For an exploration of V.G. Kiernan’s life and times, as well as his influence on radical historiography and studies of Urdu literature, see John Trumpbour’s more extensive obituary in the March 13 issue of India’s Frontline magazine. Kiernan’s 1971 Nation essay, “The Politics of Pain,” is here.
Victor Gordon Kiernan, professor emeritus of modern history at Edinburgh University and recognized as one of the most wide-ranging of global historians, died of heart failure on February 17, 2009, at his home in the Scottish Borders. 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 from a decade of witnessing anticolonial struggles in the Indian subcontinent. While his middle name came from one of British imperialism’s greatest heroes, General Gordon of Khartoum, Kiernan emerged as one of the nation’s foremost ideological warriors against Empire.
V.G. Kiernan made immense contributions to the postwar 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 seventeenth-century radical dissent Christopher Hill, the radical medievalist Rodney Hilton, the encyclopedic Kiernan, and the scholar of primitive rebellion and large-scale economic change Eric Hobsbawm.
Brash and confident in wielding the best of the left’s cultural arsenal, they welcomed open-ended dialogue with non-Marxist traditions. Kiernan in his lifetime received fewer public accolades than Thompson, Hilton, Hill and Hobsbawm, provoking the latter two to proclaim that they had created a Victor Kiernan Appreciation Society. Writing in the Telegraph of Calcutta on February 22, Rudrangshu Mukherjee reflected that most of the British Marxist historians “believed that [Kiernan] was the most erudite and widely read among them all.” His mastery of Persian and Urdu, as well as an array of modern European languages and classical Greek and Latin, contributed to his intellectual mystique. He wrote works ranging from the classical verse of Horace to the social context of Shakespeare’s plays to historical dissections of European empires and the “new imperialism” represented by the United States, as well as translations and analyses of the golden age of Urdu poetry.
The Lords of Human Kind
Best known for The Lords of Human Kind (1969), Kiernan created a work “concerned with the impressions and opinions of Europeans and non-Europeans about one another, their attitudes and behaviour towards one another, in the century or century and a half before the First World War, the epoch when Europe’s importance in the world was greatest.” The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said regarded it as a central influence in developing his modern-day classic Orientalism (1978). Kiernan’s work has many haunting themes, including the contrast between liberty at home and tyrannical oppression abroad: “It did not escape comment that the Dutch were no sooner gaining their freedom at home than they were depriving other people of theirs, an inconsistency repeated by several European nations later on.”