Archive for the ‘Society’ Category
David Russell talks to newly created peer Maurice Glasman about the ‘Blue Labour’ ideas he derived from Jewish tradition
Maurice Glasman, now Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, intrigued me from our first meetings. These were in 2006. We had both been invited to the Faith and Citizenship Training programme at the St. Ethelburga’s Peace and Reconciliation Centre in the City of London, I as a member of the local Jewish community, along with local Muslim and Christian leaders; Maurice to lead a series of sessions on community organising – identifying and acting together with others to pursue mutual self-interest.
Erudite and enthused, Maurice Glasman would roll up cigarettes from the tobacco pouch which would emerge regularly from the side pocket of his corduroy jacket. During the breaks, we would talk about the history of the Jewish community of the East End, as I was then based in Bethnal Green and Maurice was living in Stoke Newington and working in Aldgate.
Campaigns that we worked on together with TELCO (The East London Communities Organisation) focused on calling for a cap on exploitative interest rates amongst financial lenders (as laws on usury exist in all three Abrahamic faiths) as well as agitating for a living wage, the minimum income that is required by a worker to meet their basic needs – also a value that is shared across all three faiths.
This extracurricular practice blended seamlessly with Maurice’s academic interests at the time, as Director of the Faith and Citizenship Programme at the London Metropolitan University (LMU) and Senior Lecturer in Political Theory. As an acolyte and international authority on Karl Polanyi, the Jewish Hungarian-Canadian political economist who authored The Great Transformation, which documents the evolution of today’s market society and the incumbent dangers of capitalism, Maurice has always propounded a leftfield view on the politics of the day.
The perspectives that he advocated then never made front page news – and he didn’t expect they would ever do so: “I have never had any ambition. I have never had a conventional career path. I have always done what I felt was right at the time.” His elevation to the House of Lords in 2010 came as a complete shock.
Born in 1961 In Walthamstow, and brought up in Palmers Green, Maurice Glasman won an exhibition to study Modern History at Cambridge, and after several years as a jazz trumpeter, moved to Florence where he wrote his PhD on Polanyi and then became a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s European centre in Bologna. On his father’s death in 1995 he returned to the UK, where he took up teaching at LMU.
He became involved in community organising through a friendship with the Chaplain at LMU, William Taylor, reinforced by his involvement in the Labour Party, of which he is a lifelong member. It was through this work that he began to develop his theory on how faith and citizenship can check the free market.
“You need a wall of moral traditions, such that you can find in faith and citizenship, to resist the domination of the market. If we are to not live in a world of walled rich people, we must have a democratic commons of association.”
It is this concern with association, with power, with resistance to the market, which led him from Polanyi to organising, to Labour strategist. “Labour has become very statist, very policy-based, quite technocratic and elitist in lots of ways. The idea of giving power to people to make their own mistakes, to build their own lives together, is being a bit awkward but resonates”. What he means, is that politicians today are more averse to mass democracy than ever before, including Labour, which was traditional the party of the people.
It is this position, which has led Maurice to conclude “that Labour can be a transformative party but it has to redistribute power and not be exclusively concerned with the redistribution of wealth.”
It was the provocation of Phillip Blond’s ‘Red Tory’, a call to the Conservative Party to reclaim its community values, which sparked Maurice into developing a counter-manifesto that called on the Labour Party to rediscover and re-engage with its core values of “reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity”, some of which had been hijacked by the Conservative Party – most notably in its conception of the Big Society.
It was this manifesto that brought Maurice’s thinking to the attention of the newly elected Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Miliband saw this political philosophy, which Maurice coined as ‘Blue Labour’, as no less than a foundation upon which to rebuild the Labour Party. It was for this reason that he was elevated to the House of Lords.
Maurice has left his fellow Lords in no doubt about his Jewishness, a trait that is unusual amongst the Jewish peers. Yet one aspect that Maurice did not publicise until he talked at the South London Day Limmud this May is the inspiration he has found in Jewish thinking. He cites the concept of Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, of Torah im derech ertz, which emphasises the importance of worldly involvement to realise the values of Torah.
Also key to his ideas is the philosophy of the Bund (Secular Jewish Socialist Party) in pre-war Russia and Eastern Europe. “The Bund was concerned with the beautiful things that we do together – music, literature, art – and fostered solidarity with the poor of the world. Hirsch represents the conservative side and community, such as the honouring of parents and children and a moral concern to build genuine relationships, as Jeremiah teaches: ‘seek the peace of the city for in its peace shall you have peace’.”
“Blue Labour is equally Hirsch and the Bund. The Bund adds a focus on building relationships with others, building a common life with strangers, and of creative exploration.”
Out of this evolves the foundational campaigns of community organisers, as well as Blue Labour.
