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Mainstream, Vol XLIX No 17, April 16, 2011

Plea for Truthful Analysis of Ongoing Events

Thursday 21 April 2011, by Randhir Singh

The following is the text of the convocation address that Prof Randhir Singh, the renowned Marxist scholar who retired as the Professor of Political Theory, University of Delhi, some years ago, was invited to deliver at the Punjabi University in Patiala in December 2010; however, he could not deliver it in person as he met
with a minor accident at his residence in the New Delhi, and it had to be read out in absentia.

It is generous of Dr Jaspal Singh and the Punjabi University authorities to invite me to be the chief guest at this function. I have no conventionally-decreed credentials to deliver a convocation address. I have only a life to speak of, lived somewhat differently, and on a generous interpretation, maybe a little more meaningfully too. For my address I would like to share with you, young scholars and students, very briefly, one argument each from two important phases of my life, as a student and as a teacher.

As a student I came to Lahore in 1938 for higher studies at the Punjab University there. Global capitalism, as imperialism or its fascist variant, driven by the logic of its contradictions, was inexorably moving towards yet another world war. In India, the struggle for freedom was poised to enter its most critical phase and despite certain well-justified reservations about its leadership, there was a hopeful turbulence in the atmosphere around us. We joined this struggle with big, Promethean dreams for the future, dreams of a better life, a life worthy of human beings, for our people. The dreams have remained unrealised, but a matter of far greater concern is that today this kind of dreaming is almost dead in our country thanks largely to the extraordinary dominance of the ideology of the market with its focus on individual success in the marketplace and an equally extraordinary inhibition of social imagination consequent upon the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ‘actually existing socialism’. Our people, including those on the Left, seem to have lost the dreams they once had. This is indeed the most terrible thing that can ever happen to a people. As the poet Pash, writing of ‘khatarnak’ things, says, ‘the worst thing that can happen to us is the death of our dreams’. This is indeed what has happened in our country. Above, at the sophisticated level, theories abound, as Barrows Dunham has told us, ‘which preach paralysis—which tell us what we can’t know or can’t do’. Incidentally, not unoften these theories initially originate in the West but, for reasons not difficult to understand, are lapped up by scholars here and soon acquire a life of their own in our universities. The latest example is post-modernism with its nihilistic relativism and hostility to meta-narratives. Down below, throughout history, ruling class ideologues have sought to persuade the poor and the oppressed to underreach themselves— a persuasion reinforced in our country by people’s religiosity which is sedulously nurtured and promoted by the ruling elites to maintain their dominance in society. No wonder that today, even the best of dreaming in India—they even call it ‘a vision’—has shrunk to a promise of bijli, pani, and sadak. In the kind of politics we have, this is all that is needed to win elections and gain power or stay in power.

There is much talk of ‘development’ these days. The notion of development as something desirable also raises ‘the overarching question as to what kind of society we, as human beings, want to have’. Surely it is people and not ‘economic growth’ or ‘productivity’ that must come first in such a society. It has to be a humane society that fosters cooperation, solidarity and respect for universal ethical values, and makes for a non-alienated, ‘truly rich human life’ that Marx spoke of. Of course such a society is impossible without basic material security and need satisfaction. But to believe that you can assure need satisfaction through greed, private acquisitive drives, universal competition and strife—the values of capitalism—and yet hope for a humane society of cooperation and solidarity and social well-being, is utopianism of the worst kind. Subordinating humanity to economics, to imperatives of the market, capitalism commodifies life and undermines and rots away the relations between human beings which constitute societies. Its ethos of the marketplace—competition, egoism, aggression, universal venality, in short the rat race, ‘the pseudo-moral principles’, as Keynes once put it, ‘which have hag-ridden us for 200 years (and) by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues’—creates a moral vacuum in which nothing counts except what the individual wants and can grab, here and now. At the end of it all, even when wants are satisfied, the people are ever more subordinated, ever less free, ever more flattened and made passive by the dictatorship of consumerism that arbitrarily shapes values, imposing on them the heavy burden of uniformity. The values of difference, individualisation (not individualism), all-sided development of man, of human freedom itself, disappear in the marketplace which is proclaimed to be free. As human beings, people simply don’t fit into capitalism. A capitalist society is not the society we want to have. However poor or backward today, we need to move away from capitalism-oriented development and, however slowly or falteringly, move towards building a humane, democratically functioning socialist society that fosters equality, cooperation, solidarity and respect for universal ethical values.

Accompanying the loss of big dreams has been the loss of the historical role of students, as the most active part of country’s intelligentsia, in carrying big dreams to the people, organising and mobilising them for their realisation. Today this historical role of the intelligentsia as a whole has virtually disappeared. A future historian may well charge today’s intelligentsia with what Julien Benda has described as la trahison des clercs, that is, a betrayal of the Indian people.

AS a teacher when I sought to understand Indian society, a necessity for the realisation of any worthwhile dream, I discovered that there is a strong social pressure of the established dominant elites, the beneficiaries of the current organisation of society, to prevent a truthful understanding of their societies. The problem here was well stated by the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, way back in the 17th century. Pointing to the risky nature of the search for truth in the kind of societies we have, he had written:

I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man’s right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, that the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square, that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry, suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.

More recently, Barrows Dunham has made the same point. Referring to the ‘hierarchy of sciences’ in the learned world—with mathe-matics and physics at the top and psychology and sociology at the bottom—and the reasons conventionally cited for the general backward-ness and lack of prestige of the social sciences, he has written: ‘The real reason is that the physical sciences are fairly neutral politically, while the social sciences are full of dynamite.’ Barrows Dunham points out that ‘generally speaking, truth has been suffered to exist in the world just to the extent that it profited the rulers of society,’ adding, ‘There was a time— and not so very long ago—when these rulers could not afford the knowledge that the earth is round’. Again, arguing that the backwardness of social sciences derives ‘not so much from the intrinsic differences or the mere complexity of the subject matter, but from the strong social pressure of established ruling groups to prevent serious discussion of the foundations of society’, J.D. Bernal in his classic Science in History, has pointed out that it has always been ‘a very dangerous thing to look too closely into the working of one’s own society’.

It is indeed dangerous to be truthful about the way things are in ‘modern’ societies. Hence the apologetic character of most mainstream social science—‘a secular priesthood’ is how Chomsky once described its practitioners. Hence also the relevance of J.D. Bernal’s adjuration:

What social science needs is less use of elaborate techniques and more courage to tackle, rather than dodge, the central issues.

The issue of courage apart, it is obvious that the search for truth involves going beyond the syllabi or what is taught in the universities. Of course the universities with their syllabi do, in many ways, serve society. But as Hans Morgen-thau has pointed out, ‘serving society’ is not the same as ‘serving truth’.

Wise men advise us to be ‘practical’ and not indulge in things impossible, namely, dreaming big dreams and seeking their realisation. But the situation in our country demands nothing less, it indeed demands doing things considered ‘impossible’. One recalls the adjuration of the rebel students of Paris in their May-June uprising of 1968. They had said: ‘Be practical! Do the impossible!’ Four decades later, it may be added: ‘If we cannot do the impossible, we better prepare to face the unthinkable.’ Some of the ‘unthinkable’ is already happening around us.
I will conclude with a brief reference to one of my practices as a teacher in this regard. As the students acquired their degrees, to those who come close to me as a teacher, I would say: “Now that you have got your degree, it is time to begin reading.” I would refer them to authors and books in diverse fields of enquiry—economics, history, politics, philosophy, literature, science, etc.—for a relatively more truthful statement and analysis of things.

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