Issue 62 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Spring 1994 Copyright © International Socialism

Blake's revolution

A review of E P Thompson, Witness Against the Beast, William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993) £17.95


William Blake, poet and engraver, was one of the great revolutionary artists. Some of his best works were inspired by the French Revolution. His first biographer, Alexander Gilcrest, wrote that 'down to his last days Blake always avowed himself a "Liberty Boy". He courageously donned the famous symbol of liberty and equality--the bonnet rougein open day...'1 In 1780 he took part in a riot in which the notorious Newgate Gaol was burnt to the ground and its prisoners freed. In 1803 he stood trial for sedition. Throughout his working life he used all his artistic talents to wage war on the institutions of the state and the church, which he passionately believed were instruments of repression and corruption. He raged against the misery and bondage imposed on the mass of the population, and at the same time celebrated the possibility of human liberation.

But despite the overwhelming evidence of his radical views it is still difficult to fit Blake neatly into any category or school of artists. He produced most of his work around the end of the 18th century--the Age of Reason when enlightened ideas of science, rationality and commerce came to replace the superstition and prejudices of the medieval world. For radical writers of the period like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft reason was a weapon against dictatorship and tyranny. They argued for a society based on rational government, not inherited privilege, and for a democracy in which every citizen would have rights.

Blake was also a radical but his work can seem at odds with the spirit of his times. He has no use for maps, globes and compasses. Instead his work is full of biblical figures, serpents, trees and mythical gods. Blake values faith and devotion and is utterly contemptuous of the idea of reason. So for many readers and critics William Blake seems to be, at best, unique, a mystic who expressed his own inner visions, conceived in isolation from the world around him. At worst Blake can appear as a religious crackpot retreating in horror from the progress being made by the world around him. An example of this kind of confusion is the way Blake's Jerusalem, a song from the poem Milton, is treated today. This is an impassioned and powerful call for sexual and artistic liberation but, ironically, it has become a favourite of Women's Institute singalongs and Conservative Association get togethers!

In Witness Against the Beast Marxist historian E P Thompson sets out to explore how traditions of radical thought influenced Blake, traditions which other academic critics of Blake have largely overlooked. The result is a fascinating book which unearths 150 years of radical thinking, the history of hundreds of men and women for whom religion was a way of defying and criticising the society in which they lived. When seen as part of this tradition, Blake comes to life. The visions he expresses in his poems and engravings that seem to be simply religious devotion become subversive and rebellious. The things which preoccupied him so much--the Fall, the serpent, Adam and Eve--which can seem obscure to us today were means by which Blake launched attacks on the corruption and hypocrisy of the society in which he lived.

Thompson shows how Blake inherited the ideas and language of the radical groups which were part of the English Revolution of the mid-17th century. Hundreds of religious sects sprang up in the heated excitement of the revolution. To a greater or lesser degree they all rejected the official church with all its hierarchies and institutions, in favour of individual conscience or 'inner light'. At the revolutionary extreme some of the sects recognised no authority at all except their own consciences. Such ideas embodied all the great optimism that humanity could be liberated from bondage and repression, not just in heaven but also on earth. Amongst all the sects which grew at the time of the revolution one of the most radical was a group known as the Antinomians. The Antinomians believed that any obediance to the laws of the church of the state would corrupt and destroy true faith. They thought it was their religious duty to reject the authority of courts and judges because any restraint on the individual's ability to act according to his conscience was an obstacle to faith and grace. They condemned religious laws and refused to accept that any bishop had the right to sit in judgement, condemn or punish anyone. For the Antinomians, sinning was not all bad as it gave God a chance to do his favourite thing--forgiving people.

They took their rejection of moral law very seriously. In 1645 an Antinomian preacher in London was overheard saying that on fast day 'it was better for Christians to be drinking in a tavern or to be in a whorehouse, than to be keeping fasts legally.' Members of these sects used the language of religion to express subversive beliefs, exactly as Blake did 150 years later. The Antinomian belief in the absolute incompatibility of their Everlasting Gospel of love and forgiveness with the moral law is alive and kicking in Blake's work. 'No virtue can exist without Breaking these Ten Commandments', he declared. Blake's religious devotion, which so inspires the Women's Institute, is in reality the complete opposite of all accepted religious beliefs. Like the Antinomians, he believed that state religion was a 'trick' and the 'source of all cruelty'. To the bishops who believed in rules and regulations, in punishment and repression, Blake wrote:

The second half of the 17th century saw the immediate aspirations of the radical sects defeated. The groups splintered, were driven underground and many shifted their attention from turning the world upside down to saving their own souls. But, miraculously, the sects did survive persecution and ridicule. They painstakingly wrote down and preserved their beliefs. They debated and argued with great enthusiasm and integrity. They passed their beliefs down from one generation to the next, refusing to be incorporated into the mainstream. Some, like the Behmenists, belonged to a more polite, literary tradition. The Behmenists were kept alive by the inspiration of prophets, like Jane Lead, and by working to keep their ideas in print (their books were still widely available in Blake's time). Blake certainly borrowed from the symbols and images used by the Behmenists. He shared their fascination with the New Jerusalem but always altered their meanings and used them to express his own more radical visions.

