Speak, Memory

Did a postmodern theorist conceal his Stalinist past? Scott McLemee looks down the memory hole.

May 16, 2007

Last week,Intellectual Affairs took up the topic of what might be called scandal-mania -- the never-ending search for shock, controversy, and gratifying indignation regarding our “master thinkers.” Unfortunately there haven’t been enough “shocking revelations” recently to keep up with the demand. So the old ones are brought out of mothballs, from time to time.

A slightly different kind of case has come up recently involving Zygmunt Bauman, who is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Leeds and the University of Warsaw. Bauman is a prolific author with a broad range of interests in social theory, but is probably best known for a series of books and essays analyzing the emergence of the new, increasingly fluid and unstable forms of cultural and social order sometimes called “postmodernism.”

No doubt that fact alone will suffice to convince a certain part of the public that he must be guilty of something. Be that as it may, Bauman is not actually a pomo enthusiast. While rejecting various strands of communitarianism, he is quite ambivalent about the fragmentation and confusion in the postmodern condition. His book Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, just issued by Polity, is quite typical of his work over the past few years -- a mixture of social theory and cultural criticism, sweeping in its generalizations but also alert to the anxieties one sees reflected in the newspaper and on CNN.

In March, a paragraph concerning Bauman appeared at Sign and Sight, a Web site providing capsule summaries in English of the Feuilletons (topical cultural articles) appearing in German newspapers and magazines. It noted the recent publication in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of an article by a Polish historian named Bogdan Musial. The piece “uncovers the Stalinist past of the world famous sociologist,” as Sign and Sight put it.

It also quoted a bit of the article. "The fact is that Bauman was deeply involved with the violent communist regime in Poland for more than 20 years,” in Musial’s words, “fighting real and supposed enemies of Stalinism with a weapon in his hand, shooting them in the back. His activities can hardly be passed off as the youthful transgressions of an intellectual seduced and led astray by communist ideology. And it is astonishing that Bauman, who so loves to point the finger, does not reflect on his own deeds."

A few weeks later, another discussion of the matter appeared in The Irish Times -- this one by Andreas Hess, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Dublin. The piece bore what seems, with hindsight, the almost inevitable title of “Postmodernism Made Me Do It: A World Without Blame.” (The article is not available except to subscribers, but I’ll quote from a copy passed along by a friend.)

Summing up the charges in the German article, Hess said that secret files recently declassified in Poland revealed that Bauman “participated in operations of political cleansing of alleged political opponents in Poland between 1944 and 1954. The Polish files also show Bauman was praised by his superiors for having been quite successful in completing the tasks assigned, although he seems, as at least one note suggests, not to have taken any major part in direct military operations because of his ‘Semitic background.’ However, to be promoted to the rank of major at the youthful age of 23 was quite an achievement. As the author of the article [in the German newspaper] pointed out, Bauman remained a faithful member of the party apparatus.”

Hess goes on to suggest that “Bauman’s hidden past” is the key to his work as “one of the prophets of postmodernism.” This is not really argued so much as asserted -- and in a somewhat contradictory way.

On the one hand, it is implied that Bauman has used postmodern relativism as a way to excuse his earlier Stalinist crimes. Unfortunately for this argument, Bauman is actually a critic of postmodernism. And so, on the other hand, the sociologist is also guilty of attacking Western society by denouncing postmodernity. Whether or not this is a coherent claim, it points to some of what is at issue in the drama over “Bauman’s secret Stalinism,” as it’s called.

Now, I do not read German or Polish -- a decided disadvantage in coming to any sense of how the controversy has unfolded in Europe. Throughout the former Soviet sphere of influence, a vast and agonizingly complex set of problems has emerged surrounding “lustration” -- the process of "purifying" public life by legally disqualifying those who collaborated with the old Communist regimes from serving in positions of authority.

Debates over the politicized use of lustration in Poland have gone on for years. “What may look like an effort to reconcile with the Communist past,” wrote one Polish legal scholar not long ago, “is something else entirely. It is an assault on reconciliation and a generational bid for power.” There are bound to be implications to Bauman’s lustration that will be lost on those of us looking at it from a distance.

But let’s just look at the matter on purely in terms of the academic scandal we’ve been offered. I have read some of Bauman’s work, but not a lot. Under the circumstances that may be an advantage. I am not a disciple – and by no means feel committed to defending him, come what may.

If he has hidden his past, then its revelation is a necessary thing. But then, that is the real issue at stake. Everything turns on that “if.”

