Luddite Mythology and Legacy
The word ‘Luddite’ originates from the name of their supposed leader, Captain (or General) Ned Ludd. It is believed that this person was not one actual leader, but a name used by several different people, including one of the Luddites who would later stand trial. The name was also used to sign threatening letters to opponents in the name of the Luddite cause. Where exactly the name comes from is unknown. There were several stories that revolved around young boys who smashed a machine in retaliation for harshness they faced in the workplace (the same action the Luddites themselves would commit). Whether any of these stories are true or not is hard to decide, but what is more important is what they show. The myths that the Luddites were led by Captain Ludd were based around retaliation and fighting back against those who have wronged you.
This then is the mythology that surrounded Luddism during the time that they were active. But, subsequently, those looking back and studying their actions have created what could be considered the ‘modern myth’ of Luddism.
This centres on the idea that the Luddites were revolutionary. How much truth is there in this? Was this a class struggle similar to those we would see later in the 19th century and beyond into the 20th and 21st? Were the Luddites consciously trying to cause a revolution or simply desperate men trying to fight back against the destruction of their livelihoods?
Their actions suggest the latter. They were fighting for their livelihoods, not attempting to smash the system. There was no political agenda - no evidence of a desire to change their standing in society. In fact, they were fighting against being downgraded by machinery. It could be considered they were fighting to keep their lives that were fairly privileged amongst the working classes. The artisan status they had worked hard to earn in what was considered a difficult job was suddenly taken away by machinery that could often perform the same task, a lot faster, much cheaper and occasionally to a better standard. Their actions were against the changes made to working conditions that were creating unemployment rather than more modern working class movements who are fighting to enhance their standing in society and change the political system. This has led many people to dismiss the movement as mindless violence. The murder of a mill owner, William Horsfall, in 1812 caused outrage. Attacks like this and the breaking of machinery gave the Luddites a bad name and took focus from their cause as a group of workers fighting for their livelihoods. Instead many viewedthem as a mindless mob threatening society.
Luddism has still remained prominent in modern popular culture with both pro and anti Nedd lyrics appearing in songs such as ‘General Ludd's Triumph’ that was recorded by Chumbawamba:
No more chant your old rhymes about old Robin Hood
His feats I do little admire
I'll sing the achievements of General Ludd
Now the hero of Nottingham Shire
As well as ‘Ned Ludd’ written and recorded by Robert Calvert:
They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy
That all he could do was wreck and destroy, and
He turned to his workmates and said: Death to Machines
They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams.
However, the ‘modern myth’ of Luddism has also led to organizations like the Neo-Luddites, who, like their 19thcentury counterparts, are opposed to modern technology that displaces workers and increases unemployment. Although the technology that their anger is aimed at may be very different to those of the original Luddites (nuclear weapons and genetic engineering as opposed to frame-knitting machines), their reasoning remains similar to that of the original Luddites - that new technology is harmful to society - even if the harmful effects are on a different scale nowadays than they were two hundred years ago. However they don’t oppose all modern technology, such as mobile phones and the internet. Instead they question how certain technologies are used and produced. The Neo Luddites aim for a better understanding of the negatives that new technology can bring to society, rather than the common misconception that they oppose all new modern technology.
The Luddite legacy therefore could be considered to be this idea of fighting back against technology that is dangerous or harmful to society - an idea which would continue to resonate with workers throughout the 19thand 20th centuries - which all goes back to the original idea of the boy, Ned Ludd, who smashed up a frame in the face of harshness.
A huge thank you goes out to David King and the Luddite 200 Organising Forum for all their help and input.
By Hannah Gacek, Sarah Bell and Holly Thomas.
The Truth about Neo Luddism
An overview of Neo Luddite ideas and common misconceptions, including a bibliography of all sources used.