• Magazine of the International Sociological Association
  • Available in multiple languages
3 issues a year in multiple languages
In Memoriam

Zygmunt Bauman, the Skeptical Utopian

May 30, 2017

Zygmunt Bauman’s biography could be easily molded into a dominant narrative of twentieth-century Polish intelligentsia. After the traumatic experience of war, fascinated by the communist project, this generation was briefly involved in attempts to repair real existing socialism, before discovering its unchanging, totalitarian nature. Later, the same intelligentsia would be involved in the overthrow of communist rule in 1989. Finally, it enjoyed its victory, taking up the role of teaching the people how to use the difficult gift of freedom.

Happily Zygmunt Bauman does not fit into this story or the trajectory that lies behind it. Although he was immersed in history, he never followed its main currents. While sensitive to changing historical contexts, he managed to retain his own voice.

His perspective can be defined as skeptical utopianism: analyzing social order, Bauman always revealed those elements of utopia which serve to maintain structures of domination, but he also called on utopia to strengthen his critique and advocate for social change. The roots of this perspective lie deep in Bauman’s experience in post-war Poland and radiate outward to his later work.

Stalinism, a heterogeneous experience

At least in Poland, the dominant account of the post-war intelligentsia’s commitment to Stalinism can undoubtedly be found in the Captive Mind, by Czesław Miłosz who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The book presents Poland’s educated strata as deprived of religion and ravaged by nihilism. Communism filled this void, offering a comprehensive explanation of the world and giving intellectuals some hope for its reconstruction. Marxism was complicated enough to seduce the minds of refined men, providing a sense of proximity to both political power and the people. Miłosz describes commitment to communism and Stalinist practices in quasi-religious terms, thus explaining the zeal of young intellectuals and their investment in the promise of the new system.

The story may partly correspond to the experience of a new cultural elite deeply involved in Stalinism, but it certainly cannot be used to understand all the roads that led to Stalinism or the various ways of experiencing it. For us it is particularly significant in relation to Julian Hochfeld, a figure of highest importance for the young Zygmunt Bauman and the entire circle of Marxist sociologists at the University of Warsaw, including Jerzy Wiatr, Maria Hirszowicz, Włodzimierz Wesołowski and Aleksandra Jasińska-Kania.

At the beginning of the 1950s, Hochfeld called for the removal of sociology from the University as a bourgeois science, one that should not be tolerated in a socialist state. Hochfeld did not necessarily match Milosz’s description; he was a pre-war scientist and activist in the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), who after the war hoped it would be possible to run independent socialist parties under communist rule. When it was clear that Stalin planned to eliminate all parties that remained independent of Moscow, Hochfeld urged the PPS to join together with the Communist Polish Workers Party, which finally happened in 1948 with the establishment of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Hochfeld’s commitment to Stalinism stemmed not from ideological zeal but from a strategic choice in the face of shrinking political room for maneuver. His hopes that he would be able to continue his political activities in the new party proved futile, however. Despite being a member of parliament he quickly became marginalized, although he continued to criticize the system as part of his academic activities, especially when Stalinism ended after 1956. Hochfeld called for analysis of the mechanisms of alienation under socialism, sought to take into account the role of parliament as a complement to the principle of democratic centralism, and created the one and only socialist academic journal devoted to politics: Socio-Political Studies.

The experiences of his mentor had some influence on Bauman’s understanding of the reality of actual socialism. Although Bauman was unambiguously on the side of socialism in the Cold War conflict between capitalism and socialism, his writings and attitude express some reservations. Following the path outlined by Hochfeld, Bauman fights on two fronts. He criticizes capitalism as a socialist sociologist, and refuses to be satisfied with the shape of socialism: he points to its deficiencies without reducing these to the persistence of the old capitalist devices and habits.

A socialist critique of socialism

In the books Bauman wrote before 1968, both capitalism and socialism are treated as industrial societies. This means they are characterized by production on a mass scale, the development of the working class, and large bureaucratic organizations. Thus, the socialist society cannot be understood entirely in isolation from knowledge of capitalist societies.

