The Luddite Legacy

This is the full text of a paper forming the basis of a talk given at York Guildhall on 19th January 2013, to commemorate the execution of the West Riding of Yorkshire Luddites in 1813.

ludd 200

In Huddersfield alone, where the Luddite tradition is the most tenacious, the Bicentenary has involved at least a couple of thousand people in events which have been covered by the media, bringing the name ‘Luddite’ to thousands more.

There have been numerous meetings, plays, folk sessions and poetry readings involving people with a wide range of interests in Luddism – political and campaigning (such as Luddites 200), academic and cultural. It has involved playwrights, poets, musicians and morris dancers as well as historians. Some people have attempted to analyse Luddism and its continued relevancy – others have been happy to perpetuate the mythic and romantic view of Luddism.

There is no doubt that Luddism has left a vibrant legacy. This talk looks at some aspects of that legacy, both local and international.

Whether the Luddites ever considered that they would be remembered by posterity we have no record. In Yorkshire we have no speeches from the dock and the brief last words of George Mellor on the scaffold were soon after obscured by controversy about what he had actually said.

There was no attempt to claim martyrdom [1] – and in that the mainstream labour movement has been glad to oblige them. The cult of martyrdom, such as it is, is a very anaemic, apologetic and self conscious phenomenon in the British Labour Movement which just doesn’t ‘do’ martyrs. Martyrs seem only acceptable if they are ‘innocent victims’ such as the Peterloo martyrs and the Tolpuddle martyrs. This is despite the long roll call of working class people who have died fighting for their rights.

As well as the 40 or so who fell during the Luddite rising, there are the 3 Pentridge insurgents of 1817, Hardie, Baird and Wilson executed in 1820, Dic Penderyn hung for his part in the Merthyr uprising in 1831, George Shell and the twenty or more others shot in the gunbattle with troops at Newport in 1839 and John Clayton, Samuel Holberry and the other Chartists who died in gaol. More recently we have David Jones and Joe Green who were killed in the great Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985.

English: Holberry Plaque, Peace Gardens, Sheffield

English: Holberry Plaque, Peace Gardens, Sheffield (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although some of these have been honoured with local plaques and monuments, the example of their actions has not been assimilated into the tradition of the labour movement.

Certainly Shelley’s imagery of martyrdom from his revolutionary poem ‘Queen Mab’ has not gained wide acceptance in British working class culture as it has, for example, among Irish republicans.

Love’s brightest roses on the scaffold bloom,
Mingling with freedom’s fadeless laurels there…

Shelley was writing this poem as the Luddite rising was unfolding. He was certainly aware of the York executions and suggested raising subscriptions to help the families, though I don’t know if this got off the ground.

I come from the village of Honley in the Holme Valley, three miles south of Huddersfield and a focus of Luddite activity in 1812. From my house I can see the site of two workshops attacked in 1812 and a few hundred yards away is the Coach & Horses pub, where two of the Luddites said to be involved in the assassination of the mill owner William Horsfall, spent the evening after the attack. I grew up on stories of the Luddites – it can safely be said that Luddism is part of my cultural heritage. [2]

But as a historian the problem for me remains – how much is this tradition genuine folklore, handed down orally in the community, and how much has it been derived from a literary tradition which has fed back into local consciousness? How far is it acquired culture and how far real collective memory?

Earlier last year I asked my uncle about my great grandfather who had been a conscientious objector in the First World War and if there was any family account of his imprisonment. He replied,

“They were a funny lot in those days. I once asked about a relative who was supposed to be involved with the Luddites and was told ‘You don’t want to know about that. There are some things best not talked about.’ “

How much local knowledge of the Luddites was lost because people didn’t want to talk about events with which they, or those close to them, were involved? A kind of omertà born partly out of loyalty and partly out of fear. This reticence accounts for the paucity of references to Luddism in the generation after 1812-1820, and through the turbulent period culminating in Chartism. It also accounts for the total absence of any accounts of ‘insiders’ in the later period which throw any light on the inner workings of Luddism. For all the claims that late Victorian writers like Frank Peel drew on authentic oral tradition there is really little in his account which reveals anything about the Luddite movement.

However, despite this silence from the Luddite milieu itself, the Luddite rising did maintain a hold on the local imagination. Charlotte Brontё’s ‘Shirley’ both reflected this fascination and helped to perpetuate it, as did the accounts of Peel and D.F.E. Sykes, author of ‘Ben o’Bills the Luddite’ and others, which mingled fact and fiction in varying degrees.

