A Not Wasted Life. Conversation with Zygmunt Bauman’s biographer Artur Domosławski

Michał Matlak

The publication of Zygmunt Bauman’s biography “Wygnaniec” [“The Exile”] is a major event in Poland. Artur Domosławski, a non-fiction writer, journalist and the author of the famous biography of Ryszard Kapuściński (Verso, 2012), has written a massive work on the life of the most celebrated Polish-Jewish sociologist. Over 900 pages the author tells Bauman’s story, starting from childhood marked by falling victim to anti-Semitic attacks in pre-war Poznan and the flight to USSR after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Bauman’s subsequent fate includes enlistment in the Polish People’s Army to fight alongside the Red Army on its march on Berlin, and then – most controversially – his work at the military unit that fought anticommunist guerrillas after the II World War and his cooperation with the military counterintelligence of the People’s Republic of Poland. Domosławski describes Bauman’s academic work, his significance for Polish post-war sociology and his departure for Israel, where he found himself as a result of the 1968 anti-Semitic campaign in Poland. The final chapter of his life began with his move to the UK, where he took up a professorship at the University of Leeds.

Domosławski untangles the meanderings of both Bauman’s biography and his thought, which Bauman often put down on paper – he is the author of about 90 books and hundreds of articles. His description of “liquid modernity” and its various aspects, the role Modernity played in laying foundations for the Holocaust, as well as his criticism of globalization and late capitalism brought him great fame in the last two decades of his life. One of the axes of the book is a comparison of Bauman’s biography with that of Leszek Kołakowski (also an émigré from Poland, a philosopher at Oxford University). The latter departed from Marxism and, as a conservative liberal (with a little touch of socialism), became the main inspirer of the Polish anti-communist opposition, while Bauman never shied away from leftism and distanced himself from the Solidarity movement, which Domosławski describes in depth.

Below you can read a slightly edited manuscript of our conversation:

Michał Matlak: After the publication of the famous biography of Ryszard Kapuściński, which created a lot of buzz in Poland and abroad, it must have been difficult to decide on the hero of your next book? How did you choose Bauman?

Zygmunt Bauman appeared on my horizon at the turn of the century when, as a reporter, I started travelling to the countries of the global South where the new movements of protest against neoliberal capitalism and social inequality were born. Although Zygmunt Bauman did not participate in those protests, he spun a tale like theirs. A key book for me at the time was his “Globalization: The Human Consequences.”

And then I had the opportunity to meet him in person and that turned into a friendly acquaintance. But another extremely important reason why I wrote this book was the feeling that a terrible injustice had been done to him in Poland. I think his work is undervalued in Poland, although he has many ardent fans and readers among the younger generations.

The second injustice happened on a human level.

Bauman struggled with accusations and various types of exclusion until the end of his life. His involvement in communism was not the only reason. There was also a lot of anti-Semitism and ordinary human envy. I felt that this extraordinary man, brilliant thinker and talented writer deserved to have his story told.

You talk about injustice and, on the other hand, Bauman’s ideas and his figure seems to be moving into the intellectual mainstream, also in Poland. Today ‘liquid modernity’ is on many levels part of our self-awareness, and the same goes for his reflections on capitalism and globalization. While in the 1990s and 2000s he might have shocked people with his attachment to socialism, today – with a fair amount of journalistic exaggeration – one can say that even the Pope is a socialist. Is he relevant today?

Bauman as a storyteller may become even more relevant in the coming years than before, because in today’s politics you win not only with the help of hard facts and efficient strategies, but also through a comprehensive story that allows people to see the meaning of politics.

His ideas about a world of inequality, about a world of injustice and his call for a more hospitable society could, I think, be useful in creating an alternative story for the neoliberal one as well as for the right-wing-populist one.

The neoliberal one refers, in a kind of malicious simplification, to the privatization of everything; it tells us that whoever gets up early in the morning is successful and whoever is not successful is a loser and probably was too lazy. This populist response, in turn, is based on resentment: the elites and the intelligentsia despise you – let’s take revenge on them. And of course there is also the rhetoric of justice, but it is based on a sense of negativity, envy, anger.

