VG Kiernan

For those of us in South Asia, Victor Kiernan was known primarily as the translator of Mohammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His works as a historian are relatively unknown. Even his translations, for that matter, are not so much read as they are appreciated, mainly because few need to when they can read the original in Urdu. His relative ignorance in India is also difficult to understand because he was one of the few of the British Marxist Historians who actually spent some time in India. In Kiernan’s case, he was even married to an Indian lady, though for a short time. For all this, however, India (and Pakistan) seems to have been a passing interest for him and his personal and intellectual association ended pretty much around 1950. He lived to the ripe age of 95, and passed on earlier this week on 18th February.

A google search yesterday led to a tract ‘Marxism and Gramsci‘ (pdf), written by Kiernan  in 1972 when Gramsci’s works were being introduced to English readers. Besides a number of insightful and critical comments on both Marxism and Gramsci, he provides a comment on the state of Marxism in India as well:

Meanwhile Marxism was spreading outside Europe, as earlier it had spread outside western Europe; but here still more one- sidedly as a guide to immediate political action, rather than a comprehensive philosophy. In India this narrowly practical-not to say philistine bent has persisted all along, and can be seen to have done much practical harm. Never-ceasing demands of the struggle first against the British and then against native Indian reaction, in a land of crushing poverty, made anything like abstract thinking-impossible without a. certain leisure and detachment-seem a superfluity, a mere luxury, as biochemical researches would seem to a patient with a broken leg waiting to be set. Even in China, Mao’s grand extension of Marxism belonged to the realm of actual struggle, the management of class war and anti-foreign resistance in the conditions of a peasant society. It must not be forgotten too that, with all its universality of vision, Marxist philosophy in conception and gestation was highly specific to western Europe, because many of the elements that entered into it- Judaism, western Christianity, Enlightenment, Hegel-had no counterparts anywhere else.

Others from the Group have been much better known in India, particularly Eric Hobsbawm, EP Thompson and Raymond Williams, and to a lesser extent Christoper Hill. After completing my engineering degree, I spent about four years studying history, mainly Indian history (DD Kosambi, Romila Thapar, RS Sharma, Satish Chandra, KM Ashraf, Bipan Chandra, Sumit Sarkar and the historians of the subaltern school). The works of the Annales School (Braudel) too were an eye opener as was the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, written in the 13th century. The late Mohit Sen was to a large extent responsible for introducing me to the works of the British Marxists Historians, particularly to Eric Hobsbawm. The fact that he had been a student of some of them brought a sense of personal affinity for them. The appeal of Hobsbawm also remains because his work has been on the 18th- 19th centuries and therefore relatively more relevant. He has also been very active and intellectually agile after the collapse of ‘existing socialism’ and continues to write and comment prolifically. His latest piece in the Guardian is an obituary on Kiernan.

Age increased (Kiernan’s) 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.

Incidentally, Hobsbawm’s review of the biography of JBS Haldane- another author who changed our understanding of China-  also appeared earlier this week in the lrb. It also provides a good back drop to the British historians group in the 1930s.

In a narrower sense it represented a rearguard local engagement between arts intellectuals and Cambridge’s self-confident natural scientists, well on the way to their 83 Nobel prizes, who knew that the future greatness (and funding) of the university would essentially be in their hands. Probably nothing irritated arts dons more than the scientists’ certainty that the future was  heirs. In a wider sense, it was about the relation between reason and imagination. In Snow’s view the scientists had both, and the literary intellectuals were fatally hobbled by their ignorance and suspicion of science and the future. Only one of the two cultures really counted.

A review of A Tribute to VG Kiernan, published by Left Word (2003). (link via Pragoti)

Related Posts:
Ralph Russel
Gramsci and India

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bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

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