A tribute to the Marxist scholar who stormed the Bastille of right-wing conservatism for 6 decades
This year marks Prof Randhir Singh's first death anniversary.
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On January 31, 2016, professor Randhir Singh breathed his last at the ripe age of 94. Till the age of 90, he remained fully active, travelling, delivering lectures, writing and interacting with his family/friends, comrades and admirers. In his last few years, he was mostly confined to home, though coming out once in a while, like he came to JNU on May 3, 2013, to release a book, Understanding Bhagat Singh, (by this author) on his favourite childhood hero — Bhagat Singh.
His magnum opus Crisis of Socialism: Notes in Defence of a Commitment was published a decade ago, which 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, Indian Communist Revolutionary T Nagi Reddy memorial lecture in book form) and a collection of his early essays, On Nationalism and Communalism in India (2010).
He could not fulfil his wish to write on Bhagat Singh for which he had collected a lot of books. His failing health and age did not permit him to complete the task, nor could he write on Mahatma Gandhi and a comparison between Bhagat Singh and Gandhi’s perception of Indian society.
He, however, began his writing career at the age of 23 with a major publication on Ghadar Heroes: A Forgotten Story of the Punjab Revolutionaries of 1914-15, published in 1945 by People’s Publishing House Bombay, with introduction by Ajay Ghosh, a comrade of revolutionary Bhagat Singh and later general secretary of Communist Party of India for years. In fact, it was part of a larger writing, the biography of legendary Ghadar party hero Baba Gurmukh Singh, which was never completed or at least published.
At that time Randhir Singh was on the editorial staff of CPI(M)’s Punjabi weekly Jang-i-Azadi. This book was published in Punjabi from Lahore in 1946. This was a time, when Randhir Singh was immersed in activism and wrote some of his best poetry in Punjabi — his collection, Rahan Di Dhudh-Dust of the Paths, was published in 1950.
This was a collection of 25 selected poems written in a painful post-partition India (1947-49). Even though it was critically acclaimed, Singh never took to writing poetry again.
Born on January 9, 1922, in Moga district of Punjab, Singh's father was an idealist and doctor (civil surgeon) by profession. According to Singh, he had a deadly combination of Gandhi and Lenin in his head and was believer in religion.Professor Randhir Singh
Singh was a good student and qualified for a medical degree, but opted for arts (something that his teachers thought he was best-suited for). He proved his teachers right and topped masters in Political Science from Panjab University Lahore even though he was more involved in political activism during that time and had to spend a year in Lahore jail.
Jail, incidentally, was one of "happiest periods" of Singh’s life according to his In Lieu of a Bio-data. There he would often spend time with his hero Bhagat Singh’s comrades like Kishori Lal in the "terrorist ward", where Bhagat Singh was incarcerated earlier.
Singh became a full-time activist of the Communist Party of India in 1939 at the age of 17 years, first as an activist of All India Students Federation (AISF), of which Satya Pal Dang was leader at that time.
He remained underground as well, reaching out to peasants in rural area and was a part of editorial staff of party journal in Punjabi. Singh also translated the Communist Manifesto and some other works of Karl Marx in Punjabi in those days.
Lahore was the headquarters of his activities prior to 1947, when it went to Pakistan. It was painful for Singh, who really loved Lahore and wrote many poems expressing the pangs of partition, particularly the trauma of leaving Lahore on which he wrote a beautiful poem-Lahore Nu Salaam (Salute to Lahore).
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 refugees from Pakistan.
His first-class-first master’s degree in political science came handy during this time and he got a lecturer's job in Delhi College, where he had the company of colleagues and friends such as progressive Hindi author Bhisham Sahni and historian Bipan Chandra.
Along with Bipan Chandra, he would distribute copies of Enquiry in those days, besides other Leftist journals. He continued to be a part of the CPI, but was critical of its "revisionist" policies.
With the split of the party in 1964, he went along with CPI (Marxist) for a few years. This was the period, he was viciously attacked by the "official" communists. He was removed from the editorship of CPI’s theoretical Punjabi journal Sada Jug (Our Age) charged with "individualism and intellectual arrogance", as he had refused to publish BT Randive’s criticism of Mao Tse Tung.
During those days of crisis, teaching was both a relief and pleasure for Singh.
After spending nearly two decades in Delhi College and a brief stint in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), he was finally invited by the Delhi University as a professor in the political science department in 1972, from where he retired in 1987.
In between, his PhD thesis was rejected, he published only one book in 1967 — Reason, Revolution and Political Theory: Notes on Oakeshott's Rationalism in Politics. But it was this one book that earned him laurels as a political theorist. His other publications came much later in life, mostly after retirement.
Even though he did not write or publish much, Singh earned much respect as a teacher. In fact, his teaching techniques became legendary. His classes (political science) would often attract students from history, philosophy, sociology, economics, literature and many other disciplines.
As the classroom used to be mostly packed, some students would stand outside and listen to his lecture. Interestingly, he was advised many times not to teach "subversion". He was even stopped from "touching upon" Marx and instead given Plato to teach. But Singh would still end up imparting lessons on Marx, of course through Plato.
Singh had termed his teaching as "Robin Hooding". Despite facing harassment and humiliation from organised groups, his "Robin Hooding" went on very well, though he was conscious of the fact that this was "within the system" and even lent legitimacy to the system. While many get "co-opted" in the system by such liberalism, Singh remained different and did not confine himself to teaching alone.
He remained active as a member of the teachers' union as well. Though he did not contest any election, he remained an active supporter of Delhi University Teachers' Association (DUTA), which often has to fight battles to protect the teachers' interests.
