I’ve heard ugly rumors about Nelson Mandela for years.  Was he a Communist – or a terrorist?  His recent death inspired me to learn more.  Alex Tabarrok nudged me to start with Mandela’s autobiography, which presumably puts his career in the most favorable possible light.

By the standards of anti-colonial revolutionaries, Mandela comes off very well.  He writes no eulogies to murderous hatred, and voices no yearnings for collective revenge.  Yet I still have to condemn Mandela as criminally reckless man who knowingly played Russian roulette with forty million lives.  Here’s how Mandela describes his successful campaign to move the African National Congress onto the path of violence:

This was a fateful step.  For fifty years, the ANC had treated nonviolence as a core principle, beyond question or debate.  Henceforth, the ANC would be a different kind of organization.  We were embarking on a new and more dangerous path, a path of organized violence, the results of which we did not and could not know.

Mandela is well-aware that in modern warfare, innocents routinely perish:

The killing of civilians was a tragic accident, and I felt a profound horror at the death toll.  But as disturbed as I was by these casualties, I knew that such accidents were the inevitable consequence of the decision to embark on a military struggle.  Human fallibility is always a part of war, and the price for it is always high.

Yet he never faces the obvious moral dilemma: Why on earth are you endangering innocent lives if you have no strong reason to believe the consequences will be very good?  Mandela’s path is especially culpable because he was a voracious reader, but obsessed over a single political question: winning.  A typical passage:

I was candid and explained why I believed we had no choice but to turn to violence.  I used an old African expression: Sebatana ha se bokwe ka diatla (The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands).  Moses [Kotane] was an old-line Communist, and I told him that his opposition was like that of the Communist Party in Cuba under Batista.  The party had insisted that the appropriate conditions had not yet arrived, and waited because they were simply following the textbook definitions of Lenin and Stalin.  Castro did not wait, he acted – and he triumphed.

Throughout his career, Mandela conspicuously ignores the mountain of historical evidence on the godawful overall consequences of violent revolution.  He doesn’t just ignore the blood-soaked history of various Communist revolutions, decades earlier and continents away.  He also ignores the blood-soaked history of contemporary African independence movements.  (See here, here, and here for starters). 

Soon after turning to violence, Mandela covertly tours post-colonial Africa, looking for funding.  As far as I can tell, he fails to ask his hosts a single morally serious question.  Any of the following would qualify: “So, how did independence turn out?  What was the body count?  Have the people really been ‘liberated’?  Or have the tyrants merely changed nationality?”  While I’m convinced that Mandela was never a Communist, his priorities were thoroughly Leninist: “The point of the uprising is the seizure of power; afterwards we will see what we can do with it.”

You could say, “Mandela acted justly because he knew that, once in power, he would rule well.”  This seems like a stretch given how little intellectual energy he put into peacetime policy analysis.  But even if Mandela knew that he would make an excellent president, he was far from sure to land the job.  He could easily have died of old age, or been shunted aside by a rival politician promising blood.  Or Mandela’s buddies in the South African Communist Party could have taken advantage of the revolutionary situation to do what Communists do best: Stab their social democratic allies in the back and assume totalitarian power.

Toward the end of his autobiography, Mandela makes a striking admission: The ANC’s turn to violence was about image, not results.  In 1990, the ANC weighed whether to suspend armed struggle.  Mandela:

… I defended the proposal, saying that the purpose of the armed struggle was always to bring the government to the negotiating table, and now we had done so…

This was a controversial move within the ANC.  Although MK [the armed branch of the ANC] was not active, the aura of the armed struggle had great meaning for many people.  Even when cited merely as a rhetorical device, the armed struggle was a sign that we were actively fighting the enemy.  As a result, it had a popularity out of proportion to what it had achieved on the ground.

So not only did Mandela resort to violence without any strong reason to believe it would lead to good consequences.  In hindsight, he wasn’t even convinced that violence made much difference.  But on his own account, the idea of violence had great appeal.  Imagine the horrors the ANC’s glorification of bloodshed could have inspired if, say, Mandela had been assassinated by hard-line supporters of apartheid the day after his election.
Fortunately, Mandela was able to win without stepping over
millions of corpses.  But he knowingly took this risk – and repeatedly
pushed his luck.  He turned down a long list of reasonable compromises, hoping
that the ruling regime would submit to his ultimatum: “One man, one
vote – or civil war.”  He romanticized violence to gain leverage, but never worried that this romance would turn ugly.  Does the fact that Mandela won his game of Russian roulette make his reckless tactics any more excusable?*

Needless to say, Mandela’s opponents were awful, too.  But no one’s nominating them for sainthood.  The harsh reality is that Mandela was a politician.  Like virtually all politicians, he measures up poorly against the standards of common decency.  Seek your heroes elsewhere.

* Was Mandela’s course any more reckless than, say, George Washington’s?  It’s unclear – but that’s another telling point against the
American Revolution
and its slaveholding philosophers of freedom