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The Extraordinary Life of Zygmunt Bauman

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman is known for his academic work, but he also played an active role in some of the major events of 20th century Europe – and retained a deep commitment to his socialist politics.

Zygmunt Bauman passed away in 2017, aged 92. He was a world-renowned sociologist – a celebrity academic who wrote over 50 books and taught at the University of Leeds during the final decades of his long and eventful life. He made his name as a figure of international significance after the publication of his seminal 1989 work, Modernity and the Holocaust.

The book decisively challenged the mystification of the Holocaust as a unique and unintelligible evil. Bauman showed how the political, economic, and technological forces of modernity created within themselves a set of logics and possibilities that led, quite predictably, to a terrible climax in the Shoah.

His 1999 work Liquid Modernity is now one of the defining analyses of neoliberalism. The book shows how privatisation of public goods, advances in information technology, and the entrenchment of postmodern ideology have come to define the experience of late capitalism.

Bauman’s reputation as a scholar is underwritten by his active participation in the events he theorised. Like the world-famous historian Eric Hobsbawm, Bauman was a protagonist as well as a chronicler of his times, and his personal experiences and commitments gave his work a visceral, demanding aspect.

In a recent book on Bauman’s life, biographer Izabela Wagner makes rich use of his published works, private papers, and personal interviews to construct a portrait of an extraordinary life. Apart from being a gripping read, the book’s great achievement is the demand it makes of the reader to reappraise many of the twentieth century’s established historical and political narratives.

The Old Poland

Bauman was born in 1925 in Poznań, Western Poland, to a lower middle class Jewish family. Poland was a young state, created out of the wreckage of the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian Empires. It was a multi-ethnic state, with Jews forming the largest minority at approximately 30 percent of the population.

Despite this, many Poles were inflamed by a powerful ethnically defined nationalism, and Poznań was a heartland of Endecja, an especially chauvinistic, right-wing nationalist movement. Long before the 1939 Nazi invasion, Jews were ghettoised and faced strict legal limitations on what education they could access and what professions they could take up.

Some of Bauman’s earliest memories are of the indignity and violence of everyday life as a Polish Jew. He recalls his father coming home drenched, pulled from the River Warta after attempting suicide during a boycott of Jewish shops; he himself was kicked, chased, and beaten by the kids at school and made to stand at the back of the classroom while teachers accepted this treatment with tacit approval; his grades were reduced because a Jew could not possibly be allowed to graduate top of the class.

His first taste of comradeship came when he joined Poznań’s clandestine branch of the left-Zionist youth organisation Hashomer Hatzair. Their secret meetings not only provided him with his first taste of being treated as one of a group of equals, but also helped form the acute political awareness which would not only lead him to great things, but on occasion, save his life.

Fleeing East

In 1939, when war came to Poland, many Poles were complacent. With the assurance of British and French military support, the great Polish nation would fight off the German invader without difficulty. As tanks rolled into Poznań, the young Zygmunt and his quick-witted mother Zofia compelled his father to flee the city immediately, catching the last train out of town before German bombers destroyed the railway station.

The Baumans fled Eastwards, to the new border created by the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. They were among the very last groups of refugees to make it over the border. Even as they crossed the line, the regular German units were being replaced by those specially tasked with beginning the process of the systematic extermination of Poland’s Jews.

Bauman continued his schooling in the Soviet-occupied zone of Eastern Poland, later Belarus. He describes those short years as some of the happiest in his life, as he was finally able to absorb himself in his education without discrimination. His mother and father were both able to find work without restriction: his mother as a garrison cook and his father as a bookkeeper.

Bauman, keen to continue his political development as well as his education, enrolled in the local branch of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, better known as the Komsomol. Putting his early Zionist commitments behind him, Bauman’s experience of genuine equality and opportunity among the ranks of the communists created in him a firm commitment to universal emancipation as a genuine and deeply held principle.

When the Germans crossed the frontier and once more brought the war to his family’s doorstep, their lives were again saved by Bauman’s sharp political instincts and Zofia’s quick thinking. They departed on a Soviet army train bound for the Russian far East, just 24 hours before Nazi forces overran the town, massacring the entire civilian population as they went.

A New Poland

Bauman completed his education on a collective farm, or kolkhoz (in interview, Bauman recollects it as a Kibbutz, before correcting himself), deep in the Russian interior. At 18 he joined up to fight and was sent into combat as part of the new Polish National Army being created under the supervision of the Soviet Red Army.

These units, formed by Polish refugees in the Soviet Union, many of them Jews, were tasked with spearheading the liberation of that country. He was on the front line as the Red Army breached the fortified ‘Pomeranian Wall’; he was in the force that liberated the Majdanek extermination camp near Lublin; and he was involved in the fighting that liberated Warsaw. Bauman arrived home in Poland a decorated war hero and trusted political officer. But he returned to a brutal, ugly peace.

