Bauman. Not for dummies

Jarosław Kuisz · 13 June 2017

Bauman claimed that chronic attributes of the “post-modern” lifestyle involve “a lack of coherence, of consistent activities, fragmentation and the temporary nature of the various spheres of activities individuals are engaged in.” And, outraging the conservative Right, he defined the four models of “post-modern” personality as: strollers, vagabonds, tourists and players. These proposals deviated as far as it was possible from schools of thought which perceive society in terms of “national heroes” or “national traitors”.

There are two Zygmunt Baumans.

The first was a young man, engaged in the Stalinist movement, an agent of the nefariously secretive Internal Security Corps who collaborated with Military Intelligence services. He was a soldier of the Polish People’s Army, and a communist. It is not clear today what it means when historians claim “he was involved in hunting down bandits” after the end of WWII. He was thrown out of the Polish army as early as 1953, though this whole episode casts a long shadow over his intellectual accomplishments. Conclusion? Reading sociological works written in Poland before 1968 and books written in the West* makes no sense. They are footnotes to unforgivable choices from communist times gone by, which should be condemned as keenly as fascism itself*.

The other Bauman is a world-famous sociologist (or philosopher, as some prefer to call him), who offered up interpretations of problems connected with the transition from the 20th to the 21st century to readers of what is now referred to as our “global village”. His powerful metaphors soothed neuroses. With an encyclopedic mastery of knowledge, at times carefree, always effective, Bauman danced across divergent fields of learning, studying things such as the impact technical progress was having on humanity, new economic inequalities or the puzzles associated with contemporary erotica and sexuality.

This “second Bauman” tended to be read by those who had little or no idea about his past. Even if they did have this knowledge, then judging by the topics covered in his publications, it is likely that this would have little effect. Based in Leeds, the professor wrote books covering the problems affecting our globalised “world 2.0”. The post-War decisions he had made as a 19 year old lad from Communist Poland were unlikely to attract much interest.

Long distance Bauman

Only one Bauman is truly interesting. The one who went such a long distance (92 years), his experience stretching between the Second Polish Republic, reconstructed following the partitions of Poland, all the way up to today’s iPhone generation. This wizened humanist from Central Europe managed to find a language with which to describe our contemporary world, a language which proved accessible to thousands of young readers in the West. After his death, it was Polish critics who seemed to get more perverse enjoyment in painting him in a range of “bad guy” colours. In order to understand how he had managed to journey away from communism to become one of the most important humanists of the late 20th century we must do more than simply “finally settle accounts” for his past activities.

If, for an example, we treat the development of Stalinism as the systematic destruction of the old social order, then we can suppose the idea of a liquid post-modernity* emerged from Bauman’s youthful experiences. Events such as the farming reforms of the Polish Committee for National Liberation helped overturn the ancient order of organising society.

Bauman, in quoting classical thinkers as well as young intellectuals, wrote about a world of cracking borders, collapsing ideologies, dissolving family ties and political parties – a whole range of ever more fluid interpersonal relations. These descriptions found a willing audience. We can try to speculate as to how much – along with his careful description of phenomena – his ability to recall his Eastern European experiences and converting them into theories helped cement his success. Attempts at removing the private ownership of property, the “feminism” of Stalin’s era (“women on tractors!”), the enforced migrations of large groups of people, or even the removal of previously existing elites, all led the historian Marcin Zaremba to comparing Poles to “runny porridge” – after WWII it is hard to use stable definitions such as “society” when describing this region. In a world shaken up by farming reforms, economic struggles and show trials it is impossible to find steady reference points. This is postmodernism avant le lettre.

It is therefore not odd that, after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the majority of Polish humanists tried to find some steady conceptual ground, along with epistemological certainties. Jerzy Szacki noticed that even liberals took on a challenge which in theory appeared to be a heresy – namely the establishment of state institutions. Following the Polish experiments with communism, everyone had had enough of toying with ideas of “liquidity”.

That was when Bauman made another decision to go “against the grain” and began to flirt with postmodernism – perhaps the only Western intellectual trend which had not caught on with an otherwise “copy cat” Polish humanistic community.

An intellectual of the Maastricht era

Was this a period when Bauman once again parted ways with the Polish way of seeing things? From the perspective of Leeds, this was of little importance. The output produced by this hard-working sociologist (he would rise at 3am each night), capable of wielding the universal jargon used by the global community of humanists, means Bauman, along with intellectuals such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, represents the spirit of the 1990s.

They were the European intellectuals of the Masstricht era. After the Berlin Wall was dismantled, in a world of collapsing inter-national borders and new common currencies, they warned against various dangers, though it is hard not to see their work as being tainted by a certain enthusiasm, so typical of the post-Cold War era.

Bauman claimed that chronic attributes of the “post-modern” lifestyle involve “a lack of coherence, of consistent activities, fragmentation and the temporary nature of the various spheres of activities individuals are engaged in.” And, outraging the conservative Right, he defined the four models of “post-modern” personality as: strollers, vagabonds, tourists and players. These proposals deviated as far as it was possible from schools of thought which perceive society in terms of “national heroes” or “national traitors”.

Not long before Brexit, Bauman described the ways in which people floundered in the modern world, questioning what they had become as a result of new pressures imposed on them by fast-paced globalisation. Here is an example of a typical Bauman exposition:

“The slow disintegration and shrinking of the role of neighbourhood at a time of revolution in the means of transport have led to the birth of the idea of identity understood as both a problem and a challenge. The peripheries have suddenly expanded, beginning to threaten the centres inhabited by people. And suddenly the question of identity arises, because there is no easy answer. The problem of introducing order into a the modern state being born can no longer be resolved with the help of stagnant and worn out “networks of friends”. And so the state can do nothing other than to take on this question and include it in works on the bases of new and hence unknown postulates about the legitimisation of identity” (Identity. Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi).