Bauman’s works from this period are characterized by his effort to critically assimilate the scientific heritage of Western sociology to Polish culture, in order to create a theoretical framework for analyzing socialist society. Of course this society differs from capitalism in terms of the organization of ownership, mechanisms of establishing hierarchies and the idea of modernization, which under capitalism happens under the dictate of the capitalists, rather than directed by a socialist central planner. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, however, we experience the degeneration of power, alienation of labor, and a diminished sense of the links between individual biography and collective life. Therefore, Bauman argued in his popular 1964 Sociology in Everyday Life (later the basis for Thinking Sociologically) that sociology should critically follow these processes, speaking not only to decision-makers and the elite, but also to ordinary people.

The risky character of Bauman’s path was soon to be revealed. In 1965, he stood up for students facing repression in connection with the release of The Open Letter to the Party – a revisionist critique of actual existing socialism written by Kuron and Modzelewski. Bauman became suspect as a potential threat to single-party rule. Three years later, as the government sought legitimacy in the face of student protests, Bauman’s expulsion from the university was a key symbol of “courage” in the fight against so-called troublemakers and Zionist influences. Like thousands of other people of Jewish descent, Bauman was forced to leave Poland and begin life in exile.

The utopian role of the sociologist

Bauman’s expulsion from Poland marked the beginning of his longest period of silence (apart from writing directly about anti-Semitic events in Poland and a general book on culture). His first book, an effort to formulate the task of criticism in new situations, was Socialism: The Active Utopia, which defined Bauman’s subsequent research program and his perspective as a critical sociologist. Unlike many representatives of the Polish intelligentsia, such as Leszek Kołakowski, Bauman did not reject altogether the utopian promise of socialism in favor of anti-totalitarianism.

In Socialism: The Active Utopia, Bauman calls for awareness of the increased role of culture in the organization of contemporary social life, noting the importance of the individual in constructing the social order and in emancipatory struggles. This awareness requires first, recognition that not all social phenomena are determined by the processes of production, and second, that not all types of domination and oppression – here Bauman mentions the Holocaust – stem from unequal access to property. At the same time, the focus on the individual which is characteristic of modern consumer societies and of movements advocating for social change sometimes blinds us to two important forms of domination: global asymmetries between the center and the periphery as well as between rich and poor within the nation-state.

Bauman’s subsequent activity can be considered a continuation of the project sketched in Socialism: The Active Utopia. His widely-read and recognized books on modernity and postmodernity reveal skepticism towards utopia. The belief that it is possible to create a predictable and transparent society has historically proven to be a source of violence organized by the state against those who do not fit a vision of a pure society. In contemporary postmodern societies, such dangerous visions have generally been abandoned, but that does not mean we can ignore the negative consequences of utopian ideas at the center of contemporary culture – including beliefs about a universal ability for individuals to freely create themselves, choosing from a wide range of possibilities provided by the market. Bauman describes the appeal of this utopian promise in Modernity and Ambivalence, but he also discusses its risks, including a sense of constant inadequacy, the frenetic activity of a subject which seeks authentic identity, a dependence on expertise, and finally, the danger of reducing other individuals to the elements offered by the market.

In addition to the negative consequences of living in a system of consumerist society, Bauman persistently pointed to those who are excluded from it. Too often, those excluded remain invisible, as effective institutional and symbolic tools keep them beyond the horizon of the consumerist experience. These are the poor, the homeless, immigrants and refugees, whom Bauman referred to as wasted lives. The role of criticism, he argued, is to keep them in sight, reminding us that the excluded are people who need assistance, protection and respect. The bond which can connect us to them cannot be based either on our material interests or on the political advantage that may stem from an alliance with the excluded. Rather, it is ethical, based on the impulses associated with the experience of the community of all the people.

Defining his task as purveyor of this utopian impulse, Bauman set himself in opposition to a large part of the East European intelligentsia, which has defined its role as witness and instructor to societies trying to keep pace with inevitable social change. Bauman showed that although sociologists should understand the dynamics of social life, they should also take the side of those placed on society’s margins, and deprived of their humanity.

Maciej Gdula, University of Warsaw, Poland

This issue is not available yet in this language.
Request to be notified when the issue is available in your language.

Invalid or Required Email.
Not saved
We have received your notice request, you will receive an email when this issue is available in your language.

If you prefer, you can access previous issues available in your language: