Historian with a global vision

Linked with Victor Kiernan – England (1913 – 2009).

Published on The Hindu, by Eric Hobsbawm, Feb 19, 2009.

Victor Kiernan, who has died aged 95, was a man of unselfconscious 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.

Most influential through his works on the imperialist era, he was also, almost certainly, the only historian who also translated 20th-century Urdu poets and wrote a book on the Latin poet Horace. The latter’s works he, like the distinguished Polish Marxist historian Witold Kula, carried with him on his travels. Like several of his contemporaries among the Marxist historians, including Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton and Edward Thompson, he came from a nonconformist background. In his case it was a lower-middle-class, actively congregationalist family in Ashton-on-Mersey, though in his time as a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, he used his Irish name as an excuse to justify a lack of zeal for the British monarchy …

… 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 the 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).

Age increased his 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, M.N. 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 … (full text).

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