Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Robert Reid - Land of Lost Content: The Luddite Revolt 1812

This is a far more accessible and better written than the previous book I reviewed on this subject, Malcolm Thomis' The Luddites. It also benefits from better analysis of events and people. That said they are quite different books - Robert Reid is writing for a wider, more popular audience who might not know the history of the period, and as such he links the story of the Luddites to historical figures (such as the Bronte family). Reid also focuses his narrative on events in Yorkshire, though he does not ignore Luddite activity elsewhere.

Reid argues that the ruling class responded badly to the Luddites. He suggests, as other commentators have done, that they were very slow to awake to the scale of the rebellion and when they finally did so, where prone to see it as a Revolutionary situation, fueled by their angst caused by the French Revolution and, to a great extent, by their over-reliance on spies who frankly told their masters the stories they wanted to hear.

That said, Reid does not ignore the extent of the Luddite movement, nor does he pretend that there was no motivation behind it. Reid is excellent at explaining precisely what angered the Luddites about particular machines, and the scale of poverty, unemployment and hunger. Reid is also good an analysing the influence of the Reform movement on the situation. He notes that figures such as the Reform parliamentarian Francis Burdett inspired the radicals who had enormous illusions in them. Despite some fear from senior members of the government however,

Burdett had no interest in leading a radical movement, and in this disappointed thousands of working people in London and elsewhere. Reid also notes that the different geographical strands of the movement tended to reinforce each other, though contact between them was limited. Events in the South inspired action in the North and vice-versa, though rumours of massive armies ready to march on the capital were just the products of hope, or lies spread by spies.

Like most other commentators Reid locates the Luddite rising within the development of capitalism, and the transition to production for profit. One brilliant proof of this is when he quotes a prosecutor at one of the Luddite trials using Adam Smith's "economic argument in favour of machinery" as part of the prosecution. No further evidence might be needed.

I was less convinced by Reid's argument about the "law of technology" which he suggests will inevitably lead to unemployment. Reid was writing in the aftermath of the Great British Miners' Strike, so he is right in a sense. But the problem is not technology, but the economic system that puts technology at the service of profit. Reid is wrong when he argues "the most realistic solutions to problems created by technology are likely themselves to be technological". Instead the answer has to be a change to the political system that puts technology at the service of people.

That said, Reid is firmly on the side of those who fought back and continued to do so. His book powerfully demonstrates the extent to which a ruling class will use "Fear, and Fear alone" as General Maitland promised, to hold down workers fighting for their livelihoods. Most Luddites did not believe in fundamental change, but a few did draw that conclusion. They were the precursors of those that would try to build radical organisation to try and bring that about.

As a footnote, I wanted to mention the slight oddity that this book is endorsed on the back by both the Revolutionary Socialist Paul Foot and the appalling right-wing, racist Tory Enoch Powell. Given Foot's critique of Powell, its a strange combination.

Related Reviews

Thomis - The Luddites
Zmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

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