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Kiernan: Historian of Imperialism

Victor Gordon Kiernan (1913-2009), like many other Marxist scholars, stood resolutely with labour in its contest for hegemony with capital, sang paeans to the peasants and condemned imperialism. His unique niche among historians, however, is assured by two things. First, he pioneered a study of cultural imperialism. He was interested in knowing what imperialism meant for its victims and which attitudes shaped it in the metropolis. Second, Kiernan was among the very few who understood the language and idiom spoken in the south Asian subcontinent. He was among the earliest translators of the sublime Urdu poetry of Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.


Kiernan: Historian of Imperialism

Bhupendra Yadav

was multilingual before he joined Trinity College, Cambridge for his graduation (1931-36) in history. He worked there later as a Fellow in two tenures, viz, 1936-38 and 1946-48. Remembering his academic and political life then, Kiernan wrote poetically (Kiernan 1974b: 24):

Victor Gordon Kiernan (19132009), like many other Marxist scholars, stood resolutely with labour in its contest for hegemony with capital, sang paeans to the peasants and condemned imperialism. His unique niche among historians, however, is assured by two things. First, he pioneered a study of cultural imperialism. He was interested in knowing what imperialism meant for its victims and which attitudes shaped it in the metropolis. Second, Kiernan was among the very few who understood the language and idiom spoken in the south Asian subcontinent. He was among the earliest translators of the sublime Urdu poetry of Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

The material in this essay forms a part of the research on the author’s forthcoming book on western historiography to be published by Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, New Delhi.

Bhupendra Yadav ( teaches History at MD University, Rohtak, Haryana.

ictor Gordon Kiernan (1913-2009) died of heart failure on 17 February 2009 at the ripe age of 95. We remember Kiernan fondly in south Asia not only because he was one of the founders of the seminal historians’ group of the Communist Party of Great Britain (here after historians’ group) or because he was professor emeritus of history at Edinburgh University. In Edinburgh, Kiernan inspired students like Prakash Karat, General Secretary of CPI(M) and James Gordon Brown, present prime minister of the United Kingdom. Karat tried to repay his gratitude by editing a Festschrift entitled Across Centuries and Continents on Kiernan’s 90th birthday. Brown, who was a student at the history department of Edinburgh University, reportedly edited The Red Paper on Scotland in 1975 with help from Kiernan. All this is important but there is more to Kiernan than merely his positions, students and friends.

For us, ex-colonial subjects of Britain, Kiernan is important because we were important to him. We, victims of imperialism, occupied a large part of his work. Kiernan spent eight precious years of his youth (1938-46) in Lahore, his first marriage was with the danseuse, Shanta Kalidas Gandhi (1917-2002), and he was a multilingual Marxist historian who took imperialism more seriously than his ilk. Kiernan blazed a trail of research on cultural imperialism with his The Lords of Human Kind (1969). Edward Said, the famous literary critic, systematically followed this theme later. Said’s legendary book Orientalism (1978) has just about two references to Kiernan but Said accepts gratefully Kiernan’s characterisation of Orientalism as “Europe’s collective day-dream of the Orient” (Said 1978: 52).

Kiernan was born on 4 September 1913 in a lower middle class family. Apart from English, he picked Spanish and Portuguese at home because his father worked as a translator in the Manchester Canal Company. He learnt Greek and Latin in the Grammar School at Manchester. Kiernan

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…Doubtless the youthful world we inhabited contained, like all others, regions of illusion and self-deception, over which Saharas have long since crept. Much nevertheless is left from that time of common endeavour and common hope that few of the survivors would willingly forget.

The Marxist commitments of Kiernan came in the way when he was looking for a regular teaching assignment. He was refused jobs in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Finally, he joined the history department in Edinburgh University in 1948 and retired from there in 1977. Speaking of Kiernan, Geoff Eley says (Eley 2005: 28):

...[Apart from Hobsbawm] Kiernan was also a true polymath, publishing widely on aspects of imperialism, early modern state formation, and the history of the aristocratic duel, as well as British relations with China and the Spanish Revolution of 1854, with an imposing wider bibliography of essays on an extraordinary range of subjects.

Kiernan is survived only by his wife, Heather Massey – a Canadian academic. Kiernan’s book The Duel in European History: Honour and Reign of Aristocracy

(1988) was dedicated to Heather. Both married in 1984 when Kiernan was 70 years old.

