Who Really Was Zygmunt Bauman: A Realist or a Pessimist?

Zygmunt Bauman
Zygmunt Bauman | Image - Wikimedia Commons CC

Many people like to claim that Zygmunt Bauman was a pessimistic academician but for his new admirer, he was a realist. Bauman was skeptical of any serious egalitarian political change, his intellectual utterances always had an essence of faithlessness and dubiety for established structures and institutions. He was a canny witness of a new form of modernity which the transition between the 20th and 21st century brought about. His  interpretation  of  modernity  was  full  of  doubt  &  individualism.  The  ingredients  of  this conception were major historical dramas staged on the global world eg. the death of ideologies. great  migrations,  economic  depression  of  2008  etc.  It  was  not just these selected events that shaped  Bauman’s  intellectual  sensitivity,  instead,  his  whole  life  was  amidst  bedlam.  This Polish-born  servant  of  sociology was blessed with a long life and was born on 19 November 1925 in Poznan,  Poland.  He was equally abhorred  by Nazis and Commies, for his continuous voicing against their political performativity. In his work ‘Modernity and Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman noted, “Stalin’s and Hitler’s victims . . . were killed because they did not fit – they were eliminated so  that  an  objectively  better  world—more  efficient,  more  moral,  more  beautiful—could  be established. A communist world or a racially pure, Aryan world” 

The  then Soviet Union became the  place of refuge  for Bauman and his family  when the  Second World War  commenced.   There he joined the Red Army to fight against the Nazis. Though later he returned back to Poland when normalcy was restored. In 1968 due to the anti-semitic campaign politick  by  the  then  communist  regime, Bauman was made to leave Poland  for the second time. His oeuvre depicts the reminiscence of personal plights he faced and the angst  he witnessed.

Zygmunt Bauman  and his ‘Liquid Sociology

The  recurring  term  of  liquid  in  sociological  literature  is  a  synonym  to Bauman’s intellectual comprehension. With the usage of expressions like liquid or liquidity, Bauman ardently hints to a shared world where there is a nonappearance of solid structures and institutions which once were the very foundation of the social.It is in this context that Bauman says, all agreements are temporary, fleeting, and valid only until further notice.” For Bauman, the  ramifications of the  modern world are short-lived and not in concrete shape, whether it  is fashion, ideology,  aspirations, fear, dreams, etc. The endeavor to have a coherent self-identity in the epoch of liquid modernity remains unattainable because according to Bauman individuals  are  mere  ‘tourists’  with  a  momentary  social  experience. He  interpreted  that  the relationship  between  individuals  and  society  is  in a continuous flux because the  foundational concepts  such  as  identity,  individuals,  and  individuality  are  turning  obsolete.  When  Bauman asseverates  to  be  “suitable  for  the  global”  he  inkles  to  the  idea  that  this  epoch  demands individuals  to  be  more  than  just  a  consumer,  it makes an insistence from individuals  to be a competitive good. This means liquid modernity will not just compel you to buy a certain entity, instead, it subtly manipulates ones’ physicality.

Zygmunt’s supposition draws a crucial distinction between the older order which certainly had a ‘solid’ structure at its footing and a newer one which Bauman was witnessing had a ‘melting’ or liquid’ structure. There remained many understandings on the analysis of the ancien regime like Marx  scribbled  that  society  was  organized  around  economic  relations  or  society  is  curated encompassing  the  notion  of  rationalization  as  Weber  iterated.  Bauman  was  different  in  his approach;  he  insisted  that  the  newer  order  doesn’t  contain  any ‘solid’ architecture that has a definitional quality to describe the present world. Zugmunt Bauman noted,  Ours   is….    an   individualized,   privatized   version   of   modernity,   with   the   burden   of pattern-weaving and the responsibility for failure falling primarily on the individual’s shoulders. It is the patterns of dependency and interaction whose turn to be liquefied has now come. They are now malleable to an extent unexperienced by, and unimaginable for, past generations; but like all fluids they do not keep their shape for long. Shaping them is easier than keeping them in shape.  Solids  are  cast  once  and  for  all.  Keeping  fluids  in  shape  requires  a  lot  of  attention, constant vigilance, and perpetual effort – and even then the success of the effort is anything but a foregone conclusion.”

Politics and Power are  Divorcing

 Zygmunt Bauman notes “Society is  no longer protected  by the state:  it is  exposed to the rapacity of forces it does not control.”

Bauman stresses that the impression of unabridged sovereignty latched to the conception of State is losing its grip. The State as a political entity had ‘sovereignty’ at its core, but the advent of tripartite  juggernaut  phenomenon  i.e.  ‘capitalism’, ‘neoliberalism’,  and ‘globalization’ altered the structure of the State that was curated in Westphalia, 1648. In the same vein, Fukuyama also stated  that  “traditional  notions  of  sovereignty  had  always  been  something  of  a  fiction.”

Privatization of public assets is one of the reflections where we can visibly observe the fading of the State as a sovereign entity. But arguments can very well emerge on how can we in the second decade of the 21st century understand the State and its functioning. The best reply to such type of questioning should revolve around forwarding a distinct category like intermediary state. By the conception of the intermediary state the author regards present form State in its liquid form if we borrow Bauman’s tenor. The liquid nature of the State  is moving away from the processes of regulation,  welfare,  and  governance  to  that  of  an agency that links international  cooperations with  the  populace  of  the  given  territory  and  promotes  transnational  practices.  The  State  in present times works on the celebrated principle of laissez-faire, where not only economy but also other state-citizen interactions is functioning on the structure curated at big economic centers.

Therefore Bauman rightly observed, In a world  governed by negative globalisation, all the underlying problems… are global, and being global, do not admit local solutions.”

Bauman’s Sociological Imagination

In his work What Use is Sociology, Bauman arguesmaintaining the unending  dialectical back and forth in the construction of ‘common’ sense by focusing on ‘everyday practitioners’ not the spokespeople of different professions.”

Every thinking brain maps its intellectual journey that one is visioning to traverse, Bauman too was having an approach towards the discipline and profession. In What use is Sociology Bauman considered doing Sociology as a conversation where one has to situate its lived experience within a  broader  historical  setting. In order to satiate one’s sociological curiosity,  Bauman maintains that  an  inquisitive  mind  has  to  defamiliarise  the  familiar  and familiarise the  unfamiliar.   

He apprises to re-model the knowledge grasping tools so that the practitioners are able to sense the ever-changing social realm.  Talking about the methodological contribution Bauman encourages to include everyday struggle at the mainstay of the deliberation. He also emphasized that in the present research realm where funding is  a cardinal component there they are  majorly  serving the  ‘managerial  reasons’  and  it  lacks  critical  questioning.  Bauman  recommends  the  social scientist  has  to  “embrace  uncertainty,  provisional  claims-making,  irony,  and  distance”  (the characteristics of liquid modernity)  while they are accomplishing their intellectual inquiry. Bauman was skeptical to fit his episteme under the  enveloping canvas of postmodernism. For him, the conception of  postmodernism diffuses an understanding where something gets ceased which was of relevance in modern time. In one of the interview, Bauman stated that,

I’ve some time ago distanced myself from the “postmodern” grid of the world-map” Alternatively,  Bauman  proposes  the  concept  of  liquid  modernity,  briefly  discussed  earlier. Bauman when stresses on the conception of liquid modernity he moves closer to Marx’s phrase penned in Communist Manifesto i.e. all that is solid melts into air’ is turning out to be literally true.  He  believed  that  nothing  is  ending  as  claimed  by Postmodernists but rather entities are melting or getting liquefied.

This public intellectual who scribbled a lot on the fluidity of subjects in the modern world died on January 9, 2017.

Bhawesh Pant is a research scholar at Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai.

  1.   Bauman, Z. (2000). Modernity and the Holocaust. Cornell University Press.
  2.   Bauman, Z. (2013). Liquid modernity. John Wiley & Sons.
  3.   Bauman, Z. (2013). Liquid times: Living in an age of uncertainty. John Wiley & Sons.
  4.   Fukuyama, F. (2016). Governance: What do we know, and how do we know it?. Annual
Review of Political Science, 19, 89-105.
  1.   Bauman, Z., Jacobsen, M. H., & Tester, K. (2016). What use is sociology?: conversations with Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Keith Tester. John Wiley & Sons.
6.   Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2002). The communist manifesto. Penguin.


  1. Bauman was a communist thug and an informer of the Security in the days of Stalinism in Poland. After the fall of Stalinism in 1956 the Communist party ejected him and, in 1968, squeezed him out of the country. So much for his anti-Communism.

    Wikipedia: According to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, from 1945 to 1953 Bauman was a political officer in the Internal Security Corps (KBW), a military unit formed to combat the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and the remnants of the Polish Home Army.[6] Later Bauman worked for military intelligence from 1945 to 1948. However, the nature and extent of his collaboration remain unknown, as well as the exact circumstances under which it was terminated.[6]

    In an interview with The Guardian, Bauman confirmed he had been a committed communist during and after World War II and had never made a secret of it. He admitted that joining the military intelligence service at age 19 was a mistake although he had a “dull” desk-job and did not remember informing on anyone.[7][8] While serving in the KBW,


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