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Home > Tributes and Remembrances > Victor Kiernan (1913-2009): historian and India’s friend

Victor Kiernan (1913-2009): historian and India’s friend

by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, 22 February 2009

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This Op-Ed. appeared in The Telegraph, 22 February 2009

Illusion of an Epoch

The death of Victor Kiernan at the age of 95 a few days ago probably represents the passing of an era. This is not because he lived well beyond the biblical three score and ten, but because he was among the few survivors from a group of intellectuals who formed the Historians Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Most members of that group believed that he was the most erudite and widely read among them all.

Born in 1913, he came to Trinity College, Cambridge from Manchester Grammar School. In Trinity, he took a double starred first in history and won the research fellowship of the college. It was in Cambridge that Kiernan turned to Marxism and joined the communist party in 1934. He left the party in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Kiernan was part of a large exodus from the CPGB that included Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, John Saville and the two Thompsons, Edward and Dorothy. The only historian from that group who retained his party card was Eric Hobsbawm.

Kiernan’s conversion to communism is not difficult to comprehend. To many of his generation, the Depression made the collapse of capitalism imminent, and Nazism seemed the ultimate menace to civilization. Communism and Soviet Russia appeared as alternatives to many, from historians to scientists, from Hill to Haldane. Men like Kiernan believed then, mistakenly as history showed, that communism and Soviet Russia offered a more humane prospect. In defence of a more humane and civilized society, young men like John Cornford, Kiernan’s friend from Trinity and the hero of his generation, went out to fight in Spain and die. A few days before he died in battle — he was only 21 — Cornford wrote in a poem from Spain: “And history forming in our hands/ Not plasticine but roaring sands….We are the future....’’ Similar sentiments inspired an entire generation. The call of communism was part romantic, part rational. Above all, there was the certainty that time and history were on their side, and the confidence that the world could be correctly interpreted and changed.

Kiernan’s political and intellectual interests did not remain confined to Europe and the West. In Cambridge in the Thirties, he acted as friend, philosopher and guide to many Indians who went up to that university, among whom were Renu Chakrabarty, Mohan Kumaramangalam and Arun Bose. It was perhaps such friendships and his interest in the world outside Europe that made Kiernan decide in 1938 to spend one year of his six-year fellowship in India. His original intention was to stay in India and see the political situation for himself. He stayed till 1946, teaching in Lahore and working closely with the Communist Party of India, which was then headed by P.C. Joshi whose friend Kiernan became.

The visit in 1938, however, was not entirely innocent. Kiernan carried with him, no doubt at the behest of Rajani Palme Dutt (known as RPD, the leader of the CPGB who ran the CPI by remote control from London with orders from Moscow), a Comintern document. This is an interesting sidelight on how the CPI functioned. Just as Kiernan’s academic trip was used by the Comintern to send a secret message to the Indian party, in 1948 when Mohit Sen went up to Cambridge as a student, he was given by the CPI the basic documents of its new understanding and a coded letter to RPD — both typed on very thin paper and placed under the bottom layer of a matchbox. The party asked Mohit to take up smoking so that his carrying a matchbox would not appear incongruous. The poor man coughed and spluttered all the way from Bombay to London.

Kiernan was later to recall his joy when he heard in Bombay of the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. He, in fact, wrote a tribute on the occasion, “an attempt to explain to Indians something of what Paris meant to Europe”. This was to have been read over the radio by Kumaramangalam who arrived at the radio station late and Kiernan’s declamation went unheard.

Back in Britain, Kiernan failed to get elected to a fellowship of an Oxbridge college as his referee denounced his ideology and politics. He settled for a job at Edinburgh University, where he remained professor of history for his entire working life. Kiernan’s intellectual interests were vast — he translated Iqbal and Faiz from Urdu; his passion was Shakespeare and late in life he wrote two books on the bard, and another on Horace. He had a fine monograph on the duel in European history and another on absolutism. He wrote on Spain and China. The book for which he is best remembered is The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to the Outside World in the Imperial Age. The title — taken from Oliver Goldsmith’s “Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,/ I see the lords of humankind pass by” — reflected Kiernan’s immersion in literature. The book was an extraordinary tour d’horizon of a large theme and revealed Kiernan’s enviable capacity to store away bits and pieces of information picked up from his wide-ranging reading. Sherlock Holmes called such a mind an attic but it made for very attractive history writing.

Perhaps because of his many interests, Kiernan never produced the magnum opus he was capable of. He did not quite become the historian of the stature of Thompson and Hill. When the latter dedicated a book to Kiernan, the dedication read, “Wit, provocateur and generous friend of fifty years.” The choice of words is not without significance.

Throughout his life, Kiernan retained an abiding love and interest for India (including Pakistan). In spite of this, like many Anglo-Saxons of his generation, he failed to appreciate the cultural differences between India and the West. I remember one leisurely morning at St Antony’s College, Oxford (Kiernan had come to speak at Tapan Raychaudhuri’s South Asia History seminar), when we argued about Wajid Ali Shah. He had just seen Shatranj ke Khiladi and kept saying that Ray had depicted the king too sympathetically. Wajid Ali Shah, he said, was a hopeless king. I tried to explain to him that he was judging the Awadh ruler by Western standards of governance and thus making the same mistake as Dalhousie and Outram. Victor winced at being compared to imperialists but refused to see the point. He was always affectionate and friendly and had an impish sense of humour. He was chairing a seminar in Oxford and spotted me in the back row. When the discussion veered round to 1857, he surprised me and others by saying, “Dr Mukherjee, who is fielding way out in the country, should at this point be called up to field close in.” I was flattered and charmed by the unexpected recognition from a very senior historian.

He could also be devastatingly honest about himself. When the Soviet Union was tottering to its fall in the late Eighties, Kiernan announced to a seminar audience in the UCLA, “All my life I have chased an illusion” or words to this effect. This makes one wonder what kind of relationship he had with his self-confessed acolyte, a Malayali young man whom he taught in Edinburgh in the late Sixties. Did that young man learn from Kiernan to be honest, to be open-minded about his Marxism, to question and to doubt? The name of that man is Prakash Karat. What did Karat tell Kiernan about his party’s performance in West Bengal and in India? Was his history-telling honest to his historian-mentor? Above all, if comrade Karat had read with care The Lords of Human Kind, he would not look at the world with pride in his port and defiance in his eye.

I would have loved to have asked Victor what he thought of his Indian acolyte. The answer would have been witty, provocative and not less than honest.