Literary traditions were not the only ones to survive. There were also strong traditions of radical dissent which were widely dispersed through lots of small churches and groups worshipping in alehouses. They all shared a commitment to democracy and debate which kept them alive, despite having to act in secret to avoid persecution. In 1706 a journalist reported that many sects still survived in London, including Quakers, Muggletonians, Millenaries, Adamists (who made their devotions naked), Tryonists (who were vegetarians) and the Sweet Singers of Israel, amongst others. Another directory compiled in 1788 showed that while some had died out, new sects had evolved, particularly through the immigration of various persecuted groups to London. Away from the drawing rooms of polite society, in the churches and pubs of Spitalfields and Cheapside, was a world where all kinds of ideas, some fantastic, some radical, circulated. These beliefs were especially popular among the tradesmen and artisans of London.

Blake made his living as an engraver and so was part of this section of society. These were the independent people who did not rely on the patronage of the rich to survive. Blake bitterly attacked artists like Joshua Reynolds who did rely on patronage, calling them 'hirelings'. The traders and artisans were likely to be republicans and to hate any deference towards the ruling class. These are the kind of people that William Blake mixed with, prayed with and drank with. By placing Blake in the world he really inhabited, Thompson shows how Blake was never a lone visionary but had a whole constituency of people who shared his beliefs. They gave him the confidence to criticise the privileged, to reject all authority and 'common sense' and rely only on his principles.

The survival of radical sects through decades of isolation was testimony to the commitment and perseverance of their members. But in the 1780s and 1790s the radical sects which had flourished during the English Revolution burst out again in the ferment of the French Revolution. In times of political crisis religious dissent could once again become the basis of revolutionary politics. One evangelical preacher of the time, William Huntingdon SS (Soul Saved), complained bitterly that the women of his congregation 'young and old are breathing slaughter against the ruling powers. Tom Paine and Satan have stuffed their heads full of politics.'3 Once again, as in the English Revolution, there was a fantastic sense of excitement and a desire amongst ordinary people to take part in debate and action.

Thompson argues that the Muggletonian sect is likely to have had particular influence on Blake. Chief among their own set of ideas was the belief that the serpent in the Garden of Eden actually got Eve pregnant, thus planting evil in the human race. As an explanation of evil this may sound daft, but it is no sillier than many more respected explanations, and it was a belief which Blake shared, in engravings like Satan Exulting over Eve and in poems. More importantly, the Muggletonians were preoccupied with rejecting reason. They believed that reason was the weapon of the devil. It was very unusual to see reason, rather than things like pride, lust and greed as the main source of evil. Blake clearly shares their hostility to reason: 'Satan is the God of Reason', he proclaimed. His work is full of the symbols of the Tree of Knowledge and the Fall in the Garden of Eden, but they are never symbols of disobedience or sexuality. On the contrary Blake always celebrated rebellion and sexuality. For Blake, as for the Muggletonians, the Temptation and Fall are symbols of knowledge.

Such ideas can seem pretty cranky and old fashioned, even for the 1790s, but in the context of the time they were actually very subversive. An Antinomian rejection of the law, when the ruling class sought to prove its own legitimacy by appeals to the law, and a Muggletonian rejection of reason, when the main pillars of polite society were rationality and science, were very radical. By Blake's time in the late 18th century, the sects either got sucked into accepting the main principles of polite society, like the Quakers, or they rebelled. This rebellion meant rejecting the Enlightenment--rejecting science and reason. By ditching the lot they could develop a radical standpoint from which to attack the hypocrisy, the corruption and the greed they saw around them. They had a framework from which to reject the whole of the social order. Thompson's detailed research into the beliefs of the radical sects means we can see how this stand against reason was not against knowledge but against the apologists for a rotten social order. Blake hated the moral law because he believed that without repression people were capable of great things. His vision of Jerusalem was not just rational government for the people by the people, as it was for his radical contemporaries. He wanted the liberation of all the unrealised potential he saw in his fellow man--sexual, artistic and creative. He believed that political and social change could not bring about this liberation. While he always bitterly opposed repressive institutions and inequalities, and wanted them destroyed, Blake also thought that humanity would need to experience some kind of religious revelation or spiritual leap in order to be truly liberated. So in Blake's work there is the collision of revolutionary inspiration with the rational radicalism of Paine and Wollstonecraft, and the older traditions of Antinomian dissent.