Dissident with a Difference

Though a part of the historians’ group, Kiernan is, however, less celebrated than others like Hobsbawm, Thompson or Dobb. This may have been because Kiernan was a trifle less polemical, more focused on historical themes, less spread out on other agendas and could not earn the halo that someone like Thompson did as a “public intellectual”. The good thing about Kiernan was that he is as open as Thompson when it came to intra-left ideological and political problems. Harvey Kaye says that while others in the historians’ group were primarily strategists of socialist politics “fanning the spark of hope”, Kiernan’s vision of history was tragic. He reminded us that the “the enemy (the ruling class) has not ceased to be victorious” with the triumph

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of capitalism (Kaye 1988: 27). The losers will not be left alone by the victorious ruling class; they will be systematically misrepresented in history. Therefore, it was on behalf of the losers that Kiernan took up cudgels in his life and work.

The association of Kiernan with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) lasted 25 years from 1934 to 1959. Writing in L ondon Review of Books (17 September 1998), Kiernan said that he was dis appointed at the Party’s paralytic response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and an inner-party report which showed that there was no democracy inside the organisation. From 1959 Kiernan decided to be a “oneman party of liberal-Marxist principles”.

During his membership of CPGB, Kiernan was engaged with the communist underground in India between 1938 and 1946. In September 1938, he carried a “lengthy document from the Communist International” which said that Moscow was seeking a collective security agreement with Britain and hence, was unable to campaign for the legalisation of Communist Party of India (CPI). He met P C Joshi secretly, after disguising himself by shaving off his moustache, in the lounge of the Prince of Wales Museum at Mumbai (then Bombay). The first time Kiernan went to a secret meeting of the CPI he was made to wait for half an hour outside a cinema in an Indian area and to cover up his loitering he knew of no better thing than “keep tying a shoelace” (Kiernan 1987: 61-62)!

For most of the period he was in India, Kiernan was in Punjab which he describes as “a backwoods province run for the British and for themselves by a coalition of landowners called the Unionist Party”. During the wartime, the CPI grew because it took up mass grievances like housing shortage in Lahore, shortage of food and other essential commodities, and inflation. The Punjab unit of Friends of Soviet Union was formed and Kiernan wrote a letter in The Tribune on 20 September 1942 calling for open contacts with the USSR. A humorous incident took place when the commissioner called up Kiernan to borrow a Soviet flag for hoisting at the victory celebrations after the war but the Punjab unit of the Friends of Soviet Union did not have a Soviet flag to loan the government (Kiernan 1987: 63, 69-70).

Kiernan was not just an onlooker of the political developments in India but also managed to play a small role in them. He found many splendid qualities among the CPI comrades. Most of the party members were talented, educated people and some of them belonged to rich families. Yet, at the party “commune” in Mumbai, they lived on a monthly wage of Rs 5, “slept on thin mats on hard floors”, “ate sparse meals sitting in rows on the ground” and used a foul-smelling latrine to ease themselves. Yet he was exasperated by the “wooden dogmatism, bureaucratism and aggressive national self-esteem” in the party. The CPI’s way of working was exasperating, says K iernan. There was little room for discussion because the theory came from Marx and the party-line from the top. Kiernan noticed that young intellectuals were recruited by CPI but they either wore out quickly or turned into party hacks. Kiernan did not hear even once a point of theory being discussed in the eight years he was in India. To counter the self-assumed anarchic Indian national temperament, seriousness was imposed on CPI members in schoolmasterly ways. “At Lahore at one stage all members were called on to fill in weekly timetable details of how every hour of each day had been employed”. Consequently, communists thought of themselves as practical men with no time for idle chatter or interest in cultivating a sense of humour. Kiernan records,

I used to make up limericks, on topical subjects, for the wall-newspaper, and as a connoisseur of this genre was disappointed to find that only the least subtle were applauded (Kiernan 1987: 66 and 68).

Looking back at his experience, Kiernan declared, “Living and working among them was on the whole the most exhilarating experience of my life” (Ibid: 67-68).

