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Cult of personality is a pejorative term implying the concentration of all power in a single charismatic leader within a totalitarian state and the near deification of that leader in state propaganda. Totalitarian regimes use the state-controlled mass media to cultivate a larger-than-life public image of the leader through unquestioning flattery and praise. Leaders are lauded for their extraordinary courage, knowledge, wisdom, or any other superhuman quality necessary for legitimating the totalitarian regime. The cult of personality serves to sustain such a regime in power, discourage open criticism, and justify whatever political twists and turns it may decide to take. Among the more infamous and pervasive cults of personality in the twentieth century were those surrounding Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Francisco Franco, Chiang Kai-shek, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, Juan and Evita Peron, Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, Kim Jong Il, and Saddam Hussein. The term is occasionally—if idiosyncratically—applied to national leaders who did not seek similar godlike adulation during their lifetime or term in office but have been later glorified by the government or in the national mass media. Examples might include George Washington, Napoléon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Vladimir Lenin, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Charles de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and others.
A cult of personality differs from Thomas Carlyle’s “hero worship” in the sense that it is intentionally built around the national leader and is often used to justify authoritarian rule. In one of the more idiosyncratic usages, it is sometimes applied by analogy to refer to the public veneration of famous leaders of social movements such as Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and others. In fact, the term itself derives from Karl Marx’s critique of the “superstitious worship of authority” that had developed around his own personality, acclaimed merits, and contribution to the work of the First Socialist International in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Historically, numerous rulers have promoted their own cults of personality. Absolute monarchies were the prevalent form of government for much of recorded history, and most traditional monarchs were held in public awe and adoration. For example, pharaonic Egypt, Imperial China, and the Roman Empire accorded their crowned sovereigns the status of revered god-kings. The doctrine of the divine right of kings claimed that absolutist monarchs such as Henry VIII, Louis XIV, or Catherine the Great sat on their thrones by the will of God. The democratic revolutions of the eighteneenth and nineteenth centuries made it increasingly difficult for traditional autocrats to retain their divine aura. However, the development of the modern mass media, state-run public education, and government propaganda has enabled some more recent national leaders to manipulate popular opinion and project an almost equally extolled public image. Cults of personality developed around some of the most notorious totalitarian dictators of the twentieth century such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who at the peak of their personalistic power were lionized as infallible, godlike creatures. Their portraits were hung in every private home or public building, while the country’s artists and poets were expected to produce works of art idolizing the hero-leader.
Many lesser known autocrats have engaged in similar self-glorification, subordinating nearly all aspects of national life to their fickle vanity, megalomania, and conceit. In post-Soviet Turkmenistan, for instance, the late president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov encouraged his own cult of personality, dotting the local landscapes with public monuments to himself and even renaming the months of the year to pay homage to himself and his family. After declaring Turkmenistan’s independence in October 1991, the former chairman of the Soviet-era Council of Ministers and first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party quickly established himself as the center and source of all political authority in the new country. Niyazov became the first president of independent Turkmenistan and won the uncontested 1992 election, which was the only presidential election held during his rule. He assumed the title of Turkmenbashi (“head of all the Turkmen”), and the country’s obedient legislature proclaimed him president for life. He even authored a book—the Ruhnama, or “Book of the Spirit”—that became a compulsory part of the curricula at all levels of the national educational system.
The term cult of personality became a buzzword after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bitterly denounced Stalin’s near deification before a closed session of the Twentieth Party Congress on February 25, 1956:
The cult of personality acquired such monstrous dimensions mainly 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 unrestrained flattery, an example of making a man into a god, of transforming him into an infallible sage, “the greatest leader,” “sublime strategist of all times and nations.” Ultimately, no more words could be found with which to praise 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. (Khrushchev 1989)
In a country long known for its traditional worship of religious saints and czars, the public exaltation of Soviet leaders was deliberately pursued as necessary for building national unity and consensus. The result was Stalin’s cult of personality—the total loyalty and dedication of all Soviet citizens to the all-powerful leader, whose demigod personality exemplified the heroism and glory of “building socialism in one country.” Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” was a major break by the post-Stalin leadership with the oppressive dominance of Stalinism. “Big Brother,” a fictional character in George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, is widely believed to be a satire of Stalin’s cult of personality (even though it is equally likely to have been based on Britain’s ubiquitous Lord Kitchener).
- Bown, Matthew 1991. The Cult of Personality: The Apotheosis of Stalin, 1945–56. In Art under Stalin. New York: Holmes and Meier.
- Chandler, David P. Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Hollander, P 2002. The Cult of Personality in Communist States. In Discontents: Postmodern and Postcommunist. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Overy, Richard 1997. The Cult of Personality: Stalin and the Legacy of War. In Russia’s War: Blood upon the Snow. New York: TV Books.
- Ryan, 2001. The Cult of Personality: Reassessing Leadership and Suffrage Movements in Britain and Ireland. In Leadership and Social Movements, ed. Colin Barker, Alan Johnson, and Michael Lavalette, 196–212. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
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