Ideological warrior against Empire

Published : Mar 13, 2009 00:00 IST

It was in 1934, a time of radical ferment among Cambridge students, that Kiernan joined the Communist Party. He found his radicalism subsequently reinforced by what he regarded as the treachery of Britains elites.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

It was in 1934, a time of radical ferment among Cambridge students, that Kiernan joined the Communist Party. He found his radicalism subsequently reinforced by what he regarded as the treachery of Britains elites.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

VICTOR GORDON KIERNAN, Professor Emeritus of Modern History at Edinburgh University and recognised as one of the most wide-ranging of global historians, died of heart failure on February 17 at his home in Stow, Galashiels, Scotland.

Ninety-five years old, he was a man of letters close to the Edwardian era but infused with a radical consciousness from the Great Depression and a decade of witnessing anti-colonial struggles in the Indian subcontinent. While his middle name came from one of British imperialisms greatest heroes, General Gordon of Khartoum, Kiernan emerged as one of the nations foremost ideological warriors against Empire.

Born on September 4, 1913, in Ashton-on-Mersey, a southern district of Manchester, Kiernan was the son of Ella and John Edward Kiernan, who served as a translator of Spanish and Portuguese for the privately owned Manchester Ship Canal. His family came from a congregationalist religious heritage, and he later suggested that nonconformity played a role in the socialist formation of many members of the Communist Party Historians Group founded in 1946. He confided that a Christian childhood story by O.F. Walton called Christies Old Organ about a poverty-stricken organ grinder, a poor, forlorn old man, without a friend in the world, had given him a vague but youthful sympathy for a socialist social order, forms of community that might restore solidarities among those otherwise cast aside under capitalism.

A scholarship student at the Manchester Grammar School, Kiernan developed a passion for the classics, as he added ancient Greek and Latin to the modern European languages he had already learned at home. Propelled with three new scholarships, he then went on to Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he achieved a double-starred First in History (B.A., 1934; M.A., 1937). During a time of radical ferment among Cambridge students, Kiernan joined the Communist Party in 1934. He found his radicalism subsequently reinforced by what he regarded as the treachery of Britains elites.

We saw pillars of British society trooping to Nuremberg to hobnob with Nazi gangsters; we saw the National government sabotaging the Spanish Republics struggle, from class prejudice, and to benefit investors like Rio Tinto, blind to the obvious prospect of the Mediterranean being turned into a fascist lake and the lifelines of empire cut, he explained in the London Review of Books (June 25, 1987).

After completing his fellowship at Cambridge, Kiernan embarked on political activity in South Asia, as well as teaching at the Sikh National College and Aitchison College in Lahore. He married the dancer and theatre activist Shanta Gandhi in 1938. Though remaining friends, they split up when he returned to Britain in 1946. Quickly spurned by Cambridge and Oxford, Kiernan landed in 1948 at the University of Edinburgh, thanks to the intervention of historian Richard Pares. He taught at this Scottish academic citadel until his retirement in 1977. Kiernan would marry the Canadian researcher and film expert Heather Massey in 1984.

Kiernan made immense contributions to the post-war flowering of British Marxist historiography that transformed the understanding of social history.

Seeking escape paths from a congealing Stalinism, this intellectual movement grew from several figures, among them the Blakean visionary E.P. Thompson, the don of 17th century radical dissent Christopher Hill, the radical medievalist Rodney Hilton, the encyclopaedic Kiernan, and the scholar of primitive rebellion and large-scale economic change Eric Hobsbawm.

Brash and confident in wielding the best of the Lefts cultural arsenal, they welcomed open-ended dialogue with non-Marxist traditions. Some of this dialogue was on display in the journal Past & Present, which became the most prestigious journal of social history in the English-speaking world. Kiernan wrote a major essay in 1952 for the first issue of the journal, produced several landmark articles, and later served on its editorial board from 1973 to 1983. He also contributed to New Left Review throughout the journals transitions from the early editorship of Stuart Hall (1960-1962) to the decades under Perry Anderson (1962-1982) and Robin Blackburn (1982-1999).

While Thompson, Hill and Hilton were rooted in English social history, Kiernan and Hobsbawm practised a historical craft with more global aspirations. Kiernans distinctive contributions included the following:

Elites in history: While many practitioners of Marxian and radical historiography focussed on history from below (workers and peasantries), Kiernan developed an understanding of history from above, with analyses of aristocracies and militaries in history. Even though latter-day Marxists had abandoned military history, Kiernan took note of Engels fascination with armies, which provoked the Marx family to nickname him The General.

