‘At War with the Facts’ – a rebuttal of Richard Jones’ ‘At War with the Future’ in History Today, May 2012

Below is a response to the article about the Luddites written by Cambridge University Student Richard Jones and published in the May 2012 edition of ‘History Today’. The article has been written jointly by myself, Luddite Bicentenary author Richard Holland, and the Luddites 200 Organising Forum. As delegates to the Huddersfield University Luddites Conference in May 2012, we were pleased to noticed Richard Jones’ name on the attendance list, but disappointed when he then failed to appear. We were keen to discuss his work with him, and have contacted him asking to see his research. So far, he has not replied to our emails. We look forward to a rejoinder. ‘History Today’ refused to publish even an edited version of this, on the grounds that it included Ad Hominem abuse !

Richard Jones’ article ‘At War With the Future’ (History Today May 2012), while purporting to be based on new research, is a mixture of factual inaccuracies and unsubstantiated generalisations, based mainly on secondary sources. In the opening paragraph, he introduces an Aunt Sally which he then proceeds to try and knock down with an array of old arguments and non sequiturs dressed up as a new perspective on the Luddites.

He claims that consideration of the long history of mechanisation in the woollen industry ‘makes it much harder to argue that the Luddites of 1811 and 1812 were motivated by a knee-jerk resentment of technological innovation’. This seems to ignore the fact that no historian of the subject makes that assertion. Quite the contrary. Resistance to machinery grew both out of grievances around new work practices employing long established machinery, as in the stocking trade, and out of a long history of opposition to relatively new machinery, as with the croppers. In neither case is there any claim that there was a ‘knee-jerk resentment’, but rather a complex response to the way that machinery was being used. Jones claim to have discovered the ‘moral economy’ governing perceptions of what constituted fair economic practice is also not revelatory, but an aspect of struggles of the time highlighted by Rude and Thompson and others.

Although Luddism in Nottinghamshire and the North West is subsidiary to his main argument this is no excuse for the inaccurate summaries he provides. Luddism in Nottinghamshire did not peak in the autumn of 1811, as he states: in fact there was a lull in activity after the initial outburst of proto-Luddism by the summer, which resumed in the autumn as full-blown Luddism. He lumps together the North West as Lancashire ‘and nearby’, ignoring the significant events in Cheshire and makes no mention of the Chester Special Commission in his resume of the trials.

If his brief account of the other areas is inadequate, his description of West Riding Luddism, on which his central argument rests, is totally flawed. He makes the sweeping assertion that here Luddism ‘emerged so rapidly [and] did not draw on exiting radical movements or long standing grievances as was the case elsewhere.’ This ignores the more than decade-long fight against gig mills and shear frames in the West Riding, the links of the croppers with the similarly aggrieved shearmen of the West of England and their precursor Luddism of 1802, as well as the existence of a strong radical reform and even republican tradition in the West Riding. The powerful cloth dressers ‘Institution’ active since the 1790s in one form or another, both before and after the Combination Acts, is also ignored.

His account of the origin of the first West Riding attacks is garbled, and, if not the product of bad editing, is an atrocious piece of historical misinterpretation. The attacks on frames he quotes from the Leeds Mercury of 1 February 1812 all took place not in Leeds but in Nottinghamshire! In his account of the initial attacks in the Huddersfield area he refers to Joseph Hirst of Marsh as Joseph Marsh [sic] and describes him as a ‘trader’, missing the whole significance that he was not only a master cloth-dresser but also one in the forefront of introducing shear frames. These crass errors indicate that Jones has little grasp of the structure of the woollen industry in general and cloth finishing in particular. His description of these attacks leads him to the astounding conclusion that they were ‘premeditated’. In line with his agenda of downplaying the significance of West Riding Luddism he refers to only parties of four to ten being involved, while in fact those depositions which do mention numbers record 16 to 30.

In another unfounded assertion linked to a non sequitur he claims that the role of public houses in Luddite activities has been ‘overlooked’ by everyone but himself. Anyone familiar with Luddite historiography knows this to be false. One well known contemporary letter, about placing spies among Luddites in Huddersfield, in fact names several pubs where contacts could be made. Pubs were the centre of communal life. It would have been strange if Luddites did not use them. But Jones then makes the bizarre and muddled claim that this shows that Luddite activity was ‘rooted within local society rather than consisting of those who were obviously criminal, detached from everyday life and breaking machines while in disguise.’ As if ‘criminals’ were not also ‘rooted within local society’. It is not clear who he considers were ‘breaking machines while in disguise’ and this paragraph adds nothing to our understanding of Luddism.

Jones then reveals one of his main authorities to be Frank Peel’s ‘Rising of the Luddites’ describing it as ‘mainly oral history.’ It is not. It is a combination of fact drawn from published sources such as the proceedings of the York Special Commission, fictional embellishment, plus a smattering of folk lore which may, or may not, be founded on genuine oral tradition. The fictionalised elements are certainly not a reliable source, as Jones himself seems aware, yet he nevertheless quotes the supposed meeting at the Shears Inn in some detail. He even uncritically includes the highly unlikely account of the singing of the Cropper’s song at what was supposed to be a clandestine meeting in a pub run by the hostile landlord and Sherriff’s Officer, James Lister.

