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A Marxist professor who made students ask questions, was critical of 'dogmatic' Left

By Harsh Thakor* 

Few academics were as scholastic, imaginative or dialectical as Prof Randhir Singh, who cut the tumours of capitalist ideology at the very root. A Marxist intellectual for decades served as professor in Delhi University, Prof Singh died in January 2016, leaving behind the legacy of a teacher who intensively fostered the spirit of questioning in students in contrast to indoctrination.
Not a Maoist or a Stalinist, Prof Singh upheld the positive role of USSR and China and consistently criticised what he considered as the autocratic nature of the Indian parliamentary democracy, the fatal consequences of globalisation from 1991 and the germinating of Hindutva neo-fascism.
Never blindly accepting the analysis of the Marxist-Leninist groups on what caused the demise of socialism, nor those who reduced Marxism to mere armed struggle, Prof Singh respected the view of integrating caste question with class struggle, firmly standing by the genuine democratic movements of the day of any strata of society.
A living example of what someone could do to contribute within the boundaries of an oppressive social order, he moulded the youth towards Marxist ideology in the 1970s, displaying mastery in explaining the dynamics of a capitalistic society, inspiring them to join ranks of progressive movements.
Prof Singh taught us the importance of studying all the bourgeois philosophers, be it Plato, Thoreau or Voltaire, and be a very good student of history. He delved into political thought of Machiavelli and Hobbes, as he did to Marx. Some of his best essays 'Future of Socialism', 'A Note on the Current Political Situation: Some issues and a Conclusion' and ‘Nepal’ were published in 'Monthly Review'. They make readers question the orthodox views of Stalinist or Maoist groups.
Prof Singh's magnum opus “Crisis of Socialism: Notes in Defence of a Commitment”, published a decade ago, was released by another notable Marxist thinker, Aijaz Ahmad, in Delhi. Since then, he published a few more collections – “Indian Politics Today: An Argument for Socialism-Oriented Path of Development” (2009) and “On Nationalism and Communalism in India” (2010).
Unlike many of his contemporary Marxists, Prof Singh classified India as capitalist instead of semi-feudal. A CPI card holder, with the split of the party in 1964, he went along with CPI (Marxist) for a few years. This was also the period when he was viciously attacked by the "official" Communists and was removed from the editorship of the party's theoretical Punjabi journal “Sada Jug” and was  charged with "individualism and intellectual arrogance", for refusing to publish top party leader BT Ranadive’s criticism of Mao Tse Tung.
Born on January 9, 1922, in Moga district of Punjab, Prot Singh's father was an idealist and a doctor (civil surgeon) by profession. He gained his baptism in politics in the anti-colonial struggle in Lahore spending a year in Lahore jail. Prof Singh became a full-time activist of CPI in 1939 at the age of 17, first as an activist of All-India Students Federation (AISF), of which Satya Pal Dang was leader.
He remained underground for quite some time, reaching out to peasants in rural areas. He translated “Communist Manifesto” and some other works of Karl Marx in Punjabi. He was 25 at the time of partition, and after moving to Delhi, he started teaching at the Camp College, which was set up for the refugees from Pakistan.
Prof Singh got a lecturer's job in the Delhi College, where he had the company of colleagues and friends such as progressive Hindi author Bhisham Sahni and historian Bipan Chandra. After spending nearly two decades in Delhi College and a brief stint in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), he was invited by the Delhi University as professor in the political science department in 1972, from where he retired in 1987. In between, while his PhD thesis was rejected, his book “Reason, Revolution and Political Theory: Notes on Oakeshott's Rationalism in Politics” (1967) earned him laurels as a political theorist.
Prof Singh challenged the dogmatic and autocratic character of the Left parties like CPI and CPI(M), which he said did not give respect to democratic functioning. In his writings he was critical of socialist societies like USSR neglecting democracy. He maintained that there were inherent flaws within socialist societies which failed to live up to the expectations of Karl Marx.
In his view we must all go back to Marx. Refusing to continue as a member of a Communist party or accept orthodox Leninism or Maoism, Prof Singh introduced the ideas of the New Left in the campuses like Herbert Marcus, Jean Paul Sartre or Althusser.
Prof Singh admired China under Mao and equally admired Cuba and Vietnam. In his view Cuba was a model for third world people and Che Guevera made path breaking contributions. He did not support Maoist people’s war path but admired the Bolivarian revolution and other movements in Latin America adopting extra-parliamentary forms.
