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Life is long.

Sheila Fitzpatrick reviews a biography by Izabela Wagner of Zygmunt Bauman, a sociologist I’ve never heard of. But he had an eventful life:

Zygmunt Bauman was born in 1925 in Poznań, the centre of a province that had been under Prussian/German rule for more than a century before becoming part of the new Polish state after the First World War. His was a Jewish family that lived in a non-Jewish section of the city and spoke Polish at home. . . .

This world was overturned by the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. The Baumans fled east and ended up in a small Belarusian town under Soviet occupation . . . Bauman quickly taught himself Russian and moved to the newly opened Russian gymnasium. He was popular at school and academically successful . . . The idyll ended when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and the Baumans were forced further east, ending up in a provincial town in the Volga region, where Bauman finished high school with a gold medal . . . ‘Not all inhuman conditions dehumanise. Some disclose humanity in man,’ Bauman later wrote of the seasoned workers in the railway depot where he spent some months of back-breaking work between school and university. . . . It also required military service of young male refugees, but that was no problem for Bauman, who by his 18th birthday in November 1943 was itching to join up. . . . He was soon promoted to NCO and made a political officer, responsible for political education and morale. With this Soviet Polish Army he fought his way to Berlin in May 1945. . . .

At the end of the war Bauman was kept on as a political officer in the KBW, first in the provinces and then, from June 1947, as deputy head of the KBW’s propaganda section in Warsaw. While carrying out his work he was able to enrol as a sociology student at the Academy of Political Science . . . As a party member in a responsible army position, Bauman lived comparatively well, sharing a flat with his family in a leafy area of central Warsaw. (The flat, Wagner notes, had two rooms, kitchen and bathroom – what East European biographer could fail to give this vital information?) . . .

In January 1953 Bauman was dismissed from the army as part of an anti-Jewish purge. He also quarrelled with his parents – who had been living with Zygmunt, Janina and their daughter – and lost his flat. . . . Bauman​ was to have 15 lively years in Warsaw academia before the next major upheaval, but life in Poland was never quiet. He defended his PhD thesis, on the British Labour Party, in 1956 – the year of Khrushchev’s indictment of Stalin in the so-called Secret Speech, which was anything but secret as far as the Polish Communist Party was concerned. . . . Unusually in the communist world, the Warsaw sociologists developed extensive international connections. C. Wright Mills of Columbia University befriended them, lectured in Warsaw and had his works translated into Polish. . . .

But critical thinking among faculty and stirrings of political protest among students in Warsaw were increasingly irritating the party, as the faction led by Mieczysław Moczar of the Interior Ministry played the antisemitic card in its fight with the faction of Władysław Gomułka, party leader since 1956. No thaw is for ever. Bauman’s position progressively weakened and surveillance of him intensified. . . . The antisemitic wave came to a head with the Six Day War in 1967 . . . In 1968 he was dismissed from the university and forced to resign from the party. Reluctantly, he decided to leave Poland. . . . Bauman taught for a few years at the University of Tel Aviv but US functionalism (and Shmuel Eisenstadt) dominated Israeli sociology at the time, and it wasn’t Bauman’s bag. After three years the family went to Britain, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

Leeds was their new home, not one of the more prestigious places – Oxford, Chicago, Yale – that had taken other 1968 departers such as Kołakowski. . . . he arrived in 1971, aged 46. Immediately appointed department chairman, he was plunged willy-nilly into an academic administrative role that little in his previous life had prepared him for. . . .

After all that, he was only 46! I mean, yeah, sure, 1925 + 46 = 1971, I get it. But, sheesh—he’d lived through a full life already, no? Really the equivalent of two or three lives. I guess the conceptual challenge is that I think of World War 2 as far in the past, but I think of 1971 as contemporary. Even though, yeah, we’re almost twice as far from 1971 as 1971 is from the end of the war.

Anyway, that “aged 46” thing really threw me for a loop. It’s enough to make me reassess the 46-year-olds I know. Did any of them already live the equivalent of a fully packed life already?

Reading to the end of the book review, I was pleased to learn that Bauman published a successful book at the age of 75, and, finally:

Bauman kept writing and, because of his global fame, travelling, until his death at the age of 91 in 2017.

According to Wikipedia, Bauman did some plagiarism in a book he published in 2013. Considering he was almost 90 at the time, I’d cut him some slack.

I guess I’ll have to read one of Bauman’s books and see what all the fuss is about. Maybe I’ll skip “Culture as Praxis” and “Socialism: The Active Utopia” and just jump straight to “Liquid Modernity.”


  1. I recommend “Modernity and the Holocaust.” ( Very sobering/depressing, but changed the way I view the world.

  2. Bob Siegfried says:

    Wagner’s biography is an enjoyable read also for the vicissitudes of being an academic in Poland at the time.

  3. Ron Kenett says:

    Interesting to compare another kife path that also started in Poznan (50 years earlier)

    One went East, the other went West

  4. Martha (Smith) says:

    Andrew said, “I think of World War 2 as far in the past, but I think of 1971 as contemporary.”

    Not sure whether this makes you sound young, or makes me sound old. I was born during WW2; my oldest cousin was killed in that war (he was a fighter pilot flying missions over Germany), and my Mom’s younger cousin (who lived three blocks away with other relatives) had finished his tour of duty as a pilot carrying troops and supplies to Hawaii. In 1971, I already had a Ph.D. and a faculty position.

  5. Witold says:

    Bauman is fascinating. The biography may be the most interesting to read.

    • Jukka says:

      Bauman the person, sure, but Bauman the sociologist; maybe not so much. At some point, if I recall correctly, here the latter Bauman was mandatory reading in some undergraduate sociology classes.

      I never liked his stuff that much. I think he wrote the same book over and over again…

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