June 24, 2021
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Victor Gordon Kiernan (1913-2009)

Despite his staggeringly wide range of learning, for me this British Marxist historian (born 4 September 1913; died 17 February 2009) would still have been some one very special if he had done nothing else but translate Faiz and Iqbal.  As Eric Hobsbawm notes in the Guardian:

Marxism and the irresistible friendship of Indians moved Victor, in 1938, to use one year of his four-year Trinity fellowship to visit the subcontinent. This was nominally "to see the political scene at closer hand and with some schemes for historical study" and he also had a Comintern document for the Indian CP...

Tariq Ali reminds us in the Independent :

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.

It is interesting, though, to contrast Tariq Ali's views about what sort of a Marxist Kiernen was with what noted historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee has to say in the Telegraph , but Mukherjee also recounts some other wonderful anecdotes. Here is one:

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...

To read more (also about Prakash Karat and Kiernan), please click here.

Post Script: John Trumpbour, Research Director, Labour & Worklife Programme at Harvard Law School has a nice tribute in Frontline:
 

In “The Politics of Pain”, written for the New York-based Nation (January 4, 1971), he spoke of the 15th century Hussite heretic Hieronymus of Prague, “a man of strong build who struggled and screamed in the flames for a long time”. When Richard Friedenthal in his study of Luther (1970) observed that “There were many who screamed”, Kiernan retorted, “There are many today.” He admitted, “We have lost a great deal of our pleasure in cruelty, but have acquired a faculty for shutting our eyes to it.” In the U.S. of the Old South, “Urban slave owners… would often send their slaves to the police station to be given so many strokes of the whip, rather than have them whipped at home. Modern Americans would rather trust special police cadres in Latin America to do whatever the safeguarding of their investments may require. It is indeed one of the recommendations of neocolonialism, by contrast with direct imperial control, that a civilised country is not compelled to do the uncivilised part of its work itself.”

More here

Victor Gordon Kiernan (1913-2009)
outlookindia.com
1970-01-01T05:30:00+0530

Despite his staggeringly wide range of learning, for me this British Marxist historian (born 4 September 1913; died 17 February 2009) would still have been some one very special if he had done nothing else but translate Faiz and Iqbal.  As Eric Hobsbawm notes in the Guardian:

Marxism and the irresistible friendship of Indians moved Victor, in 1938, to use one year of his four-year Trinity fellowship to visit the subcontinent. This was nominally "to see the political scene at closer hand and with some schemes for historical study" and he also had a Comintern document for the Indian CP...

Tariq Ali reminds us in the Independent :

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.

It is interesting, though, to contrast Tariq Ali's views about what sort of a Marxist Kiernen was with what noted historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee has to say in the Telegraph , but Mukherjee also recounts some other wonderful anecdotes. Here is one:

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...

To read more (also about Prakash Karat and Kiernan), please click here.

Post Script: John Trumpbour, Research Director, Labour & Worklife Programme at Harvard Law School has a nice tribute in Frontline

In “The Politics of Pain”, written for the New York-based Nation (January 4, 1971), he spoke of the 15th century Hussite heretic Hieronymus of Prague, “a man of strong build who struggled and screamed in the flames for a long time”. When Richard Friedenthal in his study of Luther (1970) observed that “There were many who screamed”, Kiernan retorted, “There are many today.” He admitted, “We have lost a great deal of our pleasure in cruelty, but have acquired a faculty for shutting our eyes to it.” In the U.S. of the Old South, “Urban slave owners… would often send their slaves to the police station to be given so many strokes of the whip, rather than have them whipped at home. Modern Americans would rather trust special police cadres in Latin America to do whatever the safeguarding of their investments may require. It is indeed one of the recommendations of neocolonialism, by contrast with direct imperial control, that a civilised country is not compelled to do the uncivilised part of its work itself.”

More here

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