Cult of personality

Cult of personality
A 1950s Chinese propaganda poster showing a happy family of five enjoying life under the image of Mao Zedong. The caption above the picture reads "The happy life Chairman Mao gives us".

A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods, to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.[1] Cults of personality are usually associated with dictatorships. The sociologist Max Weber developed a tripartite classification of authority; the cult of personality holds parallels with what Weber defined as "charismatic authority". A cult of personality is similar to hero worship, except that it is established by mass media and propaganda.



Throughout history, monarchs and heads of state were almost always held in enormous reverence. Through the principle of the divine right of kings, for example, rulers were said to hold office by the will of God. Imperial China (see Mandate of Heaven), ancient Egypt, Japan, the Inca, the Aztecs, Tibet, Thailand, and the Roman Empire (see imperial cult) are especially noted for redefining monarchs as god-kings.

The spread of democratic and secular ideas in Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries made it increasingly difficult for monarchs to preserve this aura. However, the subsequent development of photography, sound recording, film and mass production, as well as public education and techniques used in commercial advertising, enabled political leaders to project a positive image like never before. It was from these circumstances in the 20th century that the best-known personality cults arose. Often these cults are a form of Political religion.


Personality cults were first described in relation to totalitarian regimes that sought to radically alter or transform society according to radical ideas.[2] Often, a single leader became associated with this revolutionary transformation, and came to be treated as a benevolent "guide" for the nation without whom the transformation to a better future couldn't occur. This has been generally the justification for personality cults that arose in totalitarian societies of the 20th century, such as those of Adolf Hitler.

Not all dictatorships foster personality cults, not all personality cults are dictatorships (some are nominally democratic), and some leaders may actively seek to minimize their own public adulation. For example, during the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime, images of dictator Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) were rarely seen in public, and his identity was under dispute abroad until after his fall from power. The same applied to numerous Eastern European Communist regimes following World War II, although not those of Enver Hoxha and Nicolae Ceausescu (mentioned below). Similarly, in North Korea and Thailand, there exist very successful cults of personality. In North Korea, there is actual semi-worship of both the father (Kim Il-sung) and his ancestors, some estimates going as far as suggesting that citizens of North Korea believe that Kim Il-Sung (proclaimed Eternal President four years after his death) created the world, and that his son, current "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, can control the weather[citation needed]. In Thailand, strict laws keep people from expressing negative opinions of the royal family. Authors and bloggers who do such things have been charged with long jail terms.


Adolf Hitler, behind Hermann Göring, at a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1928.

The term cult of personality comes from Karl Marx's critique of the "cult of the individual"—expressed in a letter to German political worker, Wilhelm Bloss. In that, Marx states thus:

From my antipathy to any cult of the individual, I never made public during the existence of the [1st] International the numerous addresses from various countries which recognized my merits and which annoyed me... Engels and I first joined the secret society of Communists on the condition that everything making for superstitious worship of authority would be deleted from its statute.

Nikita Khrushchev recalled Marx's criticism in his 1956 "Secret Speech" denouncing Stalin to the 20th Party Congress:

Comrades, the cult of the individual acquired such monstrous size chiefly because Stalin himself, using all conceivable methods, supported the glorification of his own person. . . . One of the most characteristic examples of Stalin's self-glorification and of his lack of even elementary modesty is the edition of his Short Biography, which was published in 1948.[3]

This book is an expression of the most dissolute flattery, an example of making a man into a godhead, of transforming him into an infallible sage, "the greatest leader," "sublime strategist of all times and nations." Finally no other words could be found with which to lift Stalin up to the heavens.

We need not give here examples of the loathsome adulation filling this book. All we need to add is that they all were approved and edited by Stalin personally and some of them were added in his own handwriting to the draft text of the book.

Some authors (e.g. Alexander Zinovyev) have argued that Leonid Brezhnev's rule was also characterized by a cult of personality, though unlike Lenin and Stalin, Brezhnev did not initiate large-scale persecutions in the country. One of the aspects of Leonid Brezhnev's cult of personality was Brezhnev's obsession with titles, rewards and decorations, leading to his inflated decoration with medals, orders and so on.[4] This was often ridiculed by the ordinary people and led to the creation of many political jokes.

