Cult of personality

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Image:Stalincult.jpg Cult of personality is a term for what is perceived to be excessive adulation of a single living leader, especially a head of state. The term was coined by the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev in his 1956 "Secret Speech" denouncing Joseph Stalin to 20th Party Congress. The phenomenon that Khrushchev described, however, is much older.

A cult of personality differs from charismatic authority in that it has a negative connotation by definition, and is thus a pejorative term. It also differs from general hero worship in that it is specifically built around political leaders. However, the term cult of personality is often applied by analogy to refer to adulation of non-political leaders.



Throughout history there have always been leaders who have fostered adulation. For much of premodern times, absolute monarchies were the dominant form of government, and 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, and thus criticism of any leader was interpreted not only as treason but also as blasphemy.

Many leaders of the Roman Empire and Hellenistic Greece displayed features of today's cults of personality, as did Imperial China, with ancient Egypt especially noted for elevating monarchs to the status of god-kings.

By the 20th century, many nations (particularly in the West) began to become liberal democracies. Yet at the same time many other states resisted democratic reform, and in some cases aggressively opposed liberalism. It was in this context that some of the world's best-known personality cults were formed.

The criticism of personality cults often was part of criticism of the regimes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. During the peak of their reigns both these leaders appeared as god-like omniscient rulers, destined to rule their nation for all eternity. Government orders prescribed the hanging of their portraits in every home and public building, and many artists and poets were instructed to produce only works that glorified the leader.

The most famous fictional cult of personality is probably that of Big Brother in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. The character was possibly based on Britain's Earl Kitchener although more likely based on Stalin.


A personality cult can arise for various reasons. The leader might seek to unite a politically unstable country by presenting himself as a symbol of the state's unity. The leader might believe that he needs to project himself as a perfect human being to gain the people's trust during hardships. A personality cult can exist by default if the government deals harshly with any perceived criticism of the leader, as was the case in Russia under Stalin. There are even recorded cases of leaders who had personality cults apparently against their wishes, due to subordinates competing for their attention and favor.


Personality cults usually characterize totalitarian, authoritarian, or one-party states, especially those with a strong revolutionary consciousness. The reputation of a single leader, often characterized as the "liberator" or "savior" of the people, elevates that leader to a near-divine level.

A personality cult is also characterized with many images and representations of a leader in public places, including statues, billboards, posters, signs, paintings, and vast murals. In many cases the leader is portrayed in various types of garb (indicating many roles) and in heroic positions. This is meant to emphasize the greatness and wisdom of the leader. The leader's slogans and other quotes cover massive spaces, and books containing the leader's speeches and writings fill up bookstores, libraries, and schools. The level of flattery can reach heights which may appear absurd to outsiders.

Personality cults aim to make the leader and the state seem synonymous, so it becomes impossible to comprehend the existence of one without the other. It also helps justify the often harsh rule of a dictatorship, and propaganda leads the citizens into believing that the leader operates as a kind and just ruler. In addition, cults of personality often arise out of an effort to quash opposition within a ruling elite, and to help leaders help crush their political opponents.

To justify personality cults, leaders sometimes try to present themselves as personally humble and modest and characterize their vast personality cults as spontaneous shows of popular support and affection.

Cults of personality can collapse very quickly after the ousting or death of the leader. In some cases, the leader formerly the subject of a cult of personality becomes vilified after his death, especially after a violent overthrow. A massive effort of renaming and image-removal may take place.

The term "personality cult" does not generally refer to showing respect for the dead (such as historic national founders like Lenin or George Washington), nor does it refer to honoring symbolic leaders who have no real power. The latter often occurs with monarchies, such as that of Thailand, in which the king or queen's image is respectfully displayed in many public places, but convention or law forbids them from converting this respect into real political power.

Cults of personality do not appear universal among all authoritarian societies. A few of the world's most oppressive regimes have in fact exhibited little to no worship of the leader. The Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia and the theocratic Taliban government of Afghanistan lacked many of the trappings of cults of personality, and the leaders in these regimes remained almost anonymous. In these cases, the lack of a cult of personality seems partly motivated by the desire to project an image of a faceless but omniscient and omnipresent state. In other cases, such as the post-Mao People's Republic of China, authorities frown upon the establishment of a cult of personality for fear it may upset the balance of power between the leaders within the political elite.

The cult of the personality in a state as described above seems similar to the functioning of person-centered leadership in some cults. When the followers accept the charismatic authority of a person (e.g. a guru, or saint, or avatar) then this personality cult can take strong forms. Sometimes, cults or new religious movements defend this practice by comparing their living leader to mainstream religions like Christianity in which Jesus was venerated when he was still alive, or to the Ishta-Deva (chosen deity) principle in Hinduism.



See also


es:Culto a la personalidad fr:Culte de la personnalité it:Culto della personalità he:פולחן אישיות lt:Asmenybės kultas ro:Cultul personalităţii sv:Personkult zh:个人崇拜

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