Re-introducing Kiernan

Published : Jan 16, 2004 00:00 IST

Across Time and Continents: A Tribute to Victor G. Kiernan, edited by Prakash Karat; LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 2003; pages 255, price Rs.450.

SOCIAL science scholarship on India will doubtless be enriched by Leftword Books' year-end offering: a splendid collection of essays on India by Victor G. Kiernan, the British Marxist historian and literary critic. Kiernan who in the words of his friend and admirer Eric Hobsbawm has "no parallel amongst twentieth-century historians", has nurtured a special attachment for the subcontinent over the decades, having spent several years in Lahore as a teacher in the 1940s, developing Indian friendships, and writing with insight and erudition on issues that ranged from India's encounter with colonialism to Urdu poetry.

The first ever compilation of Kiernan's writings on India honours this distinguished historian and friend of India on his 90th birthday, which fell on September 4, 2003. The essays are not new, but for one that was written by him specially for this book, and were written from the 1960s through the early 1980s in books and journals that are no longer easily accessible. The book, therefore, re-introduces Kiernan to the Indian reading public, in particular, to a new generation of Indian scholars who may not be familiar with his work.

The essays in the volume, according to its editor Prakash Karat, were selected to bring out Kiernan's "exceptional skills as a historian of the Marxist school through his writings on India, to his special passion for Urdu poetry and his deep attachment to the Indian subcontinent and its people". It contains a tribute to Kiernan by his illustrious contemporary Eric Hobsbawm; an evaluation by Harvey J. Kaye of Kiernan's prolific scholarship and his influence in shaping the collective output of the famous Historians Group of the British Communist Party; and eight essays by Kiernan, the last a personal account of his India experiences drawn from a diary he has kept over the last six decades.

Imperialism in the modern age has, broadly speaking, been the subject matter of Kiernan's historical canvas although he has moved in many directions under that overarching theme with writings on diplomacy and military history, politics and the state, revolution and class struggle, religion, the role of intellectuals, culture and society, and so on. His work spans the continents of Europe, the Americas and Asia. He has also written extensively, and with comparable expertise, on literature, his first passion. Here again, the range of his interests and expertise is striking: from the ancient Roman poet Horace to Shakespeare and Wordsworth, to the Urdu poets Faiz and Iqbal. Both Kaye and Hobsbawm underline the universalist aspect of his scholarship with reference to the entries he personally wrote in the Dictionary of Marxist Thought, a book of which he was co-editor. Kiernan wrote the entries on Agnosticism, Christianity, Empires of Marx's Day, Hinduism, Historiography, Intellectuals, Paul Lafargue, Ferdinand Lassalle, Nation, Nationalism, Religion, Revolution, M.N. Roy, Stages of Development and War.

Kiernan's historical scholarship stands out as much for its range, diversity and sheer output as for the critical Marxist perspective that he employs as a historian, a perspective developed and refined during his years of active participation in the Historians Group. Hobsbawm traces the trajectory of Kiernan's historical approach from a "source-exhausting historian" to that of a theorist who could synthesise a vast range of primary and secondary source material into the ambit of his analysis. "He had always been a comparatist - something which comes naturally to Marxists," Hobsbawm notes. "From the 1960s his works became less monographic and more general, increasingly bringing together in his analysis of societies in transformation class, state, culture and the forces of globalisation."

Indeed, it is his comparatist approach that provides fresh insights to a much-debated issue in Indian history, namely, the impact of colonialism on India, for which Marx and Engels themselves set the framework through their writings on the subject. No serious writer on Indian history has been uninfluenced by Marx's writings on India in 1853, and in 1857 on the great popular upheaval against the British called the Indian Mutiny. Kiernan has three essays that discuss the subject: `Marx and India', `Marx, Engels and the Indian Mutiny', and `After the Mutiny', an extract from The Lords of Human Kind, Kiernan's celebrated study of the cultural dimensions of imperial expansion.

His enormous admiration for Marx's and Engels' analytical brilliance notwithstanding, Kiernan's approach to their writings is rigorous and critical. He situates them, as Kaye notes, "in their historically specific circumstances, acknowledging their personal commitments, the particular intellectual legacies available to them, and the specific international and national developments, demands and possibilities that shaped their work". Thus Marx's writings on India, a great many of them written for The New York Tribune, Kiernan reminds us, were written by a journalist "phenomenally endowed" but a journalist nonetheless, working under the pressures of deadlines and the need to make short term assessments of developments that Marx was acutely aware demanded more thought, time, and a wider information base. This was perhaps why Marx was unable to develop fully upon some of his most insightful readings on the nature of historical change in India under colonial impact. Thus, Marx's thesis on the peculiar nature of stagnation induced by a changeless `Asiatic' village organisation, above which dynasties rose and fell, and which drew from him some of his most evocative and impassioned passages on India, appears "too stationary" a scheme. Kiernan suggests that it underestimated two factors of historical change, namely, population growth and the impact of the political disruption and anarchy prevalent in the 18th century.

While noting the incisiveness of Marx's famous thesis on the dual impact of British rule in India, Kiernan argues that Marx appears to have overrated the destructive impact of machine competition on village handicraft in India. Lancashire imports could hardly have met India's demand for cloth and, indeed, "India's extreme dearth of means of transport throughout the first half of the century was itself a dyke against the inundation of manufactures that Marx imagined," he writes. In his delineation of the big picture of historical change, there were many historical tendencies of great resilience that Marx tended to underestimate. One was the "tenacity of religion". Kiernan notes that Marx "did not foresee that the old form of divide and rule would be replaced by a more insidious one, the playing off of Hindu against Muslim". The second, Kiernan notes, was caste, which Marx believed would get dissipated under the onslaught of the forces of regeneration.

Kiernan discusses Marx's writing on 1857 in the context of what he was writing on events elsewhere during that period - the revolutions of 1848-49 and the rise to power of Napoleon III in France; the Liberal revolution of 1854 in Spain and the Crimean War of 1854-56. The second Opium War had begun in 1856 in China and the Anglo-Persian war in 1856-57. When Marx and Engels turned their attention to the cataclysmic upheaval in India, they saw it in relation to similar developments taking place in other parts of the world. By the early 1850s Marx himself felt that India was entering an epoch of modernisation and the uprising in India therefore took him by surprise. Both he and Engels fell in agreement more readily with the view, Kiernan argues, that the 1857 revolt was feudalistic and retrogressive rather than popular and forward looking, although they recognised the seeds of nationalism within it. Kiernan himself has some sympathy for this view. He compares the leadership of the Mutiny by the Taluqdars with that of the feudal lords who led the struggle in Spain from 1808 to 1814 against the Napoleonic armies: both implacably reactionary, both seeking the restitution of the old order.

New evidence on the upheaval, the nature of its leadership and the extent of popular participation at the local level, has today recast the debate on the nature of the 1857 uprising. Kiernan advances the interesting if arguable theory that regions with a distinct identity that they had been free to assert after the breakup of the Mughal empire, like Bengal, Punjab, Maharashtra and the south, were either neutral or even pro-British during the uprising. It was the Gangetic valley, the bastion of earlier empires, that imagined and strived for "an India", which it tragically could not attain because its "memories were of empire more than of national revolt against empire".

The essay `After the Mutiny', extracted from the Lords of Human Kind, is a complex exploration of the racial and colonial mindsets that propelled the vast project of empire building, particularly in the post-1857 years. Kiernan may be accused of seeing the clash of cultures from the viewpoint of the conquering forces, in the person of the British officer, soldier, merchant or planter who in the exercise of power had to negotiate the cultural mores of an alien and hostile environment. But Kiernan was working with colonial sources, and while there is rich description and much understanding of how Englishmen governed India while in virtual culture shock, there is little sympathy in his analysis for the notions of racial superiority they nurtured and translated into brutal forms of domination.

`India and the Labour Party', along with two companion pieces on the Indian Communist Party during the War years and his delightful reminiscences of his stay in India, are essays that strike an altogether different note. The first is an unsparing, sharp and witty account of Labour Party politics and India. Labour, "a peculiarly British social democratic mentality" in Kiernan's words, was born in prevarication and grew as a weak-kneed apologist for Tory policy in India, "spinning socialistic costumes as disguises for imperialism in India". For all its declarations, Labour instinctively viewed mass struggle and radical movements with suspicion. While it found ways of "dealing with capitalism by changing the colour of the spotlight" at home, in India Labour's attitude to the independence movement combined pious pronouncements ("a long cloud-procession of platitude and prevarication, flim-flam and flapdoodle, humbug and hot air" writes Kiernan), with a firmly obstructionist policy on the ground. "All in all", notes Kiernan, "India fostered in the Labour Party the habit of mistaking pious aspiration for fulfilment, promise for performance, fantasy for reality; of thinking a thing as good as done when it has only been talked about. (It) kept its ideals unsullied by treating them as abstractions laid up in heaven, too good for this world."

Kiernan's love for literature drew him to Urdu poetry, and the compilation includes two finely crafted and absorbing essays on the two great Urdu poets of the subcontinent, Faiz Ahmad `Faiz' and Mohamed Iqbal. Kiernan's acquaintance with Faiz in Lahore flowered into a life-long friendship. He regarded Iqbal as the greatest Urdu poet since Ghalib. The poetry of Iqbal and Faiz - "the Prophet and the Humanist" - reflected the political turmoil and nationalistic aspirations of the subcontinent in their times. Kiernan's essays describe the influences that shaped their work, and he draws the contrasts in their poetic response to the age they were living in.

The book ends fittingly with a description by Kiernan of his years in India. He came to India in 1938, carrying a lengthy document from the Communist International to the Communist Party of India on why Russia could not openly back India's struggle against Britain. Kiernan taught in Lahore, but during holidays would visit Bombay and stay at the party headquarters, the `Commune' as it was called. He writes with admiration yet gentle humour of the many fine Communist leaders and activists he met there who lived and worked under a somewhat rigid `Bolshevik' code of conduct. Kiernan was to carry his attachment for India, fostered in those early days, through his life. It is an engagement that his lively yet scholarly essays mirror in full.

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