A superficial reading of Yang Jisheng's Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 could confirm anyone's fears of communism, at least as it was practiced in the 20th century. Yang, a Chinese journalist whose father died in the famine, did his research on the mainland but had to publish his book in Hong Kong, where greater freedom of the press is allowed. He'd probably agree that communism, at least as a political system, was to blame for the deaths of at least 36,000,000 people during the famine. He blames both unrealistic policies on the part of Chairman Mao and a totalitarian bureaucracy that made every official the slave of those above him and a despot to those below. Since the famine followed a Chinese decision to collectivize all farmland in a rush to implement communism, mass starvation is now seen as a likely if not inevitable result of communism. Mao definitely made some stupendously stupid decisions at this time, but to what extent can the famine be blamed on him and his stooges personally, rather than the system they created or the ideal they hoped to realize?
For many people, Mao stands alongside Stalin, the Khmer Rouge and the Kim dynasty of North Korea as the worst-case scenarios of communism. Worse, he has come to represent the type of leadership many believe a communist country inevitably will have. It's hard to deny that Leninism increases the danger of such people getting power, since the Leninist idea of a vanguard party appeals to those whose idea of a social revolution is getting the chance to tell the whole world what to do. The reliance on a party that never really stops seeing itself as a revolutionary conspiracy requiring a certain ruthless obedience also seems to encourage the kind of insecure and dishonest servility that made the Chinese famine worse for everyone. Mao's particular problem was that he abhorred doubt and took it as a lack of faith in or loyalty to himself. You never wanted to tell him that something couldn't be done, much less that it wasn't worth trying. He was ideologically convinced that communism would unlock unlimited human potential; he really believed that under the right leadership the Chinese people could work wonders. Yang's account makes clear that Mao wasn't impervious to facts, but it took testimony from his own relatives -- people he presumably wouldn't see as rivals or untrustworthy subordinates -- to convince him that the disaster in the countryside was real. Until then, he had happily set unrealistic goals and made a commitment to fulfilling them a test of loyalty to the revolution. Paradoxically, he would not trust party members if they'd dared tell him that certain things couldn't be done -- he'd interpret their skepticism as "right deviationism" or some such heresy -- but chose to trust them when they lied about surpassing the production quotas set for them. The root of the trouble, in political terms, was Mao's expectation of optimism within the party and his willingness to punish people for insufficient optimism. It led to party members telling Mao what they thought he wanted to hear, rather than the truth, in order to advance their careers or simply save their own necks. He has to be blamed for creating incentives for people to lie to him.
Lies weren't told to Mao alone, of course. Propaganda had convinced much of the peasantry that collectivization would mean unprecedented prosperity. Many believed that prosperity had come to pass as soon as communal kitchens opened across the country. Yang suggests that the peasantry in many places contributed to their own later suffering by gorging themselves in the early months on the abundant free food initially supplied in these kitchens, but no one in the government discouraged them from doing so. Rather, the party wanted everyone to believe that abundance was an already accomplished fact. Later, dependence on the communal kitchens doomed millions, since they had given up their own cooking equipment as part of collectivization. When communal kitchens closed for lack of food, families were left with no means of preparing (not to mention acquiring) their own food. Many resorted to cannibalism. Party members pressed to meet quotas blamed shortages on hoarding and subjected scapegoats to often-fatal torture, then lied about surpassing their quotas. That only guaranteed higher quotas next time. It was Mao's own natural impulse to blame the shortages he heard of on people somehow hoarding grain or otherwise refusing to cooperate. Maoism was an innovation in Leninism because of Mao's reliance on a peasant rather than proletarian base, but once in power he treated peasants like crap. He took their food to feed the cities. He took it for export, to exchange for industrial products. That is, this arch-communist treated food like a commodity. He diverted labor from crops to dig canals or forge useless pig-iron in a forlorn attempt to surpass the U.K. in iron production, leaving the weakest people, the oldest and youngest, to try to bring the crops in. As with Stalin, the good of the poor was secondary, at best, to making the country into a superpower. It all looks like exploitation to me, but I thought Communists were against that.
We can distinguish between small-c communism as the absence of private property and Capital-C Communism as vanguard-party tyranny, but we should also note a persistent tension within anti-capitalist movements between what I call, using American terminology, populist and progressive tendencies. Leninism and Maoism are perhaps the ultimate expressions of the progressive tendency, which is arguably more revolutionary yet less democratic than the populist tendency. There's a reactionary core in populism that often takes the form of cultural conservatism or chauvinism, but the general point of conflict with progressivism is over society's need for change. Populists may recognize the need for revolution to overthrow capitalism, but while they resent capitalism for exploiting them they also object to hours, discipline, etc., and to boss-dictated changes to routine that disrupt their lives. Populists aren't really looking for the change in management progressives propose, and they sometimes find progressive stewardship more obnoxious and more intrusive than the mere rule of bosses in the workplace, to the extent that progressives expect both society and its people to evolve. In simpler terms, populism seeks revolution for the benefit of the here-and-now, while progressives expect to bring better people into being. In Mao's terms, populism would be right deviationism if not the capitalist road, but communism needs a populist element to check its progressive element if its purpose is to any extent to prevent exploitation -- in this case the exploitation of the present for the sake of the future. It can certainly be argued that society and the people in it must evolve, but shouldn't that -- both the need and the conditions for evolution -- be for the people, rather than a self-appointed vanguard, to determine? Mao's Communism was all top-down; it only qualifies as communism if you accept his Leninist claim to represent the masses and know their interests better than they did. No truly communist revolution should produce a Mao, either as a person or as a Great Leader to be idolized. A revolution that results in a Mao having the the power he had may already be judged a failure, but as Yang shows it could escalate into a catastrophe. Some Communists still idolize Mao, but they'd be better off figuring out how to prevent him.