Vladimir Lenin? Winston Churchill? George Riddell? H. L. Mencken? Fictional?
Dear Quote Investigator: I was thumbing through The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations to try and find a good saying about freedom of the press and I was stunned to see this hostile sentence [OPQ]:
As to freedom of the press, why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?
These words were attributed to Winston Churchill based on a 1984 biography by Piers Brendon [WPB]. But these same words were attributed to Vladimir Lenin in another collection of quotations I read recently and that is why I was astounded. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the book. Now I am starting to doubt my memory. Could you research this quote?
Quote Investigator: Thanks for a fascinating puzzle. Indeed, most of this sentence does appear as part of a longer passage that is attributed to Vladimir Lenin in a famous compilation published in 1942 called “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken”. The name Nikolai Lenin is used instead of Vladimir Lenin in Mencken’s reference work [NQL]:
Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?
NIKOLAI LENIN: Speech in Moscow, 1920
QI has traced this expression back to a diary entry that was written in 1920 by George Riddell who was a powerful newspaperman and close friend of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Lloyd George. Riddell later became the 1st Baron Riddell. The text in Mencken’s reference is very similar to the text in Riddell’s diary, but it is not identical.
Riddell mentioned both Churchill and Lenin in a crucial passage of his diary. But QI believes that Riddell was describing a speech by Lenin and not the words of Churchill. Hence, QI thinks that the ascription to Churchill is almost certainly incorrect.
In 1934 Riddell published “Lord Riddell’s Intimate Diary of the Peace Conference and After 1918-1923” about the period of the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. This work contained an entry dated June 12, 1920 that told of a meeting between the author and Winston Churchill during which Riddell recounted a speech he asserted was delivered by Vladimir Lenin [RDP]:
I told Winston of Lenin’s speech, in which he said that the day of pure democracy was finished and that freedom of speech and the freedom of the Press were its two chief characteristics. “Why should these things be allowed?” he went on. “Why should a Government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticised? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. And as to the freedom of the Press, why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the Government?”
The wording above is potentially ambiguous. QI believes that the word “he” in the phrase “he went on” referred to Lenin, and the text enclosed in quotes was Riddell’s representation of Lenin’s speech. However, others apparently believe that the quoted text was being said by Churchill. Hence, a dual ascription occurs in modern times.
The quote given in Mencken’s book and in many later works differs somewhat from the passage in Riddell’s diary. Consider the initial sentence:
Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed?
This phrase does not appear in Riddell’s diary; rather, it has been synthesized using Riddell’s prefatory comment and then pre-pended to the quote and credited to Lenin.
This is the earliest cite QI has located for this quote. Its accuracy hinges on the memory and fidelity of Riddell. Researchers have been unable to find this speech in Lenin’s papers or collected works. Yet, there is evidence that Lenin expressed antipathy toward “freedom of the press” in the 1920 time-frame. In 1921 Lenin wrote a letter to G. Myasnikov that indicated the press would be purchased and used for advantage by capitalists [VLP]:
All over the world, wherever there are capitalists, freedom of the press means freedom to buy up newspapers, to buy writers, to bribe, buy and fake “public opinion” for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.
This is a fact.
No one will ever be able to refute it.
And what about us?
Can anyone deny that the bourgeoisie in this country has been defeated, but not destroyed? That it has gone into hiding? Nobody can deny it.
Freedom of the press in the R.S.F.S.R., which is surrounded by the bourgeois enemies of the whole world, means freedom of political organisation for the bourgeoisie and its most loyal servants, the Memisheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries.
This is an irrefutable fact.
The bourgeoisie (all over the world) is still very much stronger than we are. To place in its hands yet another weapon like freedom of political organisation (= freedom of the press, for the press is the core and foundation of political organisation) means facilitating the enemy’s task, means helping the class enemy.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. In 1934 Lord Riddell’s diary was published with the excerpt given earlier in this article. In 1942 H. L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations was published with the excerpt given above.
