The term cult of personality generally refers in derogatory terms to the worship of a single living leader. The term does not generally refer to showing respect for the dead, nor does it refer to honoring symbolic leaders who have no real power. The latter often occurs with monarchies, such as that of Thailand, in which subjects treat their monarchs with extreme respect, but convention or law forbid them from converting this respect into real political power.
Personality cults usually characterise totalitarian states or countries which have recently experienced revolutions. The reputation of a single leader, often characterized as the "liberator" or "savior" of the people, elevates that leader to an almost divine level. The leader's picture appears everywhere, as do statues and other monuments to the leader's greatness and wisdom. Slogans of the leader cover massive billboards, and books containing the leader's speeches and writings fill up the bookstores and libraries. The level of flattery can reach heights which may appear absurd to outsiders. For example, during the Cultural Revolution, all essays including scientific papers, had a quote from Mao Zedong, and all quotes from Mao appeared highlighted in boldface or in red.
Personality cults aim to make the leader and the state seem synonymous, so it becomes impossible to comprehend the existence of one without the other. It also helps justify the often harsh rule of a dictatorship, and propagandize the citizens into believing that the leader operates as a kind and just ruler. In addition, cults of personality often arise out of an effort to quash opposition within a ruling elite. Both Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin used their cults of personality to help crush their political opponents.
Cult of personality do not appear universal among all totalitarian or authoritarian societies. A few of the world's most oppressive regimes have in fact exhibited little to no worship of the leader. The Marxist Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia and the theocratic Taliban government of Afghanistan lacked many of the trappings of cults of personality, and the leaders in these regimes remained almost anonymous. In these cases, the lack of a cult of personality seems partly motivated by the desire to project an image of a faceless but omniscient and omnipresent state. In other cases such as post-Mao People's Republic of China, authoritities frown upon the establishment of a cult of personality for fear it may upset the balance or power between the leaders within the political elite.
The creation of such a vast cult often led to criticism of the regimes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. During the peak of their reigns both these leaders appeared as god-like omniscient rulers, destined to rule their nation for all eternity. Government orders prescribed the hanging of their portraits in every home and public building, and many artists and poets were instructed to only produce works that glorified the leader. To justify this level of worship, both Mao and Stalin tried to present themselves as personally humble and modest, and would often characterize their vast personality cults as nothing more than a spontaneous show of affection by their people. Stalin in particular used this excuse to justify the Communist Party's massive campaign of renaming things in his honor (see Stalingrad).
Cults of personality can collapse very quickly after the ousting or death of the leader. Stalin and Mao both provide examples of this. In some cases, the leader formerly the subject of a cult of personality becomes vilified after his death, and often a massive effort at renaming and statue-removal ensues.
Other notable past personality cults included that of Kemal Atatürk's Turkey, Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam, Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Imperial Rome and the world of Hellenistic Greece displayed many pre-modern equivalents of cult of personality features, with ancient Egypt especially practised in the ways of elevating monarchs to god kings.
Some current countries that feature personality cults include Saparmurat Niyazov's Turkmenistan and Kim Jong Il's North Korea. Compare the reputation of Fidel Castro in Cuba and of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
The term cult of personality may also describe: