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The Aims and Accomplishments of Luddism

June 27, 2010

The Luddites of nineteenth-century England offer a very interesting glimpse into a world where capitalism has just begun to expand and the working class was being created. Historians however, disagree, on what the aims and goals of the Luddites were as well as what they accomplished in the end. Luddism began as a defence of the status quo for workers worried about their wages and other working conditions, and turned into an insurrectionary movement. Of the historians that discuss Luddism, I think that E. P. Thompson is the closest to the mark in describing the aims and accomplishments of the Luddites.
Eric Hobsbawm, in his article The Machine Breakers, offers an interesting view of the motives behind machine breaking. Hobsbawm argues that the rear-guard action in which workers fought against the new system was going to be defeated inevitably, but we must “accept its pointlessness.”(1) Hobsbawm makes the case that there were two types of machine breaking which occurred. The first type was a means of putting pressure onto employers, and “implies no special hostility to machines as such.”(2) The idea is that to help assist in negotiations with employers, the workers would destroy machinery.  There is a strong tradition of this to be found in the coal miners, who “had reached the point of aiming their demands against the employers of labour, they used the technique of wrecking.”(3) In many parts of England, such as Northumberland, and Durham miners wrecked machinery in order to gain pay increases or to maintain the wages they already have.
This suggests the idea that the Luddites were engaging in ‘collective bargaining by riot’(4) and that the results often resembled that of collective contracts. This was not always possible, as Hobsbawm says  referring to the collective bargaining through riot “it was more useful, when intermittent pressure had to be put on masters, than when constant pressure had to be maintained: when wages and conditions finally changed.”(5) This suggests that Luddism began in reaction to wage decreases and the beginning of the end of certain trade professions.  An effect of the use of collective bargaining was the rise of a kind of working class solidarity. This was especially important in regards to collective bargaining as “the habit of solidarity, which is the foundation of effective trade unionism, takes time to learn – even where, it suggests itself naturally.”(6) Adrian Randall says that “such was the public support for the machine breakers that, the corporation was forced to admit failure. The Luddites…had also won the hearts and minds of the community.”(7) The Luddites were able to engender a working class spirit which allowed the workers to express enough solidarity to bargain together and uphold agreements made with employers.
M. I. Thomis offers a different interpretation of the Luddites’ actions. Thomis notes, like Hobsbawm, that preceding the breaking of machines was a wage reduction. While it is true that wages make up an important part of the issue for the Luddites, Thomis argues that the grievances that caused workers to break machines had to do with violation of industry standards. Reasons giving for the breaking of frames include, the operation of frames by unapprenticed workers, because the owners were accused of payments in truck, imposing abatements upon the men, but most of all because the employer was making ‘cut-up’ hosiery.(8)  The actions against these manufacturers suggests that the workers were uniting in defence of their trade, and saw certain applications of machines as violating the industries standards. In the case of ‘cut-ups’ were “allegedly throwing the whole trade into disrepute and undermining the position of the fully-fashioned, traditionally-manufactured product.”(9) The defence of their industry standards lends credence to Thomis’ claim that the Luddites were seeking the regulation of the trade.
The programme of the Yorkshire Luddites was based around an attempt to “achieve by other means aims which the men had long been pursuing by more orthodox trade-union organisation.”(10) The turn towards machine breaking can be seen as an attempt to fight back against the employers who had wronged them for personal profit.  This is similar to the way that Luddism  operated in Lancashire where “attacks on steam-looms developed out of a background of attempts to secure a minimum wage and parliamentary regulation of the trade.”(11) This was different from the style imposed in Nottinghamshire, where machine breaking was attempted to hold particular employers to particular prices.(12) These differences have to do with the industrial conditions in the respective cities as well as the employers to be found there. Some employers were more likely then others to negotiate, well some like William Cartwright were determined to pursue greater industrialization.
Thomis also addresses the issue of whether the Luddites  were purely focused on industrial matters or if they had a wider political objective. Some people, like Radcliffe’s correspondent, seem to believe that “if the obnoxious machinery were allowed to remain in use, the dispute over machinery would probably terminate in civil war.”(13) .” A second issue is the fact that Luddism had no single head deciding the next course of action. For example, when in Yorkshire, the Luddites decided to strike at one of their main opponents, they settled on the Rawfolds Mill of William Cartwright. The attack ended up  being a failure in which two Luddites were killed.(14) Following the failed attack on Rawfolds Mill, the Luddites began raiding in order to arm themselves. There is a suggestion that following the raid at Rawfolds, the Luddites began to shift their emphasis from to “’general insurrectionary preparations’ based on a ‘serious conspiratorial organization which was coming into existence.”(15) Thomis offers an alternative account of why the  Luddites would arm themselves that does not have to do with insurrection. Thomis says that “they did not begin until Luddites had been killed and until military arms had been used against them; Cartwright had drawn the first blood, and factories defended by arms would have to be attacked with them if they were to be attacked at all.”(16) This suggestion makes sense in light of evidence that directly link the Luddites to any sort of insurrectionary army.  Thomis makes an interesting point that the Luddites were not very sophisticated and that “the Luddites had on the other hand only vague notions of social amelioration, and no concept of this as a consequence of political action and the use of political power….but acting politically meant for them striking a few blows, not organising a political campaign, let alone a revolution.”(17)