Journalist Bradley Martin documented the personality cults of North Korea's father-son leadership, "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung and "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il.[5] While visiting North Korea in 1979 he noted that nearly all music, art, and sculpture that he observed glorified "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, whose personality cult was then being extended to his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il.[5] Kim Il-sung rejected the notion that he had created a cult around himself and accused those who suggested so of "factionalism".[5] A US religious freedom investigation confirmed Martin's observation that North Korean schoolchildren learn to thank Kim Il-sung for all blessings as part of the cult.[6] Evidence of the cult of Kim Il-Sung continues into the 21st century (despite his death in 1994) with the erection of Yeong Saeng ("eternal life") monuments throughout the country, each dedicated to the departed "Great Leader", at which citizens are expected to pay annual tribute on his official birthday or the anniversary of his death.[7]

Saparmurat Niyazov, who was ruler of Turkmenistan from 1985 to 2006, is another oft-cited cultivator of a cult of personality.[8][9][10] Niyazov simultaneously cut funding to and partially disassembled the education system in the name of "reform", while injecting ideological indoctrination into it by requiring all schools to take his own book, the Ruhnama, as its primary text, and like Kim Il-sung, there is even a creation myth surrounding him.[9][11] During Niyazov's rule there was no freedom of the press nor was there freedom of speech. This further meant that opposition to Niyazov was strictly forbidden and "major opposition figures have been imprisoned, institutionalized, deported, or have fled the country, and their family members are routinely harassed by the authorities."[8] Additionally, a silhouette of Niyazov was used as a logo on television broadcasts[12] and statues and pictures of him were "erected everywhere".[13] For these, and other reasons, the US Government has gone on to claim that by the time he died, "Niyazov’s personality cult...had reached the dimensions of a state-imposed religion".[14]

A personality cult in the Republic of China was centered on the Kuomintang party founder Dr. Sun Yat-sen, and his successor, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Chinese Muslim Generals and Imams participated in this cult of personality and One Party state, with Muslim General Ma Bufang making people bow to Dr. Sun's portrait and listen to the national anthem during a Tibetan and Mongol religious ceremony for the Qinghai Lake God.[15] Quotes from the Quran and Hadith were used by Muslims to justify Chiang Kaishek's rule over China.[16]

University of Chicago professor Lisa Wedeen's book Ambiguities of Domination documents the cult of personality which surrounded Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Numerous examples of his glorification are made throughout the book, such as displays of love and adoration for the "leader" put on at the opening ceremonies of the 1987 Mediterranean Games in Lattakia, Syria.

Juan Perón, elected three times as President of Argentina, and his second wife, Eva Duarte de Perón, were immensely popular among many of the Argentine people, and to this day they are still considered icons by the Peronist Party. The Peróns' followers praised their efforts to eliminate poverty and to dignify labor, while their detractors considered them demagogues and dictators. To achieve their political goals, the Peronists had to unite around the head of state. As a result, a personality cult developed around both Perón and his wife.[17]

Iraq under Saddam Hussein was another well known example of a cult of personality. Saddam had portraits of himself made all over the country, some showing him as Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and Saladin, reinforcing his personality cult in one of the most secular Arab countries.

King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also had his portraits all over the country. Before a movie is played in the theater, people are required to pay respect by standing during a song praising the king. Those who do not stand have been charged [18].

Another example is that of Romania's political power structure in the 1980s, which was a cult of personality surrounding Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena Ceauşescu. Nicolae Ceauşescu rose to power in 1965, but by 1971 the regime had reasserted its Stalinist legacy in socioeconomic and cultural matters. Ceauşescu was increasingly portrayed by the Romanian media as a creative communist theoretician and political leader whose "thought" was the source of all national accomplishments. His tenure as president was known as the "Golden Age of Ceauşescu". In the 1980s, the personality cult was extended to other members of the Ceauşescu family, including his wife, Elena, who held a position of prominence in political life far exceeding protocol requirements. By the mid-1980s, Elena Ceauşescu's national prominence had grown to the point that her birthday was celebrated as a national holiday, as was her husband's.

