Bauman: A Biography 
by Izabela Wagner.
Polity, 510 pp., £25, June, 978 1 5095 2686 4
Show More
Show More

Do we need​ biographies of public intellectuals? Is knowledge about a scholar’s life relevant to an understanding of their work? The Polish-Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman thought not, and sedulously avoided the personal in his books and essays. His biographer, Izabela Wagner, obviously disagrees: she seems to find Bauman’s life more interesting than his books, which are identified and briefly summarised as they emerge but not analysed in detail. How Bauman wrote has a chapter to itself (‘An Intellectual at Work’) but what he wrote is dealt with only in passing. There are no separate chapters or even index entries for such key works as Modernity and the Holocaust or Liquid Modernity (which, like several other of Bauman’s works cited in the text, has been accidentally left out of the bibliography).

Methodologically, Wagner is following the path of University of Chicago sociologists who, seeking to understand the immigrant experience in the mid-20th century, developed ways of studying individual life trajectories in the context of public events and with a stress on the subjects’ interactions with others. Wagner’s earlier major work, Producing Excellence, was a keen-eyed participant-observer study of the career training of violin virtuosi, and her biography of Bauman grew out of a chapter for a projected book on the careers of sociologists. I personally have no problem with this approach – if I wanted to know about Bauman’s works rather than about Bauman, I would read or reread them – though it might disappoint those looking for an in-depth analysis of Bauman’s ideas in a context of Marxist sociological debates.

Bauman’s is an interesting life, and this is an interesting biography. Its leitmotif is the dichotomy between Bauman’s Polish and Jewish identities, the first being the one he chose, the second the one fixed on him by others, in particular other Poles. The dichotomy comes from Bauman’s own autobiographical reflections, ‘The Poles, the Jews and I: An Investigation into Whatever Made Me What I Am’, written in the 1980s not for publication but for his daughters. Wagner has had access to this text, and her extensive quotations from it conjure up a likeable picture of its author. Of course, Bauman was serious about the dichotomy and its consequences, but his is anything but a victim narrative. The Polish/Jewish issue undoubtedly caused him endless difficulties and often pain, but he gives the pain short shrift and prefers to point up the ironies.

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. His father – an unsuccessful businessman, later an accountant – was a Zionist, but it was his lively mother who set the tone, and she had been ‘brought up in an atmosphere of seemliness and decorum more akin to the pattern of Polish gentility than the shtetl tradition’. Zygmunt, bright second child and only son, was the darling of the family. Educated first at a Polish primary school, he was one of the few Jews able to enter the state gymnasium by coming top in the competitive examination. He was first exposed to a Jewish social milieu when, as a teenager, he joined a Zionist youth organisation, Hashomer Hatzair, which gave him an experience of fellowship, and turned him, somewhat ironically, into a non-Zionist socialist.

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 with a multiethnic and multilingual population, Mołodeczno (its Polish name). More ironies here, as, when the young Bauman entered the local gymnasium, he became such an exemplar of Polishness – ‘no one around spoke Polish as pure and refined as mine’ – that the deputy headmaster, a Belarusian nationalist, took against him. But no matter: Bauman quickly taught himself Russian and moved to the newly opened Russian gymnasium. He was popular at school and academically successful, and his entrepreneurial mother discovered a talent as a cook that made the refugee family not only better fed than many of their neighbours but also better off than they had been in Poznań. Soviet Mołodeczno (or Maladzechna or Molodechna) turned out to be Bauman’s ‘Zion’, remembered in idyllic terms. He joined the Komsomol, the young communist organisation, which he wryly characterised as ‘the local equivalent of Hashomer Hatzair’, and soon became one of its leaders.

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, praised for his ‘outstanding intellectual skills’ and as a ‘social activist’ and ‘good comrade’. The Baumans’ experience in Shakhunya was not as idyllic as in Mołodeczno, but it wasn’t terrible. ‘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. He was, to be sure, a committed young communist who had made the Soviet cause his own, but many Polish Jews without these convictions who found themselves in the Soviet Union during the war, deportees as well as refugees, retained affectionate memories of the place and its people, whom they experienced as not antisemitic and generous in sharing the little they had with strangers. The Soviet state was generous too, at least compared to other states faced with an influx of Jewish refugees: it offered citizenship – admittedly an offer regarded by many refugees with suspicion – and provided work, schooling and whatever healthcare was available. 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.

