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College Quarterly
Spring 1994 - Volume 1 Number 3
Customs in Common
E. P. Thompson
New York, The New Press, 1993

Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law
E. P. Thompson
New York, The New Press, 1993

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

For serious social historians, the name of E. P. Thompson is pivotal. His book, The Making of the English Working Class, stands both as a classic study of the salience of social formations and collective consciousness in history and as a text singular in its effect not just on British historiography but on professional historians everywhere. In the three decades since its publication, it has been maligned by Tories, Whigs and structural Marxists alike; it has also inspired thousands of young historians who have used Thompson as a springboard for their own research and teaching. There are others-names such as Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill come immediately to mind-with like claims to reputations as being among the finest scholars in an age that demeans scholarship, but none have arguably had anything like Thompson's impact on the current and coming generation.

I heard him lecture only once but I still retain vivid memories of the event despite the passage of twenty years and more. And I have read every scrap of his writing that I could find (including a highly political and intriguing science-fiction novel entitled The Sykaos Papers). Yet I confess that I was often irritated by Thompson's enthusiasm for what once seemed hopeless ideals (but turned out to be eminently practical politics), an enthusiasm that distracted him from contributing even more to an already prolific body of inquiry into eighteenth century England. He played a leading role in the European peace movement and gave effective support (as opposed to self-serving, rhetorical encouragement) to dissidents in the former Soviet Union and its satellites. When the Berlin Wall fell, when the cold war ended, it was in no small way a result of the work done not by Presidents and Prime Ministers but by engaged intellectuals like Edward Thompson.

A communist who left the party in 1956-but who, unlike many of his quisling ex-comrades, never indulged in the profitable apostacies of denouncing the god that failed-Thompson remained a committed marxian until his death last autumn. His commitment was ever to liberty and equality-both political and economic-and so it is well, then, that the two titles under review, his last, should represent the two reconcilable aspects of his formal work. These are the immensely important empirical inquiries into the material conditions of life in nascent capitalist society and the political quest to amend those conditions.

Customs in Common contains essays written over many years. In it are his excellent accounts of the rational basis of food riots ('The Moral Economy of the English Crowd'), the effects of the imposition of new concepts of time upon labour ('Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism') and of the complex relationship between emerging bourgeois hegemony and the rebellious conservatism of those working people who enjoyed a brief interlude of relative freedom between the demise of feudalism and the rise of wage-slavery ('The Patricians and the Plebs', based largely on the lecture I heard in 1973).

By showing clearly how the pressures to reform, to rationalize and to modernize were experienced by working people as an assault upon their traditions and customs, Thompson not only reconfigures the standard interpretation of “progress,” but restores the voice of those whose way of life was destroyed under protest by the demands of the free market and the privileges of capital. The lessons to be drawn and contemporaneously applied are many and very much in line with contemporary ethnohistory that purports to have gone beyond marxian analysis.

Thompson draws telling parallels between the destruction of small communities in the process of creating mass industrial society and the current destruction of small societies as international capital crushes indigenous peoples around the world. His work has lost no relevance today; what happened to the liberties of the freeborn English is now happening worldwide as the rhetoric of globalization covers, in Thompson's words, “the hidden text of the discourse between North and South.” The first industrial revolution produced “dark, satanic mills” capable of ruining local landscapes and brutalizing the working poor. The present extension of development is even more dangerous. As Thompson writes: “the readiness of the human species to define its needs and satisfactions in material market terms-and to throw all the globe's resources onto the market-may threaten the species itself (both South and North) with ecological catastrophe. The engineer of this catastrophe will be economic man, whether in the classically avaricious capitalist form or in the form of the orthodox Marxist.”

Capitalism and state communism are the labels assigned to the two monstrous ideologies that have, until recently, dominated our age. Thompson's historical inquiries shed much light on the material processes that begat both. He was, however, also captivated by those of a more artistic temperament (his first major book was an exemplary study of William Morris) who chose resistance to the seemingly inexorable rather than acquiescence in the apparently inevitable.

William Blake had such a temperament. Since the publication of Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry in 1947, interpretations of Blake have proceeded along two separate lines; one approaches Blake the Christian, mystical neo-Platonist and the other seeks after Blake the radical, Jacobin insurrectionist. Witness Against the Beast takes a third route, skirting the familiar academic paths through poetic symbol and political speech to meet Blake where he actually lived. As Richard Holmes wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: “Thompson's magic eye quickly discern(s) Blake at street level, using all his characteristic gifts of immediacy and surprise, making archives speak and walk.” Witness Against the Beast leads us on a remarkable excursion into the religious, intellectual and political culture that formed the mind of William Blake. Teasing out connections between Blake's poetry and the radical democratic traditions of mid-seventeenth century Ranters and Quakers, Thompson shows brilliantly how cultural studies relating literary and spiritual matters to political and material contexts can enhance our understanding of both.

It is no mark of disrespect to Frye-who emphasizes Blake's unique genius and pioneering awareness of the distinguishing features of modernity-much less to Blake himself, that Thompson seeks to contextualize William Blake in a long tradition of antinomian thought and practice. His purpose is no mere exercise in, as he says, “adding ‘background’ or a sketch of the ‘historical’ Blake. It is an intervention of a different kind. I am pursuing,” he continues, “an enquiry into the structure of Blake's thought and the character of his sensibility.” No small task. Yet Thompson performs it with exceptional attention to detail, a superb command of the transformative process of early industrial capitalism, and remarkable empathy with a visionary who, despite some “obscurity and perhaps even some oddity,” never gave “the least sign of submission to Satan's Kingdom,” nor displayed “the least complicity with the kingdom of the Beast.”

So, as he ends by gently acquainting us with Mr. Philip Noakes (d. 1979), the last surviving member of an uncelebrated sect composed of the followers of the Ranter, Ludowick Muggleton (c. 1650), and then with some seriousness reaffirms his self-portrayal as a “Muggletonian Marxist,” we are left with a warm smile of recognition and a bow of respect for a man who transformed the writing of history, who fought furiously against authoritarianism, and whose distinguishing mark as a scholar and a dissenter was a compassion for individuals in their struggles against the vicious abstractions that ever try to justify poverty, cruelty and oppression.

Howard A. Doughty is the Editor of The College Quarterly.