Three revolutionaries who shaped the 20th century

From the peaceful to the violent, the last century gave the world a host of revolutionary thinkers and leaders who changed the course of history.

Three revolutionaries who shaped the 20th century © Getty Images

Vladimir Lenin

Where: Russia
When: 1917
Fighting against: the ruling Tsarist regime and class divisions in society


Angered by the execution of his brother at the hands of the ruling regime, Lenin became a Marxist in his youth. In 1903 he formed the Bolsheviks, the leading faction of Russian Marxists and forerunner of the Communist Party. In 1917 Lenin, along with other radical thinkers including Leon Trotsky, led the Bolsheviks in the violent October Revolution, ending the Russian Empire and establishing the Soviet state that would become a global superpower. He acted as the first head of this regime till his death in 1924.

The synthesis of Lenin’s views with those of Karl Marx created Marxism-Leninism, the basis of Communism throughout the 20th century. Some celebrate Lenin as a proponent of workers’ rights, but he was prepared to inflict horrific suffering and sacrifice countless human lives in the pursuit of Communist goals.

Top Fact:
Apart from a spell during World War II, Lenin’s embalmed body has been on public display in Moscow.


Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, before his imprisonment in 1964 © Getty Images
Nelson Mandela, before his imprisonment in 1964 © Getty Images


Where: South Africa
When: 1948-94
Fighting against: the racial segregationist policy of apartheid

Mandela fought against the oppressive, segregationist rule of the ruling white minority with both peaceful protests and armed resistance. He was jailed for 27 years, but continued to campaign for a non-violent end to the racial divisions of South Africa.

Following his release in 1990, Mandela worked to eradicate apartheid. In 1994 he was elected the country’s first black president. He is today recognised globally as a figurehead for forgiveness.

Top Fact:
Before his capture in the early sixties, Mandela earned a reputation as a master of disguise, leading to the press giving him the nickname ‘The Black Pimpernel’.


Mao Zedong

Portrait of the Mao Zedong, who led the People's Republic of China from 1949 to 1976. © Getty Images
Portrait of the Mao Zedong, who led the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1976. © Getty Images


Where: China
When: 1949
Fighting against: the nationalist Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek

Another Marxist revolutionary, Mao was a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1949, his forces defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang in a bloody civil war, and Mao assumed control of the country as Chairman of the People’s Republic of China.

Though Mao has been credited with modernising China, the social, economic and agricultural reforms of his ‘Great Leap Forward’ and Cultural Revolution caused millions of deaths through famine and violence, making him one of the deadliest dictators in history.

Top Fact:
In 1964, Quotations from Chairman Mao (known in the West as the Little Red Book) was published, and party members were expected to carry it. More than a billion copies were printed in China alone.

Historical Honourable Mentions…

Joan of Arc
The English held dominion in France during the Hundred Years War – until a peasant girl, Joan of Arc, lifted the siege at Orléans in 1429.

The famous former gladiator spearheaded a slave uprising against the Roman Republic that ended with defeat and his death in 71 BC.


Guy Fawkes
The explosives expert of the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot remains one of the most famous failed revolutionaries in history.

This content first appeared in the August 2015 issue of History Revealed.