Tory minister Iain Duncan Smith said last week that “the government’s opponents constitute a group of modern-day Luddites”. Then health minister Andrew Lansley denounced those opposed to his assault on the NHS as “Luddites” too.
But if anything, activists should take their insults as a compliment.
The word Luddite is often misused to mean someone who is simply opposed to new technology. But that is not what Luddism was.
In fact it was a movement key to the development of British working class politics—and one that terrified the ruling class.
It emerged some 200 years ago, against the terrible conditions in the new textile factories and the hardship caused by permanent war.
The industrial revolution in the late 18th century saw small-scale production pushed aside by the birth of the factory system.
New techniques and machines emerged to produce and transport goods. Masses of people moved from the country to the towns, forced to become wage labourers in the new factories. Places like Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham mushroomed in size.
Hundreds and thousands of labourers were brought together for the first time—into the same agonising conditions.
This bred a new solidarity and strength among them. John Thelwell, a radical leader of this emerging working class, wrote in the 1790s, “Monopoly and the hideous accumulation of capital in a few hands carry in their own enormity the seeds of the cure.
“Whatever presses men together, though it may generate some vices, is favourable to the diffusion of knowledge, and ultimately promotes human liberty. Hence every large workshop and manufactory is a sort of political society, which no act of parliament can silence, and no magistrate disperse.”
So the workshops and factories became breeding grounds for radical ideas. These ideas were drawn from earlier traditions or struggle and, above all, from the French Revolution.
In 1789 the Parisian masses had risen up and stormed the hated Bastille prison. It was the first act of a great revolution—and the French example rocked the British establishment to its core. The propertied classes were terrified of what the Tories called the “swinish multitudes”.
Artisans and labourers supported the ideals of the French revolution—liberty, equality and fraternity.
They formed their own political organisations. The London Corresponding Society, set up in 1792, had 10,000 members at its height. These societies fought to give every man the vote, as one step on the road to greater equality.
The Tories outlawed the corresponding societies. But the working class movement was constantly taking shape and learning new ways to fight.
Thousands of impoverished weavers turned to direct action, breaking the knitting frames they rented from their masters. This became an organised uprising—the Luddite rebellion. It swept across north Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire in 1811 and 1812.
One appeal issued by “General Ludd” urged, “Come let us follow the noble example of the brave citizens of Paris who in sight of 30,000 tyrant Redcoats brought a tyrant to the ground.”
As one Luddite leaflet put it, “Facts are seditious things, When they touch the courts and Kings.”
Prime minister Spencer Percival was assassinated on 11 May 1812 by a bankrupt merchant called John Bellingham.
When the vicar of his church in Liverpool condemned the murder he received the following letter: “Had it been any other place than the church, my pistol would have silenced the blasphemy.” It went on to threaten death to the king and was signed “Lt de Luddite”.
The Luddites took their name from a story of a village fool, Ned Ludd, who, when told to adjust his loom, instead smashed it to pieces with a hammer.
As one song put it, “Well done Ned Ludd, Deface this who dare/shall the tyrants fare/for Ned’s everywhere.”
The first Luddite attack in 1811 took place in the Nottinghamshire village of Arnold. The workers were angry at wide loom frames that produced large amounts of cheap, shoddy material.
In the north west of England looms were in large factories, so machine-breaking meant attacks involving large numbers of people. Some protests were closer to local insurrections than industrial sabotage.
But the repression against the Luddites was brutal. Factory owners took to defending their factories with arms. Frame-breaking was made a hanging offence (see right). The Luddites didn’t write much down, not because they were illiterate, but because of the repression they faced.
The government spent an enormous amount energy trying to track down General Ludd, acting as if there were only one. Various radicals were hanged. But the authorities had missed the point.
The Marxist historian EP Thompson points out in his book The Making of the English Working Class, “The Luddites resisted permeation by spies with extraordinary success.
“When two police magistrates were sent down to Nottingham, they reported to the Home Office, ‘almost every creature of the lower orders is on their side.’”
Unable to infiltrate the movement, the state resorted to brute force. More than 12,000 troops were sent to smash the Luddites’ rebellion in the winter of 1811—more that the entire force the Duke of Wellington had available in the war with Napoleon.
At Rawfolds Mill in West Yorkshire the owner turned his factory into a fortress, defended by soldiers and other armed men. On 11 April 1812 around 150 Luddites attempted to storm it. They suffered many injuries and two were fatally wounded.
In the aftermath a local priest, Hammond Robinson, tried to wheedle a death bed confession from one of them, a man called John Booth.
Booth called the priest over and said, “Can you keep a secret?” Eagerly the priest replied, “Yes I can.” “So can I,” replied Booth, and promptly died.
The effects of the Luddites’ revolt were considerable. It encouraged the birth of the trade union and socialist movement in Britain.
The Captain Swing riots, the massacre of protesters at Peterloo, the Chartists and countless 19th century strikes, riots and insurrections included former Luddites at their heart.
As the working class was being born, it gave the ruling class a stark warning of its potential power. And that’s why to this day the word Luddite is an insult to them.