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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 16 New Delhi April 9, 2016

Randhir Singh: A Life Dedicated to Keeping Alive the Idea of Socialism

Sunday 10 April 2016, by Gilbert Sebastian


Prof Randhir Singh, a well-known Marxist activist-intellectual who used to be a teacher at the Department of Political Science in Delhi University, passed away at the age of 94 on January 31, 2016. I had met him for the first time in 1992 when he came to the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. He stood out as someone different as a critical scholar thinking of contemporary issues from within the framework of classical Marxism. In March 2010, a friend of mine from Punjab introduced me to him. He was happy to hear that I was a student from the Centre for Political Studies (a Centre named by him) in JNU. He asked me to explain about the current political situation in the country. I feel privileged that he then told me, ‘We are on the same wavelength’ especially in response to my argument that ‘politics is not in command with the ongoing Maoist movement in India’. He had also gifted me his books including the one with his autograph, Marxism, Socialism, Indian Politics. When I met him in April 2014, he asked me anxiously, ‘Have you read what I have written on the Soviet Union?’

During my second last visit to him along with Pawan Kumar Patel on November 29, 2014, his voice had weakened into a whisper. He requested us to find a quote from his book, What was Built and What Failed in the Soviet Union. The quote from some French author: ‘Soviet Union does not need to be explained .... The Soviet Union was a dream turned sour. Nevertheless, it was a dream’. We started searching for it, unsuccessfully though. He was so anxious to get that quote and understandably so since he had taken it as his life-mission ‘to keep alive the idea of socialism’. Indeed, this is a great task since we are living in an era when people’s movements around the world are at their lowest ebb since the high tide after the Second World War when around one-third of the world was under the rule of revolutionary Communists. His style of writing was quite lucid and understandable. Once when I asked him why he used the word, ‘balanced’ instead of ‘dialectical’, he said, ‘There was a time when I used to write in such a technical manner but I don’t want to do it anymore.’

Although he opposed the militarist deviation of the Maoists, he was an ardent campaigner against the military suppression of the Maoist movement in Chhattisgarh through the ‘Operation Green Hunt’. He said that he read Gautam Navlakha’s article [along with Jan Myrdal] on the Maoist movement written after his visit to the struggle area of Bastar. He said: “Gautam Navlakha speaks about democracy at the end of his article. But I am not happy with it.” Democracy was, for Prof Randhir Singh, the one ‘right lesson’ and the lack of it in the Soviet Union had led to the debacle of the socialist experiment.

Pawan Patel, who used to be the Convener of the Indo-Nepal Solidarity Forum, explained to him the current political situation since the conclusion of the people’s war in Nepal. Prof Randhir Singh listened to these arguments and expressed grief saying that the movement in Nepal had raised much hope.

I asked him why he had not written much on caste issues in India, except one article on reservation in Five Lectures in Marxist Mode. He said that he did not know much about caste. He gave an exquisite smile when I said, ‘It may be because you had not written much on caste that the Brahminical Marxists did not have much of a problem with you; they had given you some space and accommodated you.’

To understand what Prof Randhir Singh stood for, his autobiographical note written in 1988, ‘In Lieu of a Biodata’ (re-printed in several of his books) is a must-read. He got into the academic profession in an India still fresh with the sentiments of the anti-colonial movement. Yet as someone who operated in the terrain of classical Marxism dubbed as “Marxist orthodoxy”, he did face difficulties. In his ‘biodata’ he says: “It is true that whenever interviewed, the selection committees invariably turned me down.” Yet he was lucky enough to get appointments by invitation, including professorship in 1972. He further says: “I have no string of scholars working under me, no fellowships, no research projects, no study or other academic leaves, no ‘seminaring’, national or international, nothing—not even a visit abroad....” Yet his writings are informed by a deep knowledge of classical texts from Plato and Aristotle to Marx and Mao. Giving some cause for self-reflection to successful academicians of our times, he further says: “...[S]cholarly writing is increasingly addressed not to problems or public but to peers and to prestige and preferment in the needlessly bureaucratised academic professions, and given the growing, and often mindless, specialisation in the social sciences (including Political Science) ....” Whereas the distance between words and deeds is very large among India’s leading academicians, Randhir Singh stood out as a tall exception, as a man of integrity and high ethical values.

I told him how Pawan Patel and myself were working on a piece on the topic, ‘Brahminical Marxism versus Critical Marxism’ (unpublished till date). I told him that we propose to blend the Dalit-Bahujan perspective, the perspective on the rights of women and sexual minorities and the perspective on the rights of frontier peoples into the framework of critical Marxism in the context of India and Nepal, and that it would be a framework of intersectional class politics. We told him that the Dalit-Bahujan perspective could have tremendous mass appeal in India with its distinctive contradictions based on caste and religion and that it would be in keeping with Mao’s exhortation, “Qualitatively different contradictions can only be resolved by qualitatively different methods.” After a pause, he said: “It is a revolutionary perspective” and we were exhilarated by his endorsement. This showed that he was quite open to integrating a Dalit-Bahujan perspective into Marxism although he had not written much on caste issues. He said: “I am close to what you are doing.”