Kiernan admitted that Marx and Engels harboured suspicions of guerillas and peasantries, which may have come as a surprise to some aspiring revolutionaries and rural rebels of the 20th century. He also established how aristocratic elements frequently retained political power and pre-eminence in many nations, well beyond the early modern time frames of many conventional Marxists too eager to identify the rising bourgeoisie as the motor force of historical change.

David Parkers new book Ideology, Absolutism, and the English Revolution (2008) demonstrates how in the early days Kiernan pushed and prodded the Communist Party Historians Group to reopen questions about landed aristocracies, the nature of early modern capitalism, and the social bases of the Tudor-Stuart monarchies. The group broke up shortly after the twin crises of Hungary and Suez in 1956 that brought many resignations from the Communist Party of Great Britain and the rise of the first New Left (the generation of 1956).

While exuberant about the expansion of history from below, Kiernan feared the Lefts vulnerability if it remained unable to understand ruling classes and the wiles of power. Machiavelli had decried the expansion of mercenary armies, but Kiernan saw how absolutist monarchs deployed these forces to crush insurgencies and avert the arming of the common people.

While Kiernan sometimes faced resistance to his innovations from the first New Left, he found a more open reception to his ideas from the second New Left (the generation of 1968). Representing the latter, Perry Anderson credited classical Marxism with strengths in economic analysis of industrial capitalism but with fundamental vulnerabilities when it came to formulating theories of politics and the state.

The mythologies of imperialism: Kiernan carried out a relentless unmasking of imperialist ideologies and white European supremacist justifications for rule over South Asians, Africans, East Asians, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Kiernan noted in particular how British colonialists used existing hierarchies in India to portray their rule as more benign than that of their predecessors.

The aristocratic streak in these English rulers made for an aloof and chilly manner, he wrote in The Lords of Human Kind (1969), and Indian environment stiffened it. They came to think of themselves, it has been remarked, as a caste, infinitely above the rest. If Hindus complained of being looked down on, they could always be reminded that their own treatment of one another, especially of untouchables, was worse.

Thomas Paine in 1792 paused to remark about the depredations from British rule, The horrid scene that is now acting by the English Government in the East Indies is fit only to be told of Goths and Vandals.

The famine of 1770 in Bengal may have wiped out a third of the population. And yet, there are still historians who eagerly portray British colonial rule as quite benign, most notably Niall Ferguson, who was rewarded in 2004 with a lifetime tenured chair of History at Harvard by then university president Lawrence Summers. Edward Said often noted that Kiernans Lords of Human Kind was a seminal influence on the Palestinian intellectuals modern-day classic Orientalism (1978).

Recognising that European-style colonialism was not the only game in town, Kiernan explored the neo-imperialist patterns mastered by the United States in his America, The New Imperialsm: From White Settlement to World Hegemony (1978, and re-released in 2005, with a new preface by Hobsbawm).

The folklore of capitalism and conservatism: In essays for New Left Review such as Problems of Marxist History and Shepherds of Capitalism, Kiernan called attention to the ways in which feudal remnants and survivals shape the economic order. Capitalists talk a lot about the entrepreneurial spirit, but many of them are quick to abandon industrial investment for speculative and rentier pursuits.

As Kiernan expressed it, There have always been easier ways of making money than long-term industrial investment, the hard grind of running a factory. J.P. Morgan preferred to sit in a back parlour on Wall Street smoking cigars and playing solitaire, while money flowed towards him. The English, first to discover the industrial highroad, were soon deserting it for similar parlours in the City, or looking for byways, short cuts and colonial Eldorados.

As capitalism is shaken by the new financial crisis, Kiernan had withering observations about the ascendancy of financial capital, England was the first country to undergo capitalism, first agrarian and then industrial, but it is also (if we leave out Holland) the first to relapse from industrial into financial, speculative, usurer capitalism.

Long-drawn landowning ascendancy must surely have something to do with this. Englands old ruling class was too busy chasing foxes and poachers, and its chief share in production was to keep up the tone of the labour force by sending objectors to Botany Bay, much as Russian landowners sent recalcitrant serfs to Siberia. It was a class essentially parasitic, like our City sharks and sharpers and harpies, many of them its lineal descendents.

One of Kiernans most controversial moves was to rebuff the common conservative charge that the Left is soaked in treason. Commenting on another outburst of barking and braying about Cambridge traitors for cooperating with the Soviet Union during the Second World War and the early Cold War, he observed in the London Review of Books (June 25, 1987) that it has come to be a perennial resort of reaction, when it is left without any fresher topic for claptrap, to indulge in these spasms of virtuous indignation about the wickedness of a small number of idealists of years ago.

