Frankenstein and the Luddites

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Frankenstein and the Luddites
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: Frankenstein and the Luddites. The discussion was initiated by Fred.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

In the film the creature is

In the film the creature is played by Robert de Niro. At the time of writing I had a memory failure and meant to go back in replace the dots in the piece with the actor's name. But forgot that too! 

Is referring to the Luddites

Is referring to the Luddites something that doesn't get ICC approval?  I notice now that there's little about them on the ICC  web site and am starting to feel that I have made some awful boo-boo in even mentioning them.  I won't apologize though because I was only looking for some explanation as to why Mary Shelley could have developed strange ideas  about the working class and its embodiment in Frankenstein's  creature - if that's what she did? - and the Luddites presented themselves as an answer. 

To get ICC approval I suppose really it would have been  wise to mention the Diggers and specially the Levellers too.  I wish I'd thought of that earlier.  But perhaps we can do better next time.

No, spot on Fred

Not surprisingly, in this period of capitalism’s advance the class struggle was partly a defence of immediate conditions but also often a rearguard struggle against proletarianisation and the real degradation of conditions it implied. It wasn’t new machinery as such that workers resisted, but the onslaught of capitalist ‘free competition’, which tore up surviving hard-won rights and protective legislation. The political arguments in support of this resistance naturally tended to look backwards for their justification: threatened woollen workers objecting to the shoddy goods of new capitalist entrepreneurs called on parliament to defend Elizabethan statutes and ancient customs, while pauperised agricultural workers fought for “the defence of the customary rights of the rural poor, as free born Englishmen, and the restoration of the stable social order which had - at least it seemed so in retrospect - guaranteed them” (Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing). This past was undoubtedly romanticised and many, not long uprooted from the land, still dreamed of a return. But the resistance of the weavers and others in this period also presented a challenge to the political economy of the capitalist class, and in its widest sense expressed the confused desire to create an alternative social order, in which production was for social need, not profit.

This is the context for understanding the emergence of ‘Luddism’, which actually began as a semi-legal campaign by skilled woollen workers for a minimum wage and poor relief, and in defence of existing protective legislation, only going underground and turning to machine-breaking in response to government repression at the height of the Napoleonic wars. Luddism was certainly a politicised and highly disciplined movement, with an effective military organisation which was quite successful at least in its early phase. But more broadly this expressed the increasingly desperate struggle of the hand-loom weavers, and the revival of Luddism in 1817 was directed far more against the machinery itself, and further extensive machine-breaking during the slump of 1825 was almost the weavers’ last rebellion. The violence of Luddism was also partly an attempt to overcome the scattered nature of production in this declining sector, and can be contrasted with the massive struggles of the factory workers who increasingly took the lead in the class struggle, and which demonstrated an open, massive character, also highly disciplined but with very little violence, as in the first great cotton spinners’ strike of 1818.

(“History of the workers' movement in Britain, Part 1: The struggle of the working class to organise itself”, World Revolution no. 301, 2007)

No, I think you were pretty much spot on about the Luddites, Fred... 


I think that there's some interesting points in the post of Fred and the response of MH regarding the Luddites etc., but I reckon, in the light of a TV programme on science by Brian Cox last night on BBC, that Mary Shelly's book Frankenstein is rather a dig against science and scientists. As Fred says, the "monster" is a sympathetic character and Baron Frankenstein the scientist is the real villain. Cox talks about an Italian scientist (whose name I didn't get) who was hounded out of Britain in 1802  because of his attempts to bring the dead back to life using electrical charges. I don't suppose today that anyone would turn down the use of a defribullator, ie, the application of an electrical charge, to bring them back to life.

After the early 1800's, scientists in general became very popular within the expressions of the workers' movement and the working class generally. Alfred Russel Wallace writes how many "ordinary" workers wrote to him (he answered every letter) and this I think represents an interest in what one may call "scientific socialism".

The pendulum swung the other way with the question of the "scientific" application of eugenics and then weapons development culminating with the atom bomb . It wasn't just the Nazis who experimented with eugenics but the British and Americans as well. In his last book, "The Evolution of Our Species", Chris Stringer, a scientist definitely not given to flights of fancy, gives some credibility to rumours about post-war US experiments mating humans with primates.

