Victor Kiernan – England (1913 – 2009)

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Victor Kiernan (4 September 1913 – 17 February 2009) was a British Marxist historian, a former member of the Communist Party Historians Group and has written in particular about imperialism … (full long text on wikipedia – last modified on 22 February 2009, at 09:10).

Victor Kiernan, professor emeritus of Modern History at Edinburgh University, was an erudite Marxist historian with wide-ranging interests that spanned virtually every continent. His passion for history and radical politics, classical languages and world literature was evenly divided. His interest in languages was developed at home in south Manchester. His father worked for the Manchester Ship Canal as a translator of Spanish and Portuguese and young Victor picked these up even before getting a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School, where he learnt Greek and Latin. His early love for Horace (his favourite poet) resulted in a later book. He went on to Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied History, imbibed the prevalent anti-fascist outlook and like many others joined the British Communist Party. Unlike some of his distinguished colleagues (Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Edward Thompson) in the Communist Party Historians Group founded in 1946, Kiernan wrote a great deal on countries and cultures far removed from Britain and Europe. A flavour of the man is evident from the opening paragraphs of a 1989 essay on the monarchy published in the New Left Review: … (full long obituary text, 20 February 2009).

… Victor Gordon Kiernan. He turned 90 a month or so ago, and lives with his wife Heather in the tiny village of Stow in Scotland. Thanks to Prakash Karat, the editor of this book, and Leftword Books, the publishing house, a lot more people would have access to some of Kiernan’s writings. The value of this elegantly produced volume is, doubtless, enhanced by E.J. Hobsbawm’s brief but stimulating profile of his life-long comrade, and Harvey J. Kaye’s thoughtful essay “Seeing Things Historically” … (full text, Dec 07, 2003).


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Indian Prakash Karat’s obituary: … I was fortunate to have been a student of his in the late-1960s. The bond between us was strengthened by his India connection. I last met him in September 2008, a few days after his 95th birthday. He was cheerful, and asked about developments in India. Kiernan will be remembered both in India and Pakistan for his empathy with, and erudition of, this part of the world. (full text).

Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has written this about Kiernan: … He settled down in the 1950s to publish on everything: from Wordsworth to Faiz, evangelicalism to mercenaries and absolute monarchy, Indo-Central Asian problems, Paraguay and the “war of the Pacific” of Chile, Peru and Bolivia, not forgetting a full-scale study of the Spanish revolution of 1854. In the 1960s he discovered his unique gift of asking historical questions, and suggesting answers, by bringing and fitting together an unparalleled range of erudition, constantly extended by one of the great readers of our time. He became the master of the perfectly chosen quotation inserted into a demure but uncompromising survey of a global scene. Nobody else could have produced the remarkable works on the era of western empires he wrote after the middle 1960s, and by which he will be chiefly remembered, notably The Lords of Human Kind: Black Man, Yellow Man and White Man in an Age of Empire (1969) … (full text, February 18, 2009).

Find him and his publications on leftword books; on BookFinder; on amazon; on wikipedia; on Barnes and Noble; on Google Book-search; on Google Scholar-search; on Google Blog-search.

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 … (full text, January 03 – 16, 2004).

He wrote:

  • … It is easier to acquit nine-teenth century bankers of unlawful desires in the Sahara than anywhere else except at the North and the South Pole. And one acquittal leads easily to another. Capitalism did not really covet its neighbour’s sand. Therefore capitalism cannot really have coveted its neighbour’s oil, or his coal, or his rubber, or his ox, or his ass, or his man-servant, or his maid-servant, or anything that was his. Henry VIII cannot have chopped off the head of his last wife. Therefore Henry VIII cannot have chopped off the heads of any of his wives. Twice two is not five. Therefore twice three cannot be six. A price has to be paid for this reassuring triumph over Lenin, whose bones are thus left bleaching in the Sahara … (full text, 8 May 2004);
  • … 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 … (full text, 2009-02-19);
  • … Among the birds taking feathers are historians, such as Victor Kiernan, P.J. Marshall, and their comrades, dueling over the causes, workings, and balance sheet of the once Great Britain. Their debates have been revitalized by the new questions that cultural studies scholars have posed and by the recent failures in empire building and nation-state building in Europe and abroad. These are heady times for imperial historians to take feathers, as both scholars and the general public consider the im-perial plumage: migration, racism, borders, war, capitalism, the English language, and nationalism (Hoffenberg, Peter H.’s Review of Imperialism and Its Contradictions, by Victor G. Kiernan).


Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution: Debates of the Communist Party Historians Group, 1940-1956;

Beyond 20000 – The 2008 Fiction Season by Score;

The Google download-book: Urdu Texts and Contexts, By C. M. Naim, 2004, 273 pages;

Review Essay : Old, Unhappy, Far-off Things: The New Military History of Europe, 1987;

Upto the Marx, May 22, 2005;

It rekindles hope in secularists, May 22, 2005;

Categories on wikipedia: Historians by nationality; Marxist historians; British historians; Communist Party of Great Britain.

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