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Luddite

The Luddites were a group of English workers in the early 1800s who protested the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution that they felt threatened their jobs, often by destroying machines.

The original Luddites claimed to be led by one Ned Ludd, also known as "King Ludd", who is believed to have destroyed two large stocking-frames that produced inexpensive stockings undercutting those produced by skilled knitters, and whose signature appears on a "workers manifesto" of the time. Whether or not Ludd actually existed is historically unclear.

The movement spread rapidly throughout England in 1811, with many wool and cotton mills being destroyed, until the British government suppressed them harshly (including making "machine breaking" (industrial sabotage) a capital crime, and executing 17 men in 1813).

The terms Luddism, Luddite, (Also Neo-Luddism, Neo-Luddite) in recent years have become synonymous with anyone who opposes the advance of industrial technology.

E. P. Thompson's view of Luddism in The Making of the English Working Class

In his classic book on English history, The Making of the English Working Class[?], E. P. Thompson presented a view on Luddite history. Thompson's approach might well be taken to illustrate the view that, as often happens in history, it is the victor who writes the lines.

The Luddites are often characterised, and indeed their name has become synonymous with, people opposed to all change--in particular technological change such as that which was sweeping through the weaving shops in the industrial heart land of England. They are often characterised as violent, thuggish, and disorganised.

E. P. Thompson advances many arguments against this view of the Luddites. He aims to show that the Luddites were not, contrary to their usual portrayal, opposed to new technology; rather, they were opposed to the abolition of price defined by custom and practice and therefore also to the introduction of what we would today call the free market.

Thompson argues that the usage of free market rhetoric has become so pervasive and commonplace nowadays that it is easy to forget that the notions of the free market were invented relatively recently, in fact at about the time of Luddites. Before this time an artisan would peform work for a given price. The notion of working out how much the materials cost them, how much work they did, and how much profit they made would have been alien to them, and indeed to most people of that time, Thompson holds.

Thompson supplies a number of examples that show it was the forcible introduction of a new economic system that was being introduced that the Luddites were protesting against. For example, the Luddite song, "General Ludd's Triumph":

The guilty may fear, but no vengeance he aims
At the honest man's life or Estate
His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames
And to those that old prices abate
"Wide frames" were the weaving frames, and the old prices were those prices agreed by custom and practice. Thompson cites the many historical accounts of Luddite raids on workshops where some frames were smashed whilst others (whose owners were obeying the old economic practice) were left untouched.

Secondly, Thompson counters the view that the Luddites were thuggish. There were remarkably few Luddite arrests and executions, and yet they operated highly effectively against the forces of the state. The best explanation for this is that they were working with the consent of the local communities (or indeed were part of those communities).

Thirdly, Thompson argued that the Luddites were not disorganised. He noted that some of the largest Luddite activities involved a hundred men.

In short, Thompson feels that in caricaturing the Luddites as thugs who just wanted to smash up new technology we are simply continuing the propaganda of the time. The reality, on Thompson's view, was that the Luddites were normal people who were protesting against forced introduction of changes into their lives which they thought would be highly damaging. Looking 50 years into the Luddites' future, the diseased, poorly fed, and desperate operators in the weaving factories, and the swathe of destruction launched upon on the traditional weaving communities--some with 500 years of history--suggests to Thompson that they may have been right.

Replies to Thompson

Please help by summarizing some of the replies that historians have made to Thompson.

See also Antimodernism, Technophobia.



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