Quote Investigator

The Capitalists Will Sell Us the Rope with Which We Will Hang Them

Vladimir Lenin? Joseph Stalin? Karl Marx? George Racey Jordan? Samuel E. Keeble? S. Dmitrijewski? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A quotation about imprudent greed and near-sightedness has been attributed to three prominent communists: Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Karl Marx. Here are three versions of the statement:

Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in 1955 within a periodical called “The Commonwealth: Official Journal of the Commonwealth Club of California”. The club is a non-profit public affairs organization. The quotation appeared as a filler item. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Lenin wrote, “When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will vie with each other for the rope contract.”
—Major George Racey Jordan

Jordan was a U.S. military officer who became a fierce anti-communist. Lenin had died in 1924; hence, the 1955 date was quite late. No documentary source was specified, and multiple researchers have been unable to find a match in Lenin’s writings. The Congressional Research Service did report a thematically pertinent passage ascribed to Lenin. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A variety of partially matching expressions concerning rope, hanging, capitalism, and socialism preceded the target quotation; examples are presented below. One class of statements was based on a proverb from the mid-17th century. When rogues are granted freedom of action they sometimes choose a self-destructive course: 2

Give a man enough rope and he will hang himself.

The saying above clearly differs from the expression under analysis because the rope is not being sold. Nevertheless, there exists an overlap in the vocabulary and semantics. In 1896 a book by Samuel E. Keeble extolling socialism suggested that the capitalism would metaphorically hang itself: 3

But, according to the German Socialists, deliverance lies in the very success of Capitalism—by giving it rope enough it will hang itself. It will so mass in its own hands the instruments of production and distribution—land, machinery, railways, etc., that the expropriated community—disciplined, educated, and drilled by Capitalism itself—will finally rise, in some countries quietly, in others violently, and ‘expropriate the expropriators,’ or, in other words, put the community in possession of the land and the remaining instruments of production and distribution.

The 1901 “Proceedings of the Tenth National Convention of the Socialist Labor Party” began with an epigraph attributed to a famous statesman:

Property is the creature of society, and society is entitled to the last farthing whenever society needs it.
—Benjamin Franklin.

Convention delegate Thomas Curran referred to the words above while envisioning a harsh end for recalcitrant capitalists: 4

It is just such quotations as that of Franklin and some of the broad generalizations of the bourgeoisie of to-day that we will employ in later years to weave a rope with which we will hang the capitalist class whenever they charge us with trying to wreck society. [Applause]

In 1920 a speaker at a convention of the Industrial Relations Association America applied the rope metaphor to Wall Street: 5

We want a man who will take Wall Street, when it gets to be an obstructionist, and punch it right square in the nose.
Wall Street will hang itself, if given enough rope . . .

In 1924 Lord Emmott delivered a speech in the U.K. Parliament in London. He referred to the acerbic words of Grigory Zinoviev who was a powerful member of the Soviet Politburo. Zinoviev purportedly made a joke about rope and hanging. A dozen years later Zinoviev was executed by his fellow communists although a gun was used instead of a rope: 6

. . . he has carried out a campaign of insult against His Majesty’s Government and, with what perhaps passes for humour in Communist circles, he said, that they “should support British Labour Party, MacDonald’s party, as the rope ‘supports’ the man who hangs himself.” Since then he has prophesied a short life for the Government and spoken of the Prime Minister with the utmost contempt.

In 1931 the “Review of Reviews” published a profile of the Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov written by S. Dmitrijewski. The author described an intriguing incident that closely matched the saying being investigated: 7

In the autumn of 1905 he founded, together with Krassin, the newspaper New Life; the necessary money being given by millionaires, who thereby helped weave the rope from which many of them should hang later on.

In 1953 the book “Stalin’s Heirs” mentioned the new Soviet leader Georgy Malenkov and included an instance of the 17th century proverb applied to “the West”: 8

And Malenkov expressed his conviction — which he still probably holds — that the western capitalist lands will sooner or later strive to free themselves from the domination of United States finance. This theory, indeed, is one of the basic tenets of the Soviet hope that, given enough rope, the West will hang itself. For long the Soviet theory has been that only the high pace of rearmament has staved off a serious ‘recession’ in the West.

In 1955 the earliest close match known to QI appeared in “The Commonwealth” magazine as noted previously: 9

Lenin wrote, “When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will vie with each other for the rope contract.”
—Major George Racey Jordan.

