A Prophet of our Times

Professor Zygmunt Bauman is a remarkable man; a prophet no less, though he will be the first to deny it.

I must at first declare a bias. Professor Bauman’s seminal text “Modernity and the Holocaust” was compulsory reading when I studied under the next greatest living sociologist on our shores, Anthony Giddens, a decade ago. At the time Giddens had just published what was to become the academic treatise for New Labour, “The Third Way,” elucidating a centrist approach between the old left, and old right. Most important though, the sociological theory – which counted Bill Clinton and Gerald Schroeder, as well as our own Tony Blair as its acolytes – celebrated modernisation.

Professor Bauman has never received the same acclaim. For that, there is a reason. He is a modest man, who lets his writing do his talking. He is the sociologist’s sociologist, who has made it is his mission to ensure that the discipline is accessible to the layman – not just restricting his cutting edge theories to his fellow academics, like so many of his contemporaries.


Professor Zygmunt Bauman in his study at home in Leeds


Sociology in this country does not elicit the same interest as on the Continent, where Bauman is a familiar name in Germany, France and in his homeland Poland. Sociology is the study of society and human social interaction, and Bauman is today one of its greatest living proponents. How then, did this 82-year-old Polish Jew, who fought during the war for the Red Army, come to live in the quiet, unimposing house off the Otley Road in North Leeds?

Preparing to meet Professor Bauman, I felt as if I were back at University. His publisher, Polity Press – home to a stable of leading contemporary European thinkers: Adorno, Bourdieu, Derrida, Habermas, even Primo Levi – had sent me a review copy of his new book “Consuming Life” only three days beforehand, heightening the sense of cramming ahead of a supervision. I dusted down my notes and familiarised myself with his earlier work too.

To understand Bauman, I have always contested – and put the point to him – you must first understand his own story. However, he is notably reluctant to speak about his past, unsurprising considering his book can be read as a polemic against the commodification of a society increasingly confessional. One need only to read the latest posting on the blog of London Jewish call girl Belle de Jour (currently in production as an 8-part ITV serialisation) to appreciate the extent that in the words of Eugene Enriquez, as Bauman quotes, “Physical, social and psychical nudity is the order of the day.”

What we know about Bauman is that he was born into a secular Jewish family in Poznań, Poland in 1925. He says he was “brought up in the kitchen” by his mother, “a woman of great ambition, inventiveness and imagination” who like many at that time was confined to life as a housewife. His father was “a failed shopkeeper, then an unfulfilled accountant,” but was a hard worker who taught himself “several languages and was an avid reader of wide horizons. Above all, he was amazingly honest.”

Learning of the traits of his parents, it becomes easier to understand the values that Bauman evidently holds dear today. I add hospitality as well, as the cup of tea and the plentiful Polish chocolates awaiting my arrival attest. Settling down in the matching upholstered chairs in his study to conduct the interview, it was like been back in my tutor’s room. Books lined the walls, spilling over to rise up from the floor too. The extensive foliage both in the room, and the front garden that the study overlooks, reflects the man – abundant and vibrant, consideringly yet not too carefully cultivated.

The row of miniature urns atop one shelf reminded me of the former Hampstead home of another secular Jewish intellectual, in fact a namesake, Sigmund Freud, seemingly held in high regard adjudging by the fact that he is the most referenced thinker in “Consuming Life” (closely followed by three other assimilated Jews, all German: Marx, Simmel and Kracauer).

This is no accident. Alongside them Bauman is one of the last remnants of a lost civilisation, that of Central/Eastern European Jewry. Its disappearance, Bauman ranks alongside the Holocaust and the Creation of the State of Israel as the three seminal events of last century that will change the course of Jewish History forever.

On speaking about this lost civilisation, “never to be recovered, never to be found again,” Bauman is illuminated. He talks of the “unique philosophy, literature, tradition, way of life” integral to these Ostjuden “whether secular or religious, whose whole lives were saturated in Jewish meaning.” Besides everything else the Holocaust marked, it resulted in a revolution where for the first time there was no centre where Judaism was a hub of life.

As a sociologist, Bauman refuses to predict the future, only to analyse the present. The tremendous impact on Jewish life of this great vacuum he says remains to be seen. He recounts that many in the West prior to the Holocaust were anxious of this “spectre haunting them, threatening to spoil the success of their assimilation.”

Nowhere was this more the case, Bauman stresses, than in Britain where the Board of Deputies infamously advertised to try deter Jews in the East from travelling to these shores, to such an extent that many of the most vocal agitators for legislation restricting immigration (resulting in the 1905 Aliens Act) were in fact Jewish themselves.

It is understandable then that at the outbreak of the war, Bauman’s family escaped East, not West, fleeing to Russia where at the age of 18 he joined the Soviet-controlled Polish First Army. Bauman rose to the rank of Major after fighting in the Battle of Berlin. After the War, he returned home to Poland. This is not so strange as it first seems, as for one who knew no life other than Poland and who was far removed from the atrocities committed there during the Holocaust, it “was not an active decision to return, but a natural instinct; I had nowhere else.”

On his return, Bauman worked for the Corps for Domestic Security (KBW), for which he was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour in 1950. He was dishonourably discharged in 1953, after his father enquired into the possibility of making aliyah at the Israeli embassy in Warsaw. Bauman did not share his Zionist sympathies, and the incident led to estrangement between father and son. Though it would be an event that would determine the course of his life.

