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From King Ludd to Earth First! : REBELS AGAINST THE FUTURE: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution, By Kirkpatrick Sale (Addison-Wesley: $24; 320 pp.)

June 18, 1995|Noel Perrin | Noel Perrin teaches environmental studies at Dartmouth. He's the author of " Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879. "

In the fall of 1811, the sound of smashing machinery began to be heard in England. Power looms were starting to replace the hundreds of thousands of hand weavers who made cotton and wool and silk cloth. Tens of thousands of weavers were already out of work, and the wages of the rest were steadily dropping. You could work your 12-hour day and still not make enough to put food on the table.

At the same time, pollution was rising rapidly. The new machines were all fueled by coal, and there were no environmental regulations of any sort. A pall of smoke and soot covered Manchester and Nottingham, and the little rivers ran black.

The unemployed and the underpaid petitioned the government, but government was on the side of the new factory owners. No help there. So the night raids on the factories began. Sometimes masked men burnt them to the ground, sometimes they merely smashed the power looms inside. Almost always they acted in the name of a perhaps mythical leader, variously called Ned Ludd, General Ludd and King Ludd.

To harm a machine was both illegal and dangerous. The punishment, if you were caught, was 14 years penal servitude in Australia. In March, 1812, the government increased the penalty to death. One of the few members of the Establishment to object was Lord Byron, whose maiden speech in the House of Lords was entirely devoted to the defense of what were already beginning to be called Luddites.

The bill passed anyway. Three days later Byron published a poem which begins:

Those villains, the Weavers, are all

grown refractory,

Asking some succour for Charity's

sake--

So hang them in clusters around

each Manufactory,

That will at once put an end to

mistake.

About a year later, the Luddite movement collapsed. The presence of 10,000 soldiers to guard the factories had its effect. So did the government spies, increasingly successful at identifying the masked saboteurs. Eight men were hanged and 17 sent to penal servitude, for example, after they were caught in the raid on Westhoughton factory. During that year, 24 were put to death, about 50 sentenced to transportation, and another 30 or so killed during raids.

In "Rebels Against the Future," Kirkpatrick Sale writes a detailed history of these early Luddites. He also provides an extensive analysis of the political, social and economic conditions that prevailed during what he calls the First Industrial Revolution, then just getting full steam. (We are, of course, many bytes into the second one now.) And finally, he surveys the neo-Luddites who have sprung up in the last 25 years.

The subject--the relation of people to machines--is one of the half-dozen most important there are. Sale, whose previous book was "Conquest of Paradise" on the legacy of Colombus, knows his stuff. This book should be a major work. Unfortunately, it falls short in two different ways.

One is that he spends too much time on the original Luddites in 1811-13, and too little on the neo-Luddites now. There's much gripping material in the old stories, but taken all together, one raid after another, the first 185 pages of the book read almost like local history: detailed, one-dimensional, repetitious.

As for current machine-breaking, Sale knows what's going on, all right, but you'd think he was writing the entry for a supermarket encyclopedia. The attack on Rawfolds Mill in 1812 gets nine pages. But the most important Luddite attack of modern times (it happened in Minnesota between 1978 and 1980) gets one sentence. For the old ones, Sale quotes often from an obscure 19th-Century novel called "Ben o' Bill's, the Luddite." But he never even refers to Edward Abbey's 1975 novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang." Yet that is generally considered the prime text of current Luddism.

Secondly, considering that he is an ardent supporter of attacks on technology, Sale makes a strategic error. He hardly ever shows Luddism as accomplishing anything. The original movement failed. Earth First! isn't having much effect in the 1990s, as he is careful to say. Greenpeace is barely mentioned. Why should anyone consider joining a movement doomed to failure?

Yet there is the great success story of the Minnesota bolt weevils begging to be told--and he recounts it in one sentence, and a sentence that would lead you to think they had failed.

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