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European Empires from Conquest to Collapse

Tariq Ali, author of Winston Churchill, introduces a new edition of Victor Kiernan’s trail-blazing history of imperial warfare.

Tariq Ali 8 April 2024

European Empires from Conquest to Collapse

Victor Kiernan, professor of modern history at Edinburgh University, was an erudite Marxist historian with wide-ranging interests that spanned virtually every continent. His passion for history and radical politics, classical languages and world literature was evenly divided. This book was written in 1982 for a Fontana series and formed part of a pattern ever present in his work as a whole. For unlike some of his distinguished colleagues in the Communist Party Historians’ Group (Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Edward Thompson), Victor wrote a great deal on countries and cultures far removed from Britain and Europe, and which the latter were occupying and oppressing. The global impact of the Communist Party Historians’ Group in the 1960s and afterwards was due largely to Victor, more honoured abroad than in his own country.

I was late reading European Empires from Conquest to Collapse. It was Edward Said’s expression of shock when I told him this, that led to my liberating a signed copy from my father’s library on a visit to Lahore. Victor’s knowledge of India was first-hand. He spent eight years in Lahore from 1938 to 1946. Having planned a short trip to view the subcontinent up close and deliver a message from the Comintern to the Indian Communist Party, he fell in love with Lahore and got teaching jobs in a few institutions that included Aitchison College (formerly Chief’s College), designed specifically to educate the children of the landed gentry along the lines suggested by the late Lord Macaulay. I have yet to read an account anywhere of what the students at Aitchison (mostly wooden-headed wastrels) made of Victor, but one or two of the better ones did later embrace radical ideas. It would be nice to think that he was responsible: it is hard to imagine who else it could have been.

His time in British (as it was then) India taught him a great deal about imperialism, reflected in both stimulating and extremely well-written books such as The Lords of Human Kind (1969) and America: The New Imperialism (1978). In Lahore he also found a circle of friends who remained so for life. These were the radical poets and scholars of the city. His closest friend was Dr Nazir Ahmed, a critic and educationalist who later became principal of Government College, Lahore, the premier institution of Northern India. Dr Nazir was probably the greatest expert of the Panjabi language and the Sufi poets of preceding centuries. He was no mean scholar of Urdu and Persian literature either. When I joined the college he had just become its head and gave us total freedom to study what we wished and read whatever we wanted, within the four walls of the college. Outside, a military dictatorship was in power. It was Dr Nazir who improved Victor’s command of Urdu and helped him with translations of Iqbal and Faiz, two of the greatest poets produced by Northern India. The latter, a Marxist, liked the translations and made some corrections. Poems by Faiz (translated by Victor Kiernan) was the first major translation of the poet in English, published by Oxford University Press in 1971 with the backing of UNESCO. The book played no small part in helping to enlarge Faiz’s audience at a time when imperial languages were totally dominant.

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When I was leaving for Britain in October 1963, there was a farewell dinner organized by my friends. They had invited Dr Nazir. As we parted, he hugged me and whispered: ‘Don’t forget. The first thing you must do when you get there is contact Victor, give him my love and tell him what’s going on here.’ Over a year later I did, after a talk he and Ralph Russell (another Communist scholar of Urdu poetry) gave in London. Victor was very welcoming and delighted to get news of Dr Nazir Ahmed and Faiz, et al. Over a drink, I asked the pair of them what they thought of Iqbal’s ‘Complaint’, a poem that had offended the orthodox Muslims. ‘It’s a terrible poem’, said Ralph. ‘Bathed in self-pity, despairing and bad literature.’ Victor agreed. They both laughed. The occasion left a warm memory. Here were two Englishmen sitting in a pub on the Tottenham Court Road, critiquing one of India’s greatest Urdu and Persian poets and later the eternal poet laureate of Pakistan (all criticism of him was banned) with an ease and confidence that I certainly couldn’t match. It is impossible to understand Victor without this side of his life. As Eric Hobsbawm later wrote in his Guardian obituary for Victor:


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.


Victor’s interest in languages was developed at home in south Manchester. His father worked for the Manchester Ship Canal as a translator of Spanish and Portuguese, and young Victor picked these up even before getting a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School, where he learned Greek and Latin. In 1931, he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied history. ‘There was in general a stifling atmosphere of closed windows, drawn blinds, expiring candles’, he later recalled, writing in the London Review of Books.


With amenities such as the Backs, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and a second-hand bicycle on which to explore the placid countryside, I was reasonably content, attended lectures as by law obliged, and took their stale fare for granted, like the weather.


He imbibed the prevalent anti-fascist outlook and, like many others, joined the British Communist Party. Guy Burgess, one of the ‘Cambridge Five’ Soviet spy ring, helped to induct him into the Party, where he would stay for twenty-five years.


I became a socialist, then a Communist, before graduating to Marxism, the historical materialism that has been my Ariadne’s thread ever since. Slow conversion may last longer than sudden enlightenment; and convictions, as Nietzsche said, are the backbone of life … Our main concerns were practical ones, popularising socialism and the USSR, fraternising with hunger-marchers, denouncing fascism and the National Government, warning of the approach of war. We belonged to the era of the Third International, genuinely international at least in spirit, when the Cause stood high above any national or parochial claims … At such a time, punctilios of ‘loyalty’ to things of the dying past seemed as archaic as the minutiae of drawing-room manners.


Victor therefore had no time for posthumous ‘spasms of virtuous indignation’ about the Cambridge spies, whose treasonable activities paled beside those ‘pillars of British society trooping to Nuremberg to hobnob with Nazi gangsters’. Burgess, he concluded, simply ‘did what he felt it right for him to do; I honour his memory’.

