INTRODUCTION TO ISTVÁN BIBÓ

When three years ago two chapters of this book and a table of contents were shown to me, I immediately saw, despite what was then merely a quick and literal translation, that this was a work of real importance, and I was determined that it should be properly published. Now, thanks to the care and patience of several good friends, a proper translation has been made. I write this introduction simply to put the book in context and to say something about the author, who has not previously been translated into English, though his earlier works made him famous on the continent of Europe.

After reading it all, I have become convinced that this book is worthy to be numbered among those very few which have addressed themselves to what is still humanity’s greatest problem – how to preserve peace in a way that can be accepted as just. Such books are likely to be remembered. From out of one of the most troubled but civilized countries of Europe, Hungary, comes a quiet and unspectacular, yet courageous and scholarly, humanistic but practical voice which argues against both the false idealism of “world government” and the false realism of “since not world government then simply the self-interest of the Great Powers”. István Bibó, who has held high office but now lives very quietly, argues against false idealism by showing clearly that we can but – and mostly love to – live in nations, but that national feeling and nationalism are to be sharply distinguished; and he argues against false realism by showing that in fact there have been fairly clear principles in the conduct of international relations, certainly before 1914, and that these could be extended to fit the needs both of a democratic age and of a time of ideological confrontation.

He states a case, based on a wide and deep reading of European history, for thinking that international political arbitration could be nearer than we think. He builds from what we have known: the principle of national self-determination – which with all its difficulties has been a great liberating factor – and types of concord between great powers. The Concert of Powers and the rules of diplomacy that followed the Congress of Vienna are bad examples of these in their content, indeed, but not, he dares to remind us, in method. Working from these and working within these limits could yet lead to new institutions of arbitration.

This is a book which deserves to be studied carefully in every country of the world. And however it is now received, I am convinced that it will be looked back to as the beginning of a time of, as it were, a realistic idealism; it is a cool, rather dry and at times even a fussily academic demonstration, but a convincing demonstration that there is no need to fear that international peace can never find strong institutions, must always depend upon accidents of temporary great power accord; but that we can slowly but surely abolish war, achieve Immanuel Kant’s reasoned vision of perpetual peace. The book was mainly written two or three years ago. References to Kissinger’s diplomacy are not to be found in it. But I feel sure that that other careful student of Metternich would not wish to deny that even the most energetic, subtle and realistic great power diplomacy needs to work through new institutions – if every quarrel between lesser powers means either war or a crisis involving the great powers. Mr Kissinger might be the first to admit that peace cannot depend upon the continued existence of other people like himself. Nothing is likely to date the major part of István Bibó’s argument.

It may help to understand the viewpoint of the book better if I relate what I have learned about the author from friends of his in England. István Bibó was born in 1911. He belongs therefore to the generation which in childhood experienced the upheavals of the First World War, the overthrow of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the 1919 Hungarian Revolution in its two stages – the republican, democratic government of Count Károlyi, and then Béla Kun’s famous but short-lived Soviet-style republic; then the counter-revolution which brought Admiral Horthy to power and the breaking up of the historical territory of Hungary by the Trianon Treaty. When the depression of 1929 struck Hungary, Bibó had just become a student of the Faculty of Law at Szeged University. He continued his studies in Geneva, becoming a PhD in Political Science. He obtained a position as a magistrate in Hungary and, while carrying out his official work, broadened the scope of his knowledge, in particular of history. His studies strengthened his opposition to the official views of contemporary history.

In a Hungary which had been defeated and dismembered, the “revisionist” ideology of revenge, heavily tinged with racism towards the peoples of the neighbouring countries, was dominant. If only in reaction to Allied Powers, the influence of Germany spread. Academic historians began to picture Hungary as part of a Germano-Catholic civilization. Bibó, however, belonged to another school whose origins were deeply rooted in Hungarian political thought. He followed those “politique” statesmen of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who, thanks to a policy of realism, managed to maintain a practically independent national Hungarian nucleus in Transylvania – those who took the best advantage of the tragic position of a Hungary caught between the Austrian anvil and the Turkish hammer.

