Persecution and the Art of Thinking

Published by


Zygmunt Bauman’s books have been read by millions of people in over thirty languages. For this reason alone the biography of this outstanding philosopher and a sociologist deserves attention. An interest in his life is justified not only by the natural need to learn about the twists and turns of his activities as a scholar and popular intellectual. It may contribute to our understanding of how someone who faced extraordinary and overwhelming challenges managed to achieve the status of a global public intellectual.

Bauman’s life has already become the subject of three biographical accounts, all written by Polish intellectuals. Izabela Wagner’s Bauman: A Biography, appeared in English (Cambridge 2020). Polish-language biographies was authored by Dariusz Rosiak, (Bauman, Kraków 2019), and by Artur Domosławski (An Outcast: 21 Scenes from Zygmunt Bauman’s Life, Warszawa 2021). All of them may be read as extended commentaries on Bauman’s brusque and (un)apologetic statement: “I couldn’t have another life.”

Bauman was born in 1925 in the city of Poznań, Poland, to impoverished Jewish parents. As a teenager, he fled with his family to the Soviet Union to escape the oncoming war. There he excelled in education, conducted in Russian, despite the fact that he attended it erratically in multiple schools in various locations, and then became an officer of the Polish army established on Stalin’s orders. He fought in World War II, was badly wounded in a battle, and, having recuperated, he continued to fight all the way to Berlin. After the war, his military corps was transformed into a special security force in which he served as a propaganda officer. Discharged from the army, he enrolled at the University of Warsaw and soon became an academic. As a trusted comrade, he was sent to the London School of Economics on a scholarship as part of which he conducted research for his book devoted to the British socialist movement. Upon return, he quickly climbed up the academic ladder in Warsaw and became a professor. After the Stalinist atrocities were revealed in 1956, he gradually slid into revisionist positions and became one of the suspect intellectuals in the eyes of the nationalist fraction which gradually won preëminence within the Polish communist party. In 1968 he was expelled from university, and from the country. He took his family to Israel, where he rapidly mastered the Hebrew language and taught briefly at Tel Aviv University. Never a Zionist, he was soon discouraged by Israeli politics and publicly criticized it. In 1972 the Baumans moved to England where Zygmunt chaired the sociology department at Leeds University until his retirement in 1990. As a writer, he flourished especially when released from the academic chores. He wrote predominantly in English, which was his third language. He published nearly sixty books and innumerable papers on a great variety of topics in social theory, moral philosophy, the Holocaust, postmodernism, urbanism, and many others. His Postmodern Ethics (1993) won him the status of a prominent exponent of postmodernism, a label he later discarded. After 1989 he frequently visited his homeland Poland, where he was rediscovered and admired by the young intellectual generation until the extreme-right, xenophobic movements took him to task for his past cooperation with the Polish and Soviet secret services. He passed away at his English home in 2017 at the age of 92. In 2010 Mark Davis established the Bauman Institute at Leeds University, now chaired by Adrian Favell.

Undoubtedly, his was an intense and fulfilling life. But it was also riddled with secrets, some of which became subjects of international controversies: his belief in communism, his collaboration with the secret services of Soviet Russia and communist Poland, about which he was interrogated by Aida Edemariam,[1] the unfortunate pistol he allegedly used to carry in a holster in his initial year at the University of Warsaw, accusations of plagiarism and self-plagiarism, along with problematic family issues in various periods of his life, like his declarative and actual renunciation of his father, or his oppressive solicitude towards the people he loved. An autobiographical sketch he wrote for his daughters does little to dispel his secrets.

In 1945 Bauman joined the communist ranks. For a number of years, he fervently believed in the egalitarian ideology, and overlooked the oppressive practice of the communist party or rather took it as a necessary stage on the road to communism. This was held against him until his death, and indeed after he passed away, as a sin for which he could not hope to be forgiven. In his voluminous work, Domosławski asks a number of pertinent questions which make the reader realize the problems Bauman had to cope with in his early life. Could nineteen-year-old Zygmunt Bauman have become anyone else in post-war Poland but a communist? Were any other options available to him over the next decade in a country ruled by a regime imposed by Moscow? Obviously, Bauman, a Jew, could not become a member of the nationalist opposition: already in his early childhood, he learned the hard way the true meaning of the anti-Semitism and nationalism ingrained in Poland’s cultural genes. There were no liberal democratic movements at that time for him to join, and, as an urban creature, completely unfamiliar with rural life, he could not seek shelter in the peasants’ movements.