Kiernan noted how the Right has short memories, able to forget how many Tories gave enthusiastic support to army mutinies when a Liberal government was again about to concede Home Rule to Ireland or later when numbers of officers refused to take part in any coercion of Ulster. British officers received unstinted sympathy from the overwhelming majority of Tories when they would decline to act against white rebels in Rhodesia. He added that in the 1980s Tories continued to cherish fraternal feelings towards the white savages of South Africa, their partners in upholding the natural right of capitalism to exploit its victims: quite indifferent to the moral damage to Britain, but also to the material losses to be expected from an alienation of black Africa and most of the Commonwealth.

He added how often these British patriots have given support to Washington in destabilising democratic governments around the world. He thought that the Right had repeatedly deployed accusations of treason to de-legitimise the Left, and it was time to deliver a few bruising counterpunches.

Literature and social change: Rejecting R.H. Tawneys belief in Social History and Literature (1949) of the absence of links between the art of an epoch and the economic order, Kiernan fought back against the tendency to see genius as beyond any social explanation. It may be conceivable, but is extremely unlikely, that Shakespeare could have written as he did about war, death, property, all the while contemplating their grimness from an Olympian peak of detachment, he countered. Though, himself seeking to avoid moralising, Joseph Conrad conceded that even the most artful of writers will give himself (and his morality) away in about every third sentence.

While steeped in Western literature and the classical heritage of Horace, Kiernan called for an appreciation of Urdu poetry, as he translated works from its literary golden age spanning from Ghalib (1796-1869) to Iqbal (1877-1938) to Faiz (1911-1984). He elevated writers from the East who had been largely banished by guardians of the Western canon and then overlooked by stylish post-modern literature professors prowling for more transgressive exemplars of literary craft.

Kiernans friendship with Faiz began in the late 1930s, and he translated the poems with flair. Faiz conveyed the world of canines in the poem Dogs (1943):

With fiery zeal endowed to beg,They roam the street on idle leg,And earn and own the general curse,The abuse of all the universe;At night no comfort, at dawn no banquet,Gutter for lodging, mud for blanket.Whenever you find them any bother,Show them a crust theyll fight each other,Those curs that all and sundry kick,Destined to die of hungers prick.

If those whipped creatures raised their heads,

Mans insolence would be pulled to shreds:

Once roused, theyd make this earth their own,

And gnaw their betters to the boneIf someone made their misery itch,Just gave their sluggish tails a twitch!

Faiz then returned to the plight of humans under repressive regimes when in the opening stanzas of Bury Me Under Your Pavements (1953) the canines return, this time with renewed overtones of impending menace:

Bury me, my country, under your pavements,

Where no man now dare walk with head held high,

Where your true lovers bringing you their homage

Must go in furtive fear of life or limb;For new-style law and order are in use;

Good men learn, Stones locked up, and dogs turned loose

Kiernan wrote that Faiz sought to convey that citizens are allowed no means of defending themselves against persecution. Kiernan might be regarded as a historian of great colonial wars and distant repressive regimes, but poignant moments emerged when themes of solitude and suffering of individuals came alive in his social criticism.

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.

As much of the world held out hope that the new presidency of Barack Obama might bring an end to outsourced torture, the new U.S. administration has reassured the national security apparatus that the programme named Rendition remains sacrosanct. The U.S. option of sending captured prisoners to third-party nations will not be repudiated, with administration figures waxing comfortably about business as usual.

While consoling themselves that they are far more humane than Nazi architects of oven-ready torture and final solutions, the contemporary national security oligarchs and their liberal enablers are still eager to preserve the repressive mechanisms of statecraft, this time in the name of democracy and humanitarian interventionist uplift. Kiernan showed us the hellish horror that results from their high-minded projects, but he also let us see there could be better paths for humankind. Marx wondered whether human progress might find a new face, a visage more attractive than that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink nectar but from the skulls of the slain.

Though recognising that imperialism had incredible staying power, aided and abetted by a vast entourage of court intellectuals and supine journalists, Kiernan left us with historical resources and literature with the power to inspire resistance. He urged us not to stay silent when killers and torturers are among us. In such moments, Kiernan turned to his messenger Faiz in the poem Speak (1943), verse with the simplicity to be his epitaph:

Speak, for your two lips are free;Speak, your tongue is still your own;This straight body still is yoursSpeak, your life is still your own.See how in the blacksmiths forgeFlames leap high and steel glows red,Padlocks opening wide their jaws,Every chains embrace outspread!Time enough is this brief hourUntil body and tongue lie dead;Speak, for truth is living yetSpeak whatever must be said.

John Trumpbour is Research Director, Labour & Worklife Programme at Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachussetts.

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