The Polish-born British sociologist and social theorist Zygmunt Bauman (1925–2017) was a widely read thinker on the subject of the nature of modern life. Experiencing life in both repressive and democratic countries during and after World War II, and greatly influenced by Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews and other minorities during the Holocaust, Bauman wrote extensively on the negative ramifications of 20th-century Western culture, expressing his concern regarding its reliance on large bureaucratic social structures.
Zygmunt Bauman's career is notable in that his important writings all appeared when he was a senior citizen, or nearly one: his Modernity and the Holocaust appeared in 1989 and put him on Europe's intellectual map with its controversial contention that the Holocaust was not purely a product of Nazi anti-Semitism but also resulted from ideas and social developments that Germany shared with many other advanced countries. Bauman's subsequent thinking engaged with life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, addressing such issues as economic inequality, the breakdown in traditional human communities, and society's tolerance of formerly taboo expressions of human sexuality. His notion of “liquid modernity” seemed to anticipate wider social developments, and in both Britain and continental Europe he was a provocative, stimulating, and widely quoted public intellectual.
After the Bauman family succeeded in reaching the Soviet Union, the teenaged Zygmunt joined an all-Polish unit of the Soviet Red Army. He earned the Military Cross of Valor from the reconstituted nation of Poland for his activities during World War II. While fighting for the Soviets, Bauman studied and became an adherent of Marxist ideas. Later returning to Poland, he remained in the military, rising to the rank of major. He began an academic career, teaching at the University of Warsaw and forming bonds with a group of other intellectuals who aimed to develop what they called a humanistic Marxism.
In 1948 Bauman married Janina Lewinson, who had survived the war in Warsaw's besieged Jewish ghetto. As she would later recall in Winter in the Morning, her 1985 memoir about her experiences there, Lewinson greatly influenced Bauman's thinking on the Holocaust. Bauman proposed marriage just nine days after meeting her, even though the two had different social backgrounds: Lewinson had been raised in an upper-class Jewish family and quipped in an interview with Bunting that the two were “Poles apart.” The pair went on to have three daughters, Anna (who became a sociology professor in Israel) and twin sisters Lydia (a painter) and Irena (an architect).
At first the Bauman family flourished, although Bauman was stripped of his army post after his father was reported to be making inquiries about immigrating to Israel. Janina worked as a film script editor, and both she and her husband believed that they were contributing to a new, communist Poland. Bauman also founded a journal, Sociological Studies, the first issue of which sold out in one day. His sociology textbook, written in Polish, quickly became a bestseller and greatly influenced younger scholars. Like many other Eastern European intellectuals witnessing the reign of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, however, Bauman and his wife became disenchanted with communism. Janina resigned her party membership, disillusioned by the increased police repression in Poland, while Zygmunt looked for an alternative in the ideas of the progressive Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci.
Bauman's problems came to a head in 1967, when Polish minister of internal affairs Mieczyslaw Moczar spearheaded an anti-Semitic purge in the country's universities. This effort, sparked by the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, resulted in a political crisis in March 1968 that forced many Jews from the country. Now in their late 40s, Professor Bauman and his wife traveled to Israel, home to their oldest daughter and her husband. He accepted a teaching post at the University of Tel Aviv, remaining there from 1968 to 1970. The Baumans were never comfortable in Israel, however, Janina telling Bunting that “It was a nationalistic country, and we had just run away from nationalism.” “We didn't want to go from being the victims of one nationalism to the perpetrators of another,” she added.
Fortunately, Bauman had begun to amass an international reputation by this time, and he received job offers from several foreign universities. Turning down one from the University of Canberra in Australia because it was too far from Europe, ultimately he settled at the University of Leeds in England, taking a post as professor of sociology. Despite offers from other schools on both sides of the Atlantic, he and Janina remained in Leeds for the rest of his life. They found solidarity among the large community of Polish expatriates living in Great Britain, and the move was good for Bauman's productivity. Having written 14 books in Polish before his exile, between 1972 and 1988 he produced ten new and influential works, among them Socialism: The Active Utopia (1976) and Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Post-Modernity, Intellectuals (1987). The latter book was his first to address the idea of modernity in its title.
While controversial, Bauman's 1989 work, Modernity and the Holocaust, did much to spread his ideas. Here he argued that the Holocaust perpetrated on the Jews by the Nazis could be regarded as a product of modernity, with its emphasis on technology and the bureaucratic regimentation of society, rather than as a specifically German aberration based in anti-Semitism. Critics charged that Bauman thereby absolved the German people of responsibility for their crimes. He responded to such criticism that, while he clearly assigned blame to Germany's Nazi ideology, aspects of that ideology, such as eugenics (the idea that people considered racially or otherwise superior should be encouraged to reproduce), were common to many modern countries besides Germany.
Bauman continued to explore the idea of modernity in subsequent books, including Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2006). In contrast to the “solid modernity” fueled by the technological progress and prosperity of Western society during the mid-20th century, he posited that the postmodern era was increasingly characterized by a “liquid modernity” (a term coined in his 2000 book of that title) in which loyalties, relationships, and other ties were ephemeral and unreliable. Individuals had more flexibility, easily moving, for instance, across national and cultural borders, and in consequence, the economic, religious, and communal systems of support that had defined the lives of previous generations were dissolving. Bauman also predicted the appeal authoritarian figures might have among such economically or spiritually dislocated individuals.
In both Britain and Europe, Bauman was one of the best-known intellectuals on the public scene in the early 21st century, publishing new books and attracting interviews well into his tenth decade of life. His reputation was not as widespread in the United States, where sociologically tended toward empirical, quantifiable methods; Bauman's writings were largely theoretical, and he wrote voluminously on a large variety of subjects. Nevertheless, many of Bauman's books found U.S. publishers, and his work drew students who designed experiments to test his ideas empirically. In 2010, the Bauman Institute was established at the University of Leeds, its mission to employ the insights expounded within Bauman's body of work.
Bauman continued to write in Polish and to visit Poland occasionally in his later years, but this ended after one of his public appearances was disrupted by right-wing demonstrators in the city of Wroclaw in 2013. He died on January 9, 2017, in Leeds. Completed manuscripts continued to be published after his death, among them 2017's Retrotopia. Including anthologies and books he coauthored, Bauman published a total of 79 books; a representative collection of his writings published in English can be found in The Bauman Reader (2000).
Guardian (London, England), April 5, 2003, Madeline Bunting, “Profile: Zygmunt Bauman,” p. 20.
New York Times, February 12, 2017, Neil Gross, “Social Science without Data,” p. 8.
Washington Post, January 9, 2017, Vanessa Gera, “Zygmunt Bauman, Sociologist Who Wrote Identity in the Modern World, Dies at 91.”
Bauman Institute, https://baumaninstitute.leeds.ac.uk/ (December 1, 2017).
El Pais, https://elpais.com/elpais/2016/01/19/inenglish/1453208692_424660.html (January 19, 2016), Ricardo de Querol, “Zygmunt Bauman: Social Media Are a Trap.”□