The key to an understanding of Bauman’s choices, and the content of his work, is the problem of oppression. Oppression was an integral part of his personal and intellectual life. He was bullied in childhood by non-Jewish peers, flew with his family from the war terror, seized any opportunity to physically survive the exile in the harsh conditions of Stalinist Russia, fought with the Nazi army during World War II, was badly wounded in a battle, and was ill-treated because of his Jewishness in socialist Poland.

In a provocative essay entitled “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” Leo Strauss attempted to explain the situation of a writer who, fearing persecution, encodes double meanings in his text: the superficial, understandable to the uninitiated reader, and the hidden, understandable only to the cognoscenti.[2] There was a point in Bauman’s life when, having lost faith in communism after 1956, he resorted to this technique in his scholarly writing during the period of real socialism. He freed himself from this oppression in exile, first in Israel, then in England, yet even then only for a time. But without all those various forms of oppression, there would not be the Bauman he succeeded in becoming. No wonder oppression was a prominent subject of his theoretical inquiries. His Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), an attempt to understand the systematic destruction of Jews and other nationalities by the Nazi regime, stands out as his most important work on oppression.[3] His interest in the Holocaust was provoked by his wife Janina’s book Winter in the Morning (1986), in which she described her experience of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The exile did not protect him from persecution, however. Along with the rebirth of Poland in 1989, reborn was also its xenophobic specters, which pursued him all the more voraciously and zealously just because he, a former communist, became an outstanding thinker, appreciated all over the world. The task of destroying Bauman was so tempting for the Polish anti-Semites owing to the fact that he obtained a status that only very few Poles could enjoy. Owing to this, as a sociologist, he became a sociological problem himself.[4] Bauman struggled not only with the exceptional adversities of pre-war, wartime, and post-war Poland, but also with that gratuitous persecution generously bestowed upon him by his homeland – the homeland which he never ceased to long for.

His life is a story about the inner strength that he continuously had to muster, not in order to endure the persecution and adversities which he was rarely spared, but rather to draw from them, almost until his last breath, creative energy. Perhaps the key to unlocking the mystery of Bauman’s intellectual energy should be sought in a mechanism described by Arnold Toynbee, who believed that human creativity is most likely to manifest itself not in a friendly environment but in an unfavorable one.[5] It is obvious, however, that human creativity can fully reveal itself in adverse conditions only when the hardships are not overwhelming, or when they are faced by a person of exceptional intellectual powers. It is obvious that with Bauman the latter is the case. It is a pity that the deepest secret of his daily motivation to engage in the intellectual effort he took with him to the grave.

As a scholar, Bauman interpreted various forms of oppression, not only the physical ones. In his final years, he focused on the oppression that constrains human thinking and which is responsible for the powerlessness of human imagination. In Liquid Modernity (2000), he emphasized that the task of building a new, better social order which would replace the old, defective one does not appear on today’s agenda. He thought the intellectual helplessness is due to the dissolution of the forces that could help us to think of a better world.[6] 

As a student at Oxford, I used to spend long, tantalizing hours at Blackwell’s bookstore. Two inconspicuous houses on Broad Street mask the infernal abyss of an underground multi-storey space filled with books. On its lowest level, like in the deepest circle of Dante’s hell, philosophical and sociological works are put up for sale. These were the hours of ecstasy because one could browse there through the fascinating works of the world’s greatest minds. They were also hours of agony because the sheer number of assembled volumes made me realize that I would never be able to read, or buy, them all. Moreover, and worse still, the vision of becoming one of the authors of such books seemed to me at that time beyond my reach. There were no Polish names on the spines of those books, except for one: Zygmunt Bauman. His name appeared on as many as nine volumes, freshly published by prestigious publishing houses. This points to the secret of the unprecedented influence Bauman had on the global audience. Initially observant of the principles of academic writing, ever since his retirement he began to write in an accessible, seductive, and persuasive style which attracted many readers across the globe. Yet, despite his unquestionably eminent scientific status, Bauman’s work is not only cogently and justifiably criticized and questioned, but also condemned and repudiated, most especially perhaps – again – in his former homeland by his former colleagues. Was Bauman a scientist at all? Does his work deserve academic respect?