For an excellent account of the literary heritage of Luddism one can do no better than read Steven Jones’ ‘Against Technology – From the Luddites to Neo-Luddism’.

But as well as the literary and traditional heritage of Luddism, what of its’ practical political legacy?

(Photo: Mr Eric Rowley)

(Photo: Mr Eric Rowley)

Locally, the Luddite influence on the immediate aftermath of 1812 is apparent. Luddism did not end in 1813 with the hangings, there was at least one incident of machine breaking in Huddersfield in 1815 and there is no doubt that the militancy of Luddism fed into the insurrections which were planned in the area in 1817 and 1820. George Taylor, a Holme Valley leader, was reputed to have been involved in Luddism in 1812 as was James Smaller of Horbury. Thomas Riley, suspected of planning the assassination of the magistrate Joseph Radcliffe in 1812, was arrested for involvement in 1817 and committed suicide in York Castle. In the run up to the rising one man who asked what they should do if they didn’t have enough arms was told ‘They would go Ludding’, and one of the victims of just such a raid for arms in Honley also described the insurgents as ‘damned Ludding rogues’. Ludding therefore did not just refer to machine breaking but was also associated with raids for arms and rebellion. There is no doubt that the factors which contributed to the vitality of Luddism in Huddersfield in 1812 also played a role in the insurgencies of 1817 and 1820, making the area the only one in Britain to participate in all three risings.

Huddersfield also remained a stronghold of both demands for radical reform of parliament, Owenite trade unionism, resistance to the factory system and to the new poor law in the late 1820s and 1830s, although now it was the handloom weaver rather than the cropper who was the backbone of the movement. Although there were no attacks on machinery Richard Oastler, the Radical Tory leader of the Factory Movement, did advocate sabotage of machines used to flout the Factory Acts and overwork children. The culmination of these movements, the great General Strike of 1842, did involve attacks on mills, but not to destroy machinery, only to force their closure and reinforce the strike.

Thanks to the literary tradition I have referred to, and particularly Sykes’ novel which was published by the Worker, the Huddersfield socialist weekly paper in 1911, the Luddite centenary was an opportunity to draw on the account of the Luddite rising in the popular domain in order to point out parallels with contemporary events.

The 2012 Luddite Bicentennary has overshadowed the commemoration of more recent events in 1912. This was the high-tide mark of what has been variously called the Workers Rebellion or the Labour Revolt – a wave of industrial militancy between 1910 and 1914 which saw miners, dockers, seamen, railwaymen, builders and others locked in protracted and violent disputes with employers and the state. People were killed in riots in Tonypandy, Llanelli and Merseyside, thousands of troops garrisoned towns and cities and gun boats were stationed on the Mersey and Humber. These events gave impetus to the syndicalist movement which based its tactics, as the Luddites had done, on direct action and sabotage.

This development alarmed those on the left who believed that political action, was primary. In October 1912 the executive of the British Socialist Party, led by the dogmatic Marxist H.M. Hyndman, issued a statement condemning direct action:

‘There is no probability that Syndicalist methods will find favour in Great Britain. The tactics of the Levellers and Luddites belong to a lower stage of economic development and working class organisation than that to which we have attained.’

A few weeks later, Ernest John Bartlett Allen, a leading industrial unionist and former associate of Tom Mann (that is Tom Mann the English trade unionist, not the German novelist) wrote an article reproduced in the Huddersfield socialist weekly, the Worker, entitled ‘Is sabotage un-English’. E.J.B. Allen had lived in Honley between 1910 and 1912, where, despite his Oxford education, he was a labourer in a bobbin turning workshop and was well known in the local movement through his support for the maverick former revolutionary socialist MP, Victor Grayson. He pointed out:

‘the textile workers created a sabotage of their own when they had their Luddite movement … In the Huddersfield area they had a specially heavy hammer made for this work … they sang the praises of this great hammer, Great Enoch, as they had named it.’

He has got hold of the wrong end of the stick, or rather hammer, in saying it was specially made – but his point that direct attacks on machinery were an indigenous form of struggle is valid.
The syndicalist claim to have the Luddites among their fore-fathers was given another twist at a meeting in 1914 when Guy Bowman, editor of the Syndicalist journal, visited Huddersfield. He had been gaoled in 1912 along with Tom Mann for issuing a ‘Don’t Shoot’ appeal to troops called out against strikers. The chair of the meeting George Greensmith, a leading Huddersfield anarchist, claimed that one of the first manifestations of anti-militarism had occurred locally when one of the soldiers stationed in Rawfolds Mill was flogged for refusing to fire on the Luddites.