I think that a different story – let’s call it progressive – is possible and one can find the main ideas of it in Bauman’s books: let’s create a more hospitable world, a good society is a society that cares for the weakest and creates a safety net against bad luck.

Bauman had a very good social ear which allowed him to notice certain phenomena perhaps earlier than many others. Take, for example, the phenomenon of the emergence of the precariat. Almost a decade before Guy Standing, Bauman wrote a book “Wasted Lives” about people who became waste products of contemporary globalization.

Artur Domosławski

It is well known that when one is a social philosopher, one often combines knowledge with intuition. When Bauman, in one of his books, describes how relationships between people are changing because of the internet and how, on the one hand, we are developing a lot of superficial contacts with the help of modern technology, and, at the same time, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to enter into deeper individual relationships. Some passages from the book “Liquid Love” have many phrases that fit the pandemic world when we stopped meeting each other and our relationships became strictly virtual. Bauman had many such intuitions that came true after his death.

But are his diagnoses more than just this story?

Yes, although Bauman did not want to offer prescriptions.

He told me that he had already said once how the world should be arranged and that it had failed, so he prefers to remain a critic – his books grow out of his fascination with critical theory, the updated criticism of capitalism. He certainly presents it in a way accessible for a wider audience.

Do you see any concretization of his ideas?

I recently wrote an article about Chile, where neoliberalism was born during the Pinochet dictatorship, where the Chicago Boys tested Milton Friedman’s doctrine before it was introduced by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And it is very interesting that in Chile, where that neoliberal wave originated, the path of dismantling neoliberalism is now beginning. The Chileans have elected a new assembly, which will write a new constitution that redefines various fundamental issues of state and society.

I know, of course, that legislation does not yet create reality, but it does create a field in which such changes can take place. They are just beginning to create this story of a more just world, a non-privatized world, where the marginalized social groups are included and all that with a spirit of solidarity. I thought that Bauman’s books – and he happens to be popular in Latin America – could be a fantastic inspiration for creating stories about a better world.

Why his particular popularity in South America and not, for example, in the United States, which inspired his sociology in the 1950s and 1960s? Does it have to do with the dominance of positivism in the social sciences in the US, which is so distant from his methodology?

He is indeed very popular in Latin America, but he is also popular in southern Europe, especially in Italy and Spain. These are countries where there is a strong left-wing, progressive culture in the broad sense. He is very well received by people who live in such cultures. He is, of course, also very well known in the UK. There is, for example, the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds.

Zygmunt Bauman

In recent years, Bauman’s thought has been referred to by the Labour Party leaders, the Miliband brothers. They are the sons of Ralph Miliband, a friend of Bauman’s during his time at the University of Leeds.

The US itself is such a big country that has its all-American celebrities, but it also has state or regional celebrities. I will not be surprised if one day the American academia or some movements of protest truly discover Bauman and find him a source of inspiration… But for now I think that his progressive narrative is more suited to the culture in southern Europe and Latin America.

It seems that one of the aims of your book is an attempt to transform Polish culture based on anti-communism, that it is an attempt to move us, in your language, to the south, to rebuild left-wing culture here. This would be like what Adam Leszczyński does in “People’s History of Poland” or Kacper Pobłocki does in “Chamstwo” [Loutship]. Was this your intention?

I think that your observation is right and that there is a need for a different perspective on Polish history. So, even though I started writing Bauman’s biography a long time ago, I have nothing against including it in the trend of revising Polish history.

In fact, I had the feeling that I was trying to do the same while working on the book about Kapuściński. There too, the story of the Polish People’s Republic is quite similar to the one in Bauman’s biography, although the context is even broader in the latter one. Bauman’s biography, because of his involvement in important moments in the history of the Polish People’s Republic, made it necessary to explain his choices through a different story about those times.