Understanding Imperialism Culturally

In 1999, the Encyclopaedia of Historians and Historical Writing classified Kiernan as the “British historian of Imperialism”. The word imperialism, as we know, is derived from empire and was first used in France in the 1830s to denote the control of territory outside Europe by various European powers. There can be situations of informal empire when one state controls another without claiming sovereignty over it, like say the British control over China in the 19th c entury. There can also be situations of cultural imperialism where control is exercised without political domination. There can also be neocolonialism where imperialist influence is perpetuated in nominally independent countries. Kiernan was interested in imperialism in all these forms.

Kiernan came from a family which was devoted to the empire. Victor, his own first name, was from queen Victoria (Edwards 2009). It is, therefore, extraordinary that Kiernan rebelled against his family heritage by becoming a critic of the British empire quite early in his life. His earliest study of the British empire was Metcalfe’s Mission to Lahore, 1808-1809. Kiernan thought the outcome of the diplomatic offensive, called “Mission of Charles T Metcalf to Ranjit Singh in 1808-1809”, was a “small meal for imperialism”.

Some scholars have undertaken intensive studies on the economic force driving imperialism and its effects (Peter J Cain and Anthony G Hopkins 1993). Others have explored the political and strategic compulsions behind imperialist expansion (William Roger Louis 1976). The cultural and psychological effects of imperialism were studied first in Francophone Africa in the late 1950s by writers like Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral. Fanon was the first to note that imperialism destroyed the consciousness of history and culture among the colonised. Cabral identified that the cultural loss of colonial subjects led to two responses, viz, a tame acceptance of the colonial stereotypes and a resis tance to cultural domination by a return to the source.

Imperialism of the British in India, while enriching the former, engendered, what Andre Gunder Frank called “the deve lop ment of underdevelopment”. H owever, in popular

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perception British colonialism is often c onsidered a blessing. Protesting the indifference in the upkeep of old statues of British colonialists, Khushwant Singh r ecent ly wrote (Hindustan Times, 14 March 2009):

While glorifying our freedom movement, we harped on the racist-colonial aspect of British rule. We erased from our memory the good they did. Ruling over the entire country, they made us conscious of being one people, Indians. We forgot our racial, religious and linguistic divisions and came closer to each other. The British introduced democratic institutions in the country: elected municipalities, legislatures including the Parliament. They gave us our judicial system, civil and criminal laws. They gave us the telegraph, railways, canals and roads. They gave us New Delhi, one of the most beautiful and greenest capitals of the world. There was more respect for law and order in the British days than there is today. And they left the country in good grace…

To such simplistic understandings of imperialism Kiernan may have responded sharply. When some Marxists spoke of colonialism in terms of a harbinger of progress in Asia and Africa, Kiernan responded by saying that the real contribution of European imperialism “was made less by imposing its rule on others than by teaching others how to resist it” (Kiernan and Kaye 1988: 16).

The Lords of Human Kind: European A ttitudes towards the Outside World in the Imperial Age (1969) was not the first book by Kiernan. Apart from a number of historical research articles, he had already published two books on diplomatic history, namely, British Diplomacy in China, 18801885 (1939) and Metcalfe’s Mission to Lahore, 1808-1809 (1943). With The Lords of the Human Kind, however, Kiernan graduated to a larger canvas and big themes. Apart from research articles on specific topics, he started writing books on such general themes like Marxism and Imperialism (1974), America: The New Impe rialism (1978) and European Empires from Conquest to Collapse, 1815-1960 (1982). In the world of scholars, Kiernan came to be taken seriously after his The Lords of Human Kind. Incidentally, Kiernan dedicated The Lords of Human Kind to his friend Nazir Ahmad “lately Principal, Govern ment College, Lahore in memory of excursions east and west”. The title of this book was taken by Kiernan from the following lines in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Traveller (1765):

Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,

I see the lords of human kind pass by.

European civil servants, explorers, archaeologists, educationists, missionaries, profiteers, mercenaries and even convicts descended on the outside world in the “imperial age”. The Lords of Human Kind was a survey of European attitudes ranging from paternalistic, censorious, acquisitive, conscientious, righteous and condescending towards the “inferior races”. The Europeans felt moral outrage at the sight of mixed bathing in Japan (180-81); were bewildered at the sight of Chinese who invented the gunpowder but used it only in celebrations as fireworks (171-72); had mixed feelings t owards the amorous freedom among Tahitian women (244-45); and were savage-like in repressing the rebellions, like the one by Chinese Boxers and the Indians in 1857.

