The Aims of Luddism: An Historiographic View

The Aims of Luddism: An Historiographic View
Bill Holzapfel
Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School
Wyckoff, NJ
In the drama that was the English Industrial Revolution, the Luddites were among
its most intriguing players. Happening at a time when industries were being
revolutionized by new mechanization and organizational techniques, the machinebreaking perpetrated by the Luddites stands as the most direct and hostile opposition to
the changes in society that were going on around them. One could argue that to
understand the Luddites is to understand what the common worker was experiencing
during this epochal shift in the nature of work. Despite their significance, however, the
Luddites remain somewhat of an historical enigma. As they have tried to unravel the
significance of the Industrial Revolution, historians have taken the industrial sabotage
which occurred in its early days to mean quite different things.
There are, of course, many aspects of Luddism upon which historians readily
agree. The Luddite disturbances took place in the Midlands (mainly Nottinghamshire and
Derbyshire), Lancashire, and Yorkshire, with most of the sabotage raids occurring in
1811 and 1812 (though there were smaller outbreaks of violence in the Midlands until
1816.) Though the character of the attacks differed from region to region, most historians
see enough similarities in the tactics and aims of these groups to categorize them under
the same rubric. Most importantly, all scholars agree that the Luddites were not antitechnology. This is, of course, counter to the current popular perception of their actions;
the term Luddite is used nowadays to denote someone who stubbornly refuses to use new
methods and ideas, such as computers. The Luddites were not against machines per se,
but against the threat to their livelihoods that some machines posed. This is evidenced by
the fact that many machines were not the targets of Luddite violence and that most
employers who continued to pay workers the established wage were left alone.
The issue upon which historians do not concur is: what did Luddism mean
politically? Was it a local phenomenon or should it be seen in a national context? Did the
Luddites in different regions coordinate their efforts, and was their movement the start of
wider, more comprehensive protest movement which could have led to a more general
workers’ rebellion? The purpose of this essay is to examine how these aspects of
Luddism have been characterized by different historians over time. First, it will discuss
the initial historical presentations of the subject, followed by the response made by
Marxist historians of the 1960’s. Finally, it will consider how these questions are viewed
by current scholars as well as how the Luddites are used by some in current political
disputes as we live through another period of monumental economic realignment.
The Conventional View
The first scholars to assess the scope and significance of the Luddites were J.L.
and Barbara Hammond. In The Skilled Labourer, 1760-1832 (London: Longmans, Green,
1919), they devoted several chapters to a discussion of not only the details of how the
Luddites operated, but also whether their operations had any wider political implications.
Throughout their account, the Hammonds are clear in their belief that Luddism was
strictly a local movement that posed no serious threat to industrialization. The Luddites
were small bands of desperate men who acted with specific aims directed at specific
employers with whom they had a dispute. As for wider goals and more national
organization, the Hammonds dismissed any possibility that the Luddites had further
ambitions of rebellion. They viewed the different Luddite bands as acting with complete
independence of each other and that their efforts to communicate were ineffective and
were no real threat to the economic system as a whole.
The Hammonds based their conclusions of the limited scope of Luddite aims on
the fact that their vandalism coincided with active negotiations between workers and
employers and their conclusion that the machine-breaking ceased because the principle
aim of the workers , mostly the promise that prevailing wage rates would continue, had
been achieved. As for Parliamentary concerns that Luddite outbreaks portended that
something more sinister was in the works, the Hammonds were quick to dismiss them as
being unfounded. They portrayed the stories of Luddites having secret meetings,
stockpiling arms, and drilling in the woods under cover of darkness as farcical and the
attempts that were made to build a wider movement were feeble at best. The trials of the
Luddites shed little light on what happened in the Hammonds view, because nearly all the
evidence presented came from spies and informants whose motivations can be called into
serious question, and that these agents, particularly a shadowy figure to whom they refer
as ‘B.”, served as agents provocateurs whose actions did more to perpetuate the alarmist
fears that the Luddites were taking secret oaths and attempting to broaden their uprising
than any action on the part of the Luddites themselves.
