A review of Bauman: A Biography. Polity Press, 2020, pp. 510 by Izabela Wagner.
Without a doubt, there is a social and political expectation for a university to be a guardian of progress, autonomy, and freedom—a place that will serve, as Henri Giroux often indicates in his writings, as a counter institution fighting against totalitarian ideologies in the name of human dignity and democracy (see Magna Charta Universitatum). In many ways, however, it seems as if the contemporary university, its people, and its research and education are rather similar to other parts of society, being affected by the side effects of capitalism: power struggles, equality problems, absenteeism and careerism, abuse, marginalization, and human exploitation (see Zawadzki & Jensen, 2020). By reading Zygmunt Bauman’s biography written by Izabela Wagner – a sociologist and intellectual historian – you can determine why, together with racism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, homophobia, or xenophobia, this has been often the case in Poland.
I met Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) – a Polish Jew, the most cited and recognized Polish social science scholar in the world – in July 2013 in his house in Leeds. We talked about the crisis of higher education, projectification of cultural work, and consumerist syndrome in society (the conversation was finally published in 2018; see Zawadzki et al., 2018). For me – a junior academic who was inspired by Bauman’s writings for many years – this was a crucially intellectual and life experience. But just two weeks before my visit to Leeds, on 22 June 2013, Bauman’s lecture at the University of Wrocław was interrupted by aggressive Polish nationalists raising their hands in the Nazi salute and carrying banderoles used by anti-Semitic groups active at Polish universities in the 1930s (p. 2). This event, which is a starting point in Wagner’s book, is very important to understand why did such an influential global thinker become a target among the local wolves.
Photo by Monika Kostera
After the war, Bauman had been forced to take on the role of an informant for the Internal Security Corps (KBW in Polish) of Soviet Poland. This information that had never been a secret in Poland (p. 382) reached the media in 2006, when some Polish historians working in the paradigm of nationalist historiography published selectively chosen materials about Bauman’s life. As Wagner confirmed through her many years of careful investigation, “there is nothing in the available documents that indicates Zygmunt Bauman was a communist criminal” (p. 132). Due to political gossip, however, Bauman was attacked not only by anti-Semitic neo-Nazis but also, surprisingly, by some parts of the Polish academic community that shared populist demagogy and, for example, refused to award Bauman with honorary doctorates or to invite him as a guest speaker. As Wagner explains, Zygmunt Bauman “became extremely famous, which attracted jealousy and rage” (380) that reinforced moral blindness toward right-wing propaganda. As a junior scholar, I also experienced these hate-based attacks on a daily academic basis when confronted by Polish senior scholars for making a reference to Bauman’s writings. Bauman’s books, as I sometimes heard, were meaningless due to repetitions (an accusation refused by Giroux and Evans as ‘neoliberal reactionary ideological critique’; see Giroux & Evans, 2015) and due to his (projected by the haters) bad reputation.
Even if Zygmunt Bauman had many friends around the world, including those at Polish universities, being admired massively by students and scholars, the story of his life struggles with anti-Semitism, xenophobia and nationalism shed light on the dark side of contemporary academia. As Max Horkheimer claims in his lecture on Responsibility and Studies (Horkheimer, 1985), educated people – including academics – have never been more immune than uneducated people to totalitarian and populist madness. Having this in mind, one of the most intriguing questions I asked myself when reading Wagner’s book was Why are academics – whose mission is mainly to serve society and democracy – not immune to nationalist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic ideologies?
Anti-Semitism before the war
The anti-Semitic treatment that began many years before World War II in Poland (as well as in other countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain, Romania or Hungary, dreaming about pure race of single ethnicity) found fertile ground at Polish universities. As Wagner observes,
“while we generally think of the university world as a place of freedom and struggles for human rights, Polish universities, beginning in the 1920s, were arenas of repression. Prominent positions in their student organizations and faculty were held by extreme-right, fascist and anti-Semitic groups” (p. 27).
