Personality cult

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A choir performance in East Germany.
♫I'm the smiling face on your TV

♫I'm the cult of personality
♫I exploit you, still you love me

♫I tell you one and one makes three
—Living Colour, "Cult of Personality"[1]
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A personality cult or cult of personality is a system in which the political legitimacy of an organization is the function of the leader. Often such leaders are able to control a group of people through the sheer force of their personality. In extreme cases the leader can be portrayed as a god-like figure.

Where the personality cult forms around a head of state, criticising that person is generally prohibited and/or dangerous - with threats made against the critics by supporters of the head of state. Where the head of state has attained strong or complete control of state-sponsored media they have often used this to spread propaganda to ensure that the masses receive a consistent positive picture of the head of state. Propaganda will typically depict the leader as being a great leader, a genius prophet or a god-like figure, able to relate to ordinary people and upholding their interests, always in command - shown in propaganda with commanding appearance and never shown in submission to anyone. Frequently personality-cult leaders claim to be devoted to a mission as the embodiment of the will of the people or of the nation. Leaders promoting personality cults will frequently tie their own image to various national heroes as a means of legitimating themselves and their policies (think of Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar making his great-uncle the Roman Dictator Julius Caesar a deity and dedicating monuments to him, or of Soviet posters showing the faces of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao).

Various monarchies claimed some form of divine sanction, but that doesn't necessarily make them personality cults in the modern sense, as the phenomenon is most commonly associated with post-19th-century mass-media.

New surfaces may be produced for no other reason than to present that image, as satirized with the balloon bearing Joseph Stalin's image in an empty field in the 1994 Russian film Burnt by the Sun.[2]

Personality cults are often found in strongly authoritarian societies like absolute monarchies with no democracy in them, but they can also develop in authoritarian semi-democratic societies like those of Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, or in totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler or like the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Although it is very rare to see them in strongly democratic countries, they do occur from time to time.


In pop culture[edit]

For various reasons, the idea of a personality cult is entering pop culture spheres, sometimes as just another set piece (such as in "Cult of Personality" by Living Colour in 1988), but sometimes it's a major element of a movie. An example is the German film The Wave (originally made in 1981 and remade in 2008). The movie was based on the social experiment called "Third Wave" created by Ron Jones,Wikipedia and is about a German teacher who attempts to show his high school students what fascism is. As a result, he accidentally creates a personality cult that leads to large amounts of vandalism, an attempted murder, and a suicide when the instructor (Wenger) tells his students that the experiment is over. The 2001 German thriller film Das Experiment is somewhat similar. The Emperor of Mankind is also a fine example.

External links[edit]


  1. A portion of people reading this article will be probably thinking "Why not Obama?" Simple: looking back from today, it was a very short one. The most important element of a personality cult is the usage of authority to perpetuate artificial 'apotheosis'; you don't want videos [, such] as these lying around. American society has an unusual tendency to mythologize Presidents (ironically, even worse than today's constitutional monarchies), and over time ignore the very things which make them human. But who knows what will happen in 50 years to the legacy of the first POTUS who transcended the barriers of race. (We'd like an objective account, thanks.)
  2. Thomas Jefferson in particular is practically a God to Libertarians who love quoting him whenever they need to explain their beliefs on certain subjects, and is the namesake of the free speech group the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, who run the Jefferson Muzzle Awards (think the Golden Raspberry Awards but for (what libertarians perceive as) violations of the First Amendment instead of bad movies, and not as racist and homophobic as the Razzies are)
  3. Christopher Hitchens seems to have survived this downfall, even despite his usual oddities. Dennet seems okay too, for now.


  1. Living Colour Lyrics "Cult Of Personality"
  2. Burnt by the Sun, IMDB
  3. Personality vs. Party, National Review
  4. "Xi Jinping: the growing cult of China's 'Big Daddy Xi'". Daily Telegraph. 8 December 2014. Retrieved on 5 October 2015.
  5. Is Castro’s battle to avoid a personality cult destined to fail? (2016-12-05) France 24.
  6. Muriel Mirak-Weissbach (1 May 2012). Madmen at the Helm: Pathology and Politics in the Arab Spring. Garnet Publishing Ltd. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-86372-457-2. 
  7. Neville Teller (28 September 2014). The Search for Détente:: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014. Troubador Publishing Ltd. p. 315. ISBN 978-1-78306-592-9.