The next scholarly work to consider the Luddites was published in 1934, and
would cement the Hammonds’ orthodox view of how these events should be viewed.
F.O. Darvall’s Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1934) echoed and intensified all of the Hammonds’ contentions
about the nature and scope of Luddism. Darvall saw the Luddites as having limited aims,
and pursued their machine-breaking only in particularly hard times, their violent methods
only used as a last resort to augment negotiations between workers and employees. He
shared the Hammonds’ view that they were only acting against factory owners who used
techniques and machines which limited the number of jobs available, such as cut-up
hosiery in the case of the Midlands, and that they ceased their frame-breaking as soon as
concessions were granted. In addition, he was quite emphatic in his concurrence with the
Hammonds’ assertion that there was no wider political agenda to the outbreaks of
Luddite violence of 1811-1812.
Though Darvall was in complete agreement with the Hammonds on this last
point, one is struck by the difference in tone between the two works. While the
Hammonds expressed qualified doubts about the Luddites amounting to a substantial
movement, Darvall was quite strong in his assertion that the Luddites had no broader
There is no evidence whatever of any political motives on the part of the
Luddites. There is not one single instance in which it can be
proved that a
Luddite attack was directed toward anything deeper than disputes between
masters and men, between workmen and their employers. There was not a single
Luddite and hardly a single riot of any kind, with the exception of the unfortunate
Brandreth and his colleagues of the ‘Pentridge Revolution’, against whom a
charge of treason was advanced, or could lie. There is no sign, despite the great
efforts of the spies to prove such motives, that the Luddites, or indeed any but a
few unimportant, unrepresentative, irresponsible
agitators, had any large or
political designs. (p. 174).
Darvall was also quite dismissive of any notion that there was any attempt to organize the
Luddites of the various regions into an insurrectionist movement:
Despite the most careful search no large dumps of arms, such as the spies talked
about, were found. No connexion could be traced between the disaffected in one
district and those in others, except in so far as the regular informers’ tales of
itinerant delegates from London to Dublin, via the north of England and Glasgow,
are to be believed. Despite every effort on the part of the authorities and spies no
system of committees and no plan of revolution could be uncovered. All the
evidence goes to prove, what General Maitland and others suggestions, that the
disaffection was limited to the forms and places in which it showed itself. (p.
In fact, Darvall went so far as to assert that a good deal of the vandalism attributed to the
Luddites was actually committed by small bands of professionals: “The core of midland
framebreaking was clearly the work of a small number of permanent, organized gangs,
engaging regularly in Luddism, and making an income out of it.” (p. 188). Overall,
Darvall wished to portray the Luddites as an inconsequential chapter in the history of the
Industrial Revolution.
The Marxist Response
The view which the Hammonds and Darvall put forward, that the Luddites were a
small, largely ineffective movement which had no wider political connotations, persisted
through the first half of the twentieth century. Then in the 1960’s, Marxist historians
challenged many of the conventionally held views regarding all aspects of British
Industrialization, including the Luddites. The first commentator to challenge the
conventional view of the Luddites was Eric Hobsbawm. In an article entitled “The
Machine Breakers” published in his Labouring Man (London: Weidenfeld and
Nicholson, 1964), Hobsbawm contended that the traditional view which marginalized the
Luddites is due to prior historians’ assumption that technological progress was inevitable
and resistance to it was pointless. He saw the actions of the Luddites as following a long
tradition of collective bargaining by riot that was practiced by workers for centuries
before the Industrial Revolution. Hobsbawm celebrated the actions of the Luddites as a
conscious critique of capitalism and pointed out that their actions were popularly
supported. Ultimately, he believed that Luddite machine wrecking was effective, even if
only marginally so, and that it was the best method of opposition available to the working
class prior to the advent of trade unionism.
