Cult of personality

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Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953, is often credited with possessing the most extensive personality cult of all time.

A cult of personality or personality cult arises when a country's leader uses mass media to create a heroic public image through unquestioning flattery and praise. Cults of personality are often found in dictatorships.

A cult of personality is similar to general hero worship, except that it is created specifically for political leaders. However, the term may be applied by analogy to refer to adulation of religious or non-political leaders.


[edit] Background

Throughout history, monarchs were almost always held in enormous reverence. Through the principle of the divine right of kings, 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, and the Roman Empire (see imperial cult) are especially noted for redefining monarchs as god-kings.

The resurgence of ancient Greek democratic 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.

[edit] Purpose

Generally, personality cults are most common in regimes with totalitarian systems of government, that seek to radically alter or transform society according to (supposedly) revolutionary new ideas. Often, a single leader becomes associated with this revolutionary transformation, and comes to be treated as a benevolent "guide" for the nation, without whom the transformation to a better future cannot occur. This has been generally the justification for personality cults that arose in totalitarian societies of the 20th century, such as those of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Not all dictatorships foster personality cults, however, and some leaders may actively seek to minimize their own public adulation. For example, in the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia, the image of Pol Pot himself was rarely seen. On the other hand, in North Korea there exists a very successful Cult of Personality, which includes actual semi-worship of both the father (Kim Il-sung) and son (Kim Jong-il).

However some republics and democracies have personality cults, for example in the Philippines from 1971 to 1986, there was a large personality cult surrounding former President Ferdinand Marcos.[1]

[edit] Examples from totalitarian regimes

The headquarters of the National Fascist Party with the face of Benito Mussolini overlooking the street, surrounded by the word "si" (Italian for "yes") symbolizing Fascist totalitarianism.

The criticism of personality cults often focuses on the regimes of Stalin, Hitler, Franco, Mao, Ceauşescu, Kim Il-Sung, and Kim Jong-Il.

During the peak of their regimes, these leaders were presented as god-like and infallible. Their portraits were hung in homes and public buildings, with artists and poets legally required to produce only works that glorified the leader. Other leaders with such cults include Siad Barre of Somalia. 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.[2]

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.

Journalist Bradley Martin documented the personality cults of North Korea's father-son leadership, "Eternal (formerly Great) Leader" Kim Il-sung and "Great (formerly Dear) Leader" Kim Jong-il.[3] 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.[3] Kim Il-sung rejected the notion that he had created a cult around himself and accused those who suggested so of "factionalism."[3] 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, and are being taught that Kim Il-sung "created the world".[4]

Former President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan is another oft-cited cultivator of a cult of personality.[5][6][7] 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's even a creation myth surrounding him.[8][9] 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."[10] Additionally, a silhouette of Niyazov was used as a logo on television broadcasts[11] and statues and pictures of him were 'erected everywhere.'[12]. 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."[13].

University of Chicago professor Lisa Wedeen's book, "Ambiguities of Domination" documents the cult of personality which surrounded late 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.

[edit] Examples in democratic societies

Democratic societies also have examples of political figures who have been noted to have some traits of a cult of personality. Examples from the United States include presidents John F. Kennedy[14] and Ronald Reagan. Former Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos himself led a large personality cult in his regime, and many of his supporters still 'worship' him in a manner that is almost on a religious level.[15]

[edit] Non-political examples

Stephen Colbert describes himself as having a cult of personality with his large fan base, similar to the celebrities he parodies.[16]

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^
  2. ^ "The Cult of the Individual".,,2060198,00.. Retrieved on 2007-05-24. 
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ "Thank You Father Kim-Il-Sung" (PDF). Retrieved on 2007-12-09. 
  5. ^ Government of the United States of America. March 2002. Report on Turkmenistan. Available on-line at
  6. ^ International Crisis Group. July 2003. Central Asia: Islam and the State. ICG Asia Report No. 59. Available on-line at
  7. ^ 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
  8. ^ International Crisis Group. July 2003. Central Asia: Islam and the State. ICG Asia Report No. 59. Available on-line at
  9. ^ Soucek, Svat. 2000. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ Government of the United States of America. March 2002. Report on Turkmenistan. Available on-line at
  11. ^ Eurasianet. 2007. The Personality Cult Lives On, Residents Take It In Stride. Available on-line at
  12. ^ BBC. December 2006. Obituary: Saparmurat Niyazov.Available on-line at
  13. ^ United States Commission on International Freedom. 2007. Turkmenistan: Ending the Personality Cult. Available on-line at
  14. ^ Wall Street Journal - "Where's the Aura? - Forty years later, the JFK cult has faded. It's about time."
  15. ^
  16. ^ [1]

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