Adrian Randall, like Hobsbawm, argues that Luddism had its beginnings in struggles over wages. Randall identifies three interlinked issues which led to the disturbances in 1811. The first thing Randall identifies is the downward pressure upon piece rates.(18) The second issue  was caused by an increase in the number of people who purchased frames to rent to workers, which caused an increase in the labour supply. In particular the employment of females and apprentices increased the downward pressure on wages.(19) The third issue  was the use of wide frames to make the previously mentioned ‘cut-ups’.  In fact, the Luddites argued that cut-ups were illegal under the Charter granted to the Framework Knitters’ Company by Charles II, which allowed the workers to destroy machinery making ‘spurious articles.’(20)
Randall also takes care to discuss the regional variations Luddism developed. For instance, the style of Luddism that was practised in Lancashire and Cheshire were different than the Luddism that was in Yorkshire. Where Yorkshire saw the attack on Rawfolds Mill and other armed raids, the style of Luddism in Lancashire and Cheshire was the most complex and confused.(21) In Lancashire and Cheshire most of the machine breaking was not aimed at breaking frames, but combating the power loom. At the same time as weaves became cautious of the new machinery taking away their jobs, “local weavers’ committees were being infiltrated by radicals who were orchestrating insurrectionary plots.”(22) Randall does not offer any evidence for his claim that radicals infiltrated, besides a letter, which does not necessarily mean that the information contained within it is correct. One thing is certain however, that violence increased, for example there are reports of a crowd over 3,000 strong who smashed factory windows, the manufacturers own personal windows, and in the case of Marsland smashed his furniture as well.(23)
Randall’s conclusions regarding the significance of the Luddite uprising, are interesting and in opposition to Thomis and Thompson. Randall argues that the Luddite disturbances “marked a decisive sea change in the relationship between the crowd and the authorities…we can see the demise of the old dialogue through disorder model that had characterized so many popular protests previously.”(24) Randall disagrees with Thompson’s conclusion that “Luddism arose ‘at the crisis point in the abrogation of paternalist legislation, and in the imposition of the political economy of laissez-faire upon, and against the will and conscience of, the working people.” For Randall the Luddites were not so much against the  new economic system as they wished to maintain their old privileges and lifestyles.
E. P. Thompson shares a similar view to Thomis, but crouches his argument in different terms. Thompson also takes come of the conclusions reached by Hobsbawm regarding worker solidarity and expands on them. For Thompson, Luddism can be seen as “the nearest thing to a “peasant’s revolt” of industrial workers; instead of sacking the chateaux, the most immediate object which symbolized their oppression — the gig-mill or power-loom mill were attacked.”(26) This idea of linking the Luddite actions as being the equivalent of an industrial peasant’s revolt seems to best place the actions of the Luddites in context. It was not until after they began attacking “these symbols of exploitation and of the factory system that they became aware of larger objectives; and pockets of ‘Tom Painers’ existed who could direct them towards ulterior aims.”(27)
As far as accomplishments go, most of the results the Luddites received from collective action were later undone, however the biggest accomplishment the Luddites achieved was the “manifestation of a working class culture of greater independence than any known to the 18th century.”(28) Thomis, however, disagrees with this characterization of a working class culture. Thomis says that “it can hardly be argued that some new pattern of working-class behaviour was established which determined the nature of working class participation in industrial or political affairs in the future.”(29) One thing that Thomis is forgetting here is the way workers exhibited solidarity in order to gain or keep their wages. Thompson addresses two causes which brought Luddism to an end. The first is the repeal of the Orders in Council, which prohibited trade with French ports, which caused a rapid improvement in trade as well as increased pressure from the authorities, who employed “more troops, more spies, more arrests and the executions at Chester and Lancaster.  Thompson goes on to say that the Luddite movement was a transitional movement which occupied the space between the Combination Acts and the creation of self-confident trade unions.(30)
The Luddites aimed to maintain their current labour status and position in society. By striking back against machinery which lowered their wages, and made their trades obsolete. By working together against employers, the Luddites exhibited a worker solidarity that enabled them to collectively bargain with employers and win in many cases.  The question of what the Luddites accomplished is much harder to answer. It is true that the Luddites exhibited worker solidarity, but as far as achieving their goals of keeping their former trade and wages, they failed. By looking at Luddism as a dry run at the formation of trade unions, valuable insights regarding the reaction of authorities, and the most effective methods cannot be discounted. Without the practise gained during the period of Luddism, the English working class would have a much harder time uniting around a shared past and ideology.
The historians that discuss the Luddites reach a number of different conclusions about the aims and desires of the Luddites. I think E. P. Thompson is the closest one to the mark when he suggests that the Luddites were engaging in industrial peasant revolts. The idea that they were striking out at symbols of their oppression, while not  answering the question on its own, does suggest why only certain trades broke machinery and why the methods of Luddites differed from region to region. Cotton workers and coal workers both broke machines but for different reasons. Frame breakers often broke machinery to punish employers for lowering wages, whereas the coal workers often broke machinery to ensure no workers will stop striking before a favourable agreement has been made. The Luddites occupy an important place in the study of popular protest, as the rise of capitalism, and later globalization, would begin a new phase of class struggle.