Greensmith has gone on record with his own startlingly modern Luddite prophecy. This was in a debate in 1912 with Fred Shaw, a Huddersfield engineer, leading local Marxist (and syndicalist sympathiser!) Greensmith criticised Marx for reducing man to

‘the modern sport of the machines man had made in the factories man had built. [but] When man desired they could chuck the machines into the gutter and refuse to go into the mines. It was no longer necessary. They could chain the tides and harness the sunshine.’

Those who pointed out the differences between 1812 and 1912 had some justification. The Luddites were resisting the introduction of machines in the infancy of industrial capitalism – the years before the first world war saw the zenith of heavy industry in Britain. The main problem now was how to gain control over the industrial system. Though the syndicalists embraced Luddite methods they were not seeking the curtailment or abolition of the machine. However, Greensmith’s quote shows that some anarchists, (as did aesthetic socialists like William Morris), saw the machine itself as an obstacle to a new society.

The dispute between Marxists and state socialists on one side and Syndicalists and Anarchists on the other about the relevancy of the machine and Luddism was not confined to Britain. It was a dispute between those who saw socialism primarily in terms of the development of the productive forces and those who emphasised a new society based on changed social relations. The most revolutionary and original among the latter was the German Anarcho-Socialist Gustav Landauer.

In his stirring and poetic ‘Call to Socialism’ published in 1911 he slammed Marxism for its dependency on technology.

Marxism is the uncultured plodder who knows nothing more important, nothing more splendid, nothing more sacred than technology and its progress … The father of Marxism is neither the study of history, nor Hegel. It is neither Smith nor Ricardo, nor any of the pre-Marxist socialists. It is neither a revolutionary democratic condition, nor even less the will and longing for culture and beauty among men. The father of Marxism is steam. Old wives prophecy from coffee dregs. Karl Marx prophecied from steam.

For Landauer, socialism could not be produced from the same technological basis as capitalism – it requires a decentralisation and a move back to the land. Above all it requires an assertion of the human soul, or spirit – the Geist. For those of you who think I have wandered off the Luddites, the significance of this will become apparent at the close of this paper.

One who came to Landauer’s views over the following years was the young poet and dramatist, Ernst Toller, whose experiences on the Western Front turned him into a pacifist and who through the anti-war movement came into contact with the Independent Social Democratic Party. Both Toller and Landauer found themselves leaders of the short lived Munich Soviet in 1919 when Toller announced that they were making a revolution not of force, but of love. Nevertheless Toller was projected into command of the soviet’s small red army and led an action which drove the whites out of the village of Dachau.

On 1st May 1919 the army of the German Republic and the proto-Nazi Freikorps paramiltaries took Munich, launching a white terror killing up to a thousand people, including Landauer who was beaten almost to death then shot. Ernst Toller, thanks to the intervention of prominent figures such as Max Weber and Thomas Mann (that is the German novelist not the English trade unionist), was spared the firing squad.

His five-year imprisonment gave him time to reflect on the ethical and moral dilemmas raised by the revolution. In 1920 to 1921 in the Niederschonenfeld Fortress he composed a drama based on the Luddites entitled ‘Die Maschinenstürmer’ – ‘The Machine Wreckers’. Toller was an Expressionist and did not seek just to portray historical events, which is just as well since the play is not at all accurate. The events of 1812 were used to explore his views about revolutionary violence. Ned Ludd is not a leader, mythical or otherwise, but an ordinary down to earth and somewhat naive worker who believes that smashing the machines will improve the situation. The leader of the ‘weavers’ as they are referred to is Jimmy Cobbett, a surname obviously taken from William Cobbett, who exhorts the men not to resort to violence and to take control of the machines, rather than smashing them. It is he, rather than the millowner, who becomes the target of assassination by the Luddites. Toller explained that in his play the machine was:

“..more than a mere thing. It is a ‘devil’ a ‘demon’ and it provokes its own destruction. It is ‘the symbol of our mechanistic age.”

The question of violence is not entirely resolved. Though it is shown as ultimately futile it is not condemned. Ned Ludd closes by saying:

“We know what we have done and we shall atone for having killed him. But others will come after us with greater knowledge, greater faith, greater courage than us. Your kingdom is crumbling O rulers of England!”

The production of the play was met with both enthusiasm and violent hostility, so strongly did people see the parallels with the situation in 1920s Germany.

The domination of the machine is a central theme of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film ‘Metropolis’ but here the culminating act of machine-breaking also leads to the destruction of the worker’s city itself.