His writings on Gandhi were much more sympathetic than those of many other radical Left writers. He thought that Gandhi had a paternalistic attitude towards the people of India. His sympathetic views on Gandhi may, however, be viewed as part of his lack of understanding of the Brahminical social system in the country understood better by the Ambedkarites. Except during the Brahminical revivalism since the 8th century to the establishment of the Sultanates by the 12th century, the hegemonic cultures in India were Maurya (Buddhist) (5th century BCE-8th century CE), the Sultanates (1206-1526), the Mughals (1526-1757) and the British (1757-1947). Randhir Singh’s support to Gandhi was rather uncritical if we consider that it was the nationalist movement led by Gandhi with his concepts of Ramrajya, support for the varnashrama dharma, etc. that gave a new lease of life to the Brahminical forces. The ill-effects of such a Brahminical mobilisation led by the privileged caste Hindus was noticed in the partition of the country and in the ongoing Hindutva movement in case of which it is apparent that it is essentially Brahminical.

There was a discussion between Pawan and myself on whether Bhagat Singh looked better in his shaven looks or with his pagadi on. I argued that he looks better with his pagadi on: India is said to be the most diverse country in the world and even if we have a revolution in India, we need to preserve the diversity which is a source of our strength. Prof. Randhir Singh intervened and said, “It is right.”

Prof Randhir Singh had spent his life espousing ‘the Marxism of Karl Marx’—which is about thinking what Marx would have thought under the given circumstances. His thinking was environmentally sensitive, gender sensitive and sensitive towards the social and cultural diversities in the country. He was someone who began his life as whole-time activist of the undivided Communist Party of India. All critical Marxists, whether Marxists, Leninists or Maoists, had a rallying point in him. However, he did not mince words in critiquing the militarism of the Maoists, and the parliamentary opportunism of the CPI and CPI-M. The Maoists thought him to be too liberal and the Marxists considered him too radical. He believed that in India, the non-parliamentary path should be the primary focus of the struggle for socialism.

His focus was always on the socialist alternative put forth in the Soviet Union. In an earlier visit, when I had asked him, why he had not written much about socialism in China and the Maoist politics, his response was that his primary focus was on teaching and his writings were in response to requests from somebody or the other. Over his childhood “loomed large the heroic figure of Bhagat Singh”, as he says and the Soviet revolution must have been a powerful formative influence over his youth. The revolution in China, significant though, especially for the Third World, must have been only a lesser event during his life-time.

In my meeting with him on April 26, 2014, I told him that it is most likely that Modi would form his government at the Centre after the election. I said, it may be a good thing for India to have a feel of what fascism is going to be like. I quoted Mao that it is not a bad thing to be attacked by your enemy. I drew a parallel with Latin America which went through a long spell of neoliberalism and dictatorships but is now on the democratic path. He said: ‘I agree with you.’

I told him about the India visit (in New Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram, etc.) of Marta Harnecker and Michael Lebowitz. I saw passion when he said: ‘I completely agree with them.’ This was understandable since Randhir Singh himself was a proponent of the socialism-oriented path of development here and now rather than in a distant post-revolutionary society.

His daughter, who is a Faculty at the School of Planning and Architecture, said: “Sometimes, he says, I have written enough and there are times when he says, he wants to write on Bhagat Singh and Gandhi. In fact, he had told me over the phone sometime back, ‘I wish, I could write.’”

Prof Randhir Singh was also a good poet in his younger days, that is, until around 1950 after which he stopped writing poetry for which he did not give a reason. I asked his wife if their marriage was a love marriage. She said: ‘Yes, both his father and my father were doctors who were trained in Europe and in Lahore, they had a friendly family relation. The marriage took place in 1952 in India after the partition.’ His daughter further confirmed that it was a love marriage and said that Randhir Singh’s brother-in-law was also in the Left movement.

We also got his blessings and warm handshakes. Randhir Singh was the second person, after my own mother, from whom I have sought to place his hand on my head for a blessing so that I could have the benefit of his positive energy passing into my brain.

We are fortunate that his thoughts will still remain with us through the magnum opus: Crisis of Socialism — Notes in Defence of a Commitment and the handy volumes published by Aakar Books, Delhi to make it more accessible. These include: The Right Lesson and the Wrong Conclusion and What was Built and What Failed in the Soviet Union. We also have his earlier academic work published in 1967, Reason, Revolution and Political Theory giving a Marxist critique of the political theory of Michael Oakeshott, a conservative thinker. Randhir Singh’s words still resound in my ears: ‘... but my mission is to keep alive the idea of socialism’, no mean mission in an era when the socialist alternative has receded into the background of history.

The author is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Relations and Politics at the Central University of Kerala, Kasaragod. He can be contacted at: gilbertseb@gmail.com