The Luddites were a social movement of English workers in the early 1800s who protested - often by destroying textile machines - against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution that they felt threatened their jobs. The movement, which began in 1811, was named after a probably mythical leader, Ned Ludd. For a short time the movement was so strong that it clashed in battles with the British Army. Measures taken by the government included a mass trial at York in 1813 that resulted in many death penalties and transportations (deportment to a penal colony).
The English historical movement has to be seen in its context of the harsh economic climate due to the Napoleonic Wars; but since then, the term Luddite has been used to describe anyone opposed to technological progress and technological change. For the modern movement of opposition to technology, see neo-luddism.
E. P. Thompson's view of Luddism
In his work on English history, The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson presented an alternative view of Luddite history.
Luddites are often characterised, and indeed their name has to some become synonymous with, people opposed to all change--in particular technological change such as that which was sweeping through the weaving shops in the industrial heartland of England. They are often characterised as violent, thuggish, and disorganised.
E. P. Thompson advances many arguments against this view of the Luddites. He shows that the Luddites were not opposed to new technology, but rather to the abolition of set prices and therefore also to the introduction of what we would today call the free market.
Thompson argues that it was this newly-introduced economic system that the Luddites were protesting. For example, the Luddite song, "General Ludd's Triumph":
The guilty may fear, but no vengeance he aims
At the honest man's life or Estate
His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames
And to those that old prices abate
"Wide frames" were the weaving frames, and the old prices were those prices agreed by custom and practice. Thompson cites the many historical accounts of Luddite raids on workshops where some frames were smashed whilst others (whose owners were obeying the old economic practice and not trying to cut prices) were left untouched.
Secondly, Thompson counters the view that the Luddites were thuggish. There were remarkably few Luddite arrests and executions, and yet they operated highly effectively against the forces of the state. Thompson's explanation for this is that they were working with the consent of the local communities (or indeed were part of those communities).
Thirdly, Thompson argues that the Luddites were not disorganised. He notes that some of the largest Luddite activities involved a hundred men.
In short, Thompson feels that in caricaturing the Luddites as 'thugs' who just wanted to smash up new technology we are simply continuing the propaganda of the time. The reality, in Thompson's view, is that the Luddites were normal people who were protesting against changes of which they disapproved.
Evidence for this point of view has been further developed by Prof Kevin Binfield ('Writings of the Luddites' - see  ).-