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Professor Zygmunt Bauman

1925-2017

Zygmunt Bauman

A great mind

Zygmunt  was a hugely influential sociologist – an academic whose inquiring mind produced arguments on everything from the Holocaust to Big Brother. 

Photo: Simon & Simon

 


Erudite, charming, prolific, Zygmunt Bauman was the modern world’s leading social thinker.

Randeep Ramesh visited him in Leeds in 2010.

Zygmunt Bauman has long been regarded as one of the world’s most influential sociologists, an academic whose restlessly inquiring mind has produced dynamic, accessible arguments on everything from the Holocaust to Big Brother.

Despite retiring from Leeds in 1990, the 84-year-old remains astonishingly productive – delivering one book a year from his home in Weetwood. His latest, 44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World, is a collection of pithy potshots on topics as varied as Twitter, swine flu and the cultural elite.

Delegates attending the opening of Leeds’ Bauman Institute this autumn came to honour a sociologist and writer lauded as a social thinker everywhere – except in Britain.

Perhaps because, unlike sociologist Tony Giddens who fronted New Labour’s “third way”, Bauman has been unwilling to provide politicians with grand theories explaining what they were doing and why. 

New Labour leader Ed Miliband is almost Baumanesque in his analysis that by embracing the market, the party had lost its humanity. 

Bauman and the Milibands have a shared history. Ed’s father Ralph became a close friend when both spent time at the LSE in the 1950s. Both were left-wing sociologists of Polish-Jewish descent, both fled tyranny: Miliband escaping Belgium as Hitler’s soldiers advanced in 1940, Bauman driven from Poland as the Communists undertook an anti-Semitic purge in 1968.

Both came to Leeds in the early 1970s and Bauman’s home became a regular stop for the Miliband boys. Ed and David grew up watching the two towering academics discuss the future of the left. Bauman says both brothers were “already partners for serious conversation, charming and exceptionally intelligent for their age.”


“You cannot make a revolution in 140 characters, so why is Twitter so revolutionary?”


Unlike many sociologists, Bauman’s work is simultaneously accessible, intellectual and polemical. He has his finger on the pulse of modern consumer and celebrity culture: “You cannot make a revolution in 140 characters, so why is Twitter so revolutionary?” On Facebook, he asks: “Can you really have 500 friends who you know well?”

Underlying his theories is the idea that systems make individuals, not vice versa. Whether Communist or consumerist, states want to control their public and reproduce their elites. Rather than the secret policeman’s boot, western society looks to scare and entice by manufacturing public panics and seducing people with shopping.

Bauman’s work focuses on this transition to a nation of consumers, unconsciously disciplined to work endlessly. This transformation from the “ethics of work to the ethics of consumerism” vexes him. He warns that society has slid from “the ideals of a community of responsible citizens to those of an aggregate of satisfied, self interested, consumers.”

Little wonder critics dismiss Bauman as gloomy. But over tea and an endless supply of pastries, the white-haired Professor is charm personified – even at his most pessimistic.

In his view an entire modern political vocabulary has emerged as a “smokescreen” for hidden intentions: “Social mobility is a lie because individuals are not in a position to select their position in society. Fairness is a cover for an ugly spectre of ‘no assistance unless inside a workhouse’.”

What of The Big Society – David Cameron’s suggestion that the British people could find resources of moral courage and enterprise to improve themselves, rather than rely on the state? A smile steals across his face. He says the electorate is being told to replace public services “without the resources”, likening Britons to the Israelites asked to make bricks for the Pharaoh without straw.

The essence of the man was remarkable; he taught me so much. Words cannot express!

John Hales
(Sociology 1979)

Lasting influence

Years after attending his lectures, alumni still recall Bauman as their favourite lecturer.

What do you remember? Tell us here

 

His call for a “citizens’ income”, basically enough money to live a free life, was one of the few contrarian voices in the early welfare-to-work debates. Cash transfers to the poor would, wrote Bauman in 1999, remove the “awesome fly of insecurity from the sweet ointment of freedom”. Such sentiments have propelled the living wage into the political mainstream.


“The task for sociology is to come to the help of the individual. We must be in service of freedom. It is something we have lost sight of."


Bauman has always been interested in politics. His first brush with authority came when he challenged the Polish communists in the 1950s over their ossifying bureaucracy and ruthless crushing of criticism. “My analysis was that the only wish of Communism was the need to stay in power.”

His choice of reference points is sometimes unsettling. His key insight for his seminal work on the Holocaust came from Carl Schmitt, a theorist closely associated with Hitler.

Bauman said today’s talk of “social exclusion” is an extension of Schmitt’s dictum that the most important act of government was to “identify an enemy.”

Understanding this led Bauman to argue that the murder of millions of Jews was the result, not of the actions of a group of evil people, but of a modern bureaucracy where subservience was prized above all, where labyrinthine workings concealed the outcomes of peoples’ actions, and where a state imposed order by harnessing a fear of strangers and outsiders.

“Once governments exclude people you can stop them being protected. Societies begin to manipulate fears about groups. When the welfare state is in crisis we must be concerned about such a feature of society.”

Bauman is sanguine about his discipline’s ability to find answers for such problems: “The task for sociology is to come to the help of the individual. We must be in service of freedom. It is something we have lost sight of." 

This article originally appeared in Leeds magazine, Autumn 2010.

  • Tina Bain (Sociology 1980)
    "His wisdom, his history, his politics, his compassion."
  • Adrian Segens (Sociology 1986)
    "His astonishing insight and inexplicable faith in my ability despite my consistently letting him down. Have re-read his works in recent years and now have a million questions (nearly 30 years too late)."
  • Patricia Mayo (Psychology and Sociology 1985)
    "Brilliant mind - but still knew how to speak to students, very approachable and interesting. Every student wanted to be like him."

  • "His perspective on modernity and post modernity was inspirational because he gave a new perspective on contemporary issues. He has changed the way students see and understand issues such as the holocaust. He is one of the leading sociologists in the world."

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