“The Living Wage is core to the menschlichikeit (integrity) that unites Samson Raphael Hirsch with the Bundists; that you should pay people enough for them to live. It used to be called a Family Wage, which was a core demand of the Jewish trade unions in the East End.”
“Just because Jews are on the whole no longer poor – in that we are no longer cleaners, cooks, dustmen – and that we have found our way up the housing ladder, does not mean we no longer have interests in people being paid properly or in the good of the city.”
It is this conviction that has driven Maurice to work to engage Jewish institutions in community organising in the UK, to play a more active role in working alongside Christians and Muslims in developing broad-based campaigns for a living wage and affordable housing.
It is clear that Saul Alinsky, the Jewish academic cum activist who developed the practices of community organising in 1930s Chicago, is very much an inspiration for Maurice too. “I realised that many of the great community organisers were Jewish, but Jews were not organised. But what I see all the time is that there is a deep longing in Jews for a good meaningful life and for a better life, which will be never-ending and will never end.”
It is this that he believes the Jewish community, particularly in the UK, has managed to get so right over the years. “Society as the association, as the kehilla (congregation), needs leaders and leadership and practices, such as the minyan (quorum of men at synagogue). This is the meaningful conception of the community – self-organised institutions. And the impulse to lead a good life and to lead others in that good life that is a very distinctive Jewish trait that I do not think is going to go away.”
This love of self-organised institutions, as vehicles for association, has been fostered since his childhood.
“I was brought up in the bowels of the Jewish community. I grew up in Palmers Green. I attended Clapton Jewish Day School (now Simon Marks) and JFS (Jews’ Free School). I was involved in the Jewish scouts, a Jewish Jazz Big Band. My family comes from a tradition of Orthodoxy and Labour, which once was a lot more common. My father was a Labour Zionist. And there were three institutions when growing up, that every Jew I knew supported: the United Synagogue, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and the Labour Party.”
It is a renewal of such institutions that he wants to see in the Jewish community today. This, he believes, will renew the Jewish tradition of genuine civic engagement.
“The concept of the kehilla (congregation) is very dear to me. Jews should make the effort to go to shul on Shabbos; make the effort to meet other Jews and to talk to them, and to do things with Jews that Jews do together, which is politics, make music, make friends, and argue all the time – and to keep Jewish life strong. It will flow from that. The stronger our Jewish institutions and practices, the stronger our civic engagement will be.”
Maurice leads by example, attending regularly different minyanim, including the new Stoke Newington Masorti Synagogue that he helped establish, as well as being actively involved locally, particularly in Jewish education – as Vice-Chair of the Governors of Simon Marks Jewish Primary School, which all four of his children have attended.
“Pirke Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers) calls on us to make ourselves a teacher; which I always understood to have three meanings: to be a teacher; to find yourself a teacher; and, to build educational systems and be a teaching people. In that Jews have always excelled. And for that I love the Jewish educational system, not only because of the care of the child but because of the love of learning, and we must value Jewish schools as real treasure troves of that tradition.”
What then is he teaching his children?
“To be menschlich, which means being nice to your mum. Be as horrible as you like to me, but be nice to your mum. I share that as a general maxim of life. And just do the thing that feels right. Be with the person that you love. And, don’t get bullied, and don’t get defeated, as life is surprising.”
It was as much a surprise to receive the call informing him of his nomination to the Lords, as it was when an interview that he gave a few months later to the Fabian Society magazine became front page national news. In the interview, Maurice noted that the Labour Party should seek to engage with disaffected communities such as those that were voting for the English Defence League (EDL).
“Unfortunately, the comments were misconstrued. I was saying that we needed to speak to the supporters of the EDL, not, as some people made out, that we should speak to the EDL itself. The idea that we should speak to upset, angry and dispossessed people, to try build a better life together, must be addressed and historically the Labour movement has been the vehicle to do this. It is a broad-based approach. Where there are mass outpourings of discontent, you have two choices, either you demonise them or you break them.”
“My view is the latter, in that we have to create divisions within the EDL.” By creating divisions between the leadership and membership of EDL, the hope is that it will be possible to bring back into the traditional Labour fold the predominantly working classes that have become disillusioned and excluded from mainstream politics leading them to the radical fringe.
It is this call for engagement with the radical fringe, which has led Maurice into trouble not only with the Labour leadership, but also the Jewish establishment too. In the same manner, the Jewish Chronicle has criticised him and London Citizens for engaging with Muslim communities that also have a radical fringe.
“The people I call the liberal elite have a big difficulty in engaging in democratic politics. We have to find a way to engage poor people, which is both locals and immigrants, in a democratic discussion in which they can speak. But a bit like the Jewish Chronicle on the State of Israel, they want everybody to sign up to a politically correct ideological position before they can say anything.”
But ultimately, it is this building of relationships, bridge building, which is at the heart of his politics.