In Herman Hesse’s slightly bizarre surrealist novel of that year, ‘Steppenwolf’, he describes; ‘the long-prepared, long-awaited and long-feared war between men and machines.’ There is a passage so vivid and so resonant with the feelings of some neo-Luddites today that it is worth quoting in full:

‘On every wall were wild and magnificently stirring placards, whose giant letters flamed like torches, summoning the nation to side with the men against the machines, to make an end at last of the fat and well dressed and perfumed plutocrats who used the machines to squeeze the fat from other mens’ bodies [3], of them and their huge fiendishly purring automobiles. Set factories afire at last! Make a little room for the crippled earth. Depopulate it so that grass may grow again, and woods, meadows, heather stream and moor return to this world of dust and concrete.’

We also have of course Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ which has none of the violence of the above but portrays the life of the worker dominated by the machine which he sabotages in his own individualistically anarchic way. Perhaps an even more powerful reference to technological society is his closing speech at the end ‘The Great Dictator, where he asserts that:

‘More than machinery we need humanity’

and he denounces militarism as ‘machine men with machine minds.’

The 1920s and 1930s see a shift from concern about the machine’s effect in the workplace on workers and the labour process to a concern about its domination of society as a whole.

One response which perhaps is closest to the original Luddite concept of what they were fighting for was propagated by Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. In fact, when they were discussing a name for their organisation established in 1927 the ‘Luddite League’ was suggested. They settled on the clumsy and uninspiring name of Distributist League. It’s object – to restore the small producer and property owner which they saw was being destroyed by monopoly capitalism. In his manifesto ‘The Outline of Sanity’,

To go mad and smash machinery is a more or less healthy and human malady, as it was in the Luddites. But it was really owing to the ignorance of the Luddites, in a very different sense from that spoken of scornfully by the stupendous ignorance of the Industrial Economists. It was blind revolt as against some ancient and awful dragon, by men too ignorant to know how artificial and even temporary was that particular instrument, or where was the seat of the real tyrants who wielded it.

Note how Chesterton saw a dragon, where Toller depicted a devil or demon. This I think owes more to the later 19th and 20th century concept of technology than it does to the actual Luddite perception. The Chartist image was often of Moloch, the idol and consumer of infants.

By the way, Chesterton’s also refers to the Luddites in one of his best known verses:

‘I saw great Cobbett riding,
The horseman of the shires,
His face was red with judgement,
And the light of Luddite fires’.

Here he is obviously in fact referring to the Swing rather than the Luddite rising, a reminder that Ned Ludd came in different guises to serve different causes – Swing, Rebecca, or today’s ‘V’.

Chesterton’s populist ideology, and again this perhaps in some respect bears a real similarity to the original Luddites’ aims of defending small scale domestic industry, appeals more to a nostalgic merrie England of rural artisans and yeoman. In fact one of the alternative names proposed for the Distributist League, the ‘League of the Little People’, though rejected because it suggested fairies, would have been most appropriate,.

Chesterton’s world view has something Tolkeinesque about it, an aura of the Shire and Hobbits. Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ actually has its own Luddite episode, though unknown to many because it was not included in the film. The penultimate chapter of the book, ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, deals with the Hobbits’ return home to find not only a police state but environmental destruction centred on a massive new mill with its smoke belching chimney. What the mill does we are not told except it is ‘full o’wheels and outlandish contraptions’. The Hobbits, Luddite style, even arm themselves with ‘heavy hammers’ and after a successful uprising against Saruman’s ‘ruffians’ the mill is destroyed and the Shire re-afforested. This and other references in the trilogy reflect Tolkein’s own real sense of loss in the face industrialisation which destroyed the countryside of his childhood. No wonder that the book became a cult in both the New Age and environmental movement of the 60s.

The unmitigated evil of industrialism, the demon of Toller, the Dragon of G.K. Chesterton seemed to be realised in 1939-45, with total mechanised warfare, industrial scale genocide and nuclear weapons. Lewis Mumford’s concept of the ‘Megamachine’, arising from the domination of an integrated system of technological, economic, political and military power, described in his ‘Myth of the Machine’ and the ‘Pentagon of Power’ also found horrific expression in the Vietnam War and many subsequent so called ‘small wars’. [4]

Growing consciousness of the pervasiveness of the Megamachine, coupled with concern about ecological damage, climate change, etc has over the last forty years focused hostility on technology itself – not just as a product, but also a cause of a destructive system and attitude to life that arguably threatens the basis of both its own survival and the biosphere of the planet.

