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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 13, March 14, 2009

Tribute to Victor Gordon Kiernan

Sunday 15 March 2009

Last month passed away in the UK Victor Gordon Kiernan, 95, about whom his historian colleague, Eric Hobsbawm, has written in The Guardian after his death that he was

… a man of unself-conscious charm and staggeringly wide range of learning. He was also one of the last survivors of the generation of British Marxist historians of the 1930s and 1940s. If this generation has been seen by the leading German scholar H.U. Wehler as the main factor behind “the global impact of English historiography since the 1960s”, it was largely due to Victor’s influence. He brought to the debates of the Communist Party historians’ group between 1946 and 1956 a persistent, if always courteous, determination to think out problems of class culture and tradition for himself, whatever the orthodox position. He continued to remain loyal to the flexible, open-minded Marxism of the group to which he had contributed so much.

Hobsbawm further notes:

Marxism and the irresistible friendship of Indians moved Victor, in 1938, to use one year of his four-year Trinity fellowship to visit the subcontinent. This was nominally “to see the political scene at closer hand and with some schemes for historical study” and he also had a Comintern document for the Indian Communist Party.

He was to stay there until 1946, mainly as a teacher at a Sikh college and, somewhat unexpectedly, at that stronghold of the raj and its rajahs, Aitchinson College, both in Lahore. He returned “reading Thucydides on the Peloponnesian war” in his cabin, with a cargo of friendships, a permanent passion for the great (and progressive) Urdu poets Iqbal and Faiz whom he translated, but with no apparent trace in his subsequent life of a short-lived marriage to Shanta Gandhi, whom he had got to know in London in 1938. Few of his British friends were even aware of it, or expected to see this quintessential bachelor don with a wife, before his fortunate second marriage in 1984 to Heather Massey.

On the occasion of Kiernan’s 90th birthday, his student, Prakash Karat, now the General Secretary of the CPI-M, edited Across Time and Continents, a selection of his writings and reminscences about the subcontinent. As a token of our tribute to the departed Marxist historian, we carry here excerpts from one of his writings “The CPI and the Second World War” included in that publication brought out by Left Word Books in 2003. We also reproduce here, with due acknowledgement, two pieces on him written by Prakash Karat (appearing in The Hindu) and Rudrangshu Mukhejee (published in The Telegraph).

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