“I love my country and I want to build and broker a politics of the common good, which can bring together immigrants and locals, working class and middle class, north and south, faith and secular, a common good which upholds the dignity of the human being and the power of association against the overwhelmingly powerful markets. I love that, and that is my politics. And what is amazing is that I am in a position to fashion such a thing.
So what has he learnt then over this whirlwind couple of years. “That it is impossible to engage in serious politics without being misunderstood. The misunderstanding is an important part of politics. And, you shouldn’t let your position get ahead of your relationships. Relationships precede action, so I take a great deal of time just meeting people, talking to them.”
This is the advice that he is giving to his four children, who are beginning to follow their father’s lead by being politically active, his son considering his father’s politics to be “bourgeois outrage”. However, they are drifting into internet activism, of which he continues to be sceptical. “I am like the grumpy old dad telling them to go out and to meet some people.”
What other advice does he give to them?
“Before you get angry, have a conversation with the person. Meeting people, doing things together, is the best thing in the world and is transformative. Foster a love of England, a love of Yiddishkeit, and a love of the Labour movement. If I could do that, I will be happy.”
About his time in the House of Lords, he notes that “out of 700 or so lords, about 120 are Jews. A third of High Court judges are Jews. This is the golden age of Anglo-Jewry and sometimes we should take pause and recognise that the country is completely open to us and what we do – which is get into trouble, be busy, have arguments, do our jobs properly, and to be a blessing to the country.”
There is still much work ahead for Baron Glasman in doing his new job properly, as he advises the Labour Party on its strategy for victory in the next general election, likely in 2015, “which is not a straightforward task”. And if Labour is to win, then it will need to secure the support of the Jewish community the ‘bellweather’ for the country.
“Jews are very independently-minded people and if Labour represents liberty and compassion, Labour will get the support of the Jewish community, but if we represent State spending and an administrative view of politics we won’t. Labour has not yet articulated any vision that can generate any enthusiasm, which is what we need to do. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
As we part ways, Maurice comments finally: “I never expected to be in this position. I never planned to be in this position. But I trust the story.” How that story will unfold, and how he will be a blessing to the country he loves, only time will tell.
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2012 Issue.
For more information on Jewish Renaissance, please visit: www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk
In 1999, Habonim celebrated its 80th Anniversary. What lasting impact has the youth movement had on its graduates?
Growing up in Leeds during the Thatcher years, each Sunday I would head to the Habonim ken (meeting place) to participate in some activity on Judaism, Socialism, Zionism – one of the three pillars of Habonim’s philosophy. Each winter and summer I would head off to camp under the guardianship of the madrichim, leaders, not much older than myself. Not being allowed my own money, contributing according to my means to the kitty and living on kibbutz in Israel (a year of preparation) between school and university, I learned about and lived socialism.
Habonim (the builders) was founded in the East End by Wellesly Aron in 1929 and merged with the East European youth movement, Dror (of which many Warsaw ghetto fighters had been members) in 1982. Sacha Baron-Cohen, Mike Leigh and Baroness Deech have all credited their experience in the movement as a seminal influence in their lives.
As a boger (graduate) myself, I too found that the values learnt, friendships made and skills acquired during my time in Habonim, have influenced me greatly.
The impact of Habonim is not restricted to the UK. In the US, President Obama’s new ‘car czar’ (senior counsellor on manufacturing policy), Ron Bloom, says Habonim infused him with values that influenced the way he views public service. “We sang the songs, but it wasn’t about that. It was a broader sense of identifying with the underdog, and of observing the world through a lens, through people who don’t have as much and aren’t as lucky.”
Seth Rogen, the writer and star of recent comedy blockbusters Superbad and Knocked Up, is a recent graduate of Habonim Canada. And closer to home, there is David Baddiel, for whom: “Habonim was my social life for my early teenage years”.
The most famous recent graduate of Habonim, continuing to take Hollywood by storm with his blockbusters Borat and Bruno, is Sacha Baron-Cohen. Speaking on his experience in the movement, he notes, “There’s something about Habo that makes you feel slightly rebellious and as though you are challenging society a bit. Without sounding pretentious, I suppose I get a buzz out of the kind of comedy I do, which is taking the piss out of really important people. I think that comes from the ideology of ‘let’s not join the mainstream’, which was what Habonim was all about.”
And of course there is Mike Leigh. Those who saw Two Thousand Years, his production at the National Theatre, will recall that most of the characters had grown up in Habonim. The most perceptive will have noted the sofa, placed stage centre, matched exactly the blue of the Habonim chultzah (shirt).
Mike Leigh discussed the influence of Habonim on the style of his work in the JC a few years back. “The way I conduct things – people get together and we talk very openly and have discussions, and everybody’s equal – absolutely comes from being in the movement. It’s the spirit of how I work and the atmosphere of my rehearsals. Everyone has input, it’s a real democracy.”