An Association of Polish Patriots had been formed in Moscow – an initiative of the Polish writer Wanda Wasilewska, a favourite of Stalin’s – and a Polish Army had been established, headed by General Zygmunt Berling and staffed by such Polish NCOs as could be found (most officers had been killed at Katyn), along with Soviet officers, some Jewish, seconded from the regular Soviet Army. Bauman headed down to Ukraine to join them: ‘The first thing I saw was the Polish Eagle adorning the gate and on the cap of the sentry. I felt I had reached the end of my wanderings. I was home.’ Once again, Bauman was the best Polish speaker among those around him, one of the few ‘true Poles’ in the ranks, and correspondingly valued. 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. In June ownership of his division was transferred to Poland, under the Moscow-approved government in waiting of Bołeslaw Bierut, and it was as a member of what was now the Polish Internal Security Corps, the KBW, that Bauman went to Warsaw.

Bauman’s second life in Poland was very different from his first. He was still a Jew, and still generally at the top of whatever class he was in, but he was also now a communist, returning under Soviet auspices to serve a government made up largely of exiles, many Jewish, who had spent the war in the Soviet Union. As a Jew, he was one of the lucky ones: he had survived without ever experiencing the Holocaust at first hand, and so had his parents, who returned to Poland a few months later. Bauman was even able to recover the family furniture from their apartment in Poznań. The only other immediate family member, Zygmunt’s elder sister, had emigrated to Palestine just before the war. Of Jews who had remained in Poland – among them Bauman’s future wife, Janina Lewinson – only about fifty thousand survived the war: four times that number returned after spending the war years in the Soviet Union. The new government was not antisemitic but the wider Polish population was. By 1947, 120,000 Jews had left Poland for the displaced persons camps in the Allied zones of Germany and Austria.

At this point in the story, the biography’s perspective shifts. While Wagner’s earlier chapters largely rely on Bauman’s unpublished memoir, offering a view of his early life that is close to his own retrospective view, in the second section of the book – covering the years between 1945 and 1968, with materials from Polish security agency archives a major source – the biographer herself emerges as an interpreter. As I reached this point in my reading, the question of who the biographer was and where she was coming from started to niggle at me. By a striking failure of editorial good sense, almost the first thing one reads in this book, between table of contents and text, is the acknowledgments, which start with a grateful page on Wagner’s friend Arthur Allen, a science writer, who helped her with the English. I was perhaps unreasonably irritated by this – why do I have to hear about Arthur when I want to get down to Bauman? – and also by the rather clumpy style of the text resulting from the sociological practice of putting sources in brackets in the text, plus the abundance of Polish institutional names and acronyms. My reaction to the first part of the book was that I liked Bauman and his story but would rather have read it in Bauman’s own words.

In the second part of the book I started to warm to the biographer as well as her subject. But it wasn’t until the end that I finally arrived at the seven-page appendix called ‘Working on Bauman’ that gives information the reader should have had at the start about the biographer and her purposes. Wagner, a French-trained Polish sociologist, is not a ‘Baumanist’, and her sociological training in Paris didn’t expose her to his work. Bauman was ‘neither my guru nor my friend’, she writes. Arthur missed a trick here, since Wagner doesn’t mean, as an English reader might assume, that she dislikes Bauman, merely that although Bauman had a lot of friends she couldn’t claim to be one of them: much younger than him, Wagner was a serendipitous late arrival in his life. Bauman at first tried to discourage her from studying him, saying that he was just a ‘recycler’ (doing ‘secondary processing of other people’s thoughts’) while she was a fieldworker/ ethnographer, a practising sociologist. But she had become interested in him, and irritated by the unfairness and inaccuracy of some of the accusations made against him in post-communist Poland; what’s more, she had her theoretical interest in the study of life trajectories. So she went ahead.

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, studying with Adam Schaff, a Paris-educated Marxist and the party’s official ideologist. 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?)