Racist rules were systematically implemented at Polish academia by the university administration in the 1920s and 1930s; they limited Jewish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian students’ presence at Polish educational institutions following the segregationist laws imposed by the rectors (so-called ‘numerus nullus’ and ‘numerus clausus’) and introduced ‘ghetto benches’ from 1935 – separate spaces for Jews and non-Jews – in university classrooms, an idea supported by the academic authorities. Before the Second World War, Polishness was reserved only for Catholic Poles, and many Jews experienced violence, being physically attacked by Poles who were perceived as a future elite of the country. Violence was also observed at the school level: as a child, Bauman was constantly bullied at school, and Wagner describes him as being unable to sleep before checking for bullies outside the door.
Despite some small protests against racism and anti-Semitism, most of the schools and academic staff, including Polish professors and university management, were not opposed to violence (see Connelly, 2000). Moreover, in some universities professors conspired to exclude Jews from studies by giving Jewish students lower marks than they deserved only because they were not Catholic Poles. It should not be a big surprise then, as Wagner observes, that during the 1930s, Joseph Goebbels and Hans Frank – among many other ‘special guests’ – were sometimes hosted at Polish universities that greatly helped with transforming Polish higher education into an anti-Semitic and pro-“Aryan” environment (p. 27).
As we can read in Chapter 3, escaping Poland to Russia as a war refugee must have been a vast relief for Bauman: in fact, for the first time in his life, he experienced a world free of racism, anti-Semitism, and everyday discrimination. He volunteered for the Polish unit in the Red Army, and his interest in communism began. He took part in the battle for Kołobrzeg (4-18 March 1945), during which he was wounded. In June 1945, as mentioned before, Bauman, together with his 4 Infantry Division, was incorporated to the Internal Security Corps (KBW), which became a comfortable point of attack for Polish nationalists.
Working in Polish academia
In 1947, Bauman began his studies at the Academy of Political Science (ANP: Akademia Nauk Społecznych i Politycznych) in Warsaw and then joined a master’s program in social science at the University of Warsaw, where he began his academic career. We can read about his rise in the Polish sociological academic community as well as about the development of his Marxist ‘revisionist’ label in Chapters 8 and 9. As a Polish Jew supporting the academic community with a new reading of Marx, Bauman was monitored constantly by the state, and he did not live an easy life in Polish society. After the War, a gentry myth was often used by Polish intelligentsia against the Polish Jews, together with Catholic martyrology and a strong sense of belonging to united national political culture based on the heroic defense of Polish identity against Sovietization (see Connelly, 2000). In other words, Polish intelligentsia considered Jews as not belonging to their culture, excluding them and supporting growing anti-Semitism in Polish society. Even if there were some strong voices presented by a number of Polish intellectuals against anti-Semitism in newspapers (voices given mainly by nonhistorians but also literary critics, writers, sociologists, and anthropologists and revealed only after 1989), many of the Polish scholars used to present postwar Poland as an oasis of cultural pluralism (see Michlic, 2005). Others were even denying anti-Semitism and marginalizing the role of Poles in anti-Jewish pogroms. Experiences of the war created a sense of responsibility among academics toward university autonomy but without a sense of urgency to act against anti-Semitism.
However, at Polish universities after the war, some resistance intellectual clubs (Commando Group or The Political Discussion Club, with Zygmunt Bauman as an invited speaker (pp. 228-257) that strongly contributed to the Polish dissident movement existed. Students and academics were meeting underground and discussing the different perspectives on Marxism or reflecting on the condition of the state, not to mention sending protest letters to the party with democratic demands. This life-risking activity, observed closely by the Security Service, greatly helped preserve Polish universities against total ideological brainwashing and form a future students’ resistance movement as well as political opposition against the communistic regime.