In 1947 the National Association of Broadcasters in the United States published a book titled “Broadcasting and the Bill of Rights” that contained a version of the quote and attributed it to Lenin [NAB]:
The idea is expressed, also, in a statement by Lenin, made in a speech in Moscow, in 1920: “Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?” To one who believes in this concept of freedom of speech, even present-day regulation of radio broadcasting is regarded as a bold and questionable experiment.
In 1948 the quotation appeared in a Canadian newspaper in Lethbridge, Alberta. Reproducing the quote and ascribing the words to Lenin was popular in articles expressing anti-communist sentiments. Here is part of the introduction to the saying [LLA]:
Everyone knows that Russia colors her news to suit herself and that any new ideas or any true stories which might possibly harm the Communist regime are trodden out of sight. Nevertheless it is interesting to know that such a dictatorial treatment of the press, an agency for truth still as free as air in democratic nations, was first advocated by one of the first and certainly most powerful Russian exponents of Communism, none other than Lenin. Here is what the founder of the present scourge said:
Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? …
The quotation and its crediting to Lenin have been controversial for decades. In 1970 a trace was attempted by Morris Kominsky who reported his results in the book “The Hoaxers” [MKH]. Kominsky wrote that he traced the words back to a speech given by the United States Solicitor General Simon E. Soboleff that appeared in the periodical Nieman Reports in 1956. When Soboleff was contacted he indicated that he had “read it somewhere” but was unable to provide a source citation. Kominsky was not satisfied, and he used the title “Lenin Fabrication, No. 18” for the section that described his investigation.
In 1984 a biography of Winston Churchill by Piers Brendon was published. The work attributed a sentence of the remarks to Churchill instead of Lenin [WPB]:
The British Gazette feigned independence in order to make its official propaganda more plausible. Churchill was never really to understand the role of newspapers as fourth estate of the realm. ‘As to freedom of the press,’ he remarked dismissively, ‘why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?’ Such views and such behaviour during the general strike commended Churchill to west end theatre audiences — he received a warm ovation when attending a musical.
In 1989 the ascription to Lenin was again questioned in the book “They Never Said It” [NSL]. The authors recounted the efforts of Kominsky as reported in his 1970 book and suggested that the quote was not said by Lenin.
Lastly, in 2007 The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations credited Winston Churchill with a sentence from the quotation as shown at the beginning of this article.
In conclusion, QI thinks that this quotation probably originated with a diary entry dated June 12, 1920 that was recorded by George Riddell. The entry portrayed a meeting between Riddell and Winston Churchill during which a speech by Vladimir Lenin was described. Quotation marks were used by Riddell when reciting Lenin’s speech, but the accuracy of the words is not clear because of the lack of independent collaborative evidence. QI thinks the ascription of part of the speech to Churchill is incorrect and stems from pronoun ambiguity.
Thanks for your appealing question.
[OPQ] 2007, The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations (Third Edition) edited by Antony Jay, Entry for Winston Churchill, Page 92, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper in 2007 paperback edition)
[WPB] 1984, Winston Churchill: A Biography by Piers Brendon, Page 105, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
[NQL] 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken, Section: Free Press, Page 966, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
[RDP] 1934, Lord Riddell’s Intimate Diary of the Peace Conference and After 1918-1923 by George Riddell, Chapter XXIV, [Diary entry dated June 12, 1920], Page 203, Reynal & Hitchcock, New York. (Verified on paper)
[VLP] 1965, Lenin Collected Works, Volume 32, 1st English Edition, “A Letter To G. Myasnikov”, [Letter written August 5, 1921], Pages 504-509, Progress Publishers, Moscow. (This text is from the V. I. Lenin Internet Archive at marxists.anu.edu.au mirror of marx.org; This text has not been verified on paper) (Accessed 2011 March 1) link
[NAB] 1947, Broadcasting and the Bill of Rights, Footnote 21 starts on page 12 and continues on page 13, National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, DC. (Questia)
[LLA] 1948 November 8, The Lethbridge Herald, The Dangerous Truth, Page 4, Column 2, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. (NewspaperArchive)
[MKH] 1970, The Hoaxers by Morris Kominsky, Page 83-85, Branden Press, Boston. (Verified on paper)
[NSL] 1989, They Never Said It by Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George, Page 67, Oxford University Press, New York. (Google Books preview) link