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A humanist historian

Remembering Victor Kiernan

A humanist historian

In the well-stretched chain of connections between Cambridge University and Pakistan, one important link is Edward Victor Gordon Kiernan (1913-2009), an academic who is not mentioned enough anymore.

Despite his passion for Urdu poetry, which is clear in his translations of Iqbal and Faiz’s poetry and his commentary on these great poets, Pakistani laureates have generally treated him with indifference. His connection with the Progressive Writers Association, which was formed in London in the 1930s, and his abiding love for Lahore, where he taught at the SikhNationalCollege and AitchisonCollege, adds to his value.

Syed Babar Ali was among his pupils when he taught at Aitchison College.

During his stay at Lahore, he befriended Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Muhammad Din Taseer and as he dedicated his book The Lords of Human Kind to Dr Nazir Ahmed, the Principal of Government College Lahore in the 1960s, one may infer he was friends with him too.

Despite his profound interest in literature and his training in the languages of classical antiquity, Kiernan’s claim to fame and recognition lies in his prowess as a historian of extraordinary merit. He has been closely identified with such towering figures as Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rude and E.P. Thompson, all of whom made outstanding individual contributions to their respective fields of historical study.

One must have an inkling by now that he was a renowned British historian of Marxist persuasion.

Christopher Hill called him, “one of the most versatile of British historians”. Eric Hobsbawm substantiated this point, stating, “who else has written with comparable expert knowledge both about the ancient Roman poet Horace and twentieth century Urdu poets, books about Shakespeare and studies on Wordsworth, ‘Iqbal and Milton’ and ‘Civilization and the dance’, about sixteenth-seventeenth century Europe, England in the era of the French Revolution, duelling, tobacco and the Spanish Revolution of 1854, diplomatic history in three continents, religion and war?” Besides this, he ranked him as the best historian of imperialism, which remained a major focus of his scholarship during the post second world war era.

Born on September 4, 1913 in Ashton-upon-Mersey, a suburb in the south of Manchester, Kiernan hailed from a Congregationalist family of modest means and his family was “not political in any active sense but mostly well stored with conservative prejudices”. He had his early education at ManchesterGrammar School, which had only recently set up a ‘History Sixth form’. After this he came to CambridgeUniversity in 1931 and joined TrinityCollege to read history, where he was an outstanding student.

Kiernan got his degree in 1934 and stayed at Cambridge for the next four years, “first as research scholar and then as a Fellow of Trinity College”. That same year he signed up as a member of Communist Party, in which he was to remain for the next 25 years.

Harvey J. Kaye, in his brilliant essay on Kiernan, Seeing Things Historically, sheds light on the events leading such young minds — even those from a conservative institution like Cambridge University — as John Cornford, James Klugmann and Victor Kiernan to imbibe influences from the Communist ideology. The global economic depression and industrial unemployment, the rise and triumph of fascism in Central Europe and the ever-increasing threat of a second world war, spawned the view that the capitalist world was in the throes of extinction. He was one of the pioneers of the Communist Party Historian’s Group and, as Hobsbawm noted, brought to the debates of that body 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”.

Concurrently, he assumed the charge of the virtually nonexistent ‘colonial group’ from his Canadian colleague E.H. Norman, later a distinguished historian of Japan, and had fallen prey to McCarthyite witch-hunt in the United States. He was the first one among the communist historians “who looked after the “colonials” — mostly from South Asia until 1939”.

After succeeding Norman, Kiernan’s attention and trajectory of thought shifted to India, where he went and lived from 1938 to 1946. It was during his sojourn to India that he became acquainted with such revolutionary figures as Puran Chand Joshi (1907-1980), and also married an Indian lady, Shanta Gandhi, whom he had come to know in London in 1938.

That marriage was a short-lived affair, although he was to marry again in the later years of his life to Heather Massey in 1984.

After his return to Trinity College Cambridge in 1946, he applied for posts at Cambridge and Oxford but his referee denounced the politics that he subscribed to, and he was denied any position there. He secured a position in the history department of EdinburghUniversity, which, according to Hobsbawm, “did not mind the charming subversive contaminating” the ambience of that Scottish premier institution and he was to serve there until his retirement in 1977.

Among the broad range of his publications, The Lords of Human Kind: Black Man, Yellow Man and White Man in an Age of Empire is considered as a ‘must read’, particularly for students of world history. Similarly History, Classes & Nation-States and Imperialism and Its Contradictions are both extremely important studies for those wishing to make sense of history of twentieth century. These volumes present extremely original and perceptive critique of the capitalist dispensation. The Duel in European History, State and Society in Europe (1550-1650) and Tobacco: A History explicitly demonstrate the extent and scope of Kiernan’s erudite scholarship.

In the days when Pakistan seems to be drifting in a political as well as an epistemic isolation, as scholars now show reluctance in travelling to Pakistan, the memory of such a great humanist-historian as Victor Kiernan is nothing less than an invaluable treasure. I will strongly recommend the young history students to read Across Time and Continents: A Tribute to Victor G. Kiernan, edited by Prakash Karat, which is a fascinating study on the personality and ideas of our protagonist.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

One comment

  • I have read with great interest the articles by Zia mohyuddin and Tahir Kamran. They tell so much about history as well as histrionics. Besides they draw a vivid picture of the culture and humanism which we are losing now.
    Arman Najmi

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