Interesting stuff Baboon.

Interesting stuff Baboon. Worthy of consideration also is that the decision to embalm Lenin's body the way it was not simply a Stalinist plot. As Susan Buck-Morss recounts in her book "Dreamworld and Catastrophe," there was a very real belief in many "scientific" quarters of the Bolsheivik Party at the time that science was on the verge of conquering death and that Lenin might be able to be brought back to life one day soon. Frankensteinian?

Marin Jensen
Some critical remarks on Frankenstein

I was glad to read this article, both because the subject is an interesting one and because I appreciate Fred's efforts in writing it.

That said, I have a few critical remarks to make which might be worth discussing. So here goes....

  1. "But then everything involving the bourgeoisie is a horror story is it not, and even more so today?". I'm not quite sure how Fred meant this, perhaps it is an over-condensed sentence, but IMHO taken as it is written it implies there is NOTHING to welcome in capitalism - and this is not true. Capitalism historically is absolutely necessary in order to lay the foundations on which communism can be built, not least of which is the revolutionary class itself. And when the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class, its artistic production added to the glories of human culture which the proletariat will inherit: Beethoven, the Impressionists, etc etc, you get the idea. So as it stands this sentence reads to me like a concession to anarchism.
  2. "the Luddites were not typically working class as we understand that class now. They were an early manifestation of working class protest.  You might even see them as having aspects of terrorism in their behaviour.  They blackened their faces, cross dressed, smashed machinery and burned down factories". This I strongly disagree with. The working class has had to and will have to use violence both to defend itself and to overthrow capitalism. But this is nothing whatever to do with terrorism and communists need to be 100% clear on that. I recommend comrades to read this piece on "Terror, Terrorism, and Class violence" which was written in the 70s but remains completely valid today.
  3. "We might compare them in some ways in their activity, to the Mau Mau in Kenya, using fear, secrecy and terrorism in pursuit of their aims, and installing an  inexpressible anxiety in their bourgeois suppressors.  But the example doesn't properly hold - the Mau Mau being an aspect of the bourgeoisie themselves, looking for national liberation, which the Luddites were certainly not - only the form of protest may be compared". Same as above, but I would add another secondary point about the Mau Mau. In my view it is an error to describe the Mau Mau as "part of the bourgeoisie", in fact Mau Mau I think should more properly be seen as one of very very few real peasant (as opposed to national) resistance movements. There are several pointers to confirm this:
    1. Mau Mau was never financed or supported in any way by the USSR - their weapons were either stolen from the British or home-made.
    2. Mau Mau had nothing to do with KANU (the real "national liberation" movement led by Jomo Kenyatta), they didn't even call themselves Kenyan but the "Land and Freedom Army". And the members were practically without exception peasants, not the educated elite who formed KANU.
    3. Most striking of all perhaps, is the fate of the Mau Mau fighters (those who weren't among the 30,000 war dead that is). Again without exception as far as I know, the survivors today are poor, there are no ex-Mau Mau fighters among the Kenyan ruling class who must have been only too happy to see the Brits deal with them before leaving.

That's me penny's worth!

Hi LoneLondoner.  I was

Hi LoneLondoner.  I was delighted to read your critical remarks above  which make me feel that it was worthwhile trying to write the article after all.  


(1)  I take the the point about "the horror story" and Beethoven proving the opposite, and LBird has already told me I'm an anarchist.   Maybe I am. I don't know. I don't take labels very seriously these days, but do feel extremely uncomfortable on libcom.  Was Marx a marxist? 


(2) You might see the Luddites as having aspects of  terrorism in their actions, I said.  Notice "you might" and "aspects".  But I agree  its a poor sentence.  I didn't really mean the Luddites were terrorists in the modern sense, just that they were not afraid to frighten people.  Also I was puzzled at the absence of ICC articles about the Luddites and wondered whether that meant their working class credentials were in doubt in the ICC milieu.  As it turns out though, I was wrong on both these points. And my lack of confidence in them - the Luddites - and in myself, is shameful. 


(3).  As to the Mau Mau, I knew I was on tricky ground here and that my ignorance could cause trouble. But I am lazy and couldn't be bothered to check, and hoped to get away with whatever I wrote. Because usually - I had the impression - nobody takes any notice anyway, so what did it matter?  This reflects a very bad attitude on my behalf.  After all, nothing  is too good for the proletariat and slovenly work won't do.  However I have come to posting and closer contact with the ICC very late in life (more excuses) and don't think I'm likely now to improve much.  Sorry about that. 


But I am extremely grateful that  LoneLondoner  took the time to take me seriously and make these pungent criticisms.  So thank you comrade.  




Rather than being a dig against science (see baboon's post above)  isn't Mary Shelley really talking about fear, and trying to analyze it?   Everyone fears Frankenstein's creation: his "monster".  Why do they fear it?  Because it's incredibly ugly - and strong too.  It can seem to be out  of everyone's control, and on losing its temper, which it tends to do when misunderstood or badly treated, becomes violent, and even murderous.  Yet, despite this, Mary Shelley is very sympathetic towards it, as is a blind old man the creature gets to know, and Shelley  sets up  a system of education for the creature - mainly literary, not scientific (this after all is 1793 and science a new idea) to which he responds very well demonstrating that he is not lost to the benefits of bourgeois education.  A limited form of education then as now.  But you have to take what you can get.  


Accepting the the premise that the creature symbolizes  the working class, then fairly new on the scene, and in particular the Luddites, who had a  high profile at the time Shelley was writing her work, then it is not surprising that "fear" should be an important part of Shelley's psychological brew.  Many people were frightened of the Luddites, who represented a new and scary aspect in bourgeois society which thought it had everything wrapped up nice and peaceful and that profits would happily accrue for ever  uninterrupted by any unpleasantness.  But then suddenly there are vulgar, unwashed, uneducated workers bent on spoiling the party, and even appearing to threaten the very foundations of capitalism's eternity.  Burning factories, mayhem, destruction, and dressing up, are not welcomed by the bourgeoisie, unless these activities can be seen, or presented, as furthering the interests of capitalist accumulation.  But the Luddites were not doing this and were thus responded to as fearsome and to be feared.   This fear, largely irrational, for the Luddites were just workers, and just human, and just demanding improved rewards  from their exploiters, is all captured and wrapped up beautifully by Shelley in the distorted human form of her monster.  Strong, ugly, but educable, in need of love not fear, and also the producer of surplus value. (Whether the bourgeoisie were aware of this then, or were prepared to admit it, I'm not sure.  But are they aware of it now, and prepared to admit it?  Probably not.  Look at all the Nobel prize winners in Economics who get the prize for inventing new "theories" as to the source of wealth.  It's all like witchcraft!) 


And the bourgeoisie still fear the working class don't they?  Look at the mayor of Boston who only recently described striking bus drivers - taking action outside the control of the bourgeois unions, which made it all the more fearsome - as in need of "punishment". Not in need of being negotiated with; that's rational. But in need of punishment.  This reaction stems from fear of the working class, and fear of its enormous but as yet unutilised revolutionary strength. 


I wonder how much of this scenario Mary Shelley realized at the time of writing?  Possibly more than we might credit her with.  After all she has created a myth of enduring proportions. 


EDIT:  And what exactly is that myth?   Why, that the bourgeoisie created the working class  (the bourgeois Frankenstein cobbled together the so called creature)  but failed to treat it with respect: didn't try to educate it or otherwise take care of it  but looked on it with distaste and fear, while continuing to exploit it.  Mary Shelley, like all the Godwins, was a reformer, living at a time  when reform was possible, given the growth of the economy.   She sees that not treating the working class decently can only lead to trouble.  


And a final point.  The so-called scientific experiment that baboon and Cox are so Interested in and use to try and show that Mary Shelley was actually anti science - the messing about with dead bodies stuff - doesn't convince me.  The liberal Godwins wouldn't be inclined to reject science on such flimsy evidence I don't think.  But it may well be the case that the "experiment" referred to by baboon and Cox could well be the source material for Shelley's work.