Born Victor Gordon Kiernan in Manchester on 4th September 1913, his interest in languages was developed as a boy since his father worked for the Manchester Ship Canal as a translator of Spanish and Portuguese. He obtained a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School, where he learnt Greek and Latin.
From 1931, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied History, achieved a double starred First, and joined the Communist Party; he was to remain formally attached to the college for the next seven years. Kiernan was a contemporary and close friend of both John Cornford and James Klugmann (see separate entries).
But he was in India from 1938-46, establishing contacts and organising study-circles with local Communists, and teaching at Aitchison (formerly Chiefs) College, an institution created to educate the Indian nobility. Ostensibly on a Fellowship study tour, Kiernan also took Comintern documents to local Communists the British Raj.
Kiernan pictured in 1935 with Indian Communists Savitri and Somnath Chibber.
His first book of very many, `British Diplomacy in China 1880-1885’ (1939) set the scene for most of his later work, which was international and or cultural in character. He also became fluent in Persian and Urdu and translated Eastern poetry into English.
In 1938 in Bombay, he married the dancer and theatrical activist Shanta Gandhi, whom he had first met in London, but they separated before he left India in 1946, divorcing in 1951; he would remarry a Canadian academic in 1984.
After the Korean War began, he was moved to participate in the Britain-China Friendship Association.
Kiernan was involved in the debates of the Communist Party History Group between 1946 and 1956, where he pursued an independent-minded outlook. Kiernan was a supporter of Edward Thompson’s (see separate entry) `New Reasoner’ and later the `Socialist Register’, although he only actually left the Communist Party in 1959.
Throughout his long life thereafter, he kept fiercely to Marxist ideas; although being appointed as Professor emeritus of Modern History at Edinburgh University. As such, he gained a high reputation as an erudite Marxist historian of wide-ranging interests.
To mark his 90th birthday, the future general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) edited a selection of Kiernan's writings and reminiscences of the subcontinent.
Kiernan died on 17th February 2009, aged 95.
Sources: The Independent 20th February 2009; The Guardian 18th February 2009; The Times May 14th 2009;