If you’re not a communist…

There’s an old saying:

If you’re not a communist at the age of 20, you haven’t got a heart.
If you’re still a communist at the age of 30, you haven’t got a brain.

I’ve always liked this quote, and have wondered about its origin since I first heard it. Now, thanks to the web — invented when I was about 25 — I can find out. It turns out to pre-date communism by some time, at least as a rhetorical device.

It was said about republicanism by François Guizot, the French Prime Minister in the mid 19th century, whose childhood had been during the Reign of Terror.

Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.

It was later adopted by Georges Clemenceau, who substituted socialiste for republicain.

But, Fred Shapiro points out, one could argue that even Guizot was pipped to the post by John Adams, who said something similar, though not as elegantly, in 1799:

A boy of 15 who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at 20.

Adams missed the heart and head distinction, though, which I think is important: it captures the sometimes misguided fervour of youth and the wisdom that comes from experience (or, others might say, the conservatism that comes from age).

Of course, I still prefer the ‘communist’ version, but that’s because of when I grew up. I wonder what variations will be popular in 50 or 100 years’ time?


Nice history. Disraeli, one of my favourite politicians, from nineteenth century, also has a very similar quote ascribed to him. As a device, it is always used to dismiss the hot ideologies of youth. But pause a moment: how often do we use intellect to defend the indefensible, by pretending the emotional side should/can be downplayed?

Heh, I first heard this in an interview with Steve Jobs during his NeXT days. His version was along the lines of: If you’re don’t vote democrat when you’re young, you have no heard; if you don’t vote republican when you’re older, you heave no brains.

At the time I assumed it was his phrase, but glad to see he was just doing what great artists do 🙂

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© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser