Feb 22nd 2014

Dangerous Personality Disorder in a Leading Position: Mao

by Ian Hughes

Ian Hughes is trained in psychoanalysis. In the area of political science, he co-authored a study on the effectiveness of democracy in Ireland. He graduated with a PhD in atomic physics from Queen’s University in Belfast, and worked in some of the top research laboratories in Europe and the United States. These included JET, the nuclear fusion research facility, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States.

In his 2018 book Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy, he brought together his experience in science, psychology and political science to demonstrate that a small proportion of people with dangerous personality disorders are responsible for most of the violence and greed that scars our world. The book explored how demonstrably dangerous individuals, namely psychopaths and those with narcissistic and paranoid personality disorders, can so easily gain power, attract widespread followings and lead societies towards calamity. He is also contributing author to the 2019 book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) Centre, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork. His work at MaREI is aimed at helping to establish a common understanding among decision-makers across government of the challenges and opportunities associated with system transitions for sustainability and the policy responses which can enable the system changes needed to address climate change.

Ten years ago, on the one hundred and tenth anniversary of Mao’s birth, a group of dissidents wrote a letter entitled ‘An Appeal for the Removal of the Corpse of Mao Zedong from Beijing’. In it they wrote[1], ‘Mao instilled in people’s minds a philosophy of cruel struggle and revolutionary superstition. Hatred took the place of love and tolerance; the barbarism of ‘It is right to rebel!’ became the substitute for rationality and love of peace. It elevated and sanctified the view that relations between human beings are best characterised as those between wolves.’

As China commemorates the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth, an examination of Mao’s time in power provides an insight into his pathologically disordered personality, and the devastating impact that Mao’s 27 year reign of terror had on Chinese society. 

Relations between Wolves

Mao suffered from multiple personality disorder, exhibiting psychopathology, narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder. He also derived great pleasure from extreme violence. His vision for China was a direct reflection of this potent mix of psychopathology.

Like the visions of other psychopathic leaders, including Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, Mao’s vision for China was essentially a simplistic, narcissistic fantasy. The vision of communism, with its promises of equality, an end to exploitation, and a future society based on justice provided the propaganda cover that Mao needed to rise to power. His own vision, however, had little to do with equality and justice, and everything to with ceaseless violence and the absolute subjugation of the Chinese nation.

When he was still in his twenties Mao wrote, ‘Long-lasting peace is unendurable to human beings. 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 periods of peace and prosperity, we are bored…[2]’ When he first witnessed public acts of humiliation and murder at the age of thirty-four, Mao realised that violence conjured up in him ‘a kind of ecstasy never experienced before.[3]’ He longed for the day when ‘several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back.’[4] This was Mao’s vision. In his disordered mind, extreme violence was something to indulge in to satisfy this narcissistic fantasy, and to relieve the boredom he would otherwise suffer in a peaceful world.

The Psychopathic Means of Enactment

Mao’s rise to power was achieved and maintained through thuggery and terror. His 27 year rule was an unending succession of violent hurricanes. According to historian Frank Dikotter, Mao’s first decade ‘was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least five million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’[5] Within that first decade, Mao launched waves of terror against farmers, businessmen, those with a university education, suspected enemies within the party, real and suspected saboteurs, and ‘enemies of the revolution’. Most of these campaigns of mass murder followed the same carefully calculated ritual. One by one, class enemies would be dragged in front of a screaming crowd, where they were mercilessly denounced, mocked, beaten and killed. Unlike Stalin’s reign of terror, however, in which state security forces carried out the slaughter, Mao insisted that in China nobody could stand on the sidelines. Everybody was to have blood on their hands. On Mao’s orders, in most of these killing sessions civilians were forced to participate and kill their neighbours, work colleagues and friends.

Relentless Paranoia, Obsessive Bloodletting

Rigidity of personality is a core attribute of those with a personality disorder. While people with normal psychology can adjust their behaviour in response to changing circumstances, people with personality disorders are incapable of changing their fixed patterns of thinking and behaving. Faced with overwhelming evidence of failure, they dismiss such evidence and redouble their efforts in the same direction as before. Such extreme psychological rigidity and a pathological inability to change course characterised Mao throughout his life.

Faced with clear evidence of the failure of his policies, Mao always reacted by blaming saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries. His unfailing response was to order ever greater violence, whatever the cost in human lives. In fact in 1958, almost a decade after taking power, Mao causally remarked to his inner circle that in order to fulfil his vision for China, ‘half of China may well have to die[6].’

More Violence, More Deaths…

The devastation of the first decade of Mao’s rule was to be followed by even more hurricanes of death and destruction. In 1958 Mao accelerated his attempt to achieve rapid industrialisation with the Great Leap Forward. It resulted in one of the largest famines in history. As China became one enormous labour camp, and the Chinese people were reduced to the status of slaves, at least forty-five million people were worked, starved or beaten to death[7].

Then, in May 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, during which he persisted in fomenting ever more violence until a state of virtual civil war engulfed the country. The greater the violence, he exhorted, the better. By the time of his death in 1976, another half a million people had been killed and the Cultural Revolution had brought China to the verge of anarchy and economic ruin.

Reflecting on the deaths he was causing, Mao mused that ‘killing counter-revolutionaries is even more joyful than a good downpour.’[8]

Hero or Cretin?

Mao’s vision gives a terrifying insight into the incomprehensively distorted world view that exists within the minds of psychopathic narcissists. His vision for China was one devoid of beauty and vitality (he ordered the elimination of gardeners and the end of flower-growing); devoid of art and history (he commanded that singers, poets, playwrights and writers be exiled to the countryside for hard labour, and that China’s ancient monuments and temples be razed to the ground); devoid of human feelings (children were taught to denounce their parents and idolise him and the Party); and devoid of individuality (he experimented with eliminating names and had workers issued with numbers to be sewn on their backs[9]). Devoid of feelings, thoughts or wills of their own, Mao’s aim was to dehumanise hundreds of millions of Chinese people and turn them into the objects he perceived them to be. Chinese society was to become one vast automaton robotically obeying his every whim. As part of that whim, they would indulge in endless blood-letting to assuage his boredom and continually rekindle the ‘kind of ecstasy’ which human suffering conjured within him.

Such a terrifying vision tempts us to label Mao as a monster, as criminally insane, and as a freak of nature whose kind are thankfully as rare as they are extreme. None of these comforting delusions is true. People with dangerous personality disorders are not insane. They do not suffer from hallucinations or any mental illness which clouds their perception of reality. And they are not rare. What makes Mao stand out is that he rose to a position of power from where he could put his terrifying vision into practice. On the 120th anniversary of this cretin’s birth, is that something China really wants to celebrate?


[1] Quoted in Richard McGregor, The Party: The secret world of China’s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane, 2010:246

[2] Quoted in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The unknown story, Vintage, 2006:14

[3] Quoted in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The unknown story, Vintage, 2006:42

[4] Quoted in Frank Dikitter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A history of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57, Bloomsbury, 2013:64

[5] Frank Dikitter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A history of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57, Bloomsbury, 2013:xiii

[6] Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: The history of China’s most devastating catastrophe, 1958–1962, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2010:458

[7] Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: The history of China’s most devastating catastrophe, 1958–1962, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2010

[8] Quoted in Frank Dikitter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A history of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57, Bloomsbury, 2013:94

[9]  Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: The history of China’s most devastating catastrophe, 1958–1962, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2010:453



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Dr. Ian Hughes' blog DisorderedWorld can be found here.

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