Does Habonim wield as great an influence on the lives of its members today? Sam Green, the current general secretary, believes so. “We continue to encourage our chanichim (members) to find meaning in their connection to Israel, their Judaism and to the rest of the world. Our machanot are run in the traditional ‘Habo’ way, in an open, inclusive, creative and free-thinking environment. Our bogrim leave the movement actively contributing to the communities they find themselves in and with strong belief in the values of justice and equality.”
As I consider the jobs that my own year group have chosen – doctors, teachers, civil servants, charity professionals – I find myself nodding my head.
Eighty years on from its establishment, I will continue to argue that Habonim is still the movement that moves, moving those lucky enough to be in the movement.
an age of innocence when Israel was the hero of the world
Habonim was a Jewish lifeline for me. I was an only child, growing up in Clapham, south of the river and, as my mother said, we were an oasis of Jewish life in the desert of South London. It was a traditional, very Zionist, but not at all orthodoxly observant family. My father was a refugee from Austria and worked for the World Jewish Congress and in journalism. To compound matters, I went to a non-Jewish boarding school. I longed to meet like-minded young Zionists and so, in my teens, in the school holidays, I made the trip by tube from Clapham North to Finchley, and then another 20 minutes walk up the Finchley Road and there they all were. Exactly as in my imagination: blue shirted, Hebrew-speaking, hora-dancing, poised for aliyah.
It was absolutely wonderful, not only because it nurtured my belief in Israel, but also because it was an age of innocence – the 1950s, when Israel was the hero of the world, the unblemished flag-bearer for all that was decent and innovative, and we were so proud to be a little part of it. That love and admiration for Israel has never left me and I was delighted that my daughter, in her turn, was able to go to Habonim in our small community of Oxford and make friends from all over the country.
Finchley Road was also the site of my first cigarette and my first kiss, but that is another story!
Baroness Ruth Deech
Academic, Lawyer and Bioethicist
a ludicrous degree of responsibility
Plenty of people speak about school or university as their formative years, the time when they made their friends for life. For me that was Habonim. I was involved for ten straight years, from age 12, as a chanich in the always small and struggling Edgware ken, right through until I was a second-year student at university. I avoid saying they were the happiest years of my life — who knows what lies ahead? — but they were, in many ways, the easiest, the most free and the most fun.
Central was the laughter: I remember so many times — whether huddled in a tent during summer camp or washing saucepans in a huge, industrial kitchen in winter — being consumed by the most sustained, joyful laughter. Next, and we shouldn’t deny it, came the hormones. For a boy at an all-boys school, a night around the campfire with so many girls was nothing less than the garden of Eden.
And we can’t forget the politics: long arguments, raging deep into the night. I am sure some of my deepest convictions were formed then, shaped by so many of the charismatic, talented people who were our madrichim, our leaders. It was, in a way, the perfect education. It gave you a ludicrous degree of responsibility at an absurdly young age. I was 21 when I was ‘in loco parentis’ of 101 teenage children on a two-week trip to Holland. After that, you felt you could do anything. I think it’s no coincidence that so many Habo folk have gone on to do great things. What Habonim offered was the joy that is being young, distilled into an especially intense form. I am not lying when I say that I dream of it still.
Guardian Policy Editor and award-winning novelist
an incredible sense of humour
Habonim had a huge influence on me. I first became involved when I was about 10, but I always felt slightly alienated from all the Southern Olim as I was in Oxford, so soon left. But at the time of my barmitzvah, I was having a bit of a crisis and I didn’t know what to do. It was then that I heard Habonim were organising a group visit to see Under Milk Wood at the cinema. It was an AA film, and you had to be over 15 to see it, so I wouldn’t have been able to go along myself. But as part of a group I would be allowed entry. A sad motivation for coming back, I know, but what kept me returning was a wonderful madrich, Steve Israel, a student at Oxford University, who led the ken on Sundays. He gave me a direction that I was missing, particularly as regards my perspective on Israel. Though my parents were Zionists, my father taught Modern Hebrew Literature at the University and he gave me a different view.
Besides Israel, it was the incredible sense of humour that I loved about the movement. I became the guy that always did the sketches. There was a muscle there that I was able to exercise. Everyone would always ask, “Dan would you do something”. And I would just do it. You develop this confidence, standing up in front of people, and trying stuff out. It was a remarkable free education.
Who knows whether I might have ended up where I am today without it.
I actually began feeling sorry for my friends who were not Jewish. I was leading this weird double life where I would commute to London and be with wonderful people, and of course girls!
Creator, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Mock the Week
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2009 Issue.
For more information on Jewish Renaissance, please visit: www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk
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.
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.
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