VICTOR KIERNAN (1913-2009)

Prakash Karat



Victor Kiernan lived in India from 1938 to 1946.  It may be  true as Eric Hobsbawm has said that “Unexpectedly India drew him away for several years from the major themes on which his reputation will probably rest”.


But his long stay in India was fortunate for us in the Indian subcontinent.  Without his being there, there would not have been the first translations of Iqbal and Faiz Ahmad Faiz into English, nor would we have got his essays on “Marx on India” and his perceptive writings on the relationship between British imperialism and its foremost colony. 


The seven years that Kiernan spent in India was the entire period of the Second World War, it saw the rise of the nationalist movement to its peak and it was the period when the fledgling Communist Party struck roots in some parts of the country.  Within a year of Kiernan’s departure, India became independent and Pakistan was formed. 


The late 1930s and the early 40s were  significant for the Communist movement in India.   Though the Party was founded in 1920 in Tashkent, it actually began functioning in 1934-35 after the release of the Meerut detenues.


Kiernan reached India four years after the Party headquarters began working from Bombay. He struck up a friendship with P.C. Joshi, the General Secretary of the Party. 


In that period, just as in the subsequent two decades, the Communists and Left in India struggled to comprehend certain core issues theoretically.  Among these issues were:


* the nature of the Indian bourgeoisie;


* its relationship with regard to imperialism (of collusion and collision);


* its relationship with landlordism; and


* the nature of the participation of the Party in a parliamentary democratic set-up and the structure of the Party.


Victor Kiernan had the opportunity to consider and analyse some of these issues given his position as the friend of the Party and also a member of the CPGB.


Kiernan was critical of the Party’s initial stand on the war which it had characterized as an imperialist war and had came out in total opposition to it.  The Party was illegalized in 1939.  Kiernan felt that the Party leadership had failed to anticipate the looming war against the Soviet Union and the danger posed by fascism.


Later, he was also critical of the stand that the Party took from November 1941 of going to the other extreme and declaring support for the war effort after characterizing the war as a People’s War.


It was a correct decision to come out  in solidarity with the worldwide struggle against Nazism and Japanese militarism.  The Party while disassociating itself from the 1942 Quit India movement called for the release of the Congress leadership and the formation of a government for national unity. But the Party erred in standing against the 1942 movement. It failed to integrate the international contradiction, i.e. the fight against fascism, with the national contradiction, i.e. the fight for national independence. 


The understanding about the Indian bourgeoisie at various periods determined the attitude and the strategy and tactics pursued by the Party towards the Congress party and the national movement led by it.


Marxists at that time, Kiernan included, did not think much of the Indian bourgeoisie.  The prevailing view was that in the sea of pre-capitalist relations and feudalism, the hot house growth of a fledgling capitalist class under colonialism did not auger well for a healthy and rapid growth of capitalism. 


Kiernan was of the view that “Marx underestimated the invisible barriers, the dead weight of the past, and gave too much credit to capitalism as an irresistible transforming force: in reality, it and after it socialism, has been profoundly affected by local backgrounds.”  (Imperialism and its Contradictions, page 62)


Kiernan also cited Nehru, who said soon after independence, that “Indian capitalists were proving `totally inadequate’,  they have no vision, no grit, no capacity to do anything big.”  Kiernan comments wryly “After another thirty years one of India’s foremost industries is still astrology”


Capitalism in India has proved surprisingly resilient and is rapidly proliferating.  The bane of the Indian Left has been the trend to underestimate this class and write it off as of no consequence.  The varieties of the ultra-Left in India including the current crop of Maoists are symptomatic of this trend.


The other school of thought has  actually looked up to the bourgeoisie.  There was a Left nationalist trend within the Communist Party before independence. Some of the friends of Victor Kiernan (and some of them were from Cambridge) represented this trend within the  Party.  They saw the national  bourgeoisie and the national movement powered by it as a progressive phenomenon.   After independence, when this  bourgeoisie began to wield State power, a section of the Left allowed itself to get co-opted and forged an alliance with the “progressive national bourgeoisie”, something that was promoted by the erstwhile Soviet Communist Party.


It took four decades for the Communist Party to recognize the dual character of the Indian  bourgeoisie which had its inbuilt conflicts and collusion with imperialist finance capital.  The Indian capitalist class has grown enormously under the  neo-liberal dispensation. Its potential, which was always under-rated, is being seen in full flow.  But as Victor Kiernan pointed out, this is a capitalism which has been profoundly affected by “local background”.


