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Remembering V. G. Kiernan

Victor Kiernan, who has died aged 95, was a man of unselfconscious charm and staggeringly wide range of learning. He was also one of the last survivors of the generation of British Marxist historians of the 1930s and 1940s. If this generation has been seen by the leading German scholar HU Wehler as the main factor behind “the global impact of English historiography since the 1960s”, it was largely due to Victor’s influence. He brought to the debates of the Communist party historians’ group between 1946 and 1956 a persistent, if always courteous, determination to think out problems of class culture and tradition for himself, whatever the orthodox position. He continued to remain loyal to the flexible, open-minded Marxism of the group to which he had contributed so much.

Most influential through his works on the imperialist era, he was also, almost certainly, the only historian who also translated 20th-century Urdu poets and wrote a book on the Latin poet Horace. The latter’s works he, like the distinguished Polish Marxist historian Witold Kula, carried with him on his travels.

Like several of his contemporaries among the Marxist historians, including Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton and Edward Thompson, he came from a nonconformist background. In his case it was a lower-middle-class, actively congregationalist family in Ashton-on-Mersey, though in his time as a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, he used his Irish name as an excuse to justify a lack of zeal for the British monarchy.

He came to Trinity College from Manchester grammar school in 1931 and remained there for the next seven years as an exceptionally brilliant undergraduate, research scholar and, from 1937, fellow. In 1934, the year of his graduation (double starred first in history), he joined the Communist party, in which he remained for the next 25 years. His first book, British Diplomacy in China 1880-1885 (1939) announced his consistent interest in the world outside Europe.

Unlike his Trinity comrade John Cornford, about whom he wrote with remarkable perception, his public profile among Cambridge Communist party members of the 1930s was low. Only those with special interests were likely to meet him, a boyish face emerging in a dressing-gown from among mountain ranges of books on the attic floor of Trinity Great Court. This was because he soon took over the officially non-existent “colonial group” from the Canadian EH Norman, later a distinguished historian of Japan, diplomat and eventual victim of the McCarthyite witch-hunt in the US, and first of a succession of communist (and later ex-communist) historians who looked after the “colonials” – overwhelmingly from south Asia – until 1939.

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.

He was to stay there until 1946, mainly as a teacher at a Sikh college and, somewhat unexpectedly, at that stronghold of the raj and its rajahs, Aitchison college, both in Lahore. He returned, “reading Thucydides on the Peloponnesian war” in his cabin, with a cargo of friendships, a permanent passion for the great (and progressive) Urdu poets Iqbal and Faiz whom he translated, but with no apparent trace in his subsequent life of a short-lived marriage to Shanta Gandhi, whom he had got to know in London in 1938. Few of his British friends were even aware of it, or expected to see this quintessential bachelor don with a wife, before his fortunate second marriage in 1984 to Heather Massey.

He returned to Trinity, an unreconstructed, but always critical, communist with vast plans for a Marxist work on Shakespeare. His referee denounced his politics when he applied for posts at Oxford and Cambridge universities, but – such was Britain in 1948 – did not mind the charming subversive contaminating the history department at Edinburgh University. There he remained until retirement from a chair in 1977, to all appearances at ease with himself, though not, except for some science fiction, with the post-1945 cultural world. He returned from long bicycle rides across the Pentlands to a flat at the top of an austere staircase in the New Town, to write – not least the diary which he had kept since 1935 – and amaze students and admiring friends by his surprise that they did not know as much as he.

He settled down in the 1950s to publish on everything: from Wordsworth to Faiz, evangelicalism to mercenaries and absolute monarchy, Indo-Central Asian problems, Paraguay and the “war of the Pacific” of Chile, Peru and Bolivia, not forgetting a full-scale study of the Spanish revolution of 1854. In the 1960s he discovered his unique gift of asking historical questions, and suggesting answers, by bringing and fitting together an unparalleled range of erudition, constantly extended by one of the great readers of our time. He became the master of the perfectly chosen quotation inserted into a demure but uncompromising survey of a global scene. Nobody else could have produced the remarkable works on the era of western empires he wrote after the middle 1960s, and by which he will be chiefly remembered, notably The Lords of Human Kind: Black Man, Yellow Man and White Man in an Age of Empire (1969).

Age increased his output and the range of his writings. Co-editing A Dictionary of Marxist Thought (1984), he wrote entries on agnosticism, Christianity, empires in Marx’s day, Hinduism, historiography, intellectuals, Paul Lafargue, nationalism, MN Roy, religion, revolution and war. Before the end of the 20th century he published books on State and Society in Europe 1550-1650 (1980), The Duel in European History (1989), Tobacco: A History (1991), Shakespeare Poet and Citizen (1992), Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare (1996) and Horace Poetics & Politics (1999) on his admired poet.

To mark his 90th birthday, the future general secretary of the Communist party (Marxist) of India edited Across Time and Continents, a selection of Victor’s writings and reminiscences of the subcontinent which had been closer to his heart than any other part of the 20th-century world.

ERIC HOBSBAWM’s obituary on Keirnan ran in The Guardian, February 18.

 

 

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