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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. 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 and Ruhollah Khomeini.

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 Ceau escu, mentioned below).


Adolf Hitler, behind Hermann G ring, at a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1928.
Adolf Hitler, behind Hermann G ring, 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:

Past examples

Soviet Union

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

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.[3] This was often ridiculed by the ordinary people and led to the creation of many political jokes.


Saparmurat Niyazov, who was ruler of Turkmenistan from 1985 to 2006, is another oft-cited cultivator of a cult of personality.[4][5][6] 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.[5][7] 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."[4] Additionally, a silhouette of Niyazov was used as a logo on television broadcasts[8] and statues and pictures of him were "erected everywhere".[9] 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".[10]


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.[11] Quotes from the Quran and Hadith were used by Muslims to justify Chiang Kaishek's rule over China.[12]


Juan Per n, elected three times as President of Argentina, and his second wife, Eva Duarte de Per n, were immensely popular among many of the Argentine people, and to this day they are still considered icons by the Peronist Party. The Per ns' 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 Per n and his wife.[13]


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.


Another example is that of Romania's political power structure in the 1980s, which was a cult of personality surrounding Nicolae Ceau escu and his wife, Elena Ceau escu. Nicolae Ceau escu rose to power in 1965, but by 1971 the regime had reasserted its Stalinist legacy in socioeconomic and cultural matters. Ceau escu 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 Ceau escu". In the 1980s, the personality cult was extended to other members of the Ceau escu family, including his wife, Elena, who held a position of prominence in political life far exceeding protocol requirements. By the mid-1980s, Elena Ceau escu's national prominence had grown to the point that her birthday was celebrated as a national holiday, as was her husband's.

French Indochina

Cambodian schoolchildren in French Indochina at one point in the early 1940s began their school-day with prayers to Marshal Philippe P tain, opening with the words, "Our father, which art our Leader, glorious be thy name... deliver us from evil".[14]


North Korea

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.[15] 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.[15] Kim Il-sung rejected the notion that he had created a cult around himself and accused those who suggested so of "factionalism".[15] 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.[16] 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.[17]


Poster of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with lyrics from the national anthem 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, and his son Bashar followed the same approach spreading pictures and statues of the Assad family in Syria, all the streets and fields, as is the glorification of the President in the schools, playgrounds, concerts and all occasions.


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]


In a 2004 article on personality cults, The Economist identified Togo's Gnassingb Eyad ma as maintaining an extensive personality cult, to the point of having schoolchildren begin their day by singing his praises.[19]


In Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atat rk is commemorated by many memorials throughout the country, such as the Atat rk International Airport in Istanbul, the Atat rk Bridge over the Golden Horn (Hali ), the Atat rk Dam, and Atat rk Stadium. Atat rk statues have been erected in all Turkish cities by Turkish Government, and most towns have their own memorial to him. His face and name are seen and heard everywhere in Turkey; his portrait can be seen in all public buildings, in all schools and classrooms, on all school books, on all Turkish lira banknotes, and in the homes of many Turkish families.[20] At the exact time of his death, on every 10 November, at 09:05 am, most vehicles and people in the country's streets pause for one minute in remembrance.[21] In 1951, the Turkish Parliament issued a law (5816) outlawing insults to his reminiscence () or destruction of objects representing him, which is still in force.[22] A government website [23] was created to denounce the websites that violate this law, and the Turkish government as of 2011 has filters in place to block websites deemed to contain materials insulting to his memory.

See also

  • Charismatic authority
  • Celebrity
  • Imperial cult (ancient Rome)
  • Narcissism
  • Narcissistic leadership
  • Toxic leader
  • Imperial Presidency


External links

ar: bg: ca:Culte a la personalitat cs:Kult osobnosti da:Personkult de:Personenkult es:Culto a la personalidad eo:Kulto al personeco fa: fr:Culte de la personnalit gl:Culto personalidade hr:Kult li nosti id:Kultus individu it:Culto della personalit he: kk: lt:Asmenyb s kultas hu:Szem lyi kultusz nl:Persoonsverheerlijking ja: pl:Kult jednostki pt:Culto de personalidade ro:Cultul personalit ii ru: sco:Cult o personality sk:Kult osobnosti sr: fi:Henkil palvonta (politiikka) sv:Personkult uk: zh:

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