Personality Cult in Politics

cult of personality

“Neither of us cares a straw of popularity. Let me cite one proof of this: such was my aversion to the personality cult [orig. Personenkultus] that at the time of the International, when plagued by numerous moves […] to accord me public honor, I never allowed one of these to enter the domain of publicity. . . .”

Karl MarxA letter to German political worker, Wilhelm Blos, 10 November 1877

Personality cult is a system wherein a human being is projected as a larger-than-life entity with all the trappings of greatness, perfection and supremacy. It is basically a deification of an individual person deemed extraordinary and whose heroic exploits have captured the imagination of the masses in a particular socio-political climate. The central figure in a personality cult is generally viewed by the adulatory multitude as an impeccable paragon of a revered hero who personifies their ideals, wishes and dreams more especially in times of national adversity, political disarray and socio-economic crisis. The hero of a personality cult is an “anointed leader” believed to be endowed with super-human power to redeem the impoverished and disempowered masses from the exploitative machination of evil forces that dominate a particular social condition.

Personality cult strongly reflects the persistent need of the social human for a visible personification of power conceived as the convergence point of personal inspiration, political authority and institutional structure without which social breakdown spontaneously seeps in to fully destroy the cultural legacy of a people. Personality cult is therefore a vehicle that generates and promotes the exemplary deeds and godlike preeminence of a supposed national “savior” tasked to liberate his people from tyranny, exploitation and oppression and lead them to “the promised land,” so to speak. Evaluating the marked trails and dramatic lessons of world history, some personality cults appreciatively lived up to the people’s expectations and successfully effected the anticipated consequences while others faltered and failed as their erswhile heroes carried their sullied names to the tragic graves of ignominy.

On a positive note, many personality cults in history spearheaded the revivification of otherwise dying socio-political orders and even toughened their institutional configurations through the dedicated and passionate activism of the people whom these personality cults had consistently inspired. History in different epochs has witnessed the emergence of extraordinary personalities whose leaderships are not simply acknowledged but extolled, glorified and even immortalized  by the next generations. These heroic personalities remain and will always remain to be a galvanizing factor to rally the people into action whenever there is a threat of disintegration and destruction, both internal and external. In many instances, their influence is not solely political but likewise cultural.

It has been constantly observed that if and when such inspirational impact has reached the cultural level, its overarching centrality does not only infuse the sentimental infrastructure of a nation but moreso, the spiritual fiber of every responsible citizen that meaningfully constitutes such a nation. Distinguished from legal authority and traditional authority, eminent classical sociologist and philosopher Max Weber calls it “charismatic authority” in chapter 3 of his Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (edited by Gunther Roth and Claus Wittich) [] entitled “The Types of Legitimate Domination”. On pages 125-126, Weber writes:

There are three pure types of domination. The validity of the claims to legitimacy may be based on:
1. Rational grounds – resting on a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands (legal authority).
2. Traditional grounds – resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them (traditional authority); or finally
3. Charismatic grounds – resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns of order revealed or ordained by him (charismatic authority).

In the case of legal authority, obedience is owed to the legally established impersonal order. It extends to the persons exercising the authority of office under it by virtue of the formal legality of their commands and only within the scope of authority of the office. In the case of traditional authority, obedience is owed to the person of the chief who occupies the traditionally sanctioned position of authority and who is (within its sphere) bound by tradition. But here the obligation of obedience is a matter of personal loyalty within the area of accustomed obligations. In the case of charismatic authority, it is the charismatically qualified leader as such who is obeyed by virtue of personal trust in his revelation, his heroism or his exemplary qualities so far as they fall within the scope of the individual’s belief in his charisma.

In Weber’s view, the “charismatic authority” in personality cult is something positively taken as a necessary factor in exigent historic moments of national significance. Charismatic authority inspires people to solidify their commitment to a noble cause and goads them to act courageously regardless of conceivable risks. In such circumstance, personality cult shines on and enriches the cultural memory of a nation.

However, personality cult is not always a promising condition. In the modern world dominated by mass media, personality cults have been generated and blown out of proportion by media propaganda with all the manipulative  components they intend to spell out  Such method of exaggerating the personal character of a projected hero is aimed for the purpose of raising an agenda  that promotes the chief interest of an emerging political group or alliance. This type of personality cult endeavors to condition the minds of people to toe the political line of the sponsoring party until the majority of them have been brainwashed to the hilt. Propaganda fraught with lies and deceptions is the most effective tool to advance a personality cult and once such is already firmly established on the political landscape, the state of affairs begins to get bad and then worse in gradual phase. Absolute obedience to the personality cult becomes the order of the day to the extent that the exploitative forces behind such cult resort to atrocious means to fully control the people who at this point are no longer treated as allies but vassals.

The downside of personality cult is in the formulation of a narrative that praises a fabricated hero with all the distinguished and illustrious characters of an ideal one despite the reality that such substandard personality doesn’t measure up to the qualities of the ideal. The superficiality of this type of personality cult reveals in time all the recognizable flaws of an incompetent leader whose acts of national magnitude are generally inimical and hence detrimental to the people’s overall circumstances. Lessons of history present to us personality cults that didn’t actually emanate from the people but were pure “contrivances” of political sectors whose chief objective was solely to dominate the national political landscape. In the final analysis, we have seen personality cults emanating from the people as well as those who just emerge out of nowhere and people only get to know them as they are rabidly pushed, sponsored and promoted by interest groups. This in my opinion is the most obvious frontier that distinguishes the positive type of personality cult from the negative.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa 12 March 2015


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