In 1967, a radical nationalist camp led by Mieczysław Moczar took over the positions of power in the Interior Ministry (a powerful secret service institution) of the communist party, spreading anti-Semitist ideology among the party and society. Anti-Semitism intensified in Poland through the Six-Day War, an Israeli-Arab military conflict, during which state authorities followed Moscow’s line and supported Egypt (p. 253). People with Jewish origins (and Polish citizens) became once again enemies of the state, being defined as Zionists. Nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic police, led by Moczar, intensified invigilation and infiltration against Polish Jews. Anti-Semitism was supported by party leader Władysław Gomułka during his official speech on 19 June 1967, when he compared Polish Jews with Nazi agents. As Wagner observed (2020: 254), Moczar and his fraction were promising to ‘oust Jews from leading positions and replace them with a younger generation of ‘real Poles’’, which was a very attractive promise for those seeking promotions in public institutions, including universities.
Between November 1967 and January 1968, Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) – a play by Adam Mickiewicz, the nineteenth-century Romantic patriotic poet, was being played by the National Theatre as part of celebrations of the Soviet Revolution. The authorities defined the play as a political protest against the state, since the public (mostly students and academics) understood the play as an act of resistance against Soviet colonization (p. 261). The play was banned, and many of the students and academics were arrested or fined for anti-state activity. The party defined this event as related to a Zionist conspiracy, blaming the Polish Jews. In response, students from Warsaw University (those active in Commando Group or The Political Discussion Club mentioned before) organized a protest movement and sent a protest letter (signed by many academics from different universities in Poland) to Parliament requesting the return of Dziady to the stage – in response, “the university began suspending and expelling students” (p. 262). In March 1968, street fights in Warsaw and other cities began, and the party sent ORMO (Volunteer Reserve of the Citizens’ Militia) to stifle the protests. ORMO, together with Polish Militia – sometimes supported by ordinary Polish citizens – was very efficient: the organization entered university campuses and campus houses, beating up and arresting unarmed students and academics (including women). People appearing Jewish (for example, women with dark hair) were treated with particular cruelty. During that violent time, Bauman was trying to protect the students, organizing a shelter in the university hall of Warsaw University (p. 265).
Knowing that the anti-Semitic feelings in the Polish society were developed by nationalists from the party, it should not be a surprise that the Jews were declared by the state and Polish society as global conspirators responsible for the riots. Poles acting in the riots were defined by party propaganda as naïve, lost, and manipulated by the Jews (p. 270). Abuse of power also at universities started very quickly: students lost their places in academia, and academics started being fired following the list of names prepared by the party and secret service. This included Zygmunt Bauman, who was dismissed from Warsaw University, and he was quickly replaced by non-Jewish academics. It was a shock for the victims, since even during the Stalinist period, resisting academics were able to keep their academic positions and pursue research, even if they were banned from teaching (p. 275). On 19 March 1968, Gomułka gave a public hate speech blaming Jews for the riots and for the destruction of Poland and suggested that they should leave the country; his speech was enthusiastically supported by the Polish audience, and the state pogrom began (pp. 273-286). As Wagner explains, “the authorities did the dirty work institutionally – a white-glove pogrom implemented by the state and its servants, with the acclaim – or mute submissiveness, signifying permission – of the majority of the citizenry” (pp. 274). Anti-Semitism became an official, institutionalized, and state- as well as socially supported policy in Poland.
The party channeled social frustration and hatred against the Polish Jews through the clear message that the empty apartments and goods left by exiting Jews would be distributed among the Poles: “Rare resources, suddenly available, were distributed in an organized way as unexpected gifts for those who most merited them” (p. 274). The same was true with respect to taking the employment positions in organizations – including universities – left by the Polish Jews because of being fired. Many Polish academics were happy with a new anti-Semitic policy, since dismissing the Polish Jews from academia would translate into their success and progression in academic careers (p. 276). As Wagner explains, “people who would never have been accepted as Ph.D. candidates took places of students who had fled or been tossed out of the university. Many scholars saw their careers advance rapidly. For some, impossible became real” (p. 371). The state was also happy. Dismissing Polish Jews from Poland and forcing them to give back their Polish citizenship (an illegal request, of course) was a cash cow for the party, since the victims needed to pay a lot of money when submitting a request and be able to leave (p. 281).
When they moved from Poland to Israel, Bauman’s family needed once again to move due to Israeli nationalism. Finally, they found their place in Leeds, where Bauman stayed until the end of his life, became a world-class academic star, and earned global attention for his books such as Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) and Liquid Modernity (2000). He also realized his passion for photography, having some art exhibitions in the UK.
Hope is gone but Bauman will stay
Wagner’s book gives not only a possibility to understand the life of one of the most influential scholars, but it is also a micro-sociological analysis of anti-Semitism affecting modern societies. In 2016, a picture of Bauman was burned by a Neo-Nazi group campaigning for Poland’s exit from the EU (p. 394). In today’s Polish society, anti-Semitism is still strong (see, for example, EU survey, 2018) and is supported by the Law and Justice nationalist party through different actions; for example, in 2018, a libel law was introduced to punish anyone who falsely accused Poles of having collaborated with the Nazis in killing Jews through the pogroms, despite the commonly known research evidence of such collaborations. After 30 years of capitalist shock therapy in Poland the economic distance between beneficiaries and losers is still growing which creates a fertile ground for nationalism, populism and conspiracy theories (see Ghodsee and Mitchell, 2021 for an excellent analysis of this problem). This includes a popular stereotype of Żydokomuna in Polish society that is based on the conviction that Jewish people invented and popularized communism and an anti-Semitic image of Jewish international bankers killing postsocialist populations. As Wagner observes, these hateful opinions are ‘expressed even at the universities’ (p. 393).
In fact, capitalist’s spatial fix and de-democratization of Polish universities (mainly, placing more power in the hands of rectors at the expense of academic collegiality while placing more emphasis on competitiveness than academic freedom) through the Higher Education Acts (including the so-called ‘Constitution of Science’ sic! implemented in 2018) opened the way for ideological interventions (see Bothwell, 2020). Nationalism, anti-Semitism and sectarian Catholicism currently affect Polish universities. Collaborating with Ordo Iuris—a fundamentalist and nationalist Catholic organization having their members working at Polish universities—Law and Justice has influenced Polish higher education through religious ideologization. Catholic journals started receiving recognition and financial support from the state at the expense of so-called ‘leftist’ journals, not to mention official hate propaganda against LGBT people, called deviants and compared to Nazis, by the current minister of higher education (a professor at Catholic University) (see Tilles, 2021). Due to moral blindness toward capitalist-organizing principles (competition, masculine culture, academic excellence), however, most of the Polish academic community stays silent or sometimes even supportive (the rare exception was a protest against the threads to academic freedom organized by the students and academic staff in June 2018, see Pacewicz, 2018).
Wagner’s book is definitely a page-turner, an exciting story not only about the life of a global thinker who struggled with stigma and dehumanization but also about the history of Poland, academic capitalism and the fate of East European Polish Jews. In this sense, it was a very good and conscious choice made by Izabela Wagner to focus heavily on Bauman’s life before he was forced to leave Poland. Bauman’s early life has not been vastly explored in the English literature but is important for understanding the struggles over his identity and ‘master status’ (how do others see me?) – of being Polish and Jewish – the main conceptual idea that Wagner is focusing on when building her story about Bauman.
Unfortunately, ‘the twentieth-century utopia he (Bauman-MZ) had hoped for – an end to wars, the disappearance of racial and ethnic conflicts and the possibility of an equal society’ (p. 2) seems to be gone. And this disappearance relates very much to today’s Poland, which Bauman loves so much. His homeland still has not reworked the difficult past between Poles and Jews and has changed over the last decades to a much lesser extent than we think (a current dehumanizing action of push back at the Polish-Belarusian border, letting refugees die in the forest, confirms this thesis, see Alboth, 2021). But there is a hope. As Wagner observes, “the nature of Bauman’s intellectual engagement was not so alien to Judaism, which imposes on its members Tikkun Olan – the mission of repairing the world” (p. 223). Serving others, engaging with and making a world a better place to live and through disagreement with injustice, consumerism, and hyper-individualism, Zygmunt Bauman will for sure continue inspiring future generations of democratic change makers.
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