Bibó therefore belonged to the “populist” movement which instigated a whole series of enquiries into rural life, the so-called “sociographical” research which endeavoured, both in novels and monographs, to get a greater understanding of peasant populations and to narrow the gap between the intellectual élite of the towns and the peasants. His friend Gyula Illyés’ documentary novel, People of the Puszta, is only the more internationally famous example of this literature. On the political level, the “populist” movement was opposed to revisionist nationalism and to fascism, which was rapidly progressing in Hungary on the eve of the Second World War. They favoured agrarian reform, the great hope of three million landless peasants, but were opposed to great experiments of collectivization on the Kolkhoz model. The Fascist threat for a time threw them politically closer, both to the Socialist left-wing and to the Communists, but they kept their original ideology which was far removed from Marxism.

Bibó’s public life began under the anti-Fascist coalition that was set up by the conquering allies in 1945. This was a coalition of four parties: the Communists, the Social Democrats, the National Peasants and the Smallholders. The Minister of the Interior, a member of the National Peasants’ Party (which was the political form of the populist movement), put him in charge of the Department of Public Administration. The policy of the coalition went back to the “March Front”, a resistance movement created in the middle of the war by populist intellectuals. Bibó was heavily involved in the policies of the coalition. The Communist Party at first worked with the other parties in a mutually tolerant manner, but when the first general elections gave an absolute majority to the Smallholders’ Party, the most right-wing party of the coalition, a clash with the Communist Party and the occupying power became inevitable.

In this crisis Bibó wrote and published, not without difficulty, a notable article called “The Crisis of Hungarian Democracy”. He tried to define and defend a creative middle position between any threat of restoration of the ancien régime and the alleged need of a dictatorship of the proletariat. He called himself neither liberal nor socialist, but a passionate believer in both freedom and social reform, but social reform based on an empirical examination of national conditions, not on the copying of foreign examples – whether of East or West.

In 1946 he drew up the text of a Constitutional Bill of Rights (which, needless to say, was not adopted), and in the spring of that year he wrote a pamphlet called The Misery of the Small Countries of Eastern Europe. In 1947 he wrote an article on the character of the police repression of the ever-growing number of “plots”. In 1948 it became impossible to publish any more warnings or attacks. His last essay in that year before a long silence was an historical examination of the Jewish question in Hungary, but its topical points were clear: that rabid nationalism in the past had so corrupted authentic national feeling, which respects the freedom of others, that now many Hungarian intellectuals were inhibited by guilt from offering a bold resistance to the Stalinist dictatorship of Rákosi, which professed to destroy all the evils of the past, and much else besides.

He lost his official posts, and although for a short while he was named Professor of Political Science at Szeged University, he was quickly dismissed from this post and was not allowed to return to Budapest until Imre Nagy’s first government in 1953–4, and only then as a minor employee of the university library.

Very late in the uprising of 1956, Imre Nagy, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, formed the new coalition government and made Bibó a Minister of State – having been elected as a member of the executive committee of the newly reconstituted National-Peasant Party. Very late indeed – on 3 November 1956. On the morning of 4 November he stayed typing in his office in the national parliament while Soviet troops occupied the building. They must have thought he was some minor clerk carrying on with his work irrespective of regime. In fact he was writing what became a famous proclamation, part of which said:

“Hungary has no intention of carrying out an anti-Soviet policy; on the contrary, she intends to take her proper place in the community of the free peoples of Eastern Europe who wish to live their lives under the aegis of freedom, justice and of a society freed of exploitation…

To suggest that it was necessary to bring an enormous foreign army into the country is cynical and ridiculous. It is the very presence of this army which is the main source of disquiet and trouble…

The Hungarian people has paid ample tribute of its blood to show the world its attachment to freedom and justice. It is now the turn of the world powers to show the strength of the principles expressed in the United Nations Charter, the strength of the freedom-loving peoples. I ask the great powers and the United Nations to make wise and courageous decisions for the liberty of the enslaved nations…”

Having signed this, as Minister of State, he had copies duplicated, then calmly walked out of the building through the troops surrounding it, and had the copies distributed, by one means or another. By 9 November he had finished a small pamphlet, Proposal for a Compromise Solution of the Hungarian Problem, which was distributed in the same way. Many felt that he was the last courageous moderate voice to speak for the Hungarian nation, especially when he wrote another document, Hungary and the World Situation, which was informally distributed inside Hungary and published abroad in 1957.