In 1956 “Time” magazine repeated the joke in the 1924 citation and attributed the words to Lenin: 10

Lenin once said of them: “We shall support the Social Democrats like a rope supports a hanging man.”

In January 1959 a strong match appeared in a syndicated newspaper column by Victor Riesel who suggested that a Soviet diplomat attributed the remark to Lenin: 11

Smooth his red feathers and he’ll recall privately that Nicolai Lenin once said that when “we Communists are ready to hang the capitalists, they’ll try to outbid each other for the sale of the hemp to us.”

Two weeks later U.S. Congressman Walter H. Judd ascribed the remark to Lenin: 12

Mr. Judd. You will recall Lenin once said that when the time comes to hang the capitalists, they will bid against each other for the sale of the rope.

In May 1959 “Aviation Week and Space Technology” printed a letter to the editor containing an instance of the saying: 13

If the leaders of this country don’t stop preoccupying themselves with the economics of an adequate defense, the statement that I believe Lenin made that “when we Communists are at last ready to hang the capitalists, they will be trying to out-bid each other for the right to supply the hemp,” will come true.

In 1960 “Special Assignment: Controversial Commentaries” by Joseph della Malva reprinted a letter that included the saying: 14

. . . Lenin’s prophecy: ‘When time comes to hang the capitalists, the Capitalists themselves will sell the rope for that.’

In 1961 “The Miami News” of Florida printed a letter to the editor containing an interesting variant expression in which communists sell the rope instead of buying it: 15

Many people are beginning to take the view that it is futile to try to stop communism unless we decide to quit helping it first. Lenin once said he would sell us the rope to hang ourselves because we would hope to make a profit on the transaction.

The reference work “Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service” included a pertinent entry. Lenin reportedly wrote about credits supplied by capitalists. The following passage rendered in English appeared in a Russian-language journal in 1961 and provided a semantic match, but it did not employ the vivid rope metaphor: 16

They [capitalists] will furnish credits which will serve us for the support of the Communist Party in their countries and, by supplying us materials and technical equipment which we lack, will restore our military industry necessary for our future attacks against our suppliers. To put it in other words, they will work on the preparation of their own suicide.

Vladimir Ilich (Ulyanov) Lenin, as reported by I. U. Annenkov in an article entitled, “Remembrances of Lenin,” Novyi Zhurnal / New Review, September 1961, p. 147.

Annenkov stated that he had examined Lenin’s manuscripts while visiting the Moscow Institute of V. I. Lenin shortly after the leader’s death in 1924. The journal Novyi Zhurnal is published in New York City.

In 1962 an article in the journal “Encounter” printed an instance: 17

All these transactions with the West, with their overtones of hypocrisy (on both sides), reveal how the contest between East and West is gradually becoming, as Khrushchev intends, a commercial one. At the same time they throw a curious light on Lenin’s famous remark about “monopoly-capitalism”—”it would sell the rope with which it is to be hanged.” It is now far from clear who is hanging whom—or who is selling rope to whom.

In 1975 the Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who had been expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 delivered a speech in Washington D.C. Solzhenitsyn presented an anecdote that included a version of the saying: 18

Lenin, who spent most of his life in the West and knew it much better than Russia, always said that the Western capitalists would do anything to supply the Soviet economy—”They will fight with each other to sell us goods cheaper and sell them quicker so that we’ll buy from one rather than from the other.”

And in the difficult moments of a party meeting in Moscow he said: “Comrades, don’t worry when things are hard with us. When things are difficult, we will give a rope to the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie will hang itself with this rope.”

Then, Karl Radek, a witty fellow you may have heard of, said: “Vladimir Ilyich, where are we going to get enough rope to hang the whole bourgeoisie?”

Lenin said immediately: “They’ll supply us with it.”

In his 1979 memoir U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater attributed the saying to Joseph Stalin instead of Lenin: 19

Stalin said, “As long as capitalism and socialism exist, we cannot live in peace. In the end one or the other will triumph—a funeral dirge will be sung either over the Soviet Republic or over world capitalism.” He also said something to this effect: “When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope.”

In 2007 an investment fund manager speaking before a U.S. Senate committee attributed the saying to both Karl Marx and Lenin: 20

This matter brings to mind a saying attributed to Socialist Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin: the last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. The evidence linking the saying to Vladimir Lenin was weak because the first citation appeared in 1955 which was many years after Lenin’s death in 1924.

