Days Into Which 20 Years Are Compressed

Vladimir Lenin? Karl Marx? Louis C. Fraina? Homero Aridjis? Carlos Fuentes? Saint Peter? George Galloway? Liz Smith? Steve Bannon? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Many societal changes do not follow smooth trajectories. Instead, change occurs via irregular starts and stops. Here are two versions of this notion:

  • There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.
  • There are centuries in which nothing happens and years in which centuries pass.

The first saying has been ascribed to Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, but I am skeptical because I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Vladimir Lenin died in 1924; however, the earliest citation located by QI that attributed the remark to him appeared in 2001. This long delay greatly reduced the credibility of the ascription to Lenin.

A biblical precursor mentioning the compression and decompression of time appeared in the second epistle of St. Peter. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (New International Version)

Karl Marx wrote a letter dated April 9, 1863 that included a passage expressing a similar idea in which the changes occurring during twenty years were compressed into days. The following English translation was published in 1985: 2

How soon the English workers will throw off what seems to be a bourgeois contagion remains to be seen. So far as the main theses in your book are concerned, by the by, they have been corroborated down to the very last detail by developments subsequent to 1844. For I have again been comparing the book with the notes I made on the ensuing period. Only your small-minded German philistine who measures world history by the ell and by what he happens to think are ‘interesting news items’, could regard 20 years as more than a day where major developments of this kind are concerned, though these may be again succeeded by days into which 20 years are compressed.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1918 U.S. communist activist Louis C. Fraina published a translation of “The Proletarian Revolution in Russia” by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Fraina wrote introductions and notes for some sections of the work. One of Fraina’s introductions contained a partial match in which years were compressed into months and days: 3

But in a revolution, the masses are in motion; the developments of years are compressed into months and days; class relations and class antagonisms are revealed acutely, starkly, and uncompromisingly.

Also, in 1918 an essay by Lenin containing thematically pertinent material was published in pamphlet form. A translation appeared in “The Lenin Anthology” edited by Robert C. Tucker of Princeton University in 1975. The piece titled “The Chief Task of Our Day” discussed events occurring in a few days or weeks instead of decades. The prolix text provides a partial match but not a strong match: 4

In the space of a few days we destroyed one of the oldest, most powerful, barbarous and brutal of monarchies. In the space of a few months we passed through a number of stages of collaboration with the bourgeoisie and of shaking off petty-bourgeois illusions, for which other countries have required decades. In the course of a few weeks, having overthrown the bourgeoisie, we crushed its open resistance in civil war.

In 1991 “The Christian Science Monitor” published an interview with prominent Mexican novelist and poet Homero Aridjis who employed a variant saying without attribution in which centuries were compressed into a year: 5

The Columbus expedition provides a focal point to a year he sees as crucial in world history. “There are centuries in which nothing happens and years in which centuries pass. Fourteen ninety-two is a year of centuries,” he says.

In 1993 the celebrated Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes penned a piece containing an expression similar to the one used by Aridjis: 6

There are years when nothing happens and years in which centuries happen. These days, everything seems to be happening at the same time. We are facing new realities in every single aspect of life. We have yet to come up with a new legality for a new reality.

In October 2001 “The Guardian” newspaper of London printed an opinion piece by Member of Parliament George Galloway who attributed the expression under analysis to Lenin: 7

In exile in Switzerland, shortly before the Russian revolution, Lenin opined that “there are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen”. We are, it seems, living through such weeks. It is hard to remember a time when political instability, civil strife and the roar of bombs and missiles have so scarred the international landscape.

In November 2001 U.S. gossip columnist Liz Smith used the saying as an epigraph for one of her columns. She credited Lenin: 8

“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen,” said Lenin.

In 2003 “The Scotsman” of Edinburgh, Scotland printed an article attributing the saying to Lenin: 9

“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” So wrote Lenin when he was living in exile before the 1917 revolution.
In Britain and the world, we are living through such weeks.

In 2009 George Galloway employed the saying again within an opinion piece published in a Glasgow, Scotland newspaper. This time no attribution was specified: 10

But, as I’ve told you here before, while there are decades where nothing happens, there are weeks where decades happen.

In 2020 the saying was attributed to political figure Steve Bannon: 11

Steve Bannon a close confidant of the president is known for saying “There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.”

In conclusion, the origin of this saying remains uncertain. Karl Marx wrote a letter in 1863 that contained a passage displaying some similarities. Yet, the passage also displayed several differences, and it was not concise. Vladimir Lenin penned an essay in 1918 that containing a thematically related passage. Yet the passage differed from the target quotation, and it was not concise. In 1992 Homero Aridjis employed an interesting variant. In 2001 George Galloway attributed the quotation to Lenin.

(Great thanks to Niklas Hjelm Smith, Robin Hamilton, Keerthik Sasidharan, Tejah Balantrapu, Felix Salmon, Paul Kedrosky, and Michael Gresty whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Nigel Rees who discussed this topic in the October 2016 issue of his “Quote Unquote” Newsletter. Rees mentioned Lenin’s germane essay titled “The Chief Task of Our Day”. Thanks also to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote who mentioned the 1863 Marx citation. Additional thanks to Ralf Bülow who pointed to the biblical citation.)

Notes:

  1. Website: BibleHub, Second Epistle of Peter, 2 Peter 3. Lines 8 and 9, Translation: New International Version (NIV), Website description: Online Bible Study Suite; Bible Hub is a production of the Online Parallel Bible Project. (Accessed BibleHub.com on August 7, 2019) link
  2. 1985, Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 41: Marx and Engels: 1860-64, Letter Number: 281, Description: From Marx to Engels in Manchester, Date: April 9, 1863, Start Page 466, Quote Page 468, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Russia. (Verified with scans from Internet Archive)
  3. 1918 Copyright, The Proletarian Revolution in Russia by N. Lenin and Leon Trotzky, (Edited with an Introduction, Notes and Supplementary Chapters by Louis C. Fraina), Part 3: The Struggle for State Power by N. Lenin and Leon Trotzky, Chapter: Introduction by Louis C. Fraina, Quote Page 161, The Communist Press Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1975, The Lenin Anthology by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Edited by Robert C. Tucker (Princeton University), Part IV: The Revolutionary State and Its Policies, Chapter: The Chief Task of Our Day (Circa 1918), Start Page 433, Quote Page 434, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1991 October 11, The Christian Science Monitor, Mexican Novelist Sees 1492 As ‘A Year of Centuries’ by David Clark Scott (Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor), Quote Page 10, Column 1 and 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  6. 1993 June 22, Austin American Statesman, Life’s new realities must be met by new legalities by Carlos Fuentes, Quote Page A9, Austin, Texas. (ProQuest)
  7. 2001 October 20, The Guardian, We will not be silenced by George Galloway, Quote Page 22, Column 1, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 2001 November 20, Newsday, A Wife Like No Other by Liz Smith, (Article Epigraph), Quote Page A15, Long Island, New York. (ProQuest)
  9. 2003 March 14, The Scotsman, Why is PM seeking war on home front? by Nelson Fraser, Quote Page 11, Edinburgh, Scotland. (ProQuest)
  10. 2009 February 2, Daily Record, We must protect wages in winter of discontent by George Galloway, Quote Page 13, Glasgow, Scotland. (ProQuest)
  11. 2020 April 15, Montgomery Advertiser, Light at the end of the tunnel by Perry O. Hooper Jr. (Former state representative), Quote Page 6A, Column 4, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)