The deep ecology movement and the ‘monkey-wrenchers’ have again turned to direct action and sabotage of the machine in order to raise awareness of the threat. The re-adoption of the name ‘Luddite’ as a symbol of resistance has been described by Kirkpatrick Sale and I can do no better than refer you to his book ‘Rebels against the Future’ (although his account of the original Luddites is not without its faults). The works of Ted Kaczynski, John Zerzan, Green Anarchists and others who have laid claim to, or have been attributed with, the ‘Luddite’ mantel, are available on the internet. I have not time to go into the pros and cons of Neo-Luddism now – but I urge people not to be put off by some of the more anti-humanist strands of the movement.

Although hostility to new technology has continued in the labour movement – the struggle of dockers against containerisation and of the Wapping printers being perhaps the best known examples – it has been the environmental and anti-globalisation movement which has really embraced neo-Luddism and its traditions of direct action – anarchists of various types, rather than socialists and trade unionists.

This discursive account has taken us from Huddersfield, via Bavaria to Middle Earth … and back again – and in case I have lost anyone on the way I should therefore recapitulate the main points in the process of the unfolding of the Luddite legacy:

Opposition to machinery falls into three types, which broadly constitute three historical phases:

  • Opposition to particular machines because they directly effect the worker in a specific trade and in the immediate community.
  • Opposition to industrialisation as a whole because of the degrading and empoverishing effect on the working class.
  • And the phase that we are now in – opposition to technology due to its scale and all-pervasiveness, since it is both fundamentally dehumanising our species and also threatens the ecological stability of the planet as a whole.

What then did the Luddites do for us?

  • They left us the word Luddism which, once merely pejorative and derogatory, is now being reclaimed.
  • They left us the Luddite methods of direct action and the will to resist against massive odds.
  • They left us the Luddite ethos – which is to question received wisdom that ‘progress’ is to be found in technology and economic growth whatever the human cost.

George Mellor’s aphorism in his last letter from York Castle is I think worthy of Socrates or a Buddha … ‘A SOUL IS OF MORE VALUE THAN WORK OR GOLD…’

We don’t know exactly what he meant by it but the broad message is clear – humanity is more important than mere economic interests.

I think that this encapsulates the most potent part of the Luddite legacy which spans the centuries and is even more relevant today.

Mumford believed that the Megamachine could be beaten. In the closing words of the ‘Pentagon of Power’ he says:

‘for those of us who have thrown off the myth of the machine, the next move is ours: for the gates of the technocratic prison will open automatically, despite their rusty ancient hinges, as soon as we choose to walk out.’

But the Luddites showed us – it is not just an easy matter of walking out.

Some of those who chose to challenge technocracy in 1812 ended up behind the very real gates of York Castle and other gaols. But they have left us their legacy of sacrifice and their example of resistance in the face of the juggernaut of ‘progress’.

The best tribute we can pay to the Luddites is to continue their work – and ensure that we create a society where indeed life is revered and:

‘A SOUL IS OF MORE VALUE THAN WORK OR GOLD…’

Notes and Addenda.

[1] In the course of the debate following this talk a member of the audience pointed out that the Methodist hymn sang by some of the victims on the scaffold did contain imagery of martyrdom ‘Behold the saviour of mankind/Nailed to the cruel tree…’ and that the Methodist ideology of some of the Luddites may have fuelled their sense of self sacrifice.

[2] Since writing this I came across another local story. According to Stuart Christie in his biography ‘Granny made me an Anarchist’, the house he rented in Honley, where he came to live after his acquittal in the Angry Brigade trials, contained an attic in which Luddites had hidden after the shooting of William Horsfall ! I have not come across this story anywhere before, so whether this is a garbled account of a true event, a local legend – or a tall tale told by locals to humour Christie I don’t know.

[3] The accounts of the use of the body fat of concentration camp victims to make soap makes this a prophetic utterance rather than just lurid hyperbole.

[4] One classic work ommitted from this account is Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel ‘Player Piano’, where resistance to machines is led by the secret ‘Ghost Shirt Society’.  Interestingly, former miner Dave Douglass entitles the last volume of his passionate autobiographical triology, describing the struggle against pit closures, ‘Ghost Dancers’ – evoking the same idea of a last ditch stand against cultural oblivion.  The original Ghost Dancers, who wore the Ghost Shirts which were supposed to endow them with invulnerability, represented the final act of overt collective resistance by the Sioux people – (at least until the American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973).  It could be said that, in some ways, the Luddites were the Ghost Dancers of England’s pre-industrial age.

For more on Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Shirley’ see:

https://undergroundhistories.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/charlotte-bronte-shirley-and-the-luddites/

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