On the other hand, the late citation from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was interesting because it suggested that the expression was circulating within the Soviet dissident community. Yet, QI does not know how Solzhenitsyn acquired the anecdote.

In addition, the 1931 citation was compelling because it depicted an incident matching the meaning of the saying. There is no substantive evidence supporting the attributions to Joseph Stalin and Karl Marx.

(Great thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system for help verifying the 1955 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1955 October 31, The Commonwealth: Official Journal of the Commonwealth Club of California, Volume 31, Number 44, (Freestanding quotation), Page 268, Column 2, Published by Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system)
  2. 2004, Oxford Dictionary Of Idioms, Second Edition, Edited by Judith Siefring, Entry: rope, Quote Page 247, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1896, Industrial Day-Dreams: Studies in Industrial Ethics and Economics by Samuel E. Keeble (Samuel Edward Keeble), Quote Page 20, Published by Eliot Stock, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1901, Proceedings of the Tenth National Convention of the Socialist Labor Party, Held in New York City, June 2 to June 8, 1900, Delegate Curran (Thomas Curran of Rhode Island), Start Page 100, Quote Page 101, New York Labor News Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1920, Proceedings Annual Convention, Industrial Relations Association America, Held in Chicago, Illinois on May 19 to 21, 1920, What the Working Man Wants by Sherman Rogers (Author and Lecturer, New York City), Start Page 104, Quote Page 106, Published by Industrial Relations Association of America. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1924 March 26, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Lords, Anglo-Russian Relations, Speaking: Lord Emmott, HL Deb, volume 56, cc1039-73. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on February 22, 2018) link
  7. 1931 July, Review of Reviews, The Soviet Foreign Minister by S. Dmitrijewski, (From Der Querschnitt, Berlin), Start Page 72, Quote Page 72, Column 2, The Review of Reviews Corporation, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  8. 1953, Stalin’s Heirs by George Young, Quote Page 48, Derek Verschoyle, London. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1955 October 31, The Commonwealth: Official Journal of the Commonwealth Club of California, Volume 31, Number 44, (Freestanding quotation), Page 268, Column 2, Published by Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system)
  10. 1956 October 8, Time, Communists: The New Yalta Conference, Time Inc., New York. (Archive at time.com; accessed June 13, 2011)
  11. January 12, 1959, Waterloo Daily Courier, Riesel: Unionists ‘Rough Up’ Mikoyan by Victor Riesel, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Waterloo, Iowa, (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1959, U. S. House of Representatives, 86th Congress, First Session, Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Briefing on Current World Situation on January 29, 1959, Speaker: Walter H. Judd (Minnesota): Start Page 31, Quote Page 49, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust) link
  13. 1959 May 4, Aviation Week and Space Technology, Volume 70, Jeopardized Defense, (Letter to the editor from Jack Ward of Santa Monica, California), Quote Page 214, McGraw-Hill, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1960, Special Assignment: Controversial Commentaries by Joseph della Malva, Chapter: American-Soviet Relations, Quote Page 23, Published by Della Malva c/o WPBC, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Verified with hardcopy)
  15. 1961 September 10, The Miami News, Letter to the editor from Ted Slack Jr. of Miami, Letter title: Are We Buying Red Rope?, Quote Page 4B, Column 5, Miami, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1989, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service, Edited by Suzy Platt, Topic: Communism, Entry Number 246, Quote Page 51, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Verified with scans)
  17. 1962 June, Encounter, Volume 18, From The Other Shore: Letter from Prague by Anthony Rhodes, Start Page 74, Quote Page 75, Column 1, Encounter, Ltd., London. (Verified on paper)
  18. 1975, Congressional Record, Extensions of Remarks, Text from speech by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn delivered in Washington on June 30, 1975, Text was inserted into the Congressional Record by congressman Philip M. Crane of Illinois on July 15, 1975, Title: Solzhenitsyn and Official Washington: Are We Afraid to Confront the Truth about Communism? Start Page E3937, Quote Page E3937, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust) link
  19. 1979, With No Apologies by U.S. Senator Barry M. Goldwater, Quote Page 86, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  20. 2011, U.S. Senate, One Hundred Tenth Congress, First Session, Hearing Before the Committee on Environment and Public Works in June 28, 2007, Examining Global Warming Issues in the Power Plant Sector, Statement of Thomas J. Borelli, Ph.D., Portfolio Manager at Free Enterprise Action Fund, Start Page 180, Quote Page 182, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (Internet Archive at archive.org)