Besides being a popular song by Living Colour, the ‘Cult of Personality’ is probably also one of the paramount factors that shaped history over the last century. By definition, the pejorative term implies that the leader of a totalitarian state has brought his characteristics near to deification, through propaganda. Or in a simpler manner, the leader becomes close to a god, for both himself and the population. As such, anything good that happens in the country is attributed to the person, while anything bad is assigned to the opposition.
At this point, it is quite hard for us to imagine how this comes to be. After all, we all know that people are not perfect, and for sure not gods. Well, I am sorry to break it to you all, but, throughout the majority of civilized humanity, leaders matched the definition of the cult of personality. Before the popularization of the term in 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev, there was no common word describing the attribute. From pharaohs in Ancient Egypt to the communist dictators, nearly all developed or entertained a cult of personality.
The integration of power and church makes it harder to assess the psychological development of the power position in historical leaders. Being indoctrinated with the idea that their monarch received authority from God largely explains the sustained cult of personality in past times. However, with the developments in the 20th century, the situation changed. The move away from religion in the majority of instaurated communist regimes left a void that takes more than one generation to fill. The leaders had to find other means of propaganda to reinstate their power position. As such, political religion came to take place.
This article will mostly focus on Stalinism and Maoism with a focus on the development of the subsequent leaders and their perceived persona in the public eye.
In their 2003 article in the Psychological Review, Keltner et al. define power as an individual’s relative capacity to modify others states’ by providing or withdrawing resources or administering punishments. They propose among others, that power brings both automatic thinking and disinhibited behaviour. As such, they argue that individuals in power positions, who are unlikely to be held accountable, will often display socially poor behaviour. Developing on this idea, Ana Guinote states that influential people have the tendency of prioritizing efforts that will ultimately fulfil their focal goal, whilst also displaying increased self-perception and confidence.
Looking into Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin we can observe the role that power played in the development of their personality cults. Both dictators were born in poor backgrounds and joined the communist parties at young ages. Their ascension to power was tumultuous and a clear determinant in forming the praised image of the revolutionary and fighter. These similarities and personal struggles further reinstate their position and won the sympathy of the public. The blind eye that the majority of the country’s population turned to the atrocities they committed further adding to their own perception of superiority.
Mao’s focus goal was industrialization. The Great Leap Forward, which could be argued to be one of the causes of the Great Chinese Famine, proves his determination in fulfilling his ideals. Stalin was no different, with his self-confidence and a strong belief that he was implementing the correct Marxism standing out. Both leaders display such boldness in describing their achievements, that it seems that they are indeed starting to believe in their own cult of personality. They can do no harm, and everything they do is for the greatness of the country. Living in luxury, both seemed to believe that the general rules did not apply to them. Devoid of accountability and blinded by power, both tended to forget that they were merely human. Yet, it is in my opinion precisely this self-forgetness that contributed to the success of their cults of personality. In order to make millions believe in your superiority, you need to believe in it as well.
Hanged in the corner of the classroom, sits a picture of shiny lit Stalin, overlooking the children, the future of the nation. Propaganda was key. The general population had to learn how to venerate the leader and the country. Art played an important role in perpetuating the god-like image of the leaders. From posters to paintings, all were indented to showcase the supremacy of the leader and his ideology. The majority of posters should either have the leader in the centre of the picture or looking over his achievements.
In Mao’s China, political parades were also at the core of the cult of personality; for example the National Day (1st of October) and Labour Day (1st of May) parades. These celebrations were incredible displays of spectacles and dedication to the leader. Their indirect celebration towards the leader associated those good days of happiness with the face of a single person, that made all of this possible. The annual displays only further perpetuated the feeling of liberation brought by the holidays appointed by the leader.
However, what in my opinion was key to the indoctrination of society is the educational program. The pioneer programs, present in both China and the USSR, were primarily meant for young children and the assurance of their dedication to the party from a young age. Their success was evident. People that were growing up during these times still see the former dictators as god-like. Adding to the propaganda in the education system, many school manuals had a foreword written by the leader with his photo.
Another interesting aspect was the naming of cities and raising of statues while the leaders were still alive. Stalingrad (Volgograd today) was named after the USSR leader in 1925, and in everyday conversations in post-communist countries, the name is still predominantly used.
Of course, it is rather naive to assume that all people believed in the divinity of the leader. This was certainly not the case. Yet, the opposition towards the party was strictly monitored and often eradicated, causing terror for the general public. As such, a forced belief might have eventually transformed into a real one, as few dared to see beyond the propaganda.
The cult of personality today
“Look in my eyes, what do you see?/ The cult of personality” starts the song by Living Colours. And, the 1980s song is as meaningful today as it was then. Robert Strunsky, in 1956, argues that the cult of personality is also entertained in our day to day lives. He mainly focuses on the North American tendencies of promoting self-confidence and an outgoing personality. Those traits are adding to the belief that one is special.
With the recent developments in communication, especially social media, it seems to me that very often we still entertain some way smaller, less hurtful, cults of personality. Although they are not directly political, they do promote certain types of behaviour and beliefs that shape current generations. Of course, there is no comparison between them and the ones promoted by the communist leaders we discussed. But, unfortunately, the underlying essence is ultimately the same; helping your persona and self-glorification. However, while political religions provoked the suffering of millions, the ‘social influencers’ are often promoting integration and understanding, even though usually without any substance. While the online personas might influence our consumption patterns and some social ideas, this usually does no harm to anyone.
All in all, the self, not necessarily as a coherent entity, is vital for our survival. But, it is only when people gain power, in all its old and new forms, that this trait combines with our means and dissipates our persona to the ones around us.