by Alan Brooke
The Luddite Bicentenary
November 14th, 2012
The bicentenary of the Luddite risings has produced disappointingly little new academic research on Luddism. However, this booklet of only 40 pages goes some way towards filling that vacuum. Based on a lecture he delivered to a conference to mark the bicentenary held at Birkbeck College in 2011, Peter Linebaugh sets out not only to rescue the Luddites from the ‘condescension of posterity’ but also place them firmly in an international context.
As Ned Ludd is the mythic symbol of Luddite resistance to unwelcome industrialisation in England, so Queen Mab, through her personification in Shelley’s poem of that name composed in 1812, becomes the symbol of a radical critique of western civilisation as a whole. Although Shelley later dismissed the poem as naive juvenilia, his passionate denunciation of monarchy, militarism, the church and capitalism remained an inspiration for working class radicals into the Chartist period and beyond.
From the vantage point of 1811-12, Linebaugh launches a sweeping survey of the processes underway which were dispossessing not only the Luddites and the English common people of the means of production, including the land, but were also impacting on traditional communities across the world. And, as with the Luddites, such communities responded with acts of resistance, which, while often ending in defeat, nevertheless helped shape the modern world.
From Ireland to Egypt, through Creek and slave risings in the US, the insurrections of Hidalgo and Miranda in Latin America and the reactionary backlash following the Ratcliff Highway murders in England, Linebaugh links the increasing exploitation of producers and the expropriation of the means of production to the development of global capitalism. Inevitably, in such a broad brush approach, the details of such interconnectedness is sometimes assumed rather than demonstrated and there are some omissions. Particularly, since he takes the Luddite response to mechanisation in the woollen industry as one of his main points of reference, there is no mention of the clearances in the Scottish highlands and islands, where whole communities were swept away to make room for sheep.
Also, in following E.P. Thompson’s effort to assign the Luddites their proper role in history, Linebaugh has also reproduced one of Thompson’s historiographic errors in placing too much reliance on the late 19th century writer Frank Peel. Consequently Linebaugh suggests that the Luddite, George Mellor, could have been influenced by the utopian socialism of Robert Owen, even though Owen was not a socialist in 1812. Another reference to Mellor also claims that he was a veteran of the Egyptian campaign, for which there is no contemporary evidence, apart from the fact he would only have been about ten years old at the time!
However, such factual errors, and the inevitable omissions inescapable in such an ambitious synthesising work, should not put the reader off. The booklet is extremely thought-provoking and provides a backdrop to the Luddite risings which has not really been explored previously, since Luddite studies have tended to focus-in on the local rather than stand back and observe the global. It also adds a new dimension to English working class history as a whole and helps counteract some of the parochialism which still affects this field both academically and in orthodox ‘labourist’ approaches which concentrate on the supposed deference of the English working class, dominated by a trade union consciousness steeped in constitutionalism. Linebaugh brings to life the other tradition expressed by the Luddites and by Shelley’s damning philosophical condemnation of the British state in all its manifestations.
The final paragraph of the work contains one of Linebaugh’s most valuable insights encapsulated in a single word. Here he refers to the ‘poesis of the Luddites’. This concept is one which requires elaboration for all those who consider themselves the heirs of Luddism. Instead of the ‘praxis’ of political struggle, an often mechanistic action born of a preconceived theory, the concept of ‘poesis’ implies, as its shared root with poetry suggest, an act of creativity, imagination, intuition and spontaneity. The Luddites have often been dismissed by orthodox Marxists and labourites because their actions did not fit in with the ideal course of class struggle. Linebaugh’s global panorama shows that they had a better grasp of what was at stake than those who claim to be guided by scientific theory. This work is a fitting bicentennial tribute to the Luddites and, notwithstanding its brevity, an important contribution to Luddite research.