Prof Singh said, "No discussion of socialism today, least of all its future, can bypass what happened in the erstwhile Soviet Union. What we have here, as I have argued at length in my book, is a failed revolutionary experiment: a grievously deformed socialism that was built and the final crisis and collapse of the sui generis class exploitative system it had ultimately degenerated into -- all of which is fully amenable to a Marxist explanation in terms of its method of historical materialism and class analysis.”
Prof Singh was removed from the editorship of the party's Punjabi journal Sada Jug for refusing to publish BT Ranadive’s article
“In other words”, he said, “What failed in Soviet Union was not socialism but a system that came to be built in its name. It is indeed imperative for socialists who wish for a future beyond capitalism to understand what has happened, what was built and what has failed as socialism in the Soviet Union.”
According to him, “They must assess the costs and consequences of this failure, the collapse of what we have described as ‘actually existing socialism’, and some others as ‘authoritarian communism’ -- though they must do so fully mindful of the costs and consequences of ‘actually existing capitalism’ or ‘authoritarian capitalism’ which has rushed in to pick up the pieces.”
He believed, “It was certainly mistaken to see the struggle for socialism in our times as a contest between ‘the socialist world’ and ‘the capitalist world’, as official Marxism in the post-1917 period made it out to be. It was, as always, an international class struggle with several more or less important fronts. The countries of ‘actually existing socialism’, while it lasted, were only one front of this struggle, and while they did condition or influence this struggle, positively as well as negatively, they did not determine or settle the question of its outcome”.
BT Ranadive
He further said, “Nor does the collapse of these countries now or their return to the capitalist fold, in any way settle the question of the future of socialism -- the struggle still goes on and will, so long as capitalism lasts. Nevertheless, these countries constituted what was in many ways a most important front of the ongoing international class struggle and their collapse demands that socialists understand and come to terms with it.”
He added, “The collapse of the Soviet Union does not end or modify the structural logic of global capitalism as manifested in poverty, underdevelopment, deindustrialisation and exploitation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It has only made global capitalism all the more powerful and given a new edge to its predatory logic. Any social system built on inequality in the command of human and natural resources works in many ways to reproduce itself and to increase the extent of the in-built inequality."
Randhir Singh wrote comprehensive articles on state terrorism and democratic rights in India and presented a paper at the 1991 conference of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee. A very notable article was on the phenomenon of Khalistani and state terrorism in Punjab in the 1980s where he refuted the pro-state views of Bipin Chandra.
Prof Singh was bitterly critical of the attacks on the Sikh community and vocally condemned the collaboration of Left parties with the parties like Congress and BJP. He exposed how fascist Hindutva politics was infiltrating the parliamentary system and breaking the very fabric of democracy. He felt that MK Gandhi made a positive contribution.
He opposed militaristic tendencies of the Maoists in India, but left no stone unturned in condemning Operation Green Hunt. At the same time he defended the contribution of the Maoists in taking up the cudgels for the tribals. He was a strong adherent in utilizing extra parliamentary trends to achieve a radical change, but disagreed with those who blindly adopted the tactic of boycott of elections.
He said, “The revolutionary Left, including the Maoists, need to shift the focus of debate and struggle from violence to politics, to policies and programmes, to the issue of the country’s path of development, which to be pro-people has to be a socialism-oriented path of development. As part of this shift the Maoists also need to reach out to other Naxal formations.”
According to him, “A challenge for the Maoists, this shift and reaching out is a challenge for their ‘civil society’ sympathisers and supporters as well. They must not rest content with their opposition to the government’s war on people or with ‘peace initiatives’ etc. They need to help towards realisation of both this shift and unity among the Naxalites.”
He believed, “Unless this happens and the focus of debates and struggle shifts from violence to politics, above all to the issue of the country’s path of development, Indian politics will remain stranded in the quagmire of violence to the benefit of the ruling establishment, the people’s support for the capitalist path of development will continue to be consolidated, democracy will continue to be eroded, giving way to the authoritarian form of bourgeois rule, misery and suffering, old and new, will continue to be visited upon our adivasi population, all revolutionary advance will stay stalled and winning popular support for a revolutionary transformation of Indian society, for an alternative politics that seeks to realise the Naxalite aspiration for a life worthy of human beings for all, will become increasingly more difficult.”
---
*Freelance journalist

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