Monday, 28 May 2012

The Failure of the Luddites

 How the Luddites harmed the future of working class struggle in England.

A depiction of General Ned Ludd
 "The Leader of the Luddites".

Supposedly "laughed out of history" along with the Technocrats according to Henry Hazlitt, "Luddism" was a peculiar movement that emerged in the 19th century English Midlands. Skilled craftsmen who had thought themselves guaranteed a livelihood suddenly found themselves rendered obsolete by the introduction of labour saving technology, and suffered wage reductions and replacement by cheaper unskilled workers. In 1811, public petitioning was the first reaction but as the months went on, in the dead of night violence continually erupted throughout Nottinghamshare and other textile districts, and countless weaving frames were destroyed in protest.
 The Luddites successfully kept their identities unknown, writing their declarations under the alias "General Ned Ludd" and as a result managed to almost completely avoid arrest. The movement itself was very short lived however, and due to their small numbers (2000 according to Richard Jones) and their lack of unity or coordination, it was easy for the authorities to quell their behaviour. (2012, pp.79) The harshest of government measures against the Luddites was the Frame Breaking Act of February 1812 which made the destruction of weaving frames a capital offense.
In response to this act, Lord Byron himself gave a passionate defense of the Luddites in the House of Lords and opposed the bill:

Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)
"...By the adoption of one species of frame in particular, one man performed the work of many, and the superfluous labourers were thrown out of employment. Yet it is to be observed, that the work thus executed was inferior in quality, not marketable at home, and merely hurried over with a view to exportation... 
 The rejected workmen, in the blindness of their ignorance... imagined that the maintenance and well doing of the industrious poor, were objects of greater consequence than the enrichment of a few individuals by any improvement in the implements of trade which threw the workmen out of employment, and rendered the labourer unworthy of his hire. And, it must be confessed, that although the adoption of the enlarged machinery, in that state of our commerce which the country once boasted, might have been beneficial to the master without being detrimental to the servant; yet, in the present situation of our manufactures, rotting in warehouses without a prospect of exportation, with the demand for work and workmen equally diminished, frames of this construction tend materially to aggravate the distresses and discontents of the disappointed sufferers..." (Available in full here)

 Despite sympathy from such an influential figure, the Luddites according to Richard Jones, received a "lack of sympathy among the wider public". This was because "New technology had already replaced many unskilled workers in the decades leading up to the Luddite uprisings" (2012, pp.79). Eric Hobsbawm on the other hand, argues that "a surprisingly large body of local businessmen and farmers sympathised profoundly with these Luddite activities of their labourers, because they too saw themselves as victims of a diabolical minority of selfish innovators."(2011, pp.55). 

 Nevertheless, regardless of how much public support the Luddites received, it was clearly not enough. After 1813, seventeen Luddites were hanged. The conservative nature of the movement, and the fact that it focused on the poverty of one small portion of the English working class and not on alleviating poverty in general, makes it hard to label Luddism a precursor to the rest of the working class movements. It is true that later movements such as Chartism contained within their ranks many former Luddites, but they were rarely open about their involvement and "had no more wish than a man with a criminal record to be reminded of their youth". This was due to the possible attention from the authorities. Arguably then, "Luddism ended on the scaffold" (1991, Thompson E.P, pp.541).

Not only did the Luddites fail to achieve their goals and go into hiding as a result, they arguably harmed working class movements to come. As Karl Marx noted "...the Luddite movement, gave the anti-Jacobin government, composed of such people as Sidmouth and Castereagh, a pretext for the most violent and reactionary measures." (1976, pp.554). Indeed, even the various friendly societies that existed throughout the late 18th to 19th centuries were treated with suspicion by the state and the influential classes. As early as 1871, the government called for investigations into the activities of the friendly societies. Although they were occasionally acknowledged as useful for alleviating poverty, they were oftentimes seen as a mask to cover up insurrectionary activities, and it was believed that without proper regulation they could be a menace to the existing order. A memorial sent to the Home Office from five engineering employers in London, complained of the conduct of their journeymen:

"(The Combination Laws) are artfully and efficaciously evaded and defeated by and under the mask of Benefit Societies, institutions which have cheated, cherished an given effect to the most dangerous combinations among the several journeymen of our district... 
This state of things cannot long exist, and if there is not shortly some legislative regulation adopted, your memorialists are deeply impressed with the apprehensions that absolute ruin will overtake the master manufacturers of the empire and the journeymen will assume an overbearing, oppressive and mischievous character that will be alike dangerous to the prosperity and tranquility of the country. 
Your memorialists are fully persuaded that the recent mischievous associations, disgraceful riots and ruinous burnings in the neighbourhoods of Nottingham and Manchester have had much of their origin in compacts of this nature, and as long as bodies of journeymen are allowed to constitute themselves into into societies under any denomination of benefit while the present laws of management of such societies exist, your memorialists have no hope of having the evils redressed which they have lamentably experienced." 
- (Home Office Document 42/133).

 Note the mention of Nottingham and Manchester as the locations of these "disgraceful riots" and "ruinous burnings". Manchester, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire were the areas where the Luddites set about destroying the frames, thus making it clear that the paper refers directly to them.  Ultimately then, despite this hostility from the government being far from recent, the Luddites arguably exacerbated this type of attitude and provoked further government regulation of the benefit societies.  This harmed the ability for workers to fight for higher wages and organize, and potentially crippled future working class movements.

References/ Notes:

(1905) A. Aspinall, Early English Trade Unions, (This book contains reprints of Home Office paper 42/133 and many others.)
(2011) Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution; 1789-1848, Abacus, pp.55.
(2012) Charlotte Hodgman & Richard Jones, BBC History Magazine: Volume 13, no 5, May, pp.79.
(1976) Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, A Critique of Political Economy, 4th Edition, Penguin Books, pp.554. (Marx goes on the criticize the Luddites for attacking the "material instruments of production" rather than the "form of society which utilizes those intruments." For more on Luddism from a Marxist perspective, visit Brendan M. Cooney's blog: Kapitalism101)
(1991) E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin Books, pp.541.

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