The orthodox view of Luddism would have its most serious challenge in the
formidable scholarship of E.P. Thompson. His monumental The Making of the English
Working Class (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963) broke new ground in our understanding
of many key aspects of industrialization and its effect on the people who lived through it.
He devoted considerable space to both the history and historiography of the Luddites and
directly questioned the conclusions reached by previous scholars. Thompson, like
Hobsbawm, viewed the Luddite action in a decidedly sympathetic fashion as defiance of
capitalist exploitation. He does, however, go further than Hobsbawm, asserting that the
Luddites were the beginnings of a true insurrectionist force.
In contrast to the image one gets from the Hammonds and Darvall, that of
desperate men driven by hunger to lash out, Thompson presented the Luddites as a canny
and calculating group of insurgents. They were highly organized and well read, and the
aims of their protest were not the machines but the system. They knew quite well, in
Thompson’s view, what the imposition of laissez faire was doing to workmen’s lives and
were determined to stop its spread. The aims of Luddism were much more far-reaching,
not to mention more potentially dangerous to the status quo, than prior examples of
industrial vandalism:
Although related to this tradition, the Luddite movement must be distinguished
from it, first, by its high degree of organisation, second, by the political context
within which it flourished. These differences may be summed up in a single
characteristic: while finding its origin in particular industrial grievances, Luddism
was a quasi-insurrectionary movement, which continually trembled on the edge
of ulterior revolutionary objectives. This is not to say that it was a wholly
conscious revolutionary movement; on the other hand, it had a tendency towards
becoming such a movement, and it is this tendency which is most often
understated. (p. 553 - italics in original).
Thompson characterized the period as being politically charged, with Luddism becoming
the focus of more diffused rebellious energy. He bolstered his assertion of the wider aims
of the group by detailing how the Luddites, particularly those in Lancashire, “passed
through its machine-breaking phase in a matter of three to four weeks.” (p. 569). By
Thompson’s reckoning, the early vandalism which comes to mind when we think of
Luddism was only a preliminary step toward building these men into an armed
revolutionary movement.
Thompson addressed his predecessors quite directly when dealing with the
questions at hand. He pulled no punches in openly questioning the motivations of the
“The Skilled Labourer is a fine book; but the chapters on Luddism read at times
like a brief prepared on behalf of the Whig opposition, and intended to discredit
the exaggerated claims made by the authorities as to the conspiratorial and
revolutionary aspects of the movement.” (p. 575).
Thompson saw both the Hammonds and Darvall as being “caught up in the minutiae of
day-to-day reports,” (p. 576), so much so that they could not see the forest for the trees.
He saw their dismissal of Luddism’s wider aims as being as invalid as the most wild-eyed
conspiracy tales that they rejected. Thompson maintained that anyone with a knowledge
of geography would find it difficult to believe that Luddites of different regions had no
connection with one another. As for the rejection of evidence as tainted by the
Hammonds and Darvall, Thompson insisted that this was far too close-minded. He
asserted that all evidence of the period was tainted in some way, and refusing to take it
into account at all was akin to tossing out the baby with the proverbial bath water. In
some paragraphs, Thompson came close to outright ridicule of his opponents, arguing
that their willful rejection of any wider meaning to the events of the period was nothing
less than absurd.