Many critics have dismissed Antinomian influence on Blake's work as shallow. They cannot bring themselves to accept that a tradition of the common people could possibly sustain the imagination of an artist like Blake, but Thompson's book leaves you in no doubt about how deeply the sects did shape Blake's vision. A member of Blake's family may have been a practising member of the Muggletonian church. William and his wife Catherine were certainly both sympathisers of the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in 1789. The fortunes of this church directly influenced Blake. One of the great debates which took place among the sects was whether God granted divinity to Christ or whether, as Blake believed, all humanity was divine with God existing through the thoughts and actions of human beings. Such debates seem of little interest to us now, but at the time they helped to establish an egalitarian, humanist religion. A friend of Blake's, Crabbe Robinson, once asked him how he saw the great question of the divinity of Christ. Blake said, 'He is the only God,' but then he added, 'and so am I and so are you'.4 These debates obviously had an influence on poems like the Divine Image:

The New Jerusalem Church split in 1793 after a huge row, which resulted in minutes of church meetings being torn out of the record books. The row apparently revolved around issues of sexual morality. Robert Hindmarsh, who led one faction, was horrified by the French Revolution. His reaction was to turn his church into an anti-democratic, papal style church, where prayers were said for the king, the royal family and magistrates. Thompson explains how Blake expressed his disgust at this betrayal of principle in the Chapel of Gold, where he describes a serpent entering a chapel:

Blake makes it clear that he is on the side of the radicals. Edmund Burke, famous opponent of the French Revolution, coined the term 'swinish multitude' and Hindmarsh denounced 'those who herd together like swine... aiming at republicanism'. The radicals adopted the insult and produced pamphlets called 'Pigs Meat' and 'The Rights Of Swine' and wrote under names like 'Porker' to show their identification with the swinish multitude, the people.

One of Blake's most moving and accessible poems is London. In this poem Blake describes his city, which is also a way of describing the condition of humanity. Blake shows his anger at the church which is complicit in the exploitation of children, and at the hypocrisy surrounding sexuality, where marriage goes hand in hand with prostitution and venereal diseases. But the anger of the poem cuts even deeper than that.

Thompson explains that at its heart the poem is a condemnation of the effect of the market on people's lives. It is a poem about the reduction of human life to something that can be bought and sold and how this degrades and demoralises people. Blake uses the word 'chartered' twice. During this period a royal charter was granted by the king to trading monopolies. The term went right to the heart of the debate between Tom Paine, the radical, and Edmund Burke, the reactionary. For Burke a charter was the epitomy of the polite culture ushered in by the new age. For Paine, a charter meant the privilege to enrich the few at the expense of the many. Granting charters meant trampling on the inherent rights of the majority. London and its river are chartered--objects to be bought and sold. Blake repeats the word 'mark' three times. For radical sects, 'mark' is a biblical reference, meaning the mark of the beast from 'Revelations' which is particularly associated with buying and selling. The mark of the beast and the mark of Cain were especially associated with the rich and royal. The citizens of London are marked by commerce. The image of the chimney sweep shows childhood can be bought and sold, the hapless soldier shows how life itself can be bought and sold and the youthful harlot shows how beauty, sexuality and love have also become objects for the market. He describes how oppressed people are demoralised with the brilliant image of 'mind-forged manacles':

As the revolutionary optimism of the 1790s died away, and the ruling class unleashed repression against its enemies, Blake's writings did become more obscure and mystical. After the defeat of their struggle the Diggers and the Ranters of the English Revolution retired to the 'Kingdom within, which moth and rust doth not corrupt', and Blake too found a way of keeping his divine vision alive in times of trouble. As Thompson's brilliant book shows, one thing he never did was compromise one inch with the society he had so raged against and condemned.

Thompson's detailed examination of the dissenting sects provides the key to understanding how radical and subversive Blake's ideas were. The only problem with his approach is that in the process of reclaiming Blake, Thompson can give the impression that the beliefs of the religious groups provided the only thoroughly radical ideas available at the time. William Blake saved his venom for the establishment but he also criticised people like Tom Paine for their atheism and materialist views: 'the Bishops never saw the everlasting gospel, any more than Tom Paine'.8 Blake did believe that those who accepted the ideas of reason and science, even if they were combined with revolutionary aspirations, were somehow collaborating with the 'Kingdom of Satan'. In fact the materialist understanding of the world gave radical thinkers of the 18th century a framework of thinking which could lead to the idea that human action and revolutionary leadership alone could change the world. It was people like Tom Paine who provided a more revolutionary way of understanding society, a practical guide to changing it, than did the religious sects for all their opposition to the establishment.

That apart, Thompson's book is the work of a great Marxist historian, full of the examples of courage of ordinary people to resist the oppression they faced in whatever ways they could. Thompson succeeds brilliantly in junking the idea that Blake was some cranky religious mystic isolated from the real world. Because of Thompson's book we can appreciate Blake as an artist who was part of traditions established by the English Revolution who never lost his opposition to the ruling class, and continued to be inspired by people revolting against oppression even thought the revolutionaries of Blake's time were not fighting for God or the new Jerusalem but for liberty, equality and fraternity.


  1. E P Thompson, Witness Against the Beast, William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993), p126.

  2. Ibid, p61.

  3. Ibid, p159.

  4. Ibid, p159.

  5. Ibid, p150

  6. Ibid, p171

  7. Ibid, p174.

  8. Ibid, p60.

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