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V.G. Kiernan: Historian of Humankind | The Nation

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V.G. Kiernan: Historian of Humankind

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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.

About the Author

John Trumpbour
John Trumpbour is research director of the Labor & Worklife Program, Harvard Law School. He can be reached at...

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."

The techniques of oppression abroad brought a pack of plagues back to Europe, observed Kiernan, whether in Lord Salisbury's crass judgment that the Irish were no more fit for home rule than Hottentots or in the imperial manner of warfare that relied on hard-charging offensive techniques designed "to hypnotize and paralyze the enemy by asserting the firmer will and higher morale of the attacker." As millions of Europeans were later slaughtered in World War I, the military officers failed to see "that machine guns and barbed wire were not so easily hypnotized as half-armed" Asians and Africans. The generals doggedly stuck to the bayonet-charging techniques that once worked for them in their youth on the campaign grounds in the overseas colonies.

Kiernan's work also examined a variety of racial hierarchies on display in European literature, perhaps most graphically in Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt (1913). In this work, there is "a table of ranks among the races, an order of fitness to survive...implied in the sequence in which they succumb to the mysterious etheric poison that the planet has swum into. Africa and the Australian aborigines are speedily extinguished, followed by India and Persia, while in Europe the Slavs collapse sooner than the Teutons, and southern France sooner than the north, after 'delirious excitement' and a 'Socialist upheaval' at Toulon."

"The Politics of Pain" in The Nation

In 1971, shortly after the publication of Kiernan's intellectual tour de force, The Nation approached Kiernan to explore "The Politics of Pain" amidst growing revelations of torture arranged by US military and intelligence operatives in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

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," he spoke of the fifteenth-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 1970 study of Luther observed that "there were many who screamed," Kiernan retorted, "There are many today."

He admitted that "We have lost a great deal of our pleasure in cruelty, but have acquired a faculty for shutting our eyes to it." In the United States 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 civilized country is not compelled to do the uncivilized part of its work itself."

As much of the world held out hope that the presidency of Barack Obama might bring an end to outsourced torture and brutalizing forms of interrogation, the new US administration has reassured the national security apparatus that the program named "Rendition" remains sacrosanct. The US option of sending captured prisoners to third-party nations will not be repudiated, with administration figures waxing comfortably about business as usual. It is in this context that Kiernan's essay has renewed force and relevance.

For a memorial service held in Edinburgh on February 28, Eric Hobsbawm asked that a written statement be read expressing his profound appreciation for Victor Kiernan's achievement:

I miss him and shall go on missing him. It was good to be his contemporary--a man not exactly life-enhancing, but confirming that goodness, honesty and virtue with the lightest of touches, are still to be found in the world. If the good lord were to ask me (Richard Dawkins permitting) for a good deed that would help to get me through the narrow gate on judgment day (assuming that's where I wanted to go), I'd say: "I knew there was only one man capable of writing The Lords of Human Kind, and I got him to write it."

Goodbye, Victor.

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