Attempts To Settle the Question
Clearly, the Marxists had given the student of the period pause to reflect on the
broader implications of the Luddite movement. Was it a local phenomenon of disgruntled
workmen or a burgeoning revolution? Were the Marxists right to critique the Whig
assumptions of previous scholars as the reason why they refused to see the Luddites as
political? Or can the reverse of that criticism be leveled at the Marxists: Were they so
eager to see class struggle and a challenge to capitalism that they ascribed it to the
Luddites without sufficient evidence? All scholarship on the Luddites which followed
this polarization can be seen as trying to justify or reconcile these two divergent
Though there has been some limited discussion of these questions in historical
journals over the last few decades, the most significant work on the Luddites to emerge
since Thompson was Malcolm Thomis’s The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency
England (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1970). In it, Thomis attempted to answer the
questions raised by the Marxists and put the debate in a more dispassionate context. He
did much to clarify these contentious arguments, while at the same time granting respect
to the proponents on both sides. Despite the fact that he countered many of his assertions,
Thomis lauded Thompson’s work as indispensable and that all scholarship that follows it
must be viewed in its light. And though he can be seen by revisionists as an apologist for
orthodoxy, Thomis cast a critical eye on some of the conclusions reached by the
Hammonds and Darvall.
One of the key aspects of Luddite historiography which Thomis asserted is how
Luddism itself was not as easy to define as previous works had characterized it. In
Thomis’s view, Luddism was an ever-changing phenomenon, and the fact that it was an
evolving movement rather than a clearly defined one has allowed scholars to read much
into them. Particularly in the case of Lancashire Luddism, the absence of clearly defined
industrial aims has allowed those who wish to see political ones quite a bit of room to
speculate. While he granted that there were revolutionary movements afoot during the
period, “...much of the actual evidence leads to the very fringes of Luddism and reopens
the question of just what can appropriately categorised as Luddism.” (p. 85). In other
words, the insurrectionist activity of the period can be tenuously tied to Luddism if you
choose to stretch its definition or can be summarily rejected by sticking to a more strict
interpretation of what Luddism was. As for their choice of sources, Thomis critiqued both
of the two camps, showing how the orthodox view dismisses the accounts of informants a
bit too hastily and how the view of the politicized and insurrectionist Luddite movement
relies too much on local oral histories of dubious authenticity.
When it comes to the question of the political nature of the Luddite movement,
however, Thomis came down on the orthodox side of the argument and was critical of
Hobsbawm’s and Thompson’s conclusions in several key areas. The Marxists’ assertion
of the insurrectionist nature of the Luddites comes from an erroneous linking of existing
plots to the leaders of the Luddites. In addition, Thomis pointed out that some of the
romanticized view of the Luddites comes from a desire to see them as the vanguard of
broader working class agitation which would later manifest itself in other movements.
While it is true that a few of the leaders of the Nottingham Luddites later became leaders
in the Ten Hours Movement, Thomis pointed out that this represents an unrepresentative
handful of individuals to whom motivations in one movement are ascribed more
generally without justification. Even the arms thefts perpetrated by the Luddites, long
cited by revisionists as evidence of a coming insurrection, can be seen as fitting into the
wholly industrial context of Luddism according to Thomis. The Luddites only started to
seize arms after military action had been taken against them, and Thomis asserts that
Luddites were only armed to defend themselves as they pursued further machinebreaking.
Finally, Thomis made his most effective points when he countered the
revisionists’ claim that Luddism was a successful movement. On this account, he took on
Hobsbawm directly:
Perhaps the first major attempt to suggest that the Luddites had appraised their
situation realistically and acted rationally and profitably was made by E.J.
Hobsbawm, who suggested collective bargaining by riot as a feasible alternative
to more orthodox trade unionism in the years of the Combination Laws. The
problem was to show that the collective bargaining had actually achieved
something and had been a worthwhile enterprise. The view that it had was later
advanced with great force when it was suggested that Luddism represented a more
realistic assessment of the economic situation than the employers were showing
and that the successes of the Luddites were to be measured in currency other than
an economic one, that is their contribution to working-class consciousness
through their very willingness to act illegally and challenge society. A
dispassionate observer who needs to see achievements in some measurable
currency continues to have difficulty in accepting that the Luddites bettered
themselves, their successors, or their industries, through their efforts. It is difficult
to see how they contributed positively to thinking on the problems of any of the
industries in which they were involved, and there must still be a strong inclination
to see their thinking and methods as irrelevant to anything other than an
immediate satisfaction of a sense of grievance deeply felt. They were in no sense
moving toward thinking or techniques which were eventually able to strengthen
their own bargaining powers in the economic battle or give them power to wield
within the state. (p. 36)
Thomis went on to recount how any hesitation of employers to introduce machinery in
the aftermath of the Luddites was due to an abundance of cheap labor which kept costs
down, not to a fear of machine-breaking. His book aptly portrays the Luddites as a group
fighting their own obsolescence rather than capitalism, which had already triumphed in
most industries long before 1811.