During the period of unemployment, Bauman completed his Masters degree and embarked on his academic career, becoming a lecturer at the University of Warsaw in 1954. There he remained until 1968, though he never was appointed a professor due to his criticism of the Communist regime.

Despite this, Bauman has always had a close connection to Warsaw University as it was there that he met his wife, Janina, in a lecture. Within nine days of meeting, he had proposed.

Though they are soon to celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary, she jokes that they are “Poles apart.” Whereas she grew up in a wealthy, cosmopolitan family, he grew up in relative poverty. Her experience during the war was greatly different too, as a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. However, amongst the many achievements they share in common is acclaim as writers. Janina’s memoirs, recently republished as “Beyond these Walls” by Virago Press, have just been translated into French – a fact that Bauman is evidently proud as he shows off to me the new edition.

I ask Bauman if he ever would consider writing a memoir himself. He recounts the story of Henri Bergman, who deciding against writing his own memoir was so against others writing his biography postmortem that he burnt all his private papers, including his laundry lists. Bauman “agree(s) with him completely” but lets on that he is working on a “confession” of sorts in which his “own private thoughts will be recycled.” Though only an approximation of self-analysis, the book already has the “far-fetched title of The Art of Life, a proper topic for an old man like myself.”

Though I refuse to believe him, he claims that this will be his final book. For the past twenty years he has written on average more than a book a year, all written in English (his third language, after Polish and Russian). Previous to Consuming Life, his trilogy on the liquid modern society – Liquid Life, Liquid Fear and Liquid Times – were all critically acclaimed.

The liquid theory is the foundation upon which he has built his conception of the impact that consumer culture, capitalism and the market has affected all, but most notably social, relationships that are increasingly transitory and exchangeable. A gross simplification of years of work – for which I beg pardon – but the essence being that even we ourselves have become commodities.

This explains to some degree the ‘confessional society’ in which we now live, where each one of us markets ourselves to bring ourselves to the attention of others – whether seeking a job or a partner. I try to argue that faith – particularly Judaism – offers a sacred shield against the all-pervasive absorption of the market into all aspects of our lives. But Bauman points out that even religion has learnt to sell itself – one needs look no further than the Saatchi Synagogue’s rebranding as the “cool shul” to appreciate that.

Arguably, such commodification can also account for the Jewish renaissance in Poland, particularly in Krakow, which is “not a renaissance of anything, but a praiseworthy tourist attraction, clearly a creation of contemporaries.” He likens it to one great museum, and as a purveyor of authentic Polish Jewish cuisine Bauman should know, “even the food there is ancient.” The only remnants capturing some of the original spirit are the cemeteries, evidently spaces he considers sacrosanct living round the corner from Lawnswood Cemetery where he has often sought sanctuary for reflection.

Bauman often returns to Poland on regular lecture tours, on which Janina accompanies him. They originally left the country out of compulsion, not choice, when Bauman was expelled from Warsaw University as part of the Communist antisemitic purge of Jewish academics in 1968. It was a painful experience, as they were forced to leave family and friends and renounce their Polish citizenship to be allowed to leave the country.

By then well established, Bauman accepted a post at Tel Aviv University in Israel, where their eldest daughter Anna (now a Mathematics Professor) had settled with her husband. Though Janina had originally wanted to make aliyah after the war, the relocation was difficult and they left after only three years when Bauman was offered the post of Head of Sociology at Leeds University. Though neither of the Baumans knew anything about the city, this time they made it home and have remained here ever since – despite many prestigious offers, from institutions ranging from Yale to Oxbridge.

The Baumans have two other daughters, twins, Lydia, an acclaimed artist in Lincoln, and Irena, an award-winning architect in Leeds. On discussing the seeds of a Jewish renaissance in Chapel Allerton in Leeds, Bauman proudly tells me that Irena has “just finished building her own practice and home there.”

He is particularly reluctant to prophesise on the future, though he does not foresee an end to modernity and its obsessive, compulsive drive to continue to modernise anything and everything. “Modern society without modernising” Bauman says “is like the wind without blowing, a river that does not flow.” He laughs at Francis Fukuyama who predicted “the end of history” as that will only come with the end of humanity.

It is for this reason that he remains today a committed socialist, believing that society is only as strong as its weakest members. Though still attracted to the Communist dream, he is no longer a party member – its dream is too closely connected to its lie, the pursuit of power. Though disillusioned with the practice, he still owes a lot to its founding father Karl Marx with whom he shares the same motivating force that “social science must serve a useful task, to make society a better place.”

Bauman may deny that he is a prophet in the biblical sense. But I believe that prophesy serves to warn us of the dangers we face in the present, and to teach us to learn from the lessons of the past. By doing so, we are in a better position to predict the future we face.

Together we share a responsibility to not only listen to Professor Bauman, but to act on his teaching, for as Bauman quotes “in Walter Benjamin’s words, echoing the vocabulary of the ancient Hebrew prophets: ‘every second is the small gateway in time through which the Messiah may come.’”

As the interview concluded I did what every loyal student would, and asked for my book to be signed. Any worries that the supervision had been a waste of his time were answered when my book was returned: “To David, with gratitude for your searching, thought-provoking questions. Zygmunt.”

First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, Summer 2007 Issue.

For more information on Jewish Renaissance, please visit: www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk

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