Kevin Binfield, editor, Writings of the Luddites
(The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004)
The word "Luddite" was originally used to identify groups of early nineteenth century English textile workers who protested the mechanization of their crafts by smashing the offending machines. In recent decades, popular authors including Wendell Berry, Jerry Mander, Jeremy Rifkin and Kirkpatrick Sale have appropriated the word and its close variant "Neo-Luddite," to refer to just about anyone who rejects some form of technology. Depending on the author, the word may be used pejoratively or with admiration. Before I picked up this book, most of my understanding of the word came from the more recent sources.
Kevin Binfield's Writings of the Luddites provides an intriguing view of the original "machine breakers." The title is an apt description of the book's contents. Writings of the Luddites offers a well organized and edited collection of letters, broadsides, and song lyrics. Their common features include anonymous authorship, reference to Ned Ludd or some variation on that name, and threats or other inflammatory statements. Originally composed by the workers themselves, they are ungrammatical, even by the standards of the time. The surviving copies were often transcribed by clerks at the British Home Office, where many of them are now archived. Binfield has provided just enough commentary to enable a motivated reader to make sense of these documents in context.
According to the dust jacket flap, Kevin Binfield is an associate professor of English at Murray State University in Kentucky. In his preface, Binfield explains that he started the years-long research that led to this book literally minutes after submitting his doctoral dissertation on English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In case you've forgotten or never knew, Shelley was definitely not a member of the working class. At around the time of the Luddite protests, he was expelled from Oxford University for writing and distributing a pamphlet favoring atheism. His second wife, Mary, later wrote the well-known novel Frankenstein, which has a very strong anti-technology theme. His close friend, George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a vocal supporter of the rights of the Luddite protesters and was one of the few members of the House of Lords to speak against the Frame Breaking Bill when it was introduced in 1812.
But these are the connections I have made, not the ones that Binfield provides. He credits his interest in the Luddites to E.P. Thompson, who wrote in the Preface to The Making of the English Working Class of his desire to "rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite Cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver from the enormous condescension of posterity" (Thompson, 1963, p. 12). In spite of these early references to Luddism, Thompson doesn't give a whole lot of information about the protests or the protesters, observing that, as an aggressively underground movement, it left very little in the way of a written record. Although Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm also devotes several paragraphs of text in Labouring Men (1964) to the so-called machine breakers, like Thompson, he relies on secondary sources for his material.
In his Introduction to Writings of the Luddites, Binfield provides a brief but thorough overview of many of the books and articles written about Luddism, starting with those published shortly after the protests occurred. Like the works by Thompson and Hobsbawm referenced in the paragraph above, most of these were written by historians who relied on official records and secondary sources for their documentation. The widely used statement about the inaccuracy of any history told only from the perspective of those in power certainly applies in this instance. The writings included in this volume definitely provide another perspective on the protests.
Binfield also briefly explains the differences in the protests across the three regions that were identified with the Ludd name during the period 1811-1817. In the Midlands (around Nottinghamshire), he notes, the protests came from hosiery and glove knitters (stockingers) who opposed the introduction of wide knitting frames that produced inferior material and violated terms of the 1663 Charter of the Company of Framework Knitters. In the Northwest (around Manchester), the protestors were workers in the relatively new cotton spinning and weaving industry, who were primarily concerned about wage suppression following the introduction of steam-powered looms. In the West Riding region (Yorkshire), the protestors were wool croppers resisting the introduction of gig mills and shearing frames that made their work easier but also required considerably less skill to operate. In all these cases, the new technology was intended to increase productivity and reduce the reliance on highly skilled textile trades, resulting in more output and presumably higher profits for the mill owners. It's small wonder that the local authorities and Parliament tended to side with the latter and not with the outraged workers.
So what about Ned Ludd? Is he an actor in this history? Binfield stops short of dealing with the question of whether Ned Ludd really lived and took part in the protests. Instead, he refers to Ned Ludd as an eponym, or name that comes to be associated with a period or movement. His argument is that the use of particular rhetoric in the writings he has compiled constitutes a "discursive continuity" in the protests that transcends the differences in the way workers in the three regions challenged the mechanization process and in the organizational capacity of the workers.
I greatly appreciate the meticulous attention that Binfield gave to this project. From a reader's perspective, however, the book would be enhanced by the addition of three elements. One of these would be a map of the region so that one could easily get a sense of the geographic proximity (or distance) between the regions or the towns within each. Another would be a timeline of the major protests and actions taken by Parliament to quell them. The third would be a slightly more careful rendering of the narrative in the section about the regions so that a reader unfamiliar with the textile industry could make more sense of the technologies in use and being introduced during this period. I found this section confusing, and I have more than a passing familiarity with various aspects of textile manufacturing.