But it was his post-retirement (after 1987) public activities and writing which resembled Singh’s personality more expressively.
When the political science department of Delhi University wanted to bring out a memorial volume of "teaching politics" in his honour, he was requested to send his bio-data and he penned down the now famous In lieu of Bio-data.
It was not only published in the volume edited by Sushila Kaushik as History, politics and theory: essays in honour of Randhir Singh in 1988, the Monthly Review also published it following which he developed a close relationship with the magazine and its editors, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff.
Singh had been in touch with Marxist theory and practice the world over and with various strands of thoughts, but he was most comfortable with the Monthly Review tradition of Marxist scholarship (as he himself mentioned in the preface to Crisis of Socialism-Notes in Defence of a Commitment).
"It is the journal I have felt most comfortable with, intellectually and politically, over the past 50-odd years, and my debt here is writ large over several important parts of this book. For Marxist theory and sustained revolutionary commitment, there has been indeed nothing else like Monthly Review. Its authentic Marxist analysis of development across the globe, easily accessible yet sophisticated in best sense of the word, its unwavering commitment to the cause of socialism and principles support to revolutionary struggles everywhere, have educated, encouraged and inspired socialists and radicals throughout the world. Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff have been a constant source of enlightenment and inspiration. For me personally Paul Sweezy was and remains a model of what a Marxist intellectual should be in our times. In recent years, I have much benefitted from the wide ranging work of Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster’s writings on ecology."
Perhaps Singh was not told about the passing away of Ellen Meiksins Wood a few weeks before he wrote the preface. (The above extract is from his preface written in March 2004.)
After retirement, Singh was offered two national fellowships — one by the Indian Council for Social Sciences Research (ICSSR) and another by Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, which was terminated mid-way inexplicably.
He was invited to deliver the Moin Shakir Memorial Lecture in Marathwada university, Aurangabad in 1991, which prompted Singh to develop it into this 1,080-page book — Crisis of Socialism, which came out in 2006.
A series of six books was further published — The World After the Collapse of the Soviet Union; What was built and what failed in the Soviet Union; Marxism, socialism, Indian politics: a view from the left; The right lesson and the wrong conclusion; Contemporary ecological crisis: a Marxist View; Struggle for socialism: some issues.
In between, he wrote an introduction to Bertell Ollman’s Indian publication, Marxism: An Uncommon Introduction in 1989. He also wrote an introduction to Nepal Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattrai’s book, Monarchy vs democracy: the epic fight in Nepal, published in 2005.
Singh wrote an introduction to the Indian edition of William Ash’s book, Workers' politics: the ethics of socialism, published in 2007.
One can see from all his publications that Singh, throughout his life, was concerned about socialism. Building of socialism in Soviet Union and China and after the fall of Soviet Union — he was a fearless critic of Stalinism and all such tendencies inside Communist parties which crushed its internal democratic structure.
Singh was not a pessimist or disillusioned man despite defeats of socialist societies particularly in the Soviet Union and China. He kept alive his optimism, seeing the kind of changes that were brought in Latin America, particularly in Cuba.
The leaders of the Maoist movement in Nepal also kept close contact with him and both Prachanda and Baburam Bhattrai sought his advice. Singh was very enthusiastic about the people’s struggle to bring down the feudal king.
Despite the shabby treatment meted out to him in the mid-1960s by the CPI, all Left parties and groups respected him a lot. Even the CPI's attitude changed towards him later.
Unlike most armchair intellectuals, Singh would take a firm stand on issues of state repression, joining mass processions as well.
His house was open for all leftist activists. During Nepal’s Maoist underground movement, Hisila Yami, a central committee member of the Communist Party of Nepal and wife of Baburam Bhattrai, also stayed at Singh’s home for her medical treatment.
Despite enjoying an international standing and global publishers at his disposal (such Oxford University Press, Penguins, Harper and Collins, Routledge or even Left-wing publishers like Verso, MR Press or more), Singh never felt tempted to get his books published by big names.
His earliest two books were published by the People Publishing House of CPI, later books by Ajanta Publications, Delhi, and lastly by Aakar Books, Delhi.
Probably he never wanted to earn any royalty from his publishers. All that he wanted from them was to keep the prices of his books reasonable to make them accessible to the Indian middle-class readers.
Ajanta Publications published his Of Marxism and Indian Politics in 1990 and Five Lectures in Marxist Mode in 1993 and Crisis of Socialism in 2006. It also brought out an enlarged edition of Reason, Revolution and Political Theory in 1988. Aakar Books took out six books from Crisis of Socialism and two more publications mentioned earlier in 2009 and 2010.
After retirement, Singh delivered a number of lectures across various places in India, but never abroad. He would ask for a minimum time limit of two hours, but would go on speaking for several hours.
In some extreme episodes, he even spoke all through the night. This was a habit that he acquired from his early days of activism where such addresses by communist party members would continue for days at a stretch.
He would mostly speak in Punjabi and Hindi/Urdu during public lectures, though he was more comfortable in English. Many of his books have been published in Hindi and Punjabi translations. Along with his brother-in-law and well-known theatre personality Gursharn Singh, who published his books in Punjabi, they became iconic figures in Punjab.
For six long decades, Randhir Singh stormed the Bastille of right-wing conservatism with his subversive radical Marxist thoughts which none (in the right) was able to tolerate.
Even though combative, Singh was always courteous and decent in debates and paid due attention to his adversaries, before demolishing their arguments.
A tribute to Singh will be incomplete without recalling these memorable lines from Dust of the Paths (following India's Independence and partition):
A Caravan has reached its destination/and yet lost its way.