The Future of the Luddites?
In the continuing debate which followed Thomis’s conclusions, it has become
clear that the question of Luddite aims may never truly be answered. This is due, in part,
to the fact that scholars of differing world views can take the same information and use it
to bolster their own particular argument. As many commentators have pointed out, the
unresolvable character of the Luddite question is also due to the fact that the secretive
nature of the group and lack of internal documentation make them difficult to pin down.
Since it is doubtful that new information on the Luddites is in the offing, new conclusions
are not likely. The debate, however, is certain to continue as thinkers on both sides will
attempt to portray the Luddites in the way they see fit. Thus, there will be no “last word”
on the Luddites, only the continual ebb and flow of historiographic trends.
As a sidelight, the portrayal of the Luddites has taken an interesting turn outside
of academic circles in the last ten years. The 1990’s saw the image of the Luddites
resurrected to serve as a model for resistance in a time of economic change. Books such
as Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995)
and Progress Without People: In Defense of Luddism by David Noble (Chicago: Charles
H. Kerr, 1993) hearken back to Hobsbawm’s romanticized view of the Luddites and use
them as a call to arms for what many have termed the ‘Second Industrial Revolution’. In
the view of both of these authors, the rapid transformation to economic life brought about
by recent innovations in computers, communications, and transportation have created a
situation akin to that which English workers faced in the early nineteenth century. Rather
than scholarly works, these books are polemics intended to stir the masses into what Sale
calls ‘Neo-Luddism’. The social movement which these books wish to spark means to
fight globalization, the degradation of the environment, and what they view as the
increasing way in which technology controls us rather than we control it.
The Neo-Luddite movement goes well beyond the romanticized picture of the
Luddites one gets from Hobsbawm and Thompson and tries to paint them as visionaries
who knew how bleak the future would be if technology was given sway in society.
Noble, who proclaims his sympathies in the photo opposite the title page which shows
him reverentially cradling one of the original Luddite sledge hammers, sees them as
being purposefully blotted from the historical landscape:
The inherited accounts of this period were formulated by and large in response to
the dramatic actions of those who fought for their survival against this progress.
They constituted post hoc efforts to deny the legitimacy and rationality of such
opposition in order to guarantee the triumph of capitalism. The Luddites
themselves were not confused by this ideological invention. They did not believe
in technological progress, nor could they have; the alien idea was invented after
them, to try to prevent their recurrence. In light of this invention, the Luddites
were cast as irrational, provincial, futile, and primitive. In reality, the Luddites
were perhaps the last people in the West to perceive technology in the present
tense, and to act on that perception. They smashed machines. (p. 4).
While it certainly makes for stirring political rhetoric, one wonders when reading these
recent authors where they derive this mythic image of the Luddites. In their zeal to incite
opposition to the ills of technological society today, Sale and Noble cast the Luddites as
larger than life, far more so than the Marxists had ever done. It is not clear, however,
what source material they use to come up with this representation. Noble, for example,
starts with Hobsbawm and Thompson but draws some of his boldest conclusions based
on obscure and unpublished sources. Clearly, this current use of the Luddites will add
little to resolving the historiographic questions which remain. What is more, it serves to
illustrate the fact that the Luddites will always be somewhat of an historical Rorschach
test: the conclusions reached when observing them say as much about mind-set of the
observer as they do about the subject.