Out of the 14 sovereign states in Europe in 1914, eight had colonies and Spain had just lost hers a few decades ago. Ulti mately, argued Kiernan, colonialism cost the Europeans themselves quite dearly. Much more than just friendships and goodwill were lost by Europeans around the world. For

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The Lily and the Mud: D D Kosambi on Religion –Kunal Chakrabarti
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instance, more lives than necessary were lost in first world war because of people like colonel G B Malleson, who framed the golden rule that the “true mode to fight the Asiatics is to move straight on” based on his experiences suppressing the 1857 Revolt in India. Now, faced with machine-guns and barbed wires in Europe, when the infantries of combating enemies moved straight on, they met certain death in monstrous proportions. Alternate battle tactics to outflank and trap the enemy may have cost fewer lives. The division of the world into “martial” and “non-martial races” also proved disastrous because it bound E uropean vision less to military tactic and strategy and more to innate might and inhe rent fervour (Kiernan 1969: 314).

In the context of India, two myths Kiernan helped break were about British impartiality and colonial “godlike” superiority. Kiernan noted that the British administration was often acknowledged to be expensive and blundering, but seldom as capricious or prone to favouritism. The reason for this had less to do with belief in equality of rights before law or setting up an “administrative machinery dealing impersonally with objective facts”. At home the Europeans were moving from a society based on compulsion to one founded on the consent of the ruled. But abroad the tendency was in the opposite direction. W P Andrew, a self-proclaimed pacifist, epitomised this sentiment when he said, in 1880, that it was Britain’s mission “to spread among the savages [of the North-West Frontier Province of the Indian empire] the power of that great civiliser – the Sword”. The administrators in India could put up a face of impartiality, Kiernan showed, because they had fewer associations and kinships in India to get swayed by affections or interests. On the other hand, in the mid-19th century, lord John Russell took oath as minister in England and he was expected “to remember his relatives while not forgetting his friends”. The same feelings may have prevailed in India provided the administrators had family and friends in India (Kiernan 1969: 56 and 312).

The absence of Indian women from the social scene imparted to the British a certain godlike aloofness, adds Kiernan. There was almost no social interaction between the British and any class of Indians.

Further, Indian women remained inaccessible to the British and the only women they met were prostitutes and dancing girls. This cut-off between the British and the Indians was particularly harmful. Racism caused this phenomenon and sustained the “stand-offishness” among the civil and army officers. The godlike aloofness percolated down to their British subordinates. Kiernan noted (Kiernan 1969: 57-58):

…When the Englishman turned his back on the invisible Indian beauty, as on a poisonous orchid or sour grape, he was in a way turning his back on India altogether. His wife, whose susceptibility to the Indian climate was n otorious, was less uneasy about him because he ostentatiously avoided Indian society. It may be surmised that a broad moat between the races helped the white paterfamilias also to feel easy in the mind. …Altogether, the peace and quiet of the family was safer if Indian company was excluded from the spacious bungalow. And the peace and quiet of the empire were safer if the bungalow set a good example to the barracks; for Tommy Atkins to go wandering among women would foment endless rows, and undermine discipline.

Translating Urdu Poetry

Kiernan, like many others, stood resolutely with labour in its contest with capital, sang paeans to the peasants and condemned imperialism. But Kiernan was among the very few who understood the language and idiom spoken in the south Asian subcontinent. We know about this aspect from his sublime translations of Urdu poetry. Kiernan was the earliest translator of the poems of Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The lovely poem “Capital and Labour” was translated thus (Iqbal 1947: 47):

Oh, the crafty man of capital has gnawed you to the bone, And the ages have gone by, and your reward has been a stone!

Iqbal’s poem “To the Punjab Peasant” was translated (ibid: 86):

On the soil of your clay cast the seed of the heart; From that seed the tomorrow’s great harvest shall start.

And the translation of Iqbal’s response to the so-called “Indian ‘Reforms” of 1935 in his “Psychology of Rulers” (ibid: 113):

The pity is the pitiless fowler’s mask. All the fresh notes I sang – of no avail! Now he drops withered flowers in our cage, To reconcile the captives to the jail.

We, in the Indian subcontinent, will r emember Kiernan, scholar and antiimperialist translator of our melodies, for a long time!


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    june 13, 2009 vol xliv no 24

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