Not every villain in history can be confined to a single vice. In pointing out, for instance, the Gluttony of François Mitterand, I didn’t mean to clear this polygamous socialist of any suspicion of Lust or Envy. Quite the contrary: As St. Francis de Sales implied when he suggested that giving way to Lust made men effeminate, allowing any capital sin to conquer part of one’s will merely softens up the rest for easier conquest.
Think of your moral life as a small, developing country, surrounded by enemies, kept going by a lifeline to a single, benevolent patron (say, your one-time colonial ruler). The more you allow corruption to take hold in business and government, the slower and more inefficient everyone’s work will be, as the vicious cycle of distrust leads even honest folk to get in on the game — till at last you’re actually nostalgic for the sight of the Union Jack. Think of God’s grace as the squadron of British gunboats that steams upriver and restores order in the capital. (Is it possible to find a more politically incorrect simile? If so, I can’t think of one. Enjoy!)
Likewise, a will that has compromised left and right with passionate perversities has little defense against the next temptation to come along. As a man deepens in malice, he can learn to take a Luciferian thrill in flouting his conscience, tossing the rules of decency into the outhouse like the Sears Catalog.
One truly dark example, whom my research has led me to dub as the most successfully evil man in history, is the late Chinese dictator Mao Tse-Tung. One of the governing passions of Mao’s life seems to have been Greed — for luxury, privilege, and most of all the power of life and death.
Now, I cannot hope to do justice to this man in a pithy essay. Indeed, to make a dent would require not so much a book as a series of horror films. Not so obviously demonic as Adolf Hitler (Pope Pius XII told any diplomats who would listen that Hitler was “possessed by Satan”) or thuggish as Uncle Joe Stalin, Mao was portrayed by his propaganda machine as a wise, reflective leader of China’s long-oppressed peasants — a man given to philosophical musings, and short, inscrutable poems. This Oriental stereotype got eaten up like a pint of late-night takeout by a long string of gullible Westerners — from journalists like Edgar Snow, to generals like George Marshall, who forced Chiang Kai-Shek to stop attacking Mao’s guerillas when victory was still possible.
At least these people had the excuse of operating before Mao came to power. In the late 1960s, after Mao had already racked up most of his estimated 70 million deaths, Western intellectuals with a taste for utopian tyranny turned from Moscow’s brand of Communism to Mao’s; radicals like Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva camped it up for years, calling themselves Maoists — even as Mao’s regime crushed every flicker of independent thought among almost a billion people, starving or working millions of them to death in the process. Mao’s system organized committees to micromanage the public, private, and sexual lives of millions at the point of a bayonet. This won it praise from pampered professors as the “purest form” of socialism.
And on this point, they were right. The essence of every form of collectivism boils down to one person’s craving to organize other people’s lives on the model of a termite colony. Few have so spectacularly had the chance to indulge this fantasy as the spoiled little scholar from Hunan.
Mao has never gotten the credit he deserves. Vendors sell little statuettes of him in New York’s Chinatown. American college students sometimes sport green hats with Mao’s infernal red star. (Having learned about Mao’s crimes from refugees in Manhattan, I confronted one clueless fellow student about his Mao cap, asking him where he kept his “Hitler hat.” A great way to make friends, I can tell you.) Andy Warhol (see Sloth) made a nice pile of American dollars decorating pictures of this genocidal maniac with garish silkscreened colors — raising none of the questions that might have emerged had he been issuing pictures of Hitler. But then, Mao killed very few Europeans, and those Asians just have a terrible habit of dying like flies, don’t they?
