Luddites

From Anarchy In Action
Luddite.jpg

The Luddites were English cotton workers and others who, in the 1810s, destroyed livelihood-threatening weaving machines. They were active in Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, and Yorkshire. Contrary to stereotypes, the Luddites had a "high degree of organisation," popular backing, and sophisticated politics.[1] The historian E.P. Thompson describes Luddism as "a violent eruption of feeling against unrestrained industrial capitalism."[2]

The Luddites' first major actions were riots in Nottingham in March of 1811, where they broke sixty stocking frames (mechanical knitting machines).[3] By early November, the Luddites attacked in small bands, wearing masks and using a pistol fire as a signal to retreat. Thompson reports, "Every attack revealed planning and method."[4] In January, 1812, workers in Yorkshire began imitating the Luddism of Nottingham. They set a gig-mill on fire, and by February, there were nightly attacks in some districts.[5]

The Luddites' insurrections scared authorities, and Vice-Lieutenant Wood wrote on 17 June 1812, "[E]xcept for the very spots which were occupied by soldiers, the country was virtually in the possession of the lawless."[6]

According to Thompson, the Luddites "had the backing of public opinion" in the Midlands and West Riding,[7] in some regions, and historian Eric Hobsbawm remarks that there was "overwhelming sympathy for machine breakers in all parts of the population."[8]

The Luddites were highly coordinated yet decentralized. John Zerzan and Paula Zerzan explain, "Eschewing an alienating structure, their organization was without a center and existed largely as an 'unspoken code;' theirs was a non-manipulative, community organization which trusted itself."[9] Scholars today agree the movement's alleged commander King Ludd was fictional and perhaps based on the apprentice weaver Ned Ludd who smashed a loom in protest of a master who had beaten him.[10]

The main reason for the Luddites' demise was state repression. A Libcom article describes "the destruction of the Luddites by the State."[11] Zerzan and Zerzan argue that the the Luddites' "leadership," however restricted in its initial influence, ultimately pushed the struggle into tamer legislative, reformist efforts.[12]

  1. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 553.
  2. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 550.
  3. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 553.
  4. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 554.
  5. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 557.
  6. John Zerzan and Paula Zerzan, "Who Killed Ned Ludd? A History of Machine Breaking at the Dawn of Capitalism," Fifth Estate 271 (1976), https://www.fifthestate.org/archive/271-april-1976/killed-ned-ludd/.
  7. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 547.
  8. Zerzan and Zerzan, "Who Killed Ned Ludd?"
  9. Zerzan and Zerzan, "Who Killed Ned Ludd?"
  10. "Who were the Luddites?", Libcom, 13 October 2016, https://libcom.org/history/who-were-luddites.
  11. "Who were the Luddites?"
  12. Zerzan and Zerzan, "Who Killed Ned Ludd?"