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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 8 New Delhi February 13, 2016

Prof Randhir Singh: The Compulsive Critique

Sunday 14 February 2016, by Rup Narayan Das


I learnt about the passing away of Prof Randhir Singh while flipping through the newspaper, The Tribune. Not many newspapers in India reported his passing away, although there were a couple of articles in leading newspapers. The non-coverage of his demise was a bit shocking to his students like me who placed him on a high pedestal for his profound scholarship, his conviction, intellectual rigour, critical analysis and incisive insight.

When I joined the Delhi University in 1979 for my Masters in Political Science, he had already earned a formidable reputation as a passionate teacher of political theory, partic-ularly Marxian political theory. Students were simply mad to listen to his lectures. His classes were always full; students listened to him with rapt attention and took copious notes of his lectures. I still vividly remember how once he bemoaned the tendency of the English media to malign the communist movement in the country. He cited one news report which described a district in Bihar “infested” with Communists. He found the word infested rather disparaging.

His lectures were so absorbing that no student would ever like to miss a point or a sentence. It so happened that once he spotted a rich student recording his lecture. During my time we didn’t have mobile phones to record. Prof Randhir Singh identified the student recording his lecture in a tape-recorder and told him that he should not do that for at times he used to make very critical comments on the functioning of the government, which could put him to embarrassment. He reasoned with the student that if at all, he should have sought his permission before recording the lecture. The student obliged him.

Prof Randhir Singh will always be remem-bered for his seminal contribution in explaining and communicating the ideas of Marx to his students and the wider public at large. He explained in so many words that Marxism was more than a theory of revolution and a theory of class struggle; it was a theory of understanding society and social dynamics. Therefore, it always has a universal and eternal appeal. He interpreted the ideas of Marxism in their totality and entirety, rather than in bits and pieces. So profound was the impact of his lectures that we would return from the class with a very heavy heart internalising the ideas and ideals of Marxism.

It was through his class-room teachings that he also introduced to us the political ideas of other Left thinkers like Antonio Gramsci (The Prison Notebook), Rosa Luxemburg, Herbert Mercuse (One Dimensional Man), Frantz Fannon (The Wretched of the Earth). Although we couldn’t read all those stuff during our student days, Prof Randhir Singh introduced to us the basic tenets so well that later we found those readings most interesting.

The novelty of Prof Randhir Singh’s teachings and writings (he would certainly detest to call those research) were not only his lucidity and felicity in interpreting and explaining Marxism, but also in putting and validating them in the context of contemporary reality. Thus his students and readers could connect and relate with the ideas and ideals of Marxism as a theory of understanding society, polity and international relations.

Commenting on today’s ‘globilisation’, he wrote: “...part of an ongoing process with a five centuries old history, the current splurge of globalisation, as with all such phenomena, has its historical specificity which in its own way reinforces the subordination of the periphery to the more self-driven productive accumulation pattern of the centre; it is simultaneously propelled by a new accumulation crisis of capitalism and a renewed ascendency of Rightwing politics the world over...” Elucidating further the nature contemporary globalisation, he wrote: “... There is the growing tendency for profits, unable to find profitable outlets in real capital formation, to be diverted into purely financial and mostly speculative channels. An increasingly intense double process of faltering, real investment and burgeoning technological, especially information revolution facilitating literally worldwide, fluidity of highly volatile finance capital (‘hot money’ economists call it), with all its contagious uncertainties and exploitative-cum-explosive consequences.” The World Financial Crisis (a euphemism for the US financial crisis), the Asian Financial Crisis, and now the slowing down of the Chinese economy eloquently testify the prognosis of Prof Randhir Singh.

It can be safely deduced from his insightful observation that globalisation is, as he wrote, imperialism all over again. The only difference is that the theatre of geo-politics and the engine of growth have substantially shifted from the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific; and China, a proclaimed socialistic country, has integrated itself to the emerging edifice of the world economic structure posing a challenge to the dominance of the USA, while simultaneously benefiting from the intertwined relationship with the former.

Sometimes I feel tempted to compare him with the Italian Marxist theoretician, Antonio Gramsci, with the risk of oddity. If Gramsci was a member of the Italian Communist Party, Prof Randhir Singh was active in the communist and Left movement in India. Both suffered jail terms and espoused the cause of the working class; both edited the respective party newspapers. It is a different matter whether Marxism as a theory of revolution has lost its salience or not, but it still resonates well as a critique of social dynamics and Prof Randhir Singh will be remembered for creating an awareness of the efficacy of Marxism as a social and political theory.

Rup Narayan Das, Ph.D, a former student of Prof Randhir Singh, is the Director, Research and Information Division, Lok Sabha Secretariat. He was a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi on deputation from the Lok Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed here are his personal.