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Personality cult

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Personality cult

This article is about the political phenomenon. For the song by Living Colour, see Cult of Personality (song).

A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods, to create an idealized, heroic, and at times, god-like public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. 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.


The term "cult of personality" probably appeared in English around 1800–1850, along with the French and German usage.[1] At first it had no political connotations but was instead closely related to the Romantic "cult of genius".[1] The political use of the phrase came first in 1877:[1]

Neither of us cares a straw of popularity. Let me cite one proof of this: such was my aversion to the personality cult [orig. Personenkultus] that at the time of the International, when plagued by numerous moves [...] to accord me public honor, I never allowed one of these to enter the domain of publicity [...]

Karl Marx, A letter to German political worker, Wilhelm Blos, 10 November 1877[1][2]

The terms "cult of personality" and "personality cult" were popularized by Khrushchev's Secret Speech of 1956. Robert Service notes that a more accurate translation of the Russian "культ личности" ("kul't lichnosti") is the "cult of the individual".[3]


Throughout history, monarchs and other 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. Ancient Egypt, Japan, the Inca, the Aztecs, Tibet, Siam (now Thailand), and the Roman Empire 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 alter or transform society according to radical ideas.[4] 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, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin.

Not all dictatorships foster personality cults, not all personality cults are practised in dictatorships (some exist in a few nominally democratic countries), 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 Ceaușescu, mentioned below).



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.[5]


Main article: Heydar Aliyev's cult of personality

Heydar Aliyev's cult of personality became a significant part of Azerbaijani politics and society after Heydar Aliyev came to power in 1993 and continuing after his death in 2003, when his son Ilham Aliyev succeeded him.[6][7] Aliyev, a former Soviet politburo member and the leader of Soviet Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1987, became the President of Azerbaijan in 1993. He then began to carefully design an autocratic system, with heavy reliance on family and clan members, oil revenues and patronage.[8]

In Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev is presented as "Father of the Azeri nation",[9] often compared to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.[10]


A personality cult in the Republic of China was centered on the Kuomintang party founder Sun Yat-sen, and his successor, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. The personality cult of Chiang Kai-shek went further after the republican government fled to Taiwan. He was usually referred to as "Lord Chiang" (蔣公) in public and a Nuo tai were required in printed materials. Articles in textbooks and songs glorifying him were commonly seen in Taiwan before 1987.

The People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong can also be considered a cult of personality. The culture of the People's Republic of China before 1981 was highly influenced by the personality cult of Mao Zedong which reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution. Mao was referred to as "the great leader Chairman Mao" (伟大领袖毛主席) in public and was entitled "the great leader, the great supreme commander, the great teacher and the great helmsman" (伟大的领袖、伟大的统帅、伟大的导师、伟大的舵手) in Cultural Revolution.[11] Badges and books of his quotations were largely produced. Most of people were required to recite the quotation of Mao and printed material at that time usually quote Mao's words in bold in preface. Loyalty dance (忠字舞) was also introduced during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.

The cult of personality continued for a short time after Mao's death. His successor, Hua Guofeng also practiced the cult of personality and was referred to as "the brilliant leader Chairman Hua" (英明领袖华主席). Reforms in 1981 led to a deconstruction of his cult status and the Chinese Communist Party is today averse to a cult of personality style rule lest it recreates the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

French Indochina

Cambodian schoolchildren in French Indochina at one point in the early 1940s began their school-day with prayers to Marshal Philippe Pétain, opening with the words, "Our father, which art our Leader, glorious be thy name... deliver us from evil".[12]


A cult of personality devoted to Muammar Gaddafi existed in Libya during his rule.[13] His face appeared on a wide variety of items, including postage stamps, watches, and school satchels. Quotations from The Green Book appeared on a wide variety of places, from street walls to airports and pens, and were put to pop music for public release. Gaddafi claimed that he disliked this personality cult, but that he tolerated it because Libya's people adored him.[13] Biographers Blundy and Lycett believed that he was "a populist at heart".[13] Throughout Libya, crowds of supporters would turn up to public events at which he appeared; described as "spontaneous demonstrations" by the government, there are recorded instances of groups being coerced or paid to attend.[14] He was typically late to public events, and would sometimes not show up at all.[15] Although Bianco thought he had a "gift for oratory",[16] he was considered a poor orator by biographers Blundy and Lycett.[17] Biographer Daniel Kawczynski noted that Gaddafi was famed for his "lengthy, wandering" speeches,[18] which typically involved criticising Israel and the U.S.[15]

North Korea

Main article: North Korea's cult of personality

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.[19] 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.[19] Kim Il-sung rejected the notion that he had created a cult around himself and accused those who suggested so of "factionalism".[19] 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.[20] 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 on the anniversary of his death.[21] Recently, the personality cult in North Korea has been expanded to include the son of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un.


In the Philippines, many local politicians engage in some sort of cult of personality. They are often branded as "epal politicians" by the media with "epal" meaning attention-grabber in Filipino slang. They put their image and their names on billboards of government projects. They also print taurpalins, usually with their image to establish a sense of connection with their constituents.[22][23][24] The Senate Bill No. 1967 or Anti-Signage of Public Works Act, colloquially known as the anti-epal bill, was filed by Senator Miriam Santiago on November 2011, and refiled again in July 2013 in an effort to stop the practice.[25]

Light Rail Transit Authority tickets also bore Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's image until June 2010, when it was replaced with a new ticket.[26]

The popularity of Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda Marcos are sometimes described as "cults of personality".


