There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.
“When the rich rob the poor, it’s called business. When the poor fight back, it’s called violence.” – The Apocryphal Twain
There are, of course, many things we wish Mark Twain would’ve said. And this aphorism, with its elegant structure, and its biting cynicism certainly sounds like Twain, particularly early polemics like “Open Letter to Commodore Vanderbilt” (1869) and The Gilded Age (1873). It is not terribly difficult to find instances of Twain skewering the rich, even after he counted himself one of them. As late as 1906, he recast the opening lines of his “Revised Catechism” (1871) as “the gospel left behind by Jay Gould,” the gist of which was, “Get money. Dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must. But, by any means, get money.” This witticism, clearly one of Twain’s favorites, was a poetic inversion of something Judge Frederick Loew said in 1868.
But I digress.
The above aphorism seems so apt to contemporary political debates because it came from them. It was not associated with Twain until October of last year. The first specious attribution I tracked down was made on the Facebook page for The Birds of Paradise, an independent film about “psychic hipsters” involved in Occupy Wall Street.
The film, according to IMDB, is still in pre-production, but its subject provides insight into the quote’s true origin. I will not speculate as to a single, reliable source, but it is apparent that it began circulating on social media in the weeks just before the Occupy protests, which began on September 17, 2011. The earliest iteration I found was this one (on Twitter):
When the rich rob from the poor, it's called business, but when the poor fight back, it's called violence.
— Alfred Remulla (@alfredremulla_) September 10, 2011
As the protests persisted, the slogan would appear on signs and, on at least one occasion, be chanted by demonstrators:
It would be picked up by sympathizers around the world, attributed to Priyanka Ghandi and Drake, among others, but, for the next four years, never to Twain.
This quote deserves to have its anonymity preserved. As a genuinely crowdsourced piece of collective wisdom, rather than just another sharp jab from America’s favorite satirist, it speaks much more directly to the inequality and injustice it describes, as well as the idealism of the Occupy movement.