The questioning of the scientific nature of Bauman’s work could perhaps be better grounded if we knew what is this thing called science. Despite centuries of philosophical debates, the essence of science still eludes us[7]. According to one possible definition (my own), science is a systematic and methodically organized cognitive activity aimed at formulating propositions that enable us to describe, explain, predict, and transform reality. Scientific knowledge is different from common sense, artistic, religious, and magical kinds. It is also different from what we call wisdom, which consists of general principles of practical conduct in various spheres, especially in everyday life. An outstanding scientist does not have to be a sage, and indeed rarely is. Also, not every sage is a scholar. But science, like any other area of ​​life, needs wisdom. Bauman responded to this demand. Gradually and ever more boldly he abandoned the regime of scientific explanatory poetics in favor of an interpretative narrative of the social world, helping himself to the results of science, but also to idiosyncratically read works of poetry and fiction. Flouting academic orthodoxies, Bauman developed a unique art of transforming scientific knowledge into wisdom and transformed himself from a scientist into a sage.

Zygmunt Bauman

Even at the peak of his international fame, Bauman did not free himself completely from his detractors. His scholarly efforts, and his global success, did not help to reduce their number, on the contrary: they only multiplied. Painfully conscious of this, Bauman hid in the relative safety of his seclusion and solitude in his Leeds house, overgrown with the famously unkempt garden, drawing invaluable support from his wife Janina, and, after she passed away, from his second wife, Aleksandra Jasińska-Kania. He persevered in his reflection upon various forms of oppression, looking for an opening in which human freedom and agency could survive. Having diagnosed the oppression of the rational, “rigid” rules of ethics, he postulated the rejection of ethics in favor of a morality based on non-rational, instinctive human reflexes.

A pessimistic diagnosis of contemporaneity links Bauman with another leading moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, best known for his damaging criticism of contemporary moral philosophy, developed in his After Virtue[8]. The comparison may seem extremely unlikely. Bauman was interpreted as a postmodern, post-Marxist social democrat, whereas MacIntyre is seen as an antiliberal, antimodern, antibourgeois thinker. MacIntyre comes from the post-analytical milieu of Anglo-American philosophy, while Bauman addressed moral and political problems from a point of view informed by European or “continental” philosophy. There is very little evidence that Bauman and MacIntyre, who worked for some time in the same department at the University of Leeds, read each other’s works at all, and, similarly, it is rather uncommon for the readers of Bauman to read MacIntyre, and vice versa. These characteristics suggest, prima facie, that their ethical theories are characterized by irreconcilable differences, and that the intersection of the two sets of readers is rather thin.[9]

A closer inspection reveals, however, that despite seemingly unbridgeable differences in their approaches, both thinkers share not only a strong and critical affinity with Marxism, but also arrive at strikingly similar conclusions concerning the moral condition of contemporary society. For example, in their grim diagnoses, both thinkers employ something that may be called personalized moral patterns. MacIntyre introduces the concept of a “character,” while Bauman employs the idea of a “figure.” Startlingly, they both come up with four kinds of such symbolic patterns, respectively. MacIntyre’s characters are the aesthete, the bureaucratic expert, the manager, and the therapist. Bauman describes how the premodern figure of a pilgrim fissured in postmodernity into the flâneur, the loiterer, the tourist, and the player. The unfavorable moral developments of contemporary society are attributed by MacIntyre to the emotivist or expressivist culture, while Bauman locates their sources in the neoliberal capitalist economy and the growth of the bureaucratic culture. What puts them at odds is that in opposition to MacIntyre, who, as a religious thinker, bases his vision of ethics on the principles of natural law, Bauman, an irreligious one, seemed to believe, following Emmanuel Levinas and Knud E. Løgstrup, in the natural goodness of man, even though he suffered from human wickedness more than an ample share. The differences between Bauman and MacIntyre may be further appreciated through their divergent interpretations of Løgstrup’s moral theory.[10]

