A Blog post and a first hand report on a Marxist conference on Victor Kiernan by Pragoti editorial member, Maidul Islam.
On 22nd October, 2010 the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University organized a Conference in memory of noted British Communist Historian, Victor Kiernan (4 September—17 February 2009). The Conference, titled as Lessons of Empire: A Past & Present Conference in Honour of V.G. Kiernan (1913-2009) was supported by the history academic journal Past and Present, with which Kiernan was intimately connected. In the conference, noted historians and academics spoke, including Kiernan’s long-time friend, the legendary Marxist historian—Eric Hobsbawm, economist Jayati Ghosh and historian Vijay Prashad.
Apart from the academics, Prakash Karat, the general secretary of CPI(M) and a student of Victor Kiernan at Edinburgh University also reminisces about his teacher and Kiernan's engagement with the Indian Left in 1940s. The conference started at 2pm and was chaired by John Trumpbour (Harvard University), who also briefly spoke about ‘Empire, Politics, and Poets’ by referring to Kieran’s engagement with the works of Marxist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Heather Kiernan showed a fascinating collection of Victor Kiernan’s images complemented with a soothing music. The brief photo documentary titled as ‘VGK: A Life in Pictures’ captured many memorable moments of Victor Kiernan’s life.
An interesting reminiscence by Kiernan’s classmate in Manchester Grammar School was read by Christopher Ray under the title: ‘The History Boys’. The brief introductory session from 2pm—2.30pm was followed by a panel under the common title: ‘State and Society in Europe and the Wider World: From Absolutist Monarchy to the Crises of Communism and Capitalism’ (2.30pm—4pm). In this session, David Parker (Leeds University) gave a talk on ‘Absolutism, the English Revolution, and the Communist Party Historians Group’, focusing particularly on Kiernan’s engagement on the topic and his debates with other members of the Communist Party Historians Group in Britain. James Dunkerley (Queen Mary College, University of London) presented a paper on ‘Andres Bello: Architect of the Chilean Liberal State.’ Gareth Stedman Jones (King’s College, Cambridge) presented on ‘Marx and the Extra-European World’, especially dealing with Marx’s writings on Indian village community. Finally, in this session, the chair, John Trumpbour briefly discussed Stephen Stearns' (College of Staten Island, City University of New York) paper ‘The VGK Diaries and Suez and Hungary Crises of 1956’ in absentia followed by a brief question and answer session.
There was a brief coffee break followed by a session on ‘Empires: From Conquest to Collapse’ (4.15pm—6.15pm). In this session, Julia Lovell (Birbeck College, University of London) presented a paper on ‘The Opium Wars and its Afterlives’. Tim Harper (Magdalene College, Cambridge) follows her by a paper on ‘Empires and the Revolutionary Underground in Asia’. Eminent JNU economist Jayati Ghosh in her presentation on ‘The Unsteady Empire of Finance’ talked about how Victor Kiernan’s work is a broad history of capitalism and how the economists have much to learn from such magnificent analysis of a serious Marxist historian in order to understand the current nature of the empire of finance capital.
In his presentation, titled as ‘Victor Kiernan and the Left in India’, Comrade Karat introduces himself as a student of Kieran, with whom he first met at Edinburgh University. Karat told the audience that Kiernan was an able historian in narrating the oppression and exploitation of British colonialism and imperialism besides being a translator of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Urdu poetry. Karat pointed out that next year, the Indian Left would be looking forward to celebrate Faiz’s birth centenary. Karat informed the audience about the deep friendship between Kiernan and the then general secretary of undivided Communist Party of India, P.C. Joshi in 1940s when Kiernan was in India for eight years from 1938-1946.
Karat said that Kiernan was a friend of the party, whose views on the British imperialism and Indian bourgeoisie was very incisive particularly his understanding of how colonialism had destructive impacts and hindrance to the growth of Indian capitalism. In fact, the Indian Left took four decades to understand the exact dynamics of Indian capital, particularly its collusion and collision towards imperialism. Karat argued that during the freedom struggle, the Indian Left failed to make a link between the international contradictions between anti-fascist struggles with the national question of anti-imperialist struggle.
According to Karat, Indian capitalism has not been comprehensively studied and has been under-researched and under- theorised. Karat continues by saying that a section of the Indian Left, driven by Soviet understanding of Indian bourgeoisie described it as ‘progressive’ and adopted the idea of ‘progressive nationalism’. In fact, ‘it took four decades to understand the dual character of Indian bourgeoisie—the dual character of both co-operation and opposition with imperialism’, said Karat.
Karat argues that the Indian capital has become more powerful under the neoliberal dispensation. Moreover, Marxists in India have now recognized the negative role of caste in hindering the social development and growth of productive forces as argued by Karat. Karat further pointed out that the communists have gained their mass base wherever, they were able to launch a united struggle against both imperialism and landlordism. The examples of Tebhaga movement in Bengal, peasant struggles in Kerala under the leadership of the Indian Communists, land reforms movement in all Left-ruled states, Telengana peasant rebellion in Andhra Pradesh, and struggle for Tribal rights in Tripura were cited as examples to support the argument. Karat said that although Kiernan was a supporter of the party, the British historian was an independent Marxist, sometimes critiquing the party for its deficiency to be interested in serious theoretical understanding and discussions within the party. Kiernan used to often visit the then party headquarters in Bombay, where he noticed almost business like daily activities without an interest in ‘theory’ as described by Karat.
Karat returns back to contemporary situation in India, where there is a growth of 17 dollar billionaires in just one year from 52 in 2009 to 69 in 2010. This only shows an enormous concentration of wealth in few hands and growing economic inequality under neoliberalism in India. In this respect, Karat argues that the Left is trying to provide some alternative policy orientation and giving relief to the people in three Left-ruled states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura comprising of a population of over 120 million.
Karat said that when he edited a book [Prakash Karat (ed.), Across Time and Continents: A Tribute to Victor G. Kiernan (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2003)] in celebrating Kiernan’s 90th birthday, it was the last time when his beloved and respected teacher wrote him by saying ‘I was probably harsh with the Communist Party in 1940s, but I have great admiration for the Indian communists because of their tremendous sacrifices.’ In the conference, historian Vijay Prashad in his presentation on ‘Marxists at the Margins’ spoke about Marxists in the Third World and specifically emphasized on the theoretical writings of EMS Namboodripaad, and poetries of Faiz, both contemporaries of Victor Kiernan. There was a brief question and answer session at the end of this session followed by a hurried drinks and coffee break. The final session of the conference (from 6.15 pm to 7.15pm) started with some introductory remarks by Christopher Bayly (St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge) on ‘Reflections on History’ followed with an elaboration by the doyen, Eric Hobsbawm on the same topic. Hobsbawm emphasized on the misconceptions and prejudice of history writing of the colonial metropolis on the colonized third world and later on towards the post-colonial third world, which Kiernan himself has wrote in his book The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes towards the Outside World in the Imperial Age (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969). The present author would also suggest that much before Edward Said’s, Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), Kiernan was a pioneer in making the world know about ‘the western conception of the orient’ in the words of Said.
The conference was attended by many academics, scholars and students alike. It was a learning experience for all participants and a historic conference in commemorating a historian, whose works were discussed in a rare international academic platform where Marxists from the metropolitan world to the third world margins shared the same dais.