What did we know about Zygmunt Bauman before the opening of his files? What could be surmise about his life based on interviews, his bibliographical record, and books about him readily available at a decent university library?

One soon discovers that “Bauman’s hidden past” was very badly hidden indeed. He has never published a memoir about being a Stalinist -- nor about anything else, so far as I know -- but he has never concealed that part of his life either. The facts can be pieced together readily.

He was born in Poland in 1925 and emigrated to the Soviet Union with his family at the start of World War II. This was an altogether understandable decision, questions of ideology aside. Stalin’s regime was not averse to the occasional half-disguised outburst of anti-Semitism, but that was not the central point of its entire agenda, at least; so it is hardly surprising that a Jewish family might respond to the partition of Poland in 1939 by heading East.

Bauman studied physics and dreamed, he says, of becoming a scientist. He served as a member of the Polish equivalent of the Red Army during the war. He returned to his native country as a fervent young Communist, eager, he says, to rebuild Poland as a modern, egalitarian society – a “people’s democracy” as the Stalinist lingo had it. His wife Janina Bauman, in her memoir A Dream of Belonging: My Years in Postwar Poland (Virago, 1988) portrays him as a true believer in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

But there is no sense overstressing his idealism. To have been a member of the Polish United Workers Party was not a matter of teaching Sunday school classes on Lenin to happy peasant children. Bauman would have participated in the usual rounds of denuciation, purge, “thought reform,” and rationalized brutality. He was also an officer in the Polish army. The recent revelations specify that he belonged to the military intelligence division -- making him, in effect, part of the secret police.

But the latter counts a “revelation” only to someone with no sense of party/military relations in the Eastern bloc. Not every member of the military was a Communist cadre -- and an officer who was also a member of the party had a role in intelligence-gathering, more or less by definition.

But a Jewish party member was in a precarious position – again, almost by definition. In 1953, he was forced out of the army during one of the regime’s campaigns against “Zionists” and “cosmopolitans.” He enrolled in the University of Warsaw and retrained as a social scientist. He began to research on the history of the British Labour Party and the development of contemporary Polish society.

One ought not to read too much dissidence into the simple fact of doing empirical sociology. Bauman himself says he wanted to reform the regime, to bring it into line with its professed egalitarian values. And yet, under the circumstances, becoming a sociologist was at least somewhat oppositional a move. He published articles on alienation, the problems of the younger generation, and the challenge of fostering innovation in a planned economy.

And so he remained loyal to the regime -- in his moderately oppositional fashion -- until another wave of official anti-Semitism in 1968 made this impossible. In her memoir, Janina Bauman recalls their final weeks in Poland as a time of threatening phone calls, hulking strangers loitering outside their apartment, and TV broadcasts that repeated her husband’s name in hateful tones. “A scholarly article appeared in a respectable magazine,” she writes. “It attacked [Zygmunt] and others for their dangerous influence on Polish youth. It was signed by a close friend.”

Bauman and his family emigrated that year, eventually settling in Leeds. (He never faced a language barrier, having for some years been editor of a Polish sociological journal published in English.) His writings continued to be critical of both the Soviet system and of capitalism, and to support the labor movement. When Solidarity emerged in 1980 to challenge the state, Bauman welcomed it as the force that would shape of the future of Poland.

These facts are all part of the record -- put there, most of them, by Bauman himself. By no means is it a heroic tale. From time to time, he must have named names, and written things he didn’t believe, and forced himself to believe things that he knew, deep down, were not true.

And yet Bauman did not hide his past, either. It has always been available for anyone trying to come to some judgment of his work. He has been accused of failing to reflect upon his experience. But even that is a dubious reading of the evidence. A central point of his work on the “liquid” social structure of postmodernism is its contrast with the modernity that went before, which he says was “marked by the disciplinary power of the pastoral state.” He describes the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as the ultimate, extreme cases of that “disciplinary power.”

Let’s go out on a limb and at least consider the possibility that someone who admittedly spent years serving a social system that he now understands as issuing from the same matrix as Hitler’s regime may perhaps be telling us (in his own roundabout, sociologistic way) that he is morally culpable, no matter what his good intentions may have been.

Alas, this is not quite so exciting as “Postmodernist Conceals Sinister Past.” It doesn’t even have the satisfying denouement found in “The God That Failed,” that standard of ex-Communist disillusionment. Sorry about that.... It’s just a tale of a man getting older and – just possibly – wiser. I tend to think of that as a happy story, even so.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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