It seems to me that looking at Bauman’s story through an anti-communist lens simply does not make sense. Zygmunt Bauman does not stand a chance from that perspective. I think it is important to look at people’s choices from that time not as a choice of evil or Soviet occupation. On the contrary, those people opted for communism because communism promised social liberation from the various restrictions to which people in Polish society had been subjected before the war. Pre-war society completely disappointed people like Zygmunt Bauman and many others.

But it was a state with a stronger social legitimacy, without an external, culturally quite distant, protector.

Yes, but it was a state full of injustice, inequality, terrible violence against various social groups, against ethnic minorities, including the Jewish, Belarusian and Ukrainian minorities. It was a country of violence against political opponents from the left to the right. It was, after all, a country of dictatorship, where Bereza Kartuska – a concentration camp for political opponents, existed. It was a country in which peasant or worker protests were bloodily suppressed. Therefore, many people subscribed to communism, because they were betting on social revolution and not on Soviet occupation. So it seems to me that it is important to start talking about this time in a different way than just saying that it was a time of terror, although no one disputes that terror was a part of the system in the first decade after the war.

A story that captures the basic and undeniable fact that it was a time of a huge social revolution, which also involved violence and a terror apparatus, sounds different. The right wing is not the only one to treat that time as not more than a period of Soviet occupation or totalitarianism.

A more open, liberal narrative speaks of the choices of people at the time as of mistakes of youth. Choices of people like Bauman, Kołakowski, Miłosz, Kapuściński and many others who subscribed to communism at the beginning and then broke with it at different moments and sometimes for different reasons. Speaking about their choices as if they were just mistakes of youth is a bit condescending in my view and – on the other hand – has a political aim. The main reason for this kind of narrative is that the current-day Poland was built on the founding myth of anti-communism. Treating involvement in communism as a mere mistake of youth allowed to reconcile the past of some of “Founding Fathers” of today’s Poland with their communist past.

It seems to me that we should try to talk about communism in a different way. Choices that some people consider as mistakes decades later were not necessarily wrong at the moment of making them.

The choices that people like Zygmunt Bauman made after the war were absolutely comprehensible and legitimate. I’d rather say that if Bauman had made different ones, those choices would have been strange and less understandable. For someone with such a biography, with such a path of life before the war and then during the war, the choice of communism seemed something natural.

Let’s move for a moment to his second homeland, Israel. In your book, perhaps the key metaphor is the figure of an exile. One can easily understand why Bauman was exiled from Poznań after the war, when he had to flee Poland as a result of the anti-Semitic campaign in 1968. But his departure from Israel fits in less well, even though you give reasons for it in your book. The main one is disagreement with Israeli nationalism. However, there is a feeling that this is a country which has taken him in quite well despite various problems, has given him a job and a stable existence, an opportunity to develop and a possibility to pursue an academic career, and yet he decides to leave this country. I have a sense of some incommensurability of these exiles.

The story of the failed love affair between Zygmunt Bauman and Israel does not fall under this heading – at least not verbatim. What I had in mind were mostly his exiles from Poland. The physical ones and the symbolic ones. In 1968, Bauman was expelled from the University of Warsaw and then from the country. Decades later he was symbolically banished by the University of Warsaw, which refused to renew his doctorate. And finally, in 2013 – by nationalists in a context in which people of the mainstream of politics and media did not defend him enough and did not try to make him feel comfortable in the modern-day Poland.

Israel, on the other hand, is a slightly different story. It was to some extent a self-exile. It was Bauman who broke with Israel, not Israel that broke with him. And the main reason was Bauman’s critical attitude towards Israeli nationalism and the policies pursued by Israel. He was strongly attached to communist or socialist ideals and those ideals included minimizing the significance of, if not invalidating, the national identities based on ethnicity. For Bauman nationalism – no matter which one – was a source of the worst evils of the twentieth century.

