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A cult of personality or personality cult arises when a country's leader uses mass media to create a larger-than-life public image through unquestioning flattery and praise. The term often refers as well to leaders who did not use such methods during their lifetime, but are built up in the mass media by later governments.

A cult of personality 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; an argument could easily be made, however, that the only notable differences to be found between the terms "hero worship," "cult of personality," or even, more simply, excessive admiration are largely in the context of the person making the accusation.


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, ancient Egypt, the Inca, the Aztecs and the Roman Empire are especially noted for elevating monarchs to the status of god-kings.

The resurgence of ancient Greek democratic ideas in Europe 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 under these circumstances in the 20th century that the best-known personality cults arose.

Billboard of Joseph Stalin. Stalin was the subject of a massive campaign to rename locations in his honor.

The criticism of personality cults often focuses on the regimes of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin, among others. During the peak of their reigns these leaders appeared as god-like infallible rulers. Their portraits were hung in every home or public building, and many artists and poets were instructed to produce only works that glorified the leader. The term "cult of personality" comes from Karl Marx's critique of the "cult of the individual."

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.

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.


Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il

Journalist Bradley Martin documents the personality cults of North Korea's leaders extensively.[1] While visiting North Korea in 1979 he noted that nearly all music, art, and sculpture that he observed glorified Kim Il-sung, whose personality cult was then being extended to his son Kim Jong-il. The younger Kim's pictures were then ubiquitous and his abilities were described as superhuman.[2] 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 children learn to thank Kim Il-sung for all blessings as part of the cult. The cult of the Kims is also unique in that no other authoritarian dictatorship has extended the personality cult to two members of the same family. [4]


  1. Bradley K. Martin. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. ISBN 0-312-32322-0
  2. ibid. pp. 4, 8, 352
  3. ibid. p. 215
  4. ibid. pp. 387,408; U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "Thank you Father Kim Il Sung." November 2005

See also

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