The Luddites were a group of activists who became famous during the English Industrial Revolution for destroying textile machines as a form of protest.
For most people today, the Luddites are memorialized in some paragraph that they read in a high school history textbook. Depending on how much of a Capitalist the textbook author is, the paragraph usually talks about how some people mindlessly opposed economic progress. Today people use the term “Luddite” to describe anyone who is against technology.
But, this is not exactly fair to the Luddites, and I have to admit that I am a closet Luddite sympathizer. They weren’t stupid. They knew that they were fighting the movement of industrialization. They were fighting battles against the social inequalities of the Guilded Age and against businessmen that didn’t really care about if their employees starved.
There was a lot of debate about what to make of all the machines in the Industrial Revolution. The scale of passive income that could be made by the owners of these machines was unlike anything people had seen since the abolition of slavery, and many textile workers had their jobs replaced by machines. The textile machines were seen by the majority of people as unfair ways for the rich to get richer. The machines were seen as unfair ways to get around the labor laws that protected the incomes of uneducated, skilled workers.
Ned Ludd was a young apprentice said to have lived in the 1700’s. There is no hard evidence that he actually existed, but over time he became the mythical leader of the movement that would courageously break into factories and destroy equipment because it was threatening people’s livelihoods. Re-named ‘General’ Ludd, he was said to live in Sherwood Forest along with Robin Hood, and together the two fought for the good of the common people. Every populist movement needs a good origins story, and this story successfully motivated average people to become activists. More people vandalized factories and wrote letters from “General Ludd” to their politicians.
The movement became violent in Nottingham on March 11, 1811 and quickly spread through England. Mills were burned, and small skirmishes occurred between company-hired guards and their own employees. Some mill owners were even assassinated, and the British Army was called in to protect the mills.
The Luddites hoped to motivate a ban on all forms of weaving machines to save their jobs, feed their families and preserve a traditional art, but eventually, they were violently suppressed, and the leaders of the movement were shipped off to Australia.
As I said, I can sympathize with the Luddites. I talk a lot about wanting to help people who don’t have voices or are not considered important in society. I generally describe myself as a subscriber to Liberation Theology (if you don’t know what that is, then look up Gustovo Gutierrez or James Cone). I think God prefers to side with the oppressed. Because of this I want to help people who are oppressed, and in the early 1800’s in England, that seemed to be the Luddites.
But, I also don’t think that the Luddites were right. I don’t think that all methods of political resistance for oppressed people groups are valid. They fought violence and injustice with more violence and injustice. The attempted to combat greed with anger, and by doing this they lost the moral high ground that they said they were fighting for.
There are Luddites everywhere today. People are fighting fights where the outcome is uncertain. They question how the textbooks will remember their struggle. Usually the motivations are very personal, and sometimes people seem to be fighting against the tides of history. When this happens is when people are sometimes tempted to give up one of their values in exchange for something that they think they value more. This is already a loss.
I do want to help people who are oppressed, but that description needs a little more nuance. I believe all humans are made to reflect God’s image, and that oppressors of all types fail at this task. I believe in universal values that are given by God, and I think acknowledging this and acting upon it is what it means to authentically follow the example of Jesus’s life.