Bauman’s thought focused on the degeneration of the goodness of human individuals taking place when they become part of communities; he knew well that it may occur even when the communities are established in order to achieve the noblest ends. Having rejected his faith in the communist utopia, Bauman never gave up his egalitarian faith. He repeatedly declared that he was a socialist and that he would die one. His egalitarianism underwent a substantial and much-telling transformation, though. His initial faith in the tangible, realized communist utopia, irreversibly shattered by the oppression of the system, was replaced by a belief in viable socialism, somehow attainable in some more or less unspecified future. This faith was shaken in turn by the realities of globalization and the overwhelming processes of the capitalist commodification of human life. Eventually, he transported his egalitarian goals to infinity, i.e. into a normative vision of a just society which we have to strive for, even though we have no assurances of ever achieving it. Yet he seemed to believe that our very attempts to change the world into a better place, even if futile, may actually make it better than it would have been without our efforts. The present revival, or detoxification, of egalitarianism – economic, racial, sexual, which is a response to the growing inequalities and exclusions – may actually owe something to his popular writing, and it makes his ideas even more relevant. However, deeply scarred by his own past involvement in the failed communist revolution in Poland, he remained remarkably unspecific as to the available strategies of pursuing the egalitarian aims in times of rampant neoliberal capitalism. Possibly because most egalitarian triumphs against various forms of oppression and exploitation have been, thus far, the fruit of an agonistic tooth-and-claw struggle, something which mature Bauman was reluctant to support. This apparent contradiction in his work may be explained through a reference to the teachings of the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire. This student of oppression, like Bauman, and also, like Bauman, its victim, believed that it is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors.[11] Bauman seemed to believe that an accurate, even if pessimistic, diagnosis of the condition of man and the world is a precondition of reclaiming human freedom. He kept alive his faith in a better world. The story of his life encourages us not to abandon this hope.

[1] Aida Edemariam, “Professor with a past”, The Guardian, April 28, 2007;

[2] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1988.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, Polity Press, Cambridge 1989.

[4] For Bauman’s persecution by Polish xenophobic groupings see Adam Chmielewski’s, Stealing the spectacle,, and Academies of Hatred,

[5] Cf. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. IV, Fifth Impression, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1951.

[6] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge 2000, pp. 5–6.

[7] Alan F. Chalmers, What is this thing called Science, University of Queensland Press, Sydney 1982.

[8] MacIntyre, After Virtue. A Study in Moral Theory, Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame, In., 1983.

[9] Peter McMylor’s paper, “No Place to Hide for the Moral Self. Bureaucratic Individualism and the Fate of Ethics in Modernity” (in: Andrius Bielskis, Kelvin Knight, Virtue and Economy, Routledge, London 2015, pp. 95-108) is one of the few studies comparing Bauman and MacIntyre, which confirms rather than undermines this general claim.

[10] Svend Andersen, Kees van Kooten Niekerk (eds.), Concern for the other: perspectives on the ethics of K. E. Løgstrup, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2007.

[11] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum, London-New York, 2000, p. 56.

Author Profile
Adam Chmielewski

Adam Chmielewski is a Professor at the Institute of Philosophy Poland. He is also a social activist and political columnist. He studied philosophy and social sciences at the universities in Wrocław, Oxford, New York, and Edinburgh. He authored several books, among them Popper's Philosophy. A Critical Analysis (1995) Incommensurability, Untranslatability, Conflict (1997),  Open Society or Community? (2001), Two Conceptions of Unity (2006), and Psychopathology of Political Life (2009). He translated from English into Polish a number of books, among them works by Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Shusterman, Slavoj Žižek, as well as some works of fiction. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Studia Philosophica Wratislaviensia, and a member of the editorial boards of several Polish and international journals. In 2011 he played a crucial role in securing the designation of European Capital of Culture 2016 for the city of Wroclaw, by authoring a successful bid for the city for this title. He publishes blogs: Interventions: Philosophical and Political; Contra-Dictions, and Meetings Downtown.