Such a tacit, crass assumption is the only way to explain the genial disregard in the West for Mao’s mind-boggling atrocities — which were most fully documented in the devastating biography Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. I pretty much ruined Thanksgiving this year working my way through 801 pages, and six decades, of villainy. From the copious documents and quotations Chang and Halliday cite, what sets Mao apart from obsessed ideologues like Lenin, Hitler, and Pol Pot is his comparative lack of interest in political ideas. His youthful conversion to Marxism seems perfunctory, and his political writings never attained even the theoretical sophistication of Stalin’s. Mao would have been equally at ease adopting Nazi ideas, had they been less parochially German, since his focus from a young age seems to have been less on improving the lot of industrial workers (whom he scorned) or peasants (whom he hated), and more on the following three-point program:
Attaining power and privilege.
Causing mayhem and destruction, largely to see what would happen.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Mao’s solipsistic egoism emerged early on, as Chang and Halliday document, pointing to his philosophical jottings at age 24:
Mao’s attitude to morality consisted of one core: the self, “I” above everything else. “I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s actions has to be benefiting others. Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others. . . . People like me want to . . . satisfy our hearts to the full and in doing so we automatically have the most valuable moral codes. Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me.”
Mao shunned all constraints of responsibility and duty. “People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.”
Mao further wrote:
“All our actions . . . are driven by impulse, and the conscience that is wise goes along with this in every instance. Sometimes . . . conscience restrains impulses such as overeating or over-indulgence in sex. But conscience is only there to restrain, not oppose. And the restraint is there for better completion of the impulse.”
No wonder Mao became so popular in the 1960s. His ethical core — which could have been cribbed from the writings of the Marquis de Sade — was precisely what the New Left was peddling, in the form of “free love” and the Dionysian frenzies of drug-fueled musical orgies such as Woodstock. But there’s one crucial difference: The New Left (following the gradualist revolutionary tactics of Antonio Gramsci and Saul Alinsky) promoted egoistic hedonism as an acid to eat away bourgeois Christian society — the better to replace it with a Puritanical, egalitarian anthill. It seems that Mao was doing the reverse — creating a nightmarish, dehumanizing dictatorship in service of his own adolescent narcissism. Unwilling to serve Heaven, he excavated a vast Hell on earth so he could reign there.
Mao saw himself as part of a small elite he called “Great Heroes.”
For this elite, he said:
Everything outside their nature, such as restrictions and constraints, must be swept away by the great strength in their nature. . . . When Great Heroes give full play to their impulses, they are magnificently powerful, stormy and invincible. Their power is like a hurricane arising from a deep gorge, and like a sex maniac on heat [sic] and prowling for a lover . . . there is no way to stop them.
That’s a picture-perfect description of the capital sin of Greed — the fetishization of animal instincts and simple whims, setting them up with incense on an altar as ends in themselves.
Now, a lesser, better man might take from such a credo mere hedonism and follow the path of a wretch such as Hugh Hefner — ending up not as the absolute ruler of 900 million souls but rather as one of those guys you hear about in Viagra ads who end up in emergency wards thanks to “erections that last longer than four hours.”
But Mao combined Hefner’s juvenile narcissism with a tectonic will to power. Mao regarded lesser humans (those of us who aren’t “Great Heroes”) the way a bored, sadistic schoolboy might see the ants in a hill he was savaging with fireworks. Mao yawned that “long-lasting peace”
is unendurable to human beings, and tidal waves of disturbance have to be created in this state of peace. When we look at history, we adore the times of [war] when dramas happened one after another . . . which make reading about them great fun. When we get to the periods of peace and prosperity we are bored. . . . Human nature loves sudden swift changes.
What model of change did Mao have in mind? According to Chiang and Halliday:
When he came to the question “How do we change [China]?” Mao laid the utmost emphasis on destruction: “the country must be . . . destroyed and then re-formed. . . . This applies to the country; to the nation; and to mankind. . . . The destruction of the universe is the same. . . . People like me long for its destruction, because when the old universe is destroyed, a new universe will be formed. Isn’t that better?”