Notes
1. Hobsbawm, Eric. “The Machine Breakers” Past and Present, vol. 1 (February 1952) pp. 57
2. Hobsbawm, Eric. “The Machine Breakers” Past and Present, vol. 1 (February 1952) pp. 57
3. Hobsbawm, Eric. “The Machine Breakers” Past and Present, vol. 1 (February 1952) pp. 59
4. Hobsbawm, Eric. “The Machine Breakers” Past and Present, vol. 1 (February 1952) pp. 59
5. Hobsbawm, Eric. “The Machine Breakers” Past and Present, vol. 1 (February 1952) pp. 60
6. Hobsbawm, Eric. “The Machine Breakers” Past and Present, vol. 1 (February 1952) pp. 60
7. Randall, Adrian. “’Engines of Mischief‘: The Luddite Disturbances of 1811-1812“ Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England. (2006) pp. 281
8. Thomis, M. I. “The Aims of the Luddites” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp.  76
9. Thomis, M. I. “The Aims of the Luddites” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp.  76
10. Thomis, M. I. “The Aims of the Luddites” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp.  77
11. Thomis, M. I. “The Aims of the Luddites” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp.  77
12. Thomis, M. I. “The Aims of the Luddites” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp.  78
13. Thomis, M. I. “The Aims of the Luddites” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp.  79
14. Thomis, M. I. “The Aims of the Luddites” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp.  80
15. Thomis, M. I. “The Aims of the Luddites” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp.  80-81
16. Thomis, M. I. “The Aims of the Luddites” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp.  94
17. Thomis, M. I. “The Aims of the Luddites” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp.  95
18. Randall, Adrian. “’Engines of Mischief‘: The Luddite Disturbances of 1811-1812“ Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England. (2006) pp. 276
19. Randall, Adrian. “’Engines of Mischief‘: The Luddite Disturbances of 1811-1812“ Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England. (2006) pp. 276
20. Randall, Adrian. “’Engines of Mischief‘: The Luddite Disturbances of 1811-1812“ Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England. (2006) pp. 276
21. Randall, Adrian. “’Engines of Mischief‘: The Luddite Disturbances of 1811-1812“ Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England. (2006) pp. 288
22. Randall, Adrian. “’Engines of Mischief‘: The Luddite Disturbances of 1811-1812“ Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England. (2006) pp. 289
23. Randall, Adrian. “’Engines of Mischief‘: The Luddite Disturbances of 1811-1812“ Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England. (2006) pp. 290
24. Randall, Adrian. “’Engines of Mischief‘: The Luddite Disturbances of 1811-1812“ Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England. (2006) pp. 300
25. Randall, Adrian. “’Engines of Mischief‘: The Luddite Disturbances of 1811-1812“ Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England. (2006) pp. 301
26. Thompson, E. P. “An Army of Redressers” The Making of the English Working Class (1963) pp. 600
27. Thompson, E. P. “An Army of Redressers” The Making of the English Working Class (1963) pp. 600
28. Thompson, E. P. “An Army of Redressers” The Making of the English Working Class (1963) pp. 601
29. Thomis, M. I. “Luddism and the Making of the English Working Class” The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England (1972) pp. 173
30. Thompson, E. P. “An Army of Redressers” The Making of the English Working Class (1963) pp. 601

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Lizette Diaz permalink
    December 9, 2010 11:58 pm

    I just had a question because Im writing a paper for my 19th cent. Philosophy class and one of the questions that my professor asks is” to what extent can one say the Luddites were and/or were not technophic, because I know they didnt consider themselves techno phobic or label themselves with that idealogy.

    • great lake swimmer permalink
      December 10, 2010 12:48 am

      well one arguement i guess you couldtry to make would to be say that the luddites were acting not in response to technology, but the way in which capitalism was effeting them through the use of machines. that would be a good beginning i think.

  2. kadinde sharon permalink
    July 9, 2012 11:03 am

    What is interested is that the Luddites were fighting against the wrong enemy,This is because their real enemy it was not the machines,but their enemy were the Capitalist who exploited them in various terms like low wages, low price on their products and land confiscation

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