This last document could be seen as the seeds of this book. For he tried to show that states such as Hungary, militarily weak and ideologically torn, are test cases for whether the great powers can coexist with both internal and external stability. Third World countries must see themselves, he argued, as being similarly forced into choices of allegiance they do not want and which would perpetuate, not solve, problems. It had to be demonstrated to them that countries like Hungary could enjoy substantial freedom within the Soviet bloc – just as it would be realistic for Soviet diplomacy not to try to gain the allegiance of South American states, but to gain for them a substantial degree of independence from the United States.

He was imprisoned on 27 May 1957 tried in camera in September 1958, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was, however, released from prison in 1963 and has lived quietly ever since, thinking, reading, writing: a great and internationally famous Hungarian intellectual and patriot. The essays I refer to

I have read – for they were translated in London around 1959 and prepared for publication by a man now dead, whose biographical notes on Bibó I have drawn on freely. But the essays were not published, it being felt that their publication might have prejudiced any chance of his release in milder times. Happily the cautiousness proved justified, he was released. Happily the times now do seem to be just that much milder amid the spirit of détente.

The argument of the book

There are no topical political references in the book, certainly not to Hungarian politics and the events of 1956. The book is deliberately and intellectually, not out of prudence, written at a high level of generality. The argument can be applied to any situation of conflict. The author is well aware, as a widely read and cosmopolitan mind (in the best sense of that abused term) despite his somewhat restricted opportunities for travel or contact with foreign scholars of late, that East Europeans have an international reputation for being a bit obsessional about their troubles – as well they may. This elephant belongs to the world, however, not to the Polish or Hungarian question. If from time to time he draws on his own national history, it is only because Hungary, like other small Central and Eastern European countries, furnishes a ready and relevant example of the acute problems of what he calls, probably from the German, “state-formation”. Africa and South-East Asia know these problems too.

“State-formation” is a phrase that recurs often. If it sounds odd to English ears, it is perhaps because I say “English” and not, more sensibly, “British”. We too are discovering, after the end of Empire, problems of “state-formation”. Is there really a British state, or is it an English state imposed on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? This is beginning to be a serious question. And it is not the same concept as national self-determination, for it raises the juridical questions of what are to be the boundaries and the powers of the new states. No state whatever is now fully sovereign; not even the USSR, the USA or China can control their internal affairs fully independently of the outside world; but no state would regard its political institutions as genuinely national if they were only on sufferance from the enabling power, or if they only had some shadow-power of an attenuated federalism. So “state-formation” it is. There is no point in translating away into a series of elegant synonyms a concept which properly lumps together things of which our very language shows how little experience we have had, or that we have tried deliberately to keep apart – now with less success than in the past. As if, for example, the problem of Northern Ireland was something utterly unique and exceptional – East and Central Europeans must smile at us for this myopic belief.

The original manuscript did contain two long and detailed sections showing how Bibó’s argument could be applied to two difficult concrete cases: Cyprus and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The specific nature of these have, however, dated them somewhat and they would have made this book a forbidding length, so as editor I have taken the responsibility of not publishing them, at least for the moment, but simply of putting copies in the Library of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, of the British Museum, the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. They may be copied but not published. They were appendices to the general argument, which is all translated.

Bibó’s historical starting point is the seeming paralysis of international institutions: the weakness of the UN, the clear will to achieve peace between the great powers, but the lack of permanent institutions and shared principles to make this seem assured (or rather, lack of a clear perception that they do share some principles already), so that each national conflict could be less than a world crisis seeming to call for extraordinary measures, “crisis diplomacy”. His theoretical starting point is what I would call an humanistic realism: “self-interest and military power cannot manage without moral and idealistic justifications, nor can ideals and institutions function without an element of self-interest and power”. He exposes the illusion of the so-called purely practical man that he is, in fact, purely practical, rather than working by some dimly perceived and often outmoded doctrine; and of the idealist, that all would be well by wishing it well – or the grim converse, that since nothing ever is judged in those terms, then no holds are barred.

If these sentiments seem banalities, he makes them come to life. He shows, first, what in fact were the agreements on principle that existed between the nineteenth-century concert of powers. He shows their limitations, certainly: but the main point is not the outdated or even, at the time, repressive content of them; but that they existed. As did a new set of principles when national self-determination became both the doctrine of internal politics and the theory of international relations.

