Controversial sociologist who predicted the dangers of a shape-shifting modern society
HE SUFFERED first from the Nazis and then the Communists, but Zygmunt Bauman, who has died aged 91, used those experiences to explain the dangers of right wing populism, through his work as a leading sociologist. It’s hard not to see uncomfortable parallels with the election of Donald Trump as US president, when Professor Bauman describes an “increasing polarisation between the élite and the rest”.
One of his main tenets, expressed in Liquid Modernity (2000) was that solid institutions, once the bedrock of organised modern societies, were disappearing. “Our liquid modern world,” he argued, “could not remain static and retain its shape. This led to a growing tolerance of ever-expanding inequalities. In its shapelessness, the state and the market place battled for supremacy, he added – eloquently concluding – “When elephants fight, pity the grass.” In his book Modernity and the Holo
caust ,(1989) largely based on the philosophies of Hannah Are nd ta nd Theodore Adorno, he argued that the Holocaust should be regarded as connected to modernity and its attempts to order society. He believed that modern societies had not grasped the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, which should be viewed neither from a historical, Jewish perspective, nor a modern descent into barbarism, but rather as an extreme example of society’s attempt to exclude elements it found uncomfortable. Bauman warned that such exclusion could recur today. There was a genocidal impulse latent within modern bureaucratic societies in which efficiency and order could over-ride moral responsibility.
Zygmunt Bauman was born in Poznan , Poland to secular Jewish parents, Maurice Bauman, an accountant, and his wife, Sophia née Cohn, who fled to the Soviet Union as the Second World War broke out. He joined the Soviet-controlled First Polish Army as a political instructor and in May 1945 was awarded the Polish Military Cross of Valour for fighting the Nazis, becoming one of the Polish Army’s youngest majors. From 1945-53, he was a political officer in the Internal Security Corps, intended to combat Ukrainian nationalism.
He studied sociology at the University of Warsaw where he later lectured. But despite gaining the rank of major, he was dishonourably discharged in 1953 because his father sought an exit visa to Israel. This caused a temporary family rift, because Bauman did not share his father’s Zionist views. However, he was able to complete his MA and became a professor there in 1964, the year he married the pianist Janina Lewinson. Her memoir Winter in the Morning – (revised in 2006 as Beyond These Walls: Escaping the Warsaw Ghetto – a Young Girl’s Story) inspired his Holocaust book.
The turbulence of bitter memory and contemporary experience followed Bauman and his family. Now with three daughters, Lydia, Irena and Anna, the family fell victim to Communist antisemitism and he was forced for the second time into exile and poverty.
From this point on his sociology became driven by ethical and moral values. Despite his rejection of Zionist principles, Bauman lectured at Tel Aviv and Haifa universities on his topic: 20th-21st century western philosophy, and the quest of modernity to cope with ambiguity. He was critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and after a stint in Australia’s Melbourne University, he settled in Leeds where he headed the sociology department.
His first major book, a comprehensive study of the British socialist movement, first published in Polish in 1959, was completed during his time at the London School of Economics. This was followed by Everyday Sociology, which won popular acclaim in 1964 and Think
ing Sociologically in 1990. However Bauman courted controversy when he attacked Zionism and Israel during a 2011 interview in the Polish weekly Polityka, asserting that Israel was not interested in peace but took “advantage of the Holocaust to legitimise unconscionable acts.” He drew further parallels between Israel’s West Bank barrier and the Warsaw Ghetto walls where thousands had died.
Bauman’s 60 books and innumerable articles on globalisation, modernity, postmodernity, consumerism and morality resonated with young progressive thinkers in Spain, Italy and central and south America, because of the emphasis he placed on the poor and vulnerable who suffered within global capitalism. His tenet was to urge people to see the world through the eyes of society’s weakest – “and then tell anyone honestly that our societies are good, civilised, advanced, free.”
Though he retained his innate socialism, he was less able to propose an alternative model of society, apart from one that was never convinced it was good enough. He recently described the current refugee crisis and the emerging right-wing populism in Europe and America as a crisis of humanity and was a strong advocate of the European Union as a bulwark against war and civil unrest. In his final Leeds lecture last October, Bauman invoked the Holocaust as a reminder of the power inherent in modern populism to remorselessly alienate “the other”.
Prof Bauman received several European awards, and Leeds University honoured him by establishing the Bauman Institute in its School of Sociology and Social Policy in September 2010.
Janina Bauman predeceased him in 2009. He later married sociologist Aleksandra Jasinka, who survives him with his daughters and six grandchildren.
Zygmunt Bauman: born November 19, 1925. Died January 9, 2017