István Bibó

The social and political thinker István Bibó (1911-1979) was a Minister of State in the last Imre Nagy government of 1956, delegated by the re-established Petőfi Party (in 1945 the National Peasant Party). While the closest circle of Imre Nagy, with their families, sought refuge at the Yugoslav Embassy after the dawn, 4 November invasion of the Soviet Army, István Bibó, ignored by the Soviet soldiers, remained in a room in the Parliament building for two days, and typed appeals to world leaders, personally delivering a copy to the American Embassy. In January–April 1957 he wrote a well-structured memorandum for the same audience on the Revolution and its handling by world politics, which was also smuggled out to the addressees. We are publishing excerpts from this memorandum below. Soon afterwards he was arrested, and tried, along with Árpád Göncz and others, for treason and conspiracy. His death penalty was changed to life imprisonment. He partook of the general amnesty of 1963, negotiated by the United States and the Vatican with the Kádár regime. In later life he worked as a librarian and contimued his writing, most of which was not allowed to be published during his life. He remained under police surveillance, and was not allowed to travel abroad. For an account of his secret Budapest meeting with his British editor, Bernard Crick, see Gyula Kodolányi, Currents of a Secret Life – István Bibó and Bernard Crick, Hungarian Review, November 2011, p. 47. ff.

In our time, the central issue of the various quarters of the world is how to make use of the opportunities of freedom. The Western world possesses the most developed techniques of freedom, parliamentary democracy based on popular representation and liberties, and it more or less respects the universal ethics that are the grounds for the institutions of freedom and the condition of their functioning. It furthermore possesses an economic system called capitalism, the most important constituent elements of which are free enterprise, the acceptance of making profit as a regulatory principle, and individualistic private law. In spite of the fact that many have considered it dead for over a century, this system has provided striking proof of its resilience and ability to perform; true, it has changed a great deal from its original structure. However, for all the mending done on it, it is still unable to do away with the sense of moral insufficiency that it elicits in many. What is scandalous in it is not free enterprise – this is a genuine achievement of human liberty – but that its institutions perpetuate the property stock of society; not only do they open the way to the type of amassing of wealth that had been known for long centuries before free enterprise and the rule of law were established, but they also lead to aggression disguised in legal forms, an abuse of state power, the expropriation of public and community property, state concessions, corruption, and political intrigue. The forces of free society and peaceful social reform are so powerful in the West, however, that, though slowly and gradually, without radical dispossession, these antediluvian social forms of mammoth property, particularly its regeneration, are driven back. In other words, the poor of the West slowly but surely become richer, while the rich, poorer. However, the simple introduction of the techniques of the rule of law and free enterprise among other peoples of the world – the semi-colonial countries of Latin America and prewar Eastern Europe, colonies and former colonies – has meant and continues to mean that the great masses of simple folks, primarily peasants, not trained in the ways of these liberties, become prey to the aggressive and corrupt generation of such great property. The institutions of free enterprise, the rule of law, and (if it exists) representative democracy easily become the puppet shows of estate owners, financiers, and corrupt politicians. A process of the poor becoming poorer and the rich becoming richer ensues, and there is no chance of its turning around within a reasonable time.


What we have is dramatic debates over the Hungarian situation in the General Assembly of the United Nations, adopting solemn and ineffectual resolutions – to the unfathomable detriment of the UN. As everyone knows, the UN as a means of peace is worth, by the will of its founders, as much as the force and intentions its great-power parties have; without this, UN negotiations cannot but be spectacular disputes and resolutions. In such cases, what fails is not the UN but the political and moral responsibility of the great powers. In the course of the past 150 years, the past 50 in particular, after miserable letdowns, backslidings, and two world conflagrations, a recognition has slowly been brought home to the more advanced quarters of the world that the only possible policy is a principled and moral policy, which is simultaneously the only fruitful realpolitik. The most severe consequence of the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution for the West is that its decade-long policy and propaganda of invoking principles and moral values has come to a point where not only its reasonableness and prospects have been questioned by many but also its honesty.