Having wasted space on this story he omits the highly significant attack on Foster’s Mill at Horbury, only days before the Rawfolds Mill attack, which demonstrates just how extensive the Luddite movement in the area was by now. Witnesses claimed up to 300 were involved in the attack. Even allowing for exaggeration it undermines Jones claim that only 200 men were involved in the movement in the West Riding. He also omits the assassination attempt on Cartwright prior to the shooting of Horsfall, again making what was part of an emerging pattern appear unique. By jumping straight from Horsfall’s assassination to the trials he discounts all the intervening Luddite activity dismissing it as not ‘meaningful’.

Jones is also keen to make out that the case against the three accused for killing Horsfall was cut and dried, while ignoring inconsistencies in the prosecution case. His claim that it was just an ordinary murder trial and ‘definitely not a political show trial’ ignored the whole atmosphere in which the Special Commission was held. In sentencing Mellor, Thorpe and Smith, Justice Le Blanc made it quite clear that it not just for the murder’, but for Luddite activity, – destruction of property and administering an illegal oath – that they were being made an example of. Indeed, as far as the authorities were concerned, Luddite activity was criminal activity and so there was no distinction between political and criminal trials.

Jones then proceeds to claim that apart from the shooting of Horsfall and the Rawfolds Mill attack, ‘few’ of the cases were linked to Luddism, citing the ‘particularly absurd example’ of the case of Swallow and others for burglary. This is indeed one case where the burglary was carried out without any claim to be stealing arms, or otherwise following General Ludd’s orders. Nevertheless this trial does reveal the pervasive nature of Luddism. One of the witnesses, Samuel Parkin, who almost became implicated, claimed that he initially came along because he was told that, ‘there was to be a meeting at Grange Moor, of Ludds.’ The authorities clearly subsumed all lawless activity under the name of Luddism and there is nothing ‘absurd’, about the inclusion of this case in the Special Commission. Nor is it merely about clearing a backlog of “ordinary” criminal cases. By separating the burglaries from Luddite activity, even when arms were clearly the main aim, Jones further reinforces his point that after the assassination of Horsfall there was ‘no meaningful Luddite activity’. He creates his own neat and narrow definition of Luddism as a phenomenon entirely about machine breaking.

Not content with having thus defined Luddism, and separating it from the widespread unrest of 1811-1812 which saw many forms of social, economic and political discontent, Jones further reduces it to little more than a violent trade union struggle by a privileged working class elite, which was doomed to failure. Here his not-so-hidden subtext emerges! Like trade unionists they were just looking after their own ‘status…at the expense of the wider population.’ They were holding back economic development which would lead to cheaper goods for all – that is they were hindering the operation of the free market. Despite the claim that he has produced a new interpretation of Luddism Jones falls back on the most crude, simplistic and hackneyed parody of Luddism – ignorant men holding up progress.

The idea that the Luddites were merely protecting their own privilege and did not care about the wider population, and were not supported by them is not corroborated by the facts. Support for Luddism extended far beyond the occupational groups breaking machines, as the difficulties the authorities faced in getting anyone to grass on the luddites, shows, His suggestion that there was an alternate and dominant rationality which persuaded working people to favour the new factory system (and the opportunity for both them and their young children to work 12 hours a day for a pittance), instead of opposing it, because it might lead to them getting cheaper textiles sometime in the future is simply a projection of hindsight, not historical analysis.

While it can be argued that the Yorkshire croppers were in some sense ‘privileged’, in so far as they commanded higher wages and had some power in the industry, this is certainly not true for the stockingers or hand loom weavers, who were at that time already highly impoverished and at the mercy of the masters. His view that such groups were privileged is a typical laissez-faire reaction to any group of workers that is well organised and has the slightest success in advancing their interests in the face market forces – the norm for workers is supposed to be a position of absolute powerlessness and obedience, and any group that deviates from this is counted as ‘privileged’. The historical importance and impact of a social movement cannot be reduced to the number of people involved, nor their apparent success or failure in terms of their own objectives.

His reduction of the heritage of Luddism to simply a form of nostalgia ignores the fact that for the Luddites then, as for the opponents of certain technologies now, opposition is based on a very hard-headed materialist analysis of the vested interests embodied in new machinery. It is because those interests persist, and are a structural part of capitalism that Luddism remains an inspiring and motivating force today. Jones interpretation of Luddism is one which has been rolled out time and again, to attack dockers, print workers, and car workers – anyone engaged in a struggle to maintain jobs and conditions in the face of unbridled capitalism. If he considers this to be a contribution to a reappraisal of the Luddites on the occasion of bicentenary he is deluding himself. His account is as historically threadbare as his ideological motivations, masquerading as Cambridge research, are transparent. This is the ‘emperor has no clothes’ history at its worst.

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