He witnessed the policy of excluding the Palestinian minority, the policy of, in a sense, not recognizing the aspirations of Palestinian Arabs to be Palestinians, and, of course, the policy of occupation with which he disagreed. A policy of radical nationalism that gloats about its military power and effectiveness. I think that for Bauman, leaving Israel did not mean renouncing his Jewishness, but it was a disagreement with the nationalist face of Jewishness. He said: “I would rather be a victim of nationalism than its practitioner”.

Here is, too, the beginning of his path as man who doesn’t belong as he sometimes has defined himself.

It’s interesting that he found himself in a country where he had no roots, and which took him in quite well, although also without any exaggerated awe – he got a job at Leeds, not at Oxford or Cambridge.

He chose Leeds because that’s where the offer came from. I think he was realistic about his output at the time, because in ’71, when Bauman goes to Leeds, he is not a world-famous sociologist or humanist. He is simply an exile from Poland and a man of voluntary exile from Israel.

Leeds is one of the larger universities in the UK and has a lot of prestige albeit not in the country’s top three or four. But Leeds is an extremely pleasant place to live. It is a seizable city, not a metropolis, surrounded by a beautiful countryside. It has a rich cultural life; there is an opera, theatres and the Baumans have always been very keen on these attractions.

The University of Leeds, which is a notch lower in terms of prestige than the country’s top institutions, could have been a better place to develop one’s research because he could calmly head a department, teach classes and at the same time reflect and write. Of course, he really started writing close to retirement because, as he said, the administrative work did not leave him much time to write. But I think that when you’re at Oxford or Cambridge there’s such an enormous pressure, so I think he was lucky because he had time for his ideas and thoughts to mature.

How does Bauman the pensioner differ from Bauman the forty-year-old?

The Bauman we are getting to know on the edge of retirement is a completely different Bauman from the earlier one. He is a writer and a thinker whose books, written just then, immediately become popular and discussed.

Bauman excellently merges his experience as man, as a witness of the twentieth century with the language and categories understandable for the Western humanities. To get where he got takes years of intellectual work during which he was not yet visible to the wider audience.

If he had tried to do such things immediately after his arrival to England, perhaps it would not have been so successful. It’s just that people have different times to reach intellectual maturity and capacity to express all their life experiences. He needed time to find his way to express, to write, to reach people’s attention, minds and hearts. (Yes, hearts too – there is an emotion in Bauman’s writing.) Some people become outstanding writers in their thirties, others in their seventies, and Bauman blossomed in his sixties, when he published a lot, sometimes two or three books a year.

Some critics say that he wrote too much and that not everything is outstanding. Well… He left several outstanding pieces of work and that is a lot! “Modernity and the Holocaust”, “Modernity and its Ambivalence”, “Globalization”, “Society under siege”, “Liquid Modernity” and the entire “liquid” series, dozens of essays in the form of books or articles, dozens of interviews that sometimes are as inspiring and profound as books… Are we going to reproach Andrzej Wajda for making a few outstanding films and a dozen of less important ones? It’s absurd. I think that writers, thinkers, composers, painters should not be measured by the quantity or the average quality of their outputs, but by the quality – even if there are a few – of their most important works.

And in Bauman’s case we shouldn’t forget that there is also a massive “text of his life” that leaves a lot of space and aspects to reflect on.

I also wanted to ask you about one detail related to the writing of the biography itself. You wrote about how his family largely refused to talk to you. Did this greatly diminish the comfort of the biographer’s work?

I think that, in a way, the scandal around my previous biographical book was a bit heavy-handed, but I don’t think that the decision of the family (Bauman’s daughters and grandson) had any particular impact on the book.

In the end, it forced me to make an even greater effort and inspired some reflections about relations between biographers and the protagonists’ families. These relations are usually difficult.

When you write a book, you must answer one simple question: do I have a story to tell? After all, the perspective of the one telling the story is always important. But in the end, I have the feeling that my protagonist’s family is largely satisfied with the story. One family member who refused my request for an interview even wrote to me after reading the book: “You see, you managed to do it without us and you did it great”.

In collaboration with Catherine Wright

Contact Us