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Victor Paananen


Witness Against the Beast:
Blake and the Moral Law

(August 1994)

From Militant International Review, No. 57, August–September 1994, p. 31.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Witness Against the Beast: Blake and the Moral Law
by E.P. Thompson
Published by Cambridge University Press, 1993, £17.95

E.P. THOMPSON, THE SOCIALIST historian best known for The Making of the English Working Class, acknowledged two sources of inspiration for his own work (‘my own patheon’): Karl Marx and William Blake. Before his death in 1993, Thompson finished Witness Against the Beast, which studies Blake’s opposition to the morality, science and social values of his age, the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Thompson places Blake’s protests in the context of the religious opinions that had been voiced by the Ranters and other sects in the English revolution of 1640–1660 and were still heard from dissenting groups in Blake’s own time.

The Marxist historian A.L. Morton was the first to demonstrate the similarities between Blake’s ideas and language and those of the Ranters

“The Ranters,” Morton explains, “formed the extreme left-wing of the sects which came into prominence during the English revolution, both theologically and politically ... The Ranters, and they alone at this date, spoke for and to the most wretched and submerged elements of the population, the slum dwellers of London and other cities.” (The World of the Ranters, p. 70)

Because the Ranters believed God to be literally in every human being, they advocated the radical equality of all people, rejected the need to adhere to the moral law emphasised by other Christian groups, and denounced the rich while calling for ownership in common. Around 1649, for about a year, the Ranters appear, according to Morton, “to have attracted a mass following, especially among the London poor”. William Blake, a Londoner born in Soho in 1757, more than 100 years after the high point of Ranter activity, seems to echo the Ranters in his assertations of the divinity in every individual, in his objections to the conventional morality of his age, and in his aspiration for a society based on the principle defined by Blake as ‘all things in common’.

Thompson acknowledges Morton’s pioneering research but also finds a significant degree of correspondence in content and language between Blake’s work and the writings of the Muggletonians, a Christian tendency made up of admirers of the preacher and writer Ludowick Muggleton, that originated around 1652 immediately after the period of Ranter successes. Muggletonian doctrines were similar to Ranter doctrines and influenced by them. Thompson offers some evidence that Blake’s mother may have been a member of the Muggletonians. Although not himself a Christian, Thompson, feeling the influence of both Blake and Marx, had from the time that he started to do research on the Muggletonians, been amused to call himself a ‘Muggletonian Marxist’.

The context provided by Morton and Thompson greatly assists the reader of Blake who moves at all beyond the usual anthology pieces and enters the bewildering maze of myth, radical politics and visionary Christianity that Blake creates in such major works as Jerusalem. Thompson convincingly shows that Blake’s religious vocabulary was less eccentric than we might think: it was in fact a language that embodied the opposition of ordinary people to the ruling powers of the age.

“It struck very precisely at critical positions of the hegemonic culture, the ‘common sense’ of the ruling groups, which today can be seen to be intellectually unsound and sometimes to be no more than ideological apologetics,” Thompson writes (p. 110). “Blake had been taught in childhood to place a critical distance between himself and the rich and great,” Thompson explains, and Blake absorbed from the “pockets of radical dissent among the trades ... a stubborn lack of deference, both social and intellectual” (pp. 111–112).

Thompson’s expert knowledge of the vocabulary and attitudes of the age permits him to offer some powerful new readings even of Blake’s best-known worker. Blake’s London Thompson shows to be “an indictment of the acquisitive ethic, endorsed by the institutions of the state, which divides man from man” and “brings him into mental and moral bondage” (p. 191).

Thompson’s book is not meant to provide everything that a beginning reader of Blake’s longer works would need. Blake’s self-generated mythic system, one of the vehicles for both his political and religious insights, is not explained, so standard works like Nothrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry remain necessary. The book does however succeed in its demonstration of Blake’s emergence from a context of growing opposition to the new commercial and industrial civilisation of England – and it communicates Thompson’s passionate advocacy of Blake as an ancestor of all militant protest against this economy and culture.

There is however a further step that Thompson has not taken that would have allowed him to see more of the ‘Marxist’ in the ‘Muggletonian’. In his opposition to what he called ‘natural religion’, Blake objected to the efforts of his age to understand the external world rather than to change it, and Thompson acknowledges Blake’s Marx-like emphasis on ‘activity’ rather than contemplation. The labour that Blake calls humanity to perform is the physical as well as cultural transformation of a recognisable modern London into ‘Jerusalem’. Blake’s religious vocabulary – a voice of protest in his own age, as Thompson shows – is also able to carry Blake’s attempt both to redefine the human relationship to nature and to insist upon the centrality of labour: such an enterprise clearly points toward the achievement of Marx.

Yet, despite Blake’s understanding of the world in terms of dynamic ‘contraries’, Thompson is unwilling to accept Blake as “a premature practitioner of Marxist dialectic” (p. 226). For the Marxist Thompson to come so close to a recognition of Blake and Marx as co-workers, and then back-off, must, I think, be a disappointment to the reader familiar with both Blake and Marx. But Thompson has nonetheless done enough to convince us that Blake’s work is like Marx’s, “a plank in the floor upon which the future must walk” (p. 228).

Deep within his demanding epic Jerusalem, Blake offers this account of the human consequences of the industrial revolution:

And all the Arts of Life they chang’d into the Arts of Death in Albion.
The hour-glass contemn’d because its simple workmanship
Was like workmanship of the plowman, and the water wheel
That raises water into cisterns, broken and burned with fire
Because its workmanship was like the workmanship of the shepherd;
And, in their stead, intricate wheels invented, wheel without wheel,
To perplex youth in their outgoings and to bind to labours in Albion
Of day and night the myriads of eternity: that they may grind
And polish brass and iron hour after hour, laborious task,
Kept ignorant of its use: that they might spend the days of wisdom
In sorrowful drudgery to obtain a scant pittance of bread,
In ignorance to view a small portion and think that All,
And call it Demonstration, blind to all the simple rules of life.
                                        (Jerusalem, Chapter three, Plate 65)

In Blake’s objection to ‘Demonstration’ is heard his objection to the categories of the bourgeois, non-dialectical thought. His recognition that the industrial worker is permitted knowledge of only a narrow aspect of the production of the commodity certainly foreshadows the explanations by Marx and Engels of the effects of the division of labour with the resulting alienation from one’s own work.

London, a living symbol for the triumph of capital, has, in Blake’s Ranter or Muggletonian language, been turned into ‘Babylon’. But, in lines that are among the most widely known in the English-speaking world, Blake announces his own total commitment to the labour that will transform London into ‘Jerusalem’, and he asks us to join in the work:

I shall not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Socialists could do worse than to accept E.P. Thompson’s recommendation of both Blake and Marx as interpreters and prophets: both saw from their London perspectives the damage to humanity that capitalism was wreaking and both called upon us not simply to understand this system but to change it.

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