In Chapter 6 he shows the weaknesses of national self-determination as the sole principle of international order. But he does not pose a false antithesis between international anarchy and an international government; rather, he sets out to show the conditions in which national sentiment can underpin the ability of governments to work towards new international institutions. The internal links are vital. Different kinds of democracy exist, and should exist. But everywhere in the twentieth century the dependence of governments on their populations, if they are to exercise real power – towards both peace and welfare – is greater than ever before. Diplomacy can no longer be simply a matter of élites. Other leaders need to know that other leaders will, in fact, be followed, able to honour agreements – particularly those concerned with boundaries, minorities and state-formation.

“Experience shows that a strong link between those in power and the common will is essential, and it is dangerous for a government to feel itself able and entitled to lead the passive, ignorant masses on the road to happiness without their consent. There are frightening examples that show how the most competent, sincere and incorruptible government and élite can, in a surprisingly short time, become senselessly tyrannical, cynically disillusioned and shamelessly corrupt.”

The author shows how such a seemingly old-fashioned and discredited juridical concept as “the sovereignty of the people” must form the basis of legitimacy, however much the forms may vary, in any state which is stable, and how any state whose governments are perpetually unstable, automatically presents continual threats to international order. In a way, the book presents a philosophical and juridical justification of the change in world politics of the last twenty years from concern with ideological victory to concern with stability. But Bibó marshals all the oldest arguments of political science and prudence – which are true – to show that imposed stabilities are, in fact, rarely likely to last, are always potentially explosive as when… and every reader will supply his own examples; far better that the author has not.

He is, in fact, more concrete by not getting bogged down in particular cases. How concrete he is can be seen, for instance, in Chapter 9: “The Inadequacy of Present-Day Methods for Settling Political Disputes” – which I think is the keystone of the book. He reduces the practice of the old nineteenth-century diplomacy to eight propositions or generalizations, some of them almost comically specific, but clearly true – such as “(i) There were a few, uncomplicated and expedient formalities that were taken seriously and with mutual courtesy … (iv) The parties showed a regard for their respective strengths, without constantly and rudely drawing attention to this.” Indeed the chapter begins by identifying with masterly insight and clarity some thirteen contrasts between the new system and the old – though never once does he suggest putting the clock back; rather, radically forward. And he characterizes in realistic terms and in seven generalizations the present spirit and technique of international relations, beginning:

“(1) Formalities have become hollow or uncertain, combining empty and stiff politeness with impulsive or deliberate rudeness and sarcasm. There is constant risk that the entire negotiation will founder in childish squabbles over procedure or prestige – such as the question of the shape of the conference table. This puts the technique of international negotiations back to the stage it had reached in the seventeenth century.”

Yet we have, he argues, however surprisingly, avoided total disaster. His keen realism spends little time indeed on the old nuclear war fears. Nuclear or not, any further total war, such as in the two World Wars, would now prove fatal to civilization. We have survived because, as I read his argument, of four factors: mutual fear; the survival among the great powers of some of the principles and conventions which governed the old diplomacy; that public opinion now severely limits, most often, rather than enhances the bellicosity of governments; and because some of the institutions of the UN represent, in however tangled and difficult a form, the reality of arbitration. In the last two chapters he tries to show how we could move forward from these three points to re-establish, or rather to establish, new principles and conventions governing international order and to create political machinery for settling political disputes.

István Bibó’s scholarship comes out of a juridical tradition of writing about politics (which has set the translators some problems), very different from the empirically oriented Anglo-American tradition or the philosophical and ideological tradition in Germany and Russia. But his own originality lies in his intense political realism. He does not enter into rights and wrongs of the disputes themselves, not because he is afraid to or because he dwells amid abstract legalistic concepts; on the contrary, but because, like a wise family lawyer, he knows it is vain to try to reason either side out of “their rights”, but that it is possible with knowledge, patience and skill to suggest procedures by which each may maintain their integrity without damaging the other and, of course, themselves. The disputants may have to moderate some of their behaviour, if they are not to tear down the only house that humanity has, but he shows that we need not expect them to change their behaviour utterly. That is too much to ask. Besides, why should they? To find what we have in common and need in common is not to abolish real and proper differences.

As in Hobbes’ Leviathan, Bibó ends this small masterpiece of practical reason with a short summary and conclusion. Some may choose to read it first. But the grounds of the argument, so clearly and shrewdly set out, are what will convince.

(Reprinted from: The Paralysis of International Institutions and the Remedies. London: The Harvester Press, 1976.)

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