Victor was a staunch anti-monarchist, using his Irish name to avoid tedious toasts and monarchical events at the college. A flavour of the man is evident from the opening paragraphs of a later essay on the monarchy he published in New Left Review in 1989:


In China an immemorial throne crumbled in 1911; India put its Rajas and Nawabs in the wastepaper-basket as soon as it gained independence in 1947; in Ethiopia the Lion of Judah has lately ceased to roar. Monarchy survives in odd corners of Asia; and in Japan and Britain. In Asia sainthood has often been hereditary, and can yield a comfortable income to remote descendants of holy men; in Europe hereditary monarchy had something of the same numinous character. In both cases a dim sense of an invisible flow of vital forces from generation to generation, linking together the endless series, has been at work. Very primitive feeling may lurk under civilized waistcoats.


Notions derived from age-old magic helped Europe’s ‘absolute monarchs’ to convince taxpayers that a country’s entire welfare, even survival, was bound up with its God-sent ruler’s. Mughal emperors appeared daily on their balcony so that their subjects could see them and feel satisfied that all was well. Rajput princes would ride in a daily cavalcade through their small capitals, for the same reason. Any practical relevance of the crown to public wellbeing has long since vanished, but somehow in Britain the existence of a Royal Family seems to convince people in some subliminal way that everything is going to turn out all right for them … Things of today may have ancient roots; on the other hand antiques are often forgeries, and Royal sentiment in Britain today is largely an artificial product.


At Cambridge he was regarded by his teachers and peers as an exceptionally gifted undergraduate, a view clearly shared by the examiners who awarded him a double-starred First. The college granted him a research scholarship, and a few years later he became a Fellow. But much of his time was spent working with an ‘unofficial’ group of anti-colonial historians, students like him from the US, India and Australia. His first book, British Diplomacy in China 1880–1885 (1939), announced his undying interest in the world outside Europe. Blocked from later teaching posts at Oxford and Cambridge on account of his Communist politics, he found a berth at Edinburgh instead.

Victor had married the dancer and theatrical activist Shanta Gandhi in 1938 in Bombay, but they split up before he left India, and there is very little information on the origins of this relationship. Almost fifty years later he married Heather Massey. When I met him soon afterwards, he confessed that she had rejuvenated him intellectually. Victor’s subsequent writings confirmed this view. Between 1989 and 1999 he published a diverse quintet of cultural studies: The Duel in European History; Tobacco: A History; Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen; Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare; and lastly, on the poet he had loved from his schooldays, Horace: Poetics and Politics. His interpretation of Shakespeare is much underrated, and were it put on course lists would be a healthy antidote to all the embalming.

Throughout his life Victor stubbornly adhered to Marxist ideas, but without a trace of rigidity or sullenness. He was not one to pander to the latest fashions. He despised the post-modernist wave that swept the academy in the 1980s and ’90s and the prevailing culture of soundbites, trivia and run-of-the-mill TV histories. Angered by triumphalist mainstream commentaries proclaiming the virtues of capitalism, he wrote a sharp rebuttal, ‘Modern Capitalism and Its Shepherds’, once again published in New Left Review:


Merchant capital, usurer capital, have been ubiquitous, but they have not by themselves brought about any decisive alteration of the world. It is industrial capital that has led to revolutionary change, and been the highroad to a scientific technology that has transformed agriculture as well as industry, society as well as economy. Industrial capitalism peeped out here and there before the nineteenth century, but on any considerable scale it seems to have been rejected like an alien graft, as something too unnatural to spread far. It has been a strange aberration on the human path, an abrupt mutation. Forces outside economic life were needed to establish it; only very complex, exceptional conditions could engender, or keep alive, the entrepreneurial spirit. There have always been much easier ways of making money than long-term industrial investment, the hard grind of running a factory. J.P. Morgan preferred to sit in a back parlour on Wall Street smoking cigars and playing solitaire, while money flowed towards him. The English, first to discover the industrial high road, were soon deserting it for similar parlours in the City, or looking for byways, short cuts and colonial Eldorados.

The current multi-faceted crisis of capitalism would not have surprised him at all. Fictive capital, I can hear him saying, has no future. Nor would the recent interest in slavery have come as a shock; he would have simply wondered when imperialism was going to get the same treatment. When it does, Victor Kiernan’s essays and books will be invaluable. He had the ability to pick out the whole seamless web of history, of which slavery and empire form a major part.

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It is only fitting to conclude with Victor’s translation of Faiz’s poem ‘Speak’, which students recited in whispers during periods of military dictatorship. The poet had spent too many years in prison, like his peers Nâzim Hikmet in Turkey, Pablo Neruda in Chile and Osip Mandelstam in the Soviet Union.



Speak, for your two lips are free;

Speak, your tongue is still your own;

This straight body still is yours—

Speak, your life is still your own.


See how in the blacksmith’s forge

Flames leap high and steel grows red,

Padlocks opening wide their jaws,

Every chain’s embrace outspread!


Time enough is this brief hour

Until body and tongue lie dead;

Speak, for truth is living yet—

Speak whatever must be said.


That Victor never failed to do.


Excerpt from Victor Kiernan’s European Empires from Conquest to Collapse, now available in Verso’s World History series.

European Empires from Conquest to Collapse, 1815-1960
European Empires from Conquest to Collapse is a vivid anticolonial reckoning with the history of imperial warfare. Global in scope, it deftly surveys the fighting forces and military engagements of...

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