Colin Barker Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Colin Barker

Luddites, Chartists and Plug-Drawers

(October 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.40, October/November 1969, p.41.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Risings of the Luddites, Chartists and Plug-Drawers
Frank Peel
Cass, 60s

Since the publication of Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class a major re-evaluation of the early 19th century working-class movements has been made possible. The main interpretation, previously, had presented the Luddites, Cato Street Conspirators, Corresponding Society members, and so forth, as mere objects of history, or as men doing no more than reacting industrially to new factory oppression, etc. The role of the spies had been overplayed and the role of conscious political ideas among the participants in the movements of the period much devalued. In this way, in a sense, social history had been made safe.

This book is a re-print of a study carried out in the 1870s by a Yorkshire journalist, who both interviewed people who had participated in the movements and worked through local documents. As such it is a book of great importance. Peel’s account, as Thompson notes in his introduction, fully supports the Thompson line: the Luddites were not half-crazed poor folk, acting irrationally and perhaps led astray by nasty Government agents-provocateurs, but were men linked to revolutionary Jacobin traditions, fighting for Liberty as well as for economic security.

The text is a fine piece of antiquarian journalism, likely to appeal to far more than social historians alone. The author seems never quite able to make up his mind which side he is on: respectability demands that he condemn the Luddites, but the justice of their case turns his pen to a tremendous indictment of the croppers’ conditions. It’s a pity this fascinating book should be so expensive.

Colin Barker Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 23.2.2008