Red Fifties: Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Frank Girling, Marxist anthropology and anti-communism

Earlier this year I wrote the below about my grandfather, Frank Girling, and his friend and colleague, Ramkrishna Mukherjee, and the ways in which they were excluded from the British anthropology establishment because of their politics and their suspected links with decolonisation movements. This was originally published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society (and is republished with permission), and was written at the request of Rila Mukherjee for a special issue of the journal in honour of her father, who died in 2015. It is a (very) long read, and is slightly off topic (it isn’t about the 1930s, or about the Spanish Civil War), but it nevertheless feels appropriate to post it here (and now).

N.B. There is one correction – care of my mother – to the below account of events. See end for details.



Ramkrishna Mukherjee and Frank Girling: Marxist Anthropology and McCarthyism in the 1950s

Of all the things that I thought I might do in my life, it never crossed my mind that one day I would be asked to write about the eminent sociologist Ramkrishna Mukherjee for the Journal of the Asiatic Society. I am not a sociologist, and never met Ramkrishna Mukherjee, nor have I studied his work – however, for a brief period in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he and my grandfather were friends, colleagues and comrades. They met at Cambridge in the late 1940s – Ramkrishna was there as a PhD student and my grandfather, Frank Girling, as an undergraduate. My grandfather would have been older than many of his fellow undergraduate students (and he was two years older than Ramkrishna); upon leaving school he had worked in various jobs before volunteering for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, where he met my grandmother, Elizabeth Aytoun. They married soon after the outbreak of the Second World War and Frank was conscripted into the army; he spent much of the war in India, partly with the Indian Army – having defected from the British Army. He did not become an undergraduate, therefore, until he was in his late twenties, when he went to Cambridge to study social anthropology in the aftermath of the Second World War (special arrangements were in place for ex-servicemen, compressing what was normally a three-year degree into two).  It was there that he and Ramkrishna – who was then at Cambridge working towards his PhD – first met.

Last year – prompted by a request for information about my grandfather’s doctoral research, and his time in Uganda – I began the process of looking through his papers. Because his papers are mixed up with my grandmother’s, this became a far bigger task than I had originally anticipated. For a while I was overwhelmed with the volume and scope of the papers they had left behind them; as a grand-daughter who still misses them both dreadfully, it was wonderful to be able to read their words and to be able to discover things that I hadn’t previously known about their past. I was particularly struck by the amount of material (letters, postcards, pamphlets, etc.) about their time in the lead up to and during the Spanish Civil War and this, combined with a radio show that I heard at the time about British volunteers in Spain, led me to begin a blog about their experiences there. In the process of looking through a box of papers from around this time, I found a packet of letters clipped together; these were letters from Ramkrishna Mukherjee to my grandfather, and carbon copies of my grandfather’s letters to him. These led me to contact Ramkrishna’s daughter, Rila Mukherjee, in the hope that she might be able to tell me more about the relationship between the two men, and possibly even to find more letters between them. It was Rila who asked if I might write something about Ramkrishna and my grandfather, and about this early moment in their academic lives. I would love to have been able to document their correspondence fully – to trace their friendship and working relationship in full – however, to do this, I would need to find more of the correspondence between the two, and look in more detail at the research and articles that they produced together (I would also love to one day find the photographs that Ramkrishna took during their time together in Uganda). For now, however, that is  unfortunately beyond my means; I have had to rely on their correspondence that I have had to hand, and what information about the two men and their work at this time that I have been able to find. I only hope that even the limited view that I present here will go some way to illuminating this moment in the early intellectual lives of these two extraordinary men. Continue reading Red Fifties: Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Frank Girling, Marxist anthropology and anti-communism