Victor Kiernan; Marxist historian, writer and linguist who challenged the tenets of Imperialism

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Feb 19, 2009, 11:15:00 PM2/19/09
Victor Kiernan: Marxist historian, writer and linguist who
challenged the tenets of Imperialism

Friday, 20 February 2009

Victor Kiernan, professor emeritus of Modern History at
Edinburgh University, was an erudite Marxist historian with
wide-ranging interests that spanned virtually every
continent. His passion for history and radical politics,
classical languages and world literature was evenly divided.

His interest in languages was developed at home in south
Manchester. His father worked for the Manchester Ship Canal
as a translator of Spanish and Portuguese and young Victor
picked these up even before getting a scholarship to
Manchester Grammar School, where he learnt Greek and Latin.
His early love for Horace (his favourite poet) resulted in a
later book. He went on to Trinity College, Cambridge where
he studied History, imbibed the prevalent anti-fascist
outlook and like many others joined the British Communist

Unlike some of his distinguished colleagues (Eric Hobsbawm,
Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Edward Thompson) in the
Communist Party Historians Group founded in 1946, Kiernan
wrote a great deal on countries and cultures far removed
from Britain and Europe. A flavour of the man is evident
from the opening paragraphs of a 1989 essay on the monarchy
published in the New Left Review:

In China an immemorial throne crumbled in 1911; India put
its Rajas and Nawabs in the wastepaper-basket as soon as it
gained independence in 1947; in Ethiopia the Lion of Judah
has lately ceased to roar. Monarchy survives in odd corners
of Asia; and in Japan and Britain. In Asia sainthood has
often been hereditary, and can yield a comfortable income to
remote descendants of holy men; in Europe hereditary
monarchy had something of the same numinous character. In
both cases a dim sense of an invisible flow of vital forces
from generation to generation, linking together the endless
series, has been at work. Very primitive feeling may lurk
under civilized waistcoats.

Notions derived from age-old magic helped Europe's 'absolute
monarchs' to convince taxpayers that a country's entire
welfare, even survival, was bound up with its God-sent
ruler's. Mughal emperors appeared daily on their balcony so
that their subjects could see them and feel satisfied that
all was well. Rajput princes would ride in a daily cavalcade
through their small capitals, for the same reason. Any
practical relevance of the crown to public well-being has
long since vanished, but somehow in Britain the existence of
a Royal Family seems to convince people in some subliminal
way that everything is going to turn out all right for
them... Things of today may have ancient roots; on the other
hand antiques are often forgeries, and Royal sentiment in
Britain today is largely an artificial product.

Kiernan's knowledge of India was first-hand. He was there
from 1938-46, establishing contacts and organising
study-circles with local Communists and teaching at
Aitchison (formerly Chiefs) College, an institution created
to educate the Indian nobility along the lines suggested by
the late Lord Macaulay. What the students (mostly
wooden-headed wastrels) made of Kiernan has never been
revealed, but one or two of the better ones did later
embrace radical ideas. It would be nice to think that he was
responsible: it is hard to imagine who else it could have
been. The experience taught him a great deal about
imperialism and in a set of stunningly well-written books he
wrote a great deal on the origins and development of the
American Empire, the Spanish colonisation of South America
and on other European empires.

He was by now fluent in Persian and Urdu and had met Iqbal
and the young Faiz, two of the greatest poets produced by
Northern India. Kiernan translated both of them into
English, which played no small part in helping to enlarge
their audience at a time when imperial languages were
totally dominant. His interpretation of Shakespeare is much
underrated but were it put on course lists it would be a
healthy antidote to the embalming.

He had married the dancer and theatrical activist Shanta
Gandhi in 1938 in Bombay, but they split up before Kiernan
left India in 1946. Almost forty years later he married
Heather Massey. When I met him soon afterwards he confessed
that she had rejuvenated him intellectually. Kiernan's
subsequent writings confirmed this view.

Throughout his life he stubbornly adhered to Marxist ideas,
but without a trace of rigidity or sullenness. He was not
one to pander to the latest fashions and despised the
post-modernist wave that swept the academy in the 80s and
90s, rejecting history in favour of trivia. Angered by
triumphalist mainstream commentaries proclaiming the virtues
of capitalism he wrote a sharp rebuttal. "Modern Capitalism
and Its Shepherds" was published once again in the New Left
Review in October 1990:

Merchant capital, usurer capital, have been ubiquitous, but
they have not by themselves brought about any decisive
alteration of the world. It is industrial capital that has
led to revolutionary change, and been the highroad to a
scientific technology that has transformed agriculture as
well as industry, society as well as economy. Industrial
capitalism peeped out here and there before the nineteenth
century, but on any considerable scale it seems to have been
rejected like an alien graft, as something too unnatural to
spread far. It has been a strange aberration on the human
path, an abrupt mutation. Forces outside economic life were
needed to establish it; only very complex, exceptional
conditions could engender, or keep alive, the
entrepreneurial spirit. There have always been much easier
ways of making money than long-term industrial investment,
the hard grind of running a factory. J.P. Morgan preferred
to sit in a back parlour on Wall Street smoking cigars and
playing solitaire, while money flowed towards him. The
English, first to discover the industrial highroad, were
soon deserting it for similar parlours in the City, or
looking for byways, short cuts and colonial Eldorados.

The current crisis would not have surprised him at all.
Fictive capital, I can hear him saying, has no future.

Tariq Ali

Victor Gordon Kiernan, historian and writer: born Manchester
4 September 1913; Married 1938 Shanta Gandhi (marriage
dissolved 1946), 1984 Heather Massey; died 17 February 2009.

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