Antisemitism, largely absent from Bauman’s life since 1939, re-entered it in the early 1950s, as suspicion of Jews mounted in East European and Soviet communist parties. In 1952 a confidential report on Bauman’s army work noted that, despite his superior performance, ‘in the longer term it would be necessary to enable him to enter a scientific path,’ a nice way of saying he should be shunted into academia, where he was already studying part-time. The problem was evidently that he was a Jew, and specifically that his father – always a man of Zionist sympathies, with a daughter in Israel – had visited the Israeli embassy in Warsaw to ask about emigration. 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. ‘Spat out by the system’ is Wagner’s phrase, but he was still a party member, and the system had not wholly abandoned him, just relegated him to the ranks of the intelligentsia.

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. Bauman was shocked by the revelations – or quasi-revelations, since, as he told a journalist in 2013, ‘I will not say that it was hidden, but covered up … behind the curtain’ – and wondered ‘whether I really had helped to start the construction of a new man or had participated in building a murderous system’. But the Polish sociological environment – which included Leszek Kołakowski and Bronisław Baczko – was greatly enlivened by the subsequent thaw. Stanisław Ossowski, a well-known sociologist from the prewar period who had been banned from teaching in 1951, was able to recover his chair, and Bauman’s mentor, Julian Hochfeld, was able to change the name of his chair from ‘Dialectical and Historical Materialism’ to ‘Sociology of Political Relations’. Most of the Warsaw sociologists were more or less ‘revisionists’, bringing a new critical approach to Marxism. Hochfeld, a Polish Jew involved in left-wing politics from an early age, was an unusual combination of political insider and independent thinker. Bauman was a member of his circle from the beginning of his academic life and later described the experience as ‘unique … It never happened again in my life … just a team of people discussing with each other, every work the object of interest to the whole team.’

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. Another friend was Ralph Miliband of the LSE – Bauman’s near contemporary, born in a Polish-Jewish socialist family in Brussels and, like Bauman, a former member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. In 1957 and 1958, with a grant from the Ford Foundation and help from Miliband, Bauman worked on British politics at the LSE, and on his return to Poland was granted a professorship. 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 files of this surveillance, now stored at the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw, were cherry-picked in the 2000s as part of a campaign against the (now absent) Bauman. It’s always a challenge to write a story when your main source consists of reports from police snoopers. Wagner handles this well, weighing the evidence judiciously and generally ending up either acquitting Bauman or placing his alleged crimes – notably with reference to his work in the KBW and his three years’ nominal service as an informer for the Polish secret police in the late 1940s – in the context of the habits of the times: she notes that Bauman, as a communist, couldn’t refuse the invitation to inform, but gave the police so little of use that they soon dropped him. Most of the surveillance files on Bauman were prompted by suspicions about his political reliability. As any good historian would, Wagner applies the appropriate critical scrutiny to the information she gleans from the files before using it as scaffolding for her own narrative. But she also gives it a valuable and entertaining twist by turning her sociologist’s eye to the processes of participant-observation involved in the collection of surveillance data.

Bauman in the 1960s was still trying to think of himself as a Pole rather than a Jew, but a Jewish identity was increasingly being thrust on him – and not only by public events. His sister had been in Palestine since before the war. In 1956 his mother died and his father immediately applied to the Israeli embassy for a visa, emigrating in February 1957. The antisemitic wave came to a head with the Six Day War in 1967, when Poland, along with the Soviet Union, took Egypt’s side. Janina’s mother, who had also emigrated to Israel, was visiting Warsaw when the war broke out, and at her urgent request the Baumans drove her to the Israeli embassy to seek advice. This trip was taken as evidence of Zionism in the campaign against Bauman. In 1968 he was dismissed from the university and forced to resign from the party. Reluctantly, he decided to leave Poland.

Despite fellowship offers from around the world, and despite Zygmunt’s longstanding lack of enthusiasm for Zionism, the Baumans chose to go to Israel. ‘Not because of love for this country’, Janina later wrote, but because ‘the Jewish state had made it possible for us to travel and finance a trip, so it was necessary to go there, at least for a certain amount of time.’ 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. But the more prestigious places often wanted a Sovietologist or expert on East European communism, disillusioned but with an insider’s perspective, and that didn’t suit Bauman. Leeds wanted him simply as a sociologist, and 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. But he buckled down and did it. Wagner deals conscientiously with the Leeds years, though the milieu is perhaps alien to a Franco-Polish sensibility. It was alien to the Baumans too, despite the presence in the city of a large Polish community, but they made a life there, Zygmunt more easily than Janina. I can imagine a David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury novel based on Bauman’s emergence as a Global Thinker – Wagner’s capitals – at red brick Leeds. Bauman himself could probably have written it, had loyalty and a sense of hard-won local citizenship not constrained him.

Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) was the unplanned beginning of the Global Thinker career, and it was prompted by his wife’s memoir, Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond 1939-45, published a few years earlier. The Baumans were an exceptionally close couple, intellectually as well as personally, but it seems that they had rarely talked about Janina’s experiences during the war. When he read her account Bauman was shocked to realise ‘just how much I did not know – or rather, did not think about properly’. He concluded that the conventional wisdom that the Shoah was a unique, tragic event beyond all rationality was wrong. It was, he argued, in fact an outcome of modernity, with its technological and bureaucratic capacities and processes of rationalisation. Modernity and the Holocaust introduced the notion of the ‘gardening state’ that prunes its population, eliminating weeds so that the flowers may flourish, and was a hit in the academic world of the 1990s. But it was Liquid Modernity (2000) that provided the breakthrough to a wider audience. It may not have had much purchase among academic sociologists, but the book’s metaphor of liquidity for a postmodern world in which rules and structures had dissolved caught on among young and youngish readers. Helped by some constructive editing on the part of Polity Press, which published all Bauman’s late works, Liquid Modernity gave Bauman a following.

But not in post-1989 Poland, which embraced him with less enthusiasm than it did Polish Catholic anti-communist heroes like his old friend Kołakowski. The malice of the attacks grew in the 2000s, partly – Wagner suggests – thanks to his former colleagues’ envy of Bauman’s late global success. But a bigger reason, she thinks, is that Bauman was a Jew: a Jew who insisted he was Polish and had failed to renounce his old socialist allegiances. After 9/11, Kołakowski’s daughter sharply attacked him in the Polish press for not seeing that ‘our holy duty now is loyalty to America and our civilisation’: Bauman had committed the offence of condemning ‘them v. us’ rhetoric. It was typical of Bauman, a man not prone to taking offence himself, that, after the publication of this attack, he waited for a word from Kołakowski. But it didn’t come, and the friendship ended.

Wagner’s biography could have ended on this note of rejection. But she rightly avoids it because Bauman had learned to weather such things. He was nearly crushed by Janina’s death, in 2009, but he survived it and formed a late-life partnership with an old comrade from the Hochfeld circle, Aleksandra Jasińska-Kania, the daughter of Poland’s postwar president, Bołeslaw Bierut. Bauman kept writing and, because of his global fame, travelling, until his death at the age of 91 in 2017. Wagner’s last sentence suggests he had finally resolved the Polish/Jewish dichotomy by achieving a unique identity as Zygmunt Bauman. That is no doubt true, but I was struck by something else: that, for all the difficulties and uprootings of his life, he not only stubbornly refused the role of victim but also managed to achieve the rare status – rare at least in interesting biographies – of being a happy man.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 42 No. 23 · 3 December 2020

Reviewing Izabela Wagner’s Life of Zygmunt Bauman, Sheila Fitzpatrick comments on the rift between Bauman and Leszek Kołakowski, but doesn’t mention the fact that during the antisemitic drive in communist Poland, the much favoured Bauman could leave the country voluntarily, while Kołakowski was forced to go because he had a Jewish wife, now his widow (LRB, 10 September). Like Bauman, Kołakowski was initially allied to the Communist Party, but unlike Bauman, soon realised its oppressive nature. I’m proud to say that I played a minor part in securing him a fellowship at All Souls.

Unlike Bauman, Kołakowski never joined the communist secret service, which Wagner treats indulgently, as she does Bauman’s participation in it, although it was responsible for the torture and murder of many Poles who had resisted Hitler. My uncle, who had spent the war in a German POW camp, then spent years in prison in Poland. Kołakowski must have been well aware of Bauman’s secret service activities and, once in the West and free to denounce him, magnanimously chose to stay silent.

Adam Czerniawski

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences