed rebellion of 2-300 labourers in Derbyshire. The East Anglian Swing Riots of 1830, when agricultural workers in the South of England and East Anglia broke threshing machines and attacked the hated workhouses, also have obvious parallels with Luddism. Drawing on the most effective historic traditions of resistance and existing as part of a symbiotic relationship with the contemporary progressive movements of their time, Luddism represented a crucial component in resistance to the inhumane bourgeois onslaught. Luddism is more than a mere quirky relic in labour history; it demonstrates a sophisticated political awareness which is all too often absent from the left today.
We are facing a shift in relations of capitalist production in the early 21st Century – although not as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution – in the form of casualisation, twinned with a concerted attempt to dismantle the welfare state which undoubtedly has the capacity to destroy living standards. When we fight back we need to be disciplined, bold and radical. In other words we need to be Luddites!