The author of the above quoted lines therefore came to represent the community of thinkers who saw the concept of national identity not as evolving in a natural fashion, but which was instead “somehow imposed Lebenswelt on contemporary humanity” and then elevated to the status of “fact”. The crises of belonging, of fictionalised identities – as he warned us – cannot be treated as trifles, because they are “painfully heartfelt”.

Bauman and the Polish question

Did the War, revolution, communism, revisionism and enforced exile lead to or even directly represent “liquid modernity”? Answering this question would demand further research. Those who posit an inherent connection between work and life experience cannot exclude this possibility. Opponents, on the other hand, focus on the figure of an “anti-Polish” Bauman, claiming he had been disloyal to his homeland. In spite of the fact that, though he was based in the UK, he devoted a large part of his life to dealing with issues affecting Poland.

As far back as 1968, having been exiled from communist Poland, he wrote in the influential emigre magazine Kultura Paryska that prime minster Gomułka’s notion that the Polish nation is spontaneously and universally anti-semitic, and that anti-Jewish policies would ensure Poland’s communist government would remain popular, turned out not to be true. “The anti-semitic aspect of post-March events in Poland is in no way the consequence of a spontaneous popular movement. It is the effect of premeditated and pre-organised provocation, for which its organisers should take full responsibility” he wrote. Sometime later, in 1973, clearly ridiculing* his Western peers for their “renewed attempts at trying to understand what was taking place in the socialist east”, from a distance he analysed the experience of workers in Poland and the conditions in which they came to once more protest against the ruling regime (“second generation Socialism”). Even in the second half of the 1970s, he once more attempted to consider the influence of Stalinism (“Stalin and the peasant revolution”). At the start of the following decade, he highlighted the exceptional character of the first incarnation of the Solidarity movement in his polemic with Włodzimierz Brus (Without precedent). Meanwhile, Bauman drew conclusions which are impossible to align with that which he would later write as a theoretician of liquid modernity, e.g.:

“The era of ‘Solidarity’ as a period during which national Polish identity came to be crystallised did not pass by without a trace. Its impact on Polish history will persist, regardless of what happens next” (Without precedent).

Bauman took part in debates which fired up his fellow Poles not only abroad, but also those still living within Polish borders. When, following the publication of an article by Jan Błoński in the cultural journal Tygodnik Powszechny, Poland was shaken by debates about Jewish-Polish relations, he wrote one of his finest essays, titled On Immoral Reason and Illogical Morality (1988).

This highly personal essay opened with recollections taken from his wife, Janina: “The most cruel aspect of cruelty is that human beings tend to strip their victims of their humanity before exterminating them”. On Immoral Reason and Illogical Morality is a text in which the author, even though he quotes the likes of Błoński, Władysław Bartoszewski, Władysław Siła-Nowicki, Kazimierz Dziewanowski and others, above all confesses to how he himself came to possess moral knowledge. This particular essay lacks the barrage of words or excessive erudition which often characterised Bauman’s writing. It is a simple story about how, years earlier, he failed to understand his own Grandfather, who had tried to teach the young Bauman some biblical knowledge. Much later on, the thinker admits that perhaps his Grandfather lacked the necessary teaching skills, or maybe the fault was with his own lack of “brains and the desire to try”. He remembers nothing of the family schooling, and yet:

“…one story impacted strongly on my consciousness and followed me around for many years. It was about an enlightened sage, who wandered about, leading a donkey loaded down with sacks filled with food and drinks. The wiseman chanced upon a roadside beggar, who asked him for something to eat. ‘Wait a moment,’ the sage said, ‘You’ll get something, let me just untie the sacks’. The sage hurried as best he could, but by the time he got the sack with the food open, the beggar had expired from lack of food. Seeing this, the despairing wiseman prayed to God: ‘Show me, Lord, where I have failed to look after my fellow man and did not have the chance to save him from death!’” (“On Immoral Reason and Illogical Morality ).

Only as an older man was Bauman capable of drawing the appropriate conclusions from the story:

“The shock and paralysis which I felt, having heard the story, seems to be the only thing left in my memory from Grandpa’s endless preaching. […] I couldn’t understand why the hero of this story was considered to be a learned and wise man. I took his conduct to be illogical (which was true) and therefore wrong (which was not true). Because of the Holocaust I have become convinced that the latter is not in any way always related to the former” (“On Immoral Reason and Illogical Morality ).

These Polish conflicts therefore lead to at least some of the ideas contained in his book Modernity and the Holocaust, which made Bauman a globally respected thinker (published in English in 1989). As he would go on to say, half joking, half serious, he only secured true success after his retirement.


In a controversial 2007 interview published by the Guardian, Bauman evidently failed to answer doubts about the past. In a superficial exchange of ideas, he did not clarify what he had been up to in the early years of communist Poland, even though he did admit that he accepted full responsibility for whatever actions he had taken. One could see this as some form of avoidance strategy, a collection of mistakes, the kind no one wants to publicly talk about years later.

The dispute over Bauman’s legacy seems unlikely to end anytime soon. And yet the intellectual disproportionality in the polemics produced in Poland and abroad are worthy of consideration. Bauman’s critics around the world accuse him of insufficient learning and faulty conclusions, while his Polish enemies seem interested only in digging up his historical files. In this way, an infantile, black and white vision of the world is being kept alive. Readers thus miss out on full knowledge about the complicated life stories of Polish intellectuals, as well as the chance to learn why some of them managed to make universally profound contributions to the pool of human knowledge, achieving successes far beyond Poland’s borders.