We have lovable leaders and inspiring fighters but where are the Great Men?

Click to follow
The death of Deng Xiaoping, releasing such a tide of praise, execration and guesswork, has also renewed an old debate. Was he a "Great Man", the last of a line of dinosaurs whose like we shall not see again? And were Great Men the creatures of a special kind of environment which existed during the last two centuries or so, and which is now passing away for ever?

Those are fair questions. But Deng himself does not seem to me to have been "great" in the classic way. He changed the lives of a billion people, and yet he remained within the Chinese Communist system rather than transcended it. Instead, he seems to be an example of something quite different, which is worth a digression.

To all public intents and purposes, Deng was dead for some years before his funeral. This in no way prevented him from ruling and guiding the Communist Party of China. Doubts about which policy to pursue were still settled by referring to his views. Indeed, matters were probably settled more smoothly than when he was there to say what he really thought.

The dead are unemployed, but perhaps this is wasteful. A dead general, given a talented staff, can issue rapid orders which are not going to be revoked; there is something reassuring about a chief who is immune to scandal and issues no paperwork. Look at the Earl of Douglas, who won the battle of Otterburn in spite of dying halfway through it under a bracken bush: "I saw a dead man win a fight/ And I ween that man was I". Or consider that 17th-century Dalai Lama who was known as "The Great Fifth". His reign is still recalled with admiration in Tibet, although it later turned out that he had been dead for the last 18 years of it.

A few years ago, there was a serious crisis in Poland about who should be minister of defence. This might have been solved by appointing the late General Stanislaw Maczek, a soldier of impeccable virtue and honour who had died not long before at the age of 102. Everyone loved and revered him, and knew what he stood for. Death raised him even further above controversy. Although he lay in a grave at Breda in the Netherlands, among his brave soldiers, it would only have been necessary to enter the minister's office in Warsaw and look at his portrait above the empty desk to know exactly what should be done.

But authority beyond the tomb has always been a component of greatness. There has been a hankering to believe that leaders can return from the dead in the nation's hour of need, from King Arthur and the Emperor Barbarossa down to Lord Kitchener. It may be that the curious belief (widely held in the 1930s and 1940s) that every mighty figure had a "double" - a lookalike whose duty was to attract the assassin's bullet - was a variant of that superstition. At the same time, the pretence that the Great Man is still in charge must always in the end be exploited by scoundrels. Stalin's crimes were committed under the slogan that "Lenin lives on", crudely symbolised by the mummy in the Red Square mausoleum. Napoleon III was forgiven many of his follies by Bonapartists, who regarded him not just as the nephew but as the reincarnation of the First Emperor of the French.

For most of this century, greatness has been associated with dictatorship. Auden put it succinctly: "And when he cried, the little children died in the streets." The idea of the Great Man started in the 19th-century with a notion of individuals who were exceptional because of their towering moral stature. But then came leaders who claimed to tower above morals altogether, the fascist superman and the revolutionary leader so tall that he could see beyond petty right and wrong.

In that sense, Stalin, Hitler and Mao were Great Men. But even those who detested them were attracted to the idea of a leader who transcended existing political systems and incarnated a nation. In those days, the world was full of marshals who were fathers of their country and then became pigeon-blotted statues in squares named after them. Marshal Mannerheim fathered Finland; Marshal Pilsudski fathered Poland. Neither was a totalitarian dictator, but both were "men on white horses" (chestnut, in Pilsudski's case) who seemed to ride across the wreckage of party politics towards an appointment with destiny.

Could there be democratic Great Men? The war against Hitler required them, if only for propaganda; why should greatness be confined to Fuhrers? Stalin was presented, without much conviction in the West, as a pipe-smoking friend of the common man. Churchill filled the bill more satisfactorily, an imperious warlord who commanded "Action This Day" and yet was at the mercy of the House of Commons. Nothing frightened Stalin so much as the news that Churchill had been deposed by the voters in his hour of victory.

Since then, Great Men in the classic mould have become rare. Even marshals are hard to find. Stalin's galaxy of marshals had no successors; Germany did not revive the rank when the two post-war German states rearmed. France kept them for a bit - Juin, de Lattre de Tassigny - and then dropped them gradually. The Polish Communists created one or two, but nobody took them seriously. Britain has some retired field-marshals, but the rank was abolished in the Defence Review of 1995.

And yet the Great Man (no women yet, not even Mrs T.) does not quite go away. I have met two. The first, who never ruled anything, was the late and almost forgotten Robert Sobukwe. He was the banned leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress in South Africa, whom I interviewed in his house-confinement in Kimberley. His personality, even in such adversity, filled the little room. The grasp and sweep of his mind made me feel that he was ready at any moment to step out on to the world stage and bring a continent to liberty.

The other was de Gaulle. He had two essential qualities: absolute certainty and loneliness. At first, after the near-coup in 1958 which brought him back to power, I thought he was a dictator. But when I heard him say: "Francaises, Francais - aidez-moi!" (on black-and-white television, in a silent, crowded cafe), I went to the Petit-Palais and queued to join the militia that was to defend Paris against the parachutists from Algiers.

He offered France two things. The first was a ruthless modernisation which changed the country more than it had changed since 1789. The second, which the French did not take very seriously, was grandeur - the revival of France as a great power.

De Gaulle raises the question of whether Great Men require the trashy old myth of a Great Nation. Put the other way round, it's plainly untrue. All modern American presidents have promised to crown the Republic with yet more greatness, and yet none have been Great Men. Not Roosevelt, not even Kennedy who, with all his allure, was only a master-operator of the old political machine. The American system is too democratic - or too oligarchic - to allow a colossus into the White House.

Peering around this world in which glory is discounted and nation states grow fuzzy at the edges, we see lovable presidents like Vaclav Havel, dauntless strugglers like Aung Suu Kyi, safe pairs of hands like Chancellor Kohl. But, for the moment, there are no giants. Instead there is one small, upright person who has those qualities of certainty and loneliness, and also the gift of courage.

Is Nelson Mandela "great"? He is, for the moment, the last of the liberators. On the other hand, he has no wish to tower over others or to rule from beyond the grave, but wants only to show others how to rule themselves. This is not one of the departing Great Men whose shadows still reach us. But, all the same, when he dies the children will cry in the streets.