All the Communist parties of the world have gone out of their way to find their own particular socialist paths while holding onto the ideology of Marxism-Leninism regarded as victorious. The people’s democracies dither between uneasily apportioning concessions and intractably not yielding in Stalinist orthodox fashion. Upholding the Hungarian regime at all costs is as bad an example for them as surrendering it would have been, a step the Soviet Union was not prepared to take with them in mind as well. The associations of sympathisers brought together with so much labour in the non-Communist world show the symptoms of grave damage, even collapse – peace, women’s, and youth organisations, which embodied a great deal of enthusiasm, commanded a great following among workers, intellectuals, and youths, and on which communism could always count. In a word, the Hungarian action of the Soviet Union, which had been meant to avoid surrendering a position, has only dealt a blow to the position of communism. […] the movements in Hungary, Poland, and other Communist countries have most amply demonstrated that there is a genuine and active demand for the reality of freedom and its most developed techniques. Precisely for never having been satisfied, this demand has come to be manifest in a freshness of conviction and passion that significantly surpass the conviction of the Western world, which has grown accustomed to its achievements. These movements have proved that the demand for change is not limited to the victims of the one-party regime; it indeed came forth most fervently from those the single-party system brought up, its youths; there need be no worry that they would lead to the restoration of outdated social and political forms. This conclusion should not be limited to Eastern Europe or drawn with regard primarily to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary on the grounds that they are countries that always belonged to Western Christendom. The principle to be drawn is that it should never be supposed of a people, whether they be Malayans or Germans that a desire for freedom is wanting in them. Economists have already become aware that the destitution of one people is contagious and threatening to the well-being of others; this is a lesson to be learned at the level of politics too. The Hungarian Revolution and the popular movements of Eastern Europe mean that the Western world can and should follow a policy line that is neither aggressive nor informed by power considerations but is more active and enterprising and aims not to impose its economic and social system on others but step by step seeks to win East European countries and finally the Soviet Union over to the Western techniques of freedom and the shared political morality in which it is grounded.


No elimination of exploitation is realistically possible without the genuine functioning of the institutions of freedom. However, the thesis holds the other way around as well: no institution of freedom is realistic without radical land redistribution, the appropriation of mammoth property, and a legal system efficiently safeguarding against exploitation. A third-way experiment, whatever prospects it is deemed to have, would therefore be most instructive for the West; the Communist world; and the semi-, current, and former colonial countries.


All in all, this is what makes Hungary both a scandal and hope of the world; hope, however, means no historical necessity; it is an opportunity that can be grasped or bungled. The question therefore is what is to be done by the various power factors and leaders of the world to put an end to the scandal in the Hungarian case and to bring to fruition the hope inherent in it. I believe these duties are as follows:

1. It is the duty of the Western world, in spite of all frustrations, to keep the Hungarian case on the agenda, the reassuring resolution of which is the precondition of resuming an East–West dialogue.

2. It is the duty of the followers of socialism in both the Soviet Union and elsewhere to always bear in mind that the future of socialism and the Soviet Union depends on the elimination of Stalinist political practice, and Hungary has become a touchstone of whether this is possible or not.

3. It is the duty of the forces of the “third way” to be aware of the fact that it is not only their weight and say in international affairs that hinges on their ability to mediate and their success in so doing, whether the current polarisation intensifies or abates, but also their very existence.

4. Finally, it is the duty of the Hungarian people, who now bear both all the glory and the brunt of the historical role, to reject all cooperation with whatever is falsehood and aggression even at the cost of reducing their living to mere vegetation. It is not their duty to start a new uprising and provoke new retaliations. But it is their duty to hold onto the flag of their revolution in the face of slander, forgetting, and weariness – it is the flag of a freer mankind.

1 In: The Art of Peacemaking. Political Essays by István Bibó. Translated by Péter Pásztor. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2015, pp. 357–371. First published in Bibó István, Válogatott tanulmányok (Selected Essays), vol. 4. (1935-1979). Magvető, Budapest, 1990. The present excerpts were selected by István Bibó, Jr.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email