Main article: Józef Piłsudski's cult of personality

A cult of personality in Poland has developed around the figure of Józef Piłsudski, Polish military commander and politician, starting from the interwar period and continuing after his death in 1935 until the present day. During the interwar period, Piłsudski's cult was propagated by the state media, describing him as a masterful strategist and political visionary, and associating him with his role in regaining the Polish independence in the aftermath of World War I, and his leadership in the following Polish–Soviet War. It has survived decades of repression, particularly during the time of communist Poland.

In modern Poland, Piłsudski is recognized as an important and largely positive figure in Polish history. The Polish Independence Day is commemorated on November 11, the date when Piłsudski assumed power in Poland after the First World War.


Main article: Nicolae Ceaușescu's cult of personality

During the Cold War, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu presided over the most pervasive cult of personality within the Eastern Bloc. Inspired by the personality cult surrounding Kim Il-sung in North Korea, it started with the 1971 July Theses which reversed the period of liberalization of the 1960s and imposed a strict nationalist ideology. Initially, the cult of personality was focused just on Ceaușescu himself; by the early 1980s, his wife Elena was also a focus of the cult even to the extent that she got credit for scientific achievements that she could have never have accomplished. It remained in force until the overthrow of the regime in 1989.

Soviet Union

Main article: Stalin's cult of personality

Nikita Khrushchev recalled Marx's criticism in his 1956 "Secret Speech" denouncing Joseph Stalin and his cult of personality to the 20th Party Congress:[27]

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.

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.[27]

Some authors (e.g., Alexander Zinovyev) have argued that Leonid Brezhnev's rule was also characterized by a cult of personality, though unlike 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.[28] This was often ridiculed by the ordinary people and led to the creation of many political jokes.


As one of his strategies to maintain power over Syria, Hafez al-Assad developed a state-sponsored cult of personality.[29] Portraits of him, often depicting him engaging in heroic activities, were placed in every public space. He named myriad numbers of places and institutions in Syria after himself, and other members of his family. At school, children were taught to sing songs of adulation about Hafez al-Assad. Teachers would begin each lesson with the song "Our eternal leader, Hafez al-Assad". In some cases, he portrayed himself with apparently divine properties. Sculptures and portraits depicted him alongside the prophet Mohammad, while, following her death, the government produced portraits of Assad's mother surrounded by a halo. Syrian officials were made to refer to him as the 'Sanctified one' (al-Muqaddas).[30] The personality cult that he developed portrayed him as a wise, modest and just leader of the country. This strategy of creating a cult of personality was pursued further by Hafez's son and then-president, Bashar al-Assad.[31]


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.[32]


Main article: Atatürk's cult of personality

In Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is commemorated by many memorials throughout the country, such as the Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul, the Atatürk Bridge over the Golden Horn (Haliç), the Atatürk Dam, and Atatürk Stadium. Atatürk 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.[33] 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.[34] In 1951, the Turkish Parliament issued a law (5816) outlawing insults to his reminiscence (Turkish: Hatırası) or destruction of objects representing him, which is still in force.[35] A government website[36] 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.

The start of Atatürk's cult of personality is placed in the 1920s when the first statues started being built.[37] The idea of Atatürk as the "father of the Turks" is ingrained in Turkish politics and politicians in that country are evaluated in relation to his cult of personality.[38] The persistence of the phenomenon of Atatürk's personality cult has become an area of deep interest to scholars.[39]

Atatürk impersonators are also used in modern times in Turkey to keep alive what is described as the "world's longest-running personality cult".[40]


Saparmurat Niyazov, who was President of Turkmenistan from 1985 to 2006,[41] is another oft-cited cultivator of a cult of personality.[42][43][44] 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.[43][45] During Niyazov's presidency 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.[42] Additionally, a silhouette of Niyazov was used as a logo on television broadcasts[46] and statues and pictures of him were "erected everywhere".[47] For these, and other reasons, the US Government said that by the time he died, "Niyazov's personality cult...had reached the dimensions of a state-imposed religion."[48]

Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2012, says there is a cult of personality of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and that it is strengthening.[49] Agence France-Presse reports a developing personality cult.[50] Reporters Without Borders says the president is promoting a cult of personality of himself and that his portraits have taken the place of the ones of the previous president.[51]


The Vietnamese communist regime has continually maintained a personality cult around Ho Chi Minh since the 1950s in the North, and later extended to the South after the reunification, which it sees as a crucial part in their propaganda campaign about Ho and the Party's past. Ho Chi Minh is frequently glorified in schools to schoolchildren. Opinions, publications and broadcasts that are critical of Ho Chi Minh or that identify his flaws are banned in Vietnam, with the commentators arrested or fined for "opposing the people's revolution". Ho Chi Minh is even glorified to a religious status as an "immortal saint" by the Vietnamese Communist Party, and some people "worship the President", according to a BBC report.[52]

The former capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City on 1 May 1975 shortly after its capture which officially ended the Vietnam War.[52]


Mobutu Sésé Seko used the cult of personality to create a god-like public image of himself in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mobutu created a centralized state, amassed massive wealth for himself and presided over economic deterioration of his country and human rights abuses.

He used mass media communications to entrench his rule.[53] He was supported by the United States.

Mobutu embarked on a campaign of pro-Africa cultural awareness and in 1972 formally changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga ("The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.")[54]

See also



External links

  • The Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2009

Template:Media culture Template:Media manipulation

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