Kiernan had commented in his book “Imperialism and its Contradictions” about the progress of capitalism in India.  He had said, “In addition, there have been remarkable  increases in both agricultural and industrial production. India has not fundamentally broken with its own social order, however, and still faces problems seemingly insoluble within the  existing framework.” (Page 134)


There is a need to study the capitalist class in India. A Marxian analysis of the Indian bourgeoisie needs to be comprehensive and updated. I hope some of the scholars present here today and others would undertake such studies.


This brings us to how both in theory and practice, class structure in India is influenced by and integrated with structures of hierarchy, discrimination and oppression that are particular to Indian society reflected for instance, in caste, tribe and gender oppression and in the exclusion of whole geographical regions from freedom and  development.


The bulk of the support for the Communist Party even today comes from the movement areas (or outcrops of movement areas) where mainly in the 1941 to 1948 period the Communists succeeded in bringing together and leading the two main historical currents of people’s struggles.  The struggle against the colonial power and the struggle of the rural masses for freedom from exploitation.  Thus where the Communists brought the anti-imperialist and anti-landlord movements together and gave leadership to this united struggle, they gained mass support.  Tebhaga (Bengal), North Malabar (Kerala), tribal struggle (Tripura) and the Telangana struggle were such instances.   


Kiernan was a  friend and supporter of the Communist Party.   But he did not refrain from critical analysis and noting the weaknesses prevalent at that time.  Being a frequent visitor to the Party headquarter in Bombay, Kiernan bemoaned the lack of  interest in theory among the leaders and cadres of the Party. They all were business-like and practical.  Kiernan noted that this was probably a reaction to the endless, aimless  philosophical discussions and political gossip  indulged  in by coffee house going intellectuals.


Kiernan notes that, “In eight years, I never once heard any point of theory seriously discussed”.  While this may have been partially true with regard to the atmosphere in the Party headquarters,  there were shoots of theory and practice springing up where the Party was engaged in organizing the workers and peasants.  In Kerala, for instance, EMS Namboodiripad had already written his seminal piece on the Nationality Question in Kerala and applied the method of  historical  materialism to the development of Kerala society.  However, there is a deficiency considering the fact that the Communist movement in India is one of the few places where it has a mass base and millions of adherents.  The Communists are leading governments in three states which has a combined population of around  120 million people.  The Communists have gained valuable experience working in a parliamentary system.  They have sought to theorise this experience and set out  a perspective of working in a multi-party system under socialism. 


Later, Kiernan himself wrote to me to say that he was probably in retrospect too harsh on the Communist Party of those times.  He admired the dedication and the sacrifices made by the Communist leaders and cadres of that generation.  The 1940s was the period when the Communists worked among the people, organized struggles and made immense sacrifices.   Many of them spent years in jail including the British Communist Ben Bradley (whose name was mentioned in the earlier session) who was imprisoned alongwith other Communist leaders in the Meerut conspiracy case.


The Left in India Today


The Communists are continuing the struggle for land reforms which is essential for the elimination of  rural poverty.  In this sense, the Communists are pursuing the agenda of the 1940s when the struggle for land was taken up.  The removal of exploitative land relations requires not just the fight against landlordism but the caste, social and gender oppression embedded  in the system. 


The neo-liberal capitalism has intensified exploitation and resulted in sharp inequalities.  According to the latest report in Forbes magazine, there are  69 billionaires in dollar terms in 2010 in India compared to 52 in 2009.  This is one-third  more.  The rate of growth of billionaires is increasing.  There are some forms of primitive accumulation of capital going on.   The Left is fighting against the neo-liberal economic policies and is advocating alternative policies. 


The Left is striving to unite people  by countering communal politics and identity politics based on caste.


The advent of neo-liberal policies were accompanied by a shift in India’s foreign policy.  The ruling classes in India have forged a strategic alliance with the United States of America.   This has its impact on domestic policies too.  As against this growing dependence on America, the Left parties are working for a independent foreign policy which will truly serve the interests of the country. 


I had brought out a volume of the  writings of Victor Kiernan on India on the occasion of his 90th birthday.  Next year, we in the sub-continent in India and Pakistan are going to observe the birth centenary of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, one of the greatest poets of the sub-continent in the 20th century. On this occasion, we should be able to bring out Kiernan’s translation of the poems of Faiz which is not in print today.  There are also his articles and interviews about  Faiz which should all be compiled.  This will be a way to bring the work of Victor Kiernan, a genuine friend of India, to a new generation in the sub-continent. 

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