The nationalist faction of the anti-German resistance, affiliated to the Polish government-in-exile in London, refused to disarm or accept the legitimacy of the provisional government formed by the Poles in exile in the USSR. The insurgents fled to the woods and returned to the underground, attempting to an instigate insurrectionary war against the new communist regime. This underground army resorted to extreme tactics, including blackmail, collective punishment, and murder to dissuade local populations from collaboration with the new government.

Although many of these insurgents were to some degree honest Polish patriots, the old ideology of the Endecja was a powerful current among them, and many were fighting for an ethnically pure, as well as non-communist Poland. Bauman therefore remained in uniform, offering his services to the military police, and tasked with rooting out the insurgency. Bauman would later be reviled by the post-communist Polish establishment as a ‘communist criminal’, but at the time, he saw it as his duty clearly. From a pragmatic perspective, it was also one of the few occupations in which a Jewish communist like himself could enjoy the protection of the still precariously established state.

Into the Academy

Being a highly respected, competent, and idealistic officer, Bauman rose rapidly through the ranks of the military and, while still in uniform, he applied to study part-time for his bachelor’s degree. Wagner’s biography, however, reveals that Major Bauman’s superiors in the secret police were keen to encourage his interest in academia out of concern for his father’s increasingly open Zionist commitments and, by implication, Bauman’s own Jewishness. It was while at his studies that he met his soon-to-be wife, Janina, a film critic and Holocaust survivor, whose experiences would later become important influences on Bauman’s own theoretical work.

When, in 1952, it was discovered that his father had been secretly making preparations for emigration at the Israeli embassy, Bauman was discharged from the army – although his anger was directed against his father’s ‘betrayal’ rather than the new Polish state’s residual antisemitism. All his life, Bauman continuously endeavoured to educate himself, but ultimately it was in these ignoble circumstances that he was pushed into an academic life.

At this point, the narrative pace of Wagner’s biography makes an abrupt shift of gear. Grand historical events fade into the background, and the book pays closer attention to Bauman’s rapid rise through the academy. His prolific and fastidious research work, including his doctoral thesis on the sociology of the British Labour Party, earned him widespread respect. Following the 1956 ‘Polish October’ and subsequent loosening of the Stalinist screws, Bauman established himself as a critical voice and an important figure of the emerging revisionist camp with the Polish United Workers Party.

In late 1957, he was invited to spend a year as a visiting scholar at the London School of Economics, where he struck up a lasting friendship with British Marxist theoretician Ralph Miliband. These new liberal currents in Polish intellectual life give a tantalising hint of the creative potential latent in the state socialist system. In the field of economics, Oskar Lange was producing groundbreaking work on much-needed reforms to socialist central planning, while Bauman was able to use sociological research to warn of the increasingly opportunistic, apolitical outlook of the communist party membership. Regrettably, these critical voices were seldom heeded – and it was not long before the screws once again began to tighten.

The Reactionary ’68

By 1968, the Polish premier Władysław Gomułka was losing his grip. Golmułka had come to power in 1956 on the promise of economic reform and partial liberalisation of Polish political life, but as the economic recovery began to reverse itself in the mid-1960s, Gomułka increasingly turned to the most conservative elements of the security establishment to bolster up his position.

Insidiously, Bauman and other critical intellectuals within the communist party establishment itself began to be framed as internal enemies and, soon enough, explicitly as Jewish outsiders. The 1967 war between Israel and Egypt provided a pretext: Bauman, a former Red Army solider and lifelong communist was now officially labelled a ‘Zionist’ and enemy of the state. In 1968, this official antisemitism broke out into the open, and Zygmunt and Janina both handed in their party membership cards.

This was, on the one hand, an act of extreme courage, as without party membership many of the privileges they were able to enjoy would evaporate. On the other hand, it was a simple, dignified act of recognition that the establishment they had helped to construct had rejected them.

That year, Bauman, along with his family, emigrated to Israel. In doing so, he was forced to give up the Polish citizenship by people who, frankly, had less right to it than he. However, his stay was short lived. Just two years later he emigrated to England, which, after a life of tumultuous movement, he would make his permanent home.

An Extraordinary Life, An Extraordinary Thinker

The astonishing thing about Zygmunt Bauman is that, despite his constant battle against repression and racism, he was never defeated. Unlike other Eastern European intellectuals, many of whom turned to nationalism, neoliberalism, and religious conservatism in their rejection of communism, Bauman never turned away from the fundamentals of his socialist belief.

During his long life after leaving the Polish People’s Republic he once again established himself as a world-class thinker from his new post at the University of Leeds, producing some of his best and most influential work. However, as Wagner’s wonderful biography shows, it is in Bauman as a human being, as much as a theorist, that we can look find inspiration.

If there is anything of value to be recovered from wreckage of Eastern Europe’s communist experiment, it is the world of economic and racial justice that Bauman and others like him devoted their lives to try and realise. In taking the neoliberal road out of socialism, the nationalist governments of Eastern Europe today have thrown out the egalitarian baby and kept the authoritarian bathwater. Socialists should reach back and grasp up the torch which Zygmunt Bauman’s life and work hold out for future generations to carry on after him.