Marxism and Cults of Personality

In the age of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, their ideas are made the ruling ones by the use of power. From historical analysis to modern political practices, their hegemony can be seen in action. Hyper-individualism, substituting metaphysics and mysticism in place of sober and scientific analysis — these delusions are preached in nearly every classroom, from the mouth of nearly every parent to their children. Bourgeois analysis is infectious. It’s legacy advances a purposeful misunderstanding of history, of political life today and of ourselves as social actors. Even within the movement of those who would resist capitalism, imperialism and bourgeois hegemony, the ideology of the bourgeoisie has persisted. It has corrupted and destroyed movements, and among some ostensibly “revolutionary” organizations, it continues to lead to their ideological and practical degeneration.

One of the gravest instances of revolutionary movements becoming corrupted by bourgeois ideology is in the creation of personality cults around leaders within these movements. From Kim Il-Sung to Abimael Guzmán (known as Chairmen Gonzalo of the Communist Party of Peru, referred to in the media as the “Shining Path”), Mao Tse-Tung to Nicolae Ceaușescu, even in the case of dedicated Marxist-Leninists like Joseph Stalin and Enver Hoxha, personality cults have been propped up in revolutionary movements for counterrevolutionary purposes. While in some cases the personality cults met resistance from those subjected to it, with the main manipulators of them doing so to work against such leaders, many movements and political leaders have cultivated the anti-Marxist cults around them to achieve their political aspirations. These opportunists inevitably helped in the restoration of capitalism, of bourgeois ideology and