In a 2004 article on personality cults, The Economist identified Togo's Gnassingbé Eyadéma as maintaining an extensive personality cult, to the point of having schoolchildren begin their day by singing his praises.[19] Similarly, Cambodian schoolchildren in French Indochina at one point in the early 1940s began their schoolday with prayers to Marshal Philippe Pétain, opening with the words, "Our father, who art in Vichy".[20]

See also


  1. ^ Cult of personality. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved June 25, 2009.
  2. ^ Steven Kreis Retrieved April 06, 2010, from Stalin and the Cult of Personality Online: [1]
  3. ^ "The Cult of the Individual". London.,,2060198,00.. Retrieved 2007-05-24. [dead link]
  4. ^ See e.g. The list of Brezhnev's decorations is available in Russian Wikipedia:Список_наград_Брежнева
  5. ^ a b c Bradley K. Martin. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. ISBN 0-312-32322-0
  6. ^ "Thank You Father Kim-Il-Sung" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-12-09. 
  7. ^ "Controversy Stirs Over Kim Monument at PUST" NK Daily. Retrieved 4-24-2010.
  8. ^ a b Government of the United States of America. March 2002. Report on Turkmenistan. Available on-line at
  9. ^ a b International Crisis Group. July 2003. Central Asia: Islam and the State. ICG Asia Report No. 59. Available on-line at
  10. ^ Shikhmuradov, Boris. May 2002. Security and Conflict in Central Asia and the Caspian Region. International Security Program, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University. Available on-line at
  11. ^ Soucek, Svat. 2000. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  12. ^ Eurasianet. 2007. The Personality Cult Lives On, Residents Take It In Stride. Available on-line at
  13. ^ BBC. December 2006. Obituary: Saparmurat Niyazov.Available on-line at
  14. ^ United States Commission on International Freedom. 2007. Turkmenistan: Ending the Personality Cult. Available on-line at
  15. ^ Uradyn Erden Bulag (2002). Dilemmas The Mongols at China's edge: history and the politics of national unity (illustrated ed.). Rowman & Littlefield. p. 51. ISBN 0742511448. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  16. ^ Stéphane A. Dudoignon, Hisao Komatsu, Yasushi Kosugi, ed (2006). Intellectuals in the modern Islamic world: transmission, transformation, communication. Taylor & Francis. p. 134. ISBN 00415368359. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  17. ^ Politics and Education in Argentina, 1946-1962, by Mónica Esti Rein; trans by Martha Grenzeback. Published by M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY/London, 1998, p. 79-80.
  18. ^ Chotisak Onsoong.
  19. ^ Toughs at the top: The last personality cults. The Economist. December 18, 2004.
  20. ^ Short, Philip. Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 2005.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • cult of personality — noun intense devotion to a particular person (Freq. 1) • Hypernyms: ↑fashion * * * a cult promoting adulation of a living national leader or public figure, as one encouraged by Stalin to extend his power. [‡1965 70; trans. of Russ kul t… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Cult of Personality (song) — Cult of Personality Single by Living Colour from the album Vivid …   Wikipedia

  • cult of personality — a cult promoting adulation of a living national leader or public figure, as one encouraged by Stalin to extend his power. [‡1965 70; trans. of Russ kul t líchnosti] * * * …   Universalium

  • cult of personality — noun A situation where a leader (often a dictator) has been falsely idolized and made into a national or group icon and is revered as a result …   Wiktionary

  • cult of personality — government in which the leader is promoted as powerful and wise through aggressive propaganda campaigns (such as hanging portraits in public squares, schools, billboards, etc.) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • Personality — is the particular combination of emotional, attitudinal, and behavioral response patterns of an individual. Contents 1 Psychology 2 Sociology 3 Literature 4 Media …   Wikipedia

  • Cult — (k[u^]lt) n. [F. culte, L. cultus care, culture, fr. colere to cultivate. Cf. {Cultus}.] 1. Attentive care; homage; worship. [1913 Webster] Every one is convinced of the reality of a better self, and of the cult or homage which is due to it.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • personality — noun 1 character ADJECTIVE ▪ bright, bubbly, extrovert (esp. BrE), jovial, lively, outgoing, sparkling, vibrant, vivacious ▪ …   Collocations dictionary

  • personality cult — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms personality cult : singular personality cult plural personality cults the tendency to admire or respect a powerful person more than they deserve …   English dictionary

  • Cult (disambiguation) — A cult references a group whose beliefs or practices are considered strange. Cult may also refer to: Cult (religious practice), the original usage, referring to the totality of external religious practice and observance, the neglect of which is… …   Wikipedia

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