Great men: Mao, Lenin, Malcolm X - but not Mandela

Nelson Mandela is finally saying goodbye to the world of politics. In a ticker-tape parade through Johannesburg, he accepted the plaudits of his people and refused any future role in public life. He wants to return to the village of his childhood, "to walk around the valleys and hills and the little stream where I grew up".

His life, his political career, are being assessed everywhere, notably by Anthony Sampson, whose biography is being serialised in the Sunday Times. To some, he is a saint. He lifted the issue of apartheid on to a moral plane. It was wrong, he said, and he would not compromise until it was completely abolished. He had no truck with any partial adjustments to that system. It was either all or nothing. Mandela stuck to his word and walked out of prison with the deed almost done. It was a feat of human endurance, of moral courage unsurpassed in the 20th century.

He did much more than that. Though he flirted with the armed struggle in the period before he went to prison, his moral courage in renouncing it after his release rescued South Africa, perhaps temporarily, from a bloodbath. (I say temporarily because, from all reports, it is slowly but surely heading that way, some say inevitably so.) At one stage he wanted to refuse the leadership of the African National Congress and had to be convinced by his colleagues to take the job. Those of us who are acquainted with modern Africa would know that such a reluctance to lead a nation is virtually unknown, notwithstanding the size of the trough.

Yet Mandela does not rank for me among the major political figures of the 20th century. I would put at least three above him: Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Mao Zedong and Malcolm X. The most important development of the century was the advent of people from the developing world on the stage of history, and I include in that definition the people who eventually made up the Soviet Union, China, India and several African states which emerged from the colonial yoke.

The working class in the 19th century - diseased, oppressed, downtrodden - was just an object of sympathy and charity among a section of those who ruled. Lenin placed his confidence in them and they put theirs in him. He built a political instrument and brought the most brutal monarchy in the world to its knees. After that, the working class established itself throughout the world in its own right. Unions and political parties proliferated, deepening and broadening democracy. Lenin was the father of all this political power. His skills, his ruthlessness, his analytical ability were outstanding. You do not have to be a supporter of the vanguard party of Bolshevism to accept that.

What Lenin was to the working class, Mao was to the peasantry. Before the Long March, the stereotypical view of the peasantry was of backward people, living in mountains and valleys, illiterate and superstitious. After Mao, peasants were no longer mere statistics, no longer people who could be written off as a social force. Billions of peasants in India and Africa had to be brought into the democratic arena. Wherever the old or new world sought to exclude them - in Vietnam and Cambodia, for example - there resulted the most violent conflict.

Finally, Malcolm X. The urban army of unemployed grew up under our very noses after the second world war. Malcolm X came out of New York, the most powerful city in the world, and challenged the forces of the law in a dramatic display outside a police station in Harlem. Before that, the baton and the boot kept the unemployed at bay in cities where the accumulated wealth of the 20th century was highly visible. And thereafter every major city in the world had to contend with the X. He left a remarkable slogan: "By any means necessary."

Perhaps the best measure of any political figure is whether he succeeds in empowering those who were hitherto dismissed as hewers of wood and drawers of water. On that criterion, I am afraid, Mandela does not qualify.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - A culture of pretence