I read a quote recently, it was either Lenin or Stalin, one of their aides said, "Now, comrade, we will have freedom!" and Lenin (or Stalin) replied, "Freedom to do what?" The implication that freedom was not something the communist was going to permit.

For some reason, I can't find this quote with Google or any other search engine.

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    Internet is full of made-up quotes and stories. Jul 13, 2023 at 1:47
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    ' "Freedom to do what?" The implication that freedom was not something the communist was going to permit. ' I have problems with that inference: even in a society based on extreme anarchy one does not have the right to pillage ones neighbour without experiencing consequences. Jul 13, 2023 at 10:38
  • @MarkMorganLloyd: "Having the right" and being free are two different things. If you - or I should say, groups of people within society - are prevented from doing some things, they are fundamentally prevented from doing any non-trivial things except as approved by a controlling force.
    – einpoklum
    Jul 13, 2023 at 18:46
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    Hm, I know it from a different context, in discussions between socialists and liberals, liberals commenting on the lack of freedom in the nominally socialist states, and socialists responding with "freedom to do what?"
    – gerrit
    Jul 14, 2023 at 6:16
  • @einsupportsModeratorStrike Yes, I agree. It's unfortunate that Lenin's precise words don't appear to be recorded, only an interpretation by somebody who might have had his own political agenda. Jul 14, 2023 at 6:25

3 Answers 3


It's Lenin who's reported to have said this. I found this quote from a Ph.D. thesis -

"At first, the Socialists were[...] in favour of affiliation to the Comintern. Before committing themselves finally they dispatched Fernando de los Rios to Russia as a rapporteur. 'But where is liberty?' asked that bearded individualist from Andalusia. 'Liberty,' replied Lenin, 'what for?'" Subsequently in a vote of 8,809 to 6,025 "the Socialist party pronounced themselves against the Russian connexion." (See Thomas, The Spanish Civil War, pp. 46, 103-104)

I. Slater, “Orwell and the road to servitude,” T, University of British Columbia, 1977., p. 201 (DOI)

I haven't consulted the book myself, but it may be where I read it originally. I've also seen it in the form 'La Liberté? Pour quoi faire?'

It's from a conversation between Lenin and Fernando de los Ríos, who visited Moscow in 1921. The Spanish socialist party, PSOE, had sent de los Ríos to Moscow to discuss PSOE's proposed membership of the Third International.

Whether he really said it I don't know, but it certainly does reflect a real divide between Bolshevism on the one hand, and social democrats and anarchists on the other corner. On most things, anarchists are closer to the Bolsheviks, but this is the irreconcilable difference. De los Ríos and the PSOE ended up on the social democrat side of this divide.

In other words, definitely not an 'internet quote' - if it was made up, it was made up in the 1970s or earlier.

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    The source seems to be a book written by the same Fernando de los Ríos called 'Mi viaje a la Rusia Soviética' in 1921. He quotes that after he asked Lenin when he would give more liberty to the society, Lenin gave a long answer that ended with '¿La libertad para qué?' (Liberty for what?). So, if fabricated, it was in 1921. Jul 13, 2023 at 8:52
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    I submit that "Liberty? What for?" is very different from "Freedom to do what?" Jul 14, 2023 at 0:48
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    In what language was the original quote? Russian? Spanish? French? German? Something else? English didn't have the same lingua franca status in 1921 that it has today.
    – gerrit
    Jul 14, 2023 at 6:18
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    Neither am I French, but I read the language well enough to opine that the title "Freedom to do what?" is a pretty good idiomatic translation of "La Liberté? Pour quoi faire?" In particular, the French is definitely asking about what one would be free to do, whereas English "What for?" can readily be understood instead as "why?", possibly as in "why would we allow freedom?" That colors the remark rather differently. Jul 14, 2023 at 15:50
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    @MarkFoskey Spanish has two words (por and para) which both translate to for in English but have different meanings in Spanish. In the Spanish original(?) (as quoted by Carlos Martin in the first comment here), ¿La Libertad para que? is indeed closer to "Liberty to do what?" and not "Liberty? What for?". That is, it doesn't suggest that liberty is a pointless thing, but instead asks for a more precise definition of what liberty is being discussed, what precise action would be allowed. Same for the French 'La Liberté? Pour quoi faire?'.
    – terdon
    Jul 14, 2023 at 16:42

To develop Carlos Martin's comment, you can find the phrase on page 73 of Mi Viaje a la Rusia sovietista by Fernando de los Ríos:

El periodo de transición de dictadura - continuó diciendo Lenin - será entre nosotros muy largo..., tal vez cuarenta o cincuenta años; otros pueblos, como Alemania e Inglaterra, podrán, a causa de su mayor industrialización, hacer más breve este período; pero esos pueblos, en cambio, tienen otros problemas que no existen aquí; en alguno de ellos se ha formado una clase obrera a base de la dependencia de las colonias. Sí, sí, el problema para nosotros no es de libertad, pues respecto de ésta siempre preguntamos: ¿libertad para qué?

which roughly translated would be something like

The transitional period of dictatorship - Lenin continued - will be very long for us ..., perhaps forty or fifty years; other countries, such as Germany and England, can make this period shorter because of their greater industrialisation; but on the other hand those countries have other problems that do not exist here; in some of them a working class has been created based on dependency on colonies. Yes, yes, the problem for us is not freedom, because respecting this we always ask: freedom for what?

This was published in 1921, based on a visit in 1920.

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    It's interesting that this quote by Lenin doesn't seem to appear in Russian sources at all, aside from one anthology (p.223) composed in 2016 (on the anniversary of the Spanish Civil War) which quotes de los Rios rather than making reference to anything Lenin himself wrote. I guess it's less politic to be so flippant where your own people can hear you.
    – SPavel
    Jul 13, 2023 at 14:32
  • I don't know, the context makes it seem that he's not decrying "freedom", but rather that freedom itself is not absolute, and cannot always be guaranteed in the short term. This is far, far less insidious than OP's interpretation. Similarly, Kennedy's "Ask not..." doesn't mean he thinks the government cannot help the people.
    – cmw
    Jul 13, 2023 at 20:34
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    In context, Lenin is speaking about the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat because he thinks Russia's peasantry is not politically conscious enough to know what's best for them.
    – SPavel
    Jul 14, 2023 at 19:51
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    @SPavel - As de los Rios undoubtedly perceived, Lenin was perhaps less interested in a dictatorship of the proletariat than a dictatorship over the proletariat, which is indeed what the Soviet Union ended up becoming.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jul 15, 2023 at 1:56
  • Sure - but I'm not going to speculate on what Lenin believed on this stack, only cite what he said.
    – SPavel
    Jul 15, 2023 at 2:57

There is a published working draft of Lenin's article "Economics and Politics in the Era of Dictatorship of the Proletariat" (Экономика и политика в эпоху диктатуры пролетариата)

Lenin's Complete Collected Works (Moscow, 1970, vol. 39, p. 264)

enter image description here

This is a set of remarks on a handwritten working draft of an article he was going to publish. It doesn't contain any coherent discourse.

My translation of the text on the screenshot:

"Freedom" = that of a commodity owner
Real freedom for wage workers; for peasants
Freedom for exploiters
Freedom for whom?
ditto from whom? from what?
ditto in what?

The article as it was published contains this excerpt:

Общие фразы о свободе, равенстве, демократии на деле равносильны слепому повторению понятий, являющихся слепком с отношений товарного производства. Посредством этих общих фраз решать конкретные задачи диктатуры пролетариата значит переходить, по всей линии, на теоретическую, принципиальную позицию буржуазии. С точки зрения пролетариата, вопрос становится только так: свобода от угнетения каким классом? равенство какого класса с каким? демократия на почве частной собственности или на базе борьбы за отмену частной собственности? и т.д.

which means:

General talk about freedom, equality and democracy is in fact but a blind repetition of concepts shaped by the relations of commodity production. To attempt to solve the concrete problems of the dictatorship of the proletariat by such generalities is tantamount to accepting the theories and principles of the bourgeoisie in their entirety. From the point of view of the proletariat, the question can be put only in the following way: freedom from oppression by which class? equality of which class with which? democracy based on private property, or on a struggle for the abolition of private property?—and so forth.

The draft seems to have been cited by Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek in this form:

Freedom - yes, but for whom? To do what?

The other answers mentioned Fernando de los Ríos and his book with a similar quote.

In the context of the book (which also describes the conversation about the dictatorship of the proletariat), the meaning seems to be: "When you're talking about freedom, you'll have to ask "whose freedom", "freedom from what" and "freedom of what" first, because a bourgeois's definition of freedom and a proletarian's definition of freedom don't quite agree"

  • 1
    Outstanding detective work.
    – Ne Mo
    Jul 15, 2023 at 16:45

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