The Luddites were a movement of protest against the use of technology to destroy their livelihoods. John Westmoreland looks at what we can learn from them

Ned Ludd

On Saturday York’ s Alternative History Group held a commemoration of The Luddites, who were convicted and hanged at York Castle in January 1813. The Luddites were machine breakers who were protesting about the use of technology to force down wages and destroy their independence.

The Luddites ranged from stocking makers in Nottinghamshire to croppers in Yorkshire and cotton workers in Lancashire and Cheshire – and possibly the silk spinners of East London too. They were not against technological advance, but opposed the way this was controlled by a greedy elite who kept it to themselves. The plight of those who became known as Luddites (they acted under the name of General Ned Ludd) was made worse by the war against France and their leader Napoleon Bonaparte.

Their decision to wreck machines was taken only after serious consideration. They swore oaths in the name of the communities in which they lived, not out of pure self-interest. Indeed this is one reason they were treated so brutally. Investigating authorities found a wall of silence when they tried to arrest and prosecute.

Bringing radical history to life

The York alternative history group – founded by activists against war and austerity – seeks to offer another history to the sanitised tourist pap that the real York is obscured by. The group offers guided walks, talks and activities which are attracting substantial numbers.

On Saturday, despite appalling weather, over a hundred people gathered in the Guildhall to hear talks on the Luddite rebellion. This was followed by a procession to York Castle where hand-made memorial placards were ceremoniously left standing on the very spot that the executions took place. Each placard carried the name, age and occupation of one of the hanged. In the evening a wake for the dead was held at the Black Swan pub.

One of the stalls at the event was staffed by ‘The Luddites at 200’, whose purpose is to bring the lessons of the Luddite rebellion to bear on politics today. Thus they use the Luddites’ own political slogan: ‘For action against technology “hurtful to Commonality”’. Their website contains interesting articles and resources that can be used to form local groups, hold meetings and events.

The gathering in York was much more than another local history group. It attracted activists, trade unionists and academics in a joint effort to not only bring the Luddite experience back to life, but to link it to politics today. The first talk by Katrina Navickas (University of Hertfordshire) was given from the perspective of the Luddites themselves. She described the alienation they felt from emerging capitalist society which used the free market to ride roughshod over the established rights of the textile workers. The capitalist law they were to be subjected to upheld the rights of the rich over the poor who looked to common law which upheld community values.

Malcolm Chase (University of Leeds) revealed that York Castle (now the Castle Museum) was second only to the prisons of London for trying and executing political prisoners from the Jacobite rebellion to Chartists. Of course you would never know this from visiting the place. The political prisoners and their brutal treatment is now lost and the famous highwayman Dick Turpin is the most celebrated inmate.

Protest then and now

LudditesThe last speaker was Alan Brooke (Huddersfield Local History Society) who spoke on the legacy of Luddism, and offered the thread of protest through the nineteenth and twentieth century to today. This led on to a lively discussion which is worthy of a quick summary.

The connections between the Luddite rebellion (1807-1813) and the struggle today were very real – a history teacher’s paradise. The Tory government tries to smear their opponents in the anti-cuts movement as ‘wrecker’, ‘stuck in the past’ and therefore unable to embrace the future. However, the Luddite objection to the untrammeled progress of barbarism still holds today.

What is progressive about destroying society for the many to satisfy the greed of the few? Workers go to work (the economy) in order to make the family (society) function harmoniously. The Tories are wrecking society by closing libraries, sacking carers and privatizing schools and hospitals to feed the economy. As the Luddites said, the employers ‘stand the world on its head’.

Similarly, every time workers are made redundant because labour is cheaper in China we are told that this is inevitable, and to resist it is futile. But as we can now see, all this achieves for us is that it inevitably increases unemployment and therefore more social need. George Osborne is hamstrung by unemployment, and the spiraling welfare costs this has caused, as tax revenues fall and the economy shrinks. The massive investments in technology which should bring respite to our misery worsen it much of the time.

A very popular theme at York was the idea that we really do need to wreck a few machines and rebalance the use of technology to our needs. We need research into medical technology and nutrition. We need to wreck the nuclear weapons industry.

Lastly, the Labour party came in for some stick. We clearly have a Labour Party leadership that neither knows nor cares anything about our history, and the lessons it teaches us. Ed Balls and Ed Miliband accept the logic of the Tories but argue that they are less extreme. Yet extremism seemed popular to many in the audience. When one young anarchist argued for direct action and less old protest – strikes and demonstrations – half the audience erupted into applause.

However, the lessons of the Labour movement have to be treated more seriously than this. The Luddites could be defeated because direct action was easily outmatched by state violence. The strength of the movement has proved most successful when collective economic strength is tied to political vision and necessity.

I end with a Luddite song – as relevant to today as when it was created. It is worth noting that it was added to over the years, and general authorship seems to be between 1807 and 1821.

The Hand-Loom Weavers Lament

You gentlemen and tradesmen, that ride about at will,
Look down on these poor people; it’s enough to make you crill;
Look down on these poor people, as you ride up and down,
I think there is a God above will bring your pride quite down.

You tyrants of England, your race may soon be run,
You may be brought unto account for what you’ve sorely done.

You pull down our wages, shamefully to tell;
You go into the markets, and say you cannot sell;
And when that we do ask you when these bad times will mend,
You quickly give an answer, “When the wars are at an end.”

When we look on our poor children, it grieves our hearts full sore,
Their clothing it is worn to rags, while we can get no more,
With little in their bellies, they to work must go,
Whilst yours do dress as manky as monkeys in a show.

With the choicest of strong dainties your tables overspread,
With good ale and strong brandy, to make your faces red;
You call’d a set of visitors–it is your whole delight—
And you lay your heads together to make our faces white.

You say that Bonyparty he’s been the spoil of all,
And that we have got reason to pray for his downfall;
Now Bonyparty’s dead and gone, and it is plainly shown,
That we have bigger tyrants in Boneys of our own.

And now, my lads, for to conclude, it’s time to make an end;
Let’s see if we can form a plan that these bad times may mend;
Then give us our old prices, as we have had before,
And we can live in happiness, and rub off the old score.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.