Mao’s attitude didn’t change after his conversion to Communism, although he learned to cloak it in social-justice rhetoric, to frame his banal pronouncements in the pseudo-scientific jargon of Marxism-Leninism, and lard them with pretended concern for peasants and workers. However, it was precisely those “little people” of China — who, despite the vast inequalities of the old imperial system, had in many places built up small savings and larger plots of land — who suffered most directly at Mao’s hands. The first victims were his supporters and the unlucky residents who fell under control of the guerrilla bands Mao came to command in the lawless China of the 1930s, where bandit kings (“warlords”) and Japanese invaders fought the legal government of China, headed by the well-meaning but naïve and nepotistic Chiang Kai-Shek. Regions Mao commanded on behalf of the fledgling Communist Party of China were raped for resources, the peasants stripped of all their savings and often reduced to near-starvation, while the Red cadres themselves endured horrific privations.
The worst-off were the Communist soldiers who served under leaders whom Mao envied or feared. Repeatedly, Mao would maneuver entire Red armies commanded by his rivals into hopeless battles or hostile terrain, killing off tens of thousands — but weakening his competitors for leadership. Still other competitors Mao poisoned or framed as “counterrevolutionaries” and had tortured to death — sometimes as he watched and gloated.
Mao would continue in these habits once he ruled the country. His fanatical need to wipe clean every trace of independent thought would culminate with the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Mao’s attempt to purge the country of its 2,400-year-old Confucian culture, to destroy all family loyalty, to liquidate most of the educated class (except for industrial and military specialists), and eliminate the last traces of Christianity. Instead, all the philosophical wisdom his citizens would need could be found in Mao’s Little Red Book — a collection of platitudes that was printed by the tens of millions, which Chinese carried everywhere, if they valued their lives.
All through his rise to power, Mao insisted on a life more suited to an emperor than a peasant guerrilla. The desperate 1934-1935 retreat across thousands of miles of arid Chinese terrain, which Mao’s publicists dressed up as “the Long March,” did indeed involve a great deal of marching — but none of it by Mao. As Chiang and Halliday record, his feet rarely touched the ground: Mao and other leaders were carried on litters like Manchu aristocrats. Indeed, while the elite consumed wholesome food, dozens of litter-bearers dropped dead from exhaustion or hunger.
This hypocrisy set the pattern for the rest of Mao’s career, as he rose in the Party ranks, and especially after Russian intervention and American interference helped bring Mao’s Party to power: Even as ordinary people paid the price for Mao’s irrational, ultra-Marxist policies of collectivizing the land, seizing all surpluses, and working peasants to death by the tens of thousands every year, Mao lived like an emperor, eating multi-course meals — flying in his favorite fish, still alive, across thousands of miles — building elaborate villas, and commandeering gifts from international aid groups for his own use. (During World War II, Mao infamously seized an ambulance funded by donations from tailors in New York’s Chinatown and used it as his personal limousine.)
When Mao craved superpower status to rival the Soviet Union, he exported massive quantities of food, cutting the diets of average Chinese to just a few hundred calories a day. To fund his hysterically rushed industrial “Great Leap Forward,” Mao squeezed the farmers even harder, opining: “Half of China may very well have to die.” When he faced possible attack by the United States because of his involvement in the invasion of South Korea, Mao
wrote to Krushchev confirming that he would be only too happy for China to fight a nuclear war with America alone. “For our ultimate victory,” he offered, “for the total eradication of the imperialists, we [i.e., the Chinese people, who had not been consulted] are willing to endure the first strike. All it is is a big pile of people dying.”
Mao’s attitudes hadn’t changed since his early 20s, when he played at being Raskolnikov. When reports would come to Mao of mass starvation and thousands of suicides, Mao replied that people were
“not without food all the year round — only six . . . or four months.” [sic] Senior officials who invoked the traditional concept of conscience (liang-xin) to beg him to go easy found themselves being slapped down with remarks like “You’d better have less conscience. Some of our comrades have too much mercy, not enough brutality, which means they are not so Marxist.” “On this matter,” Mao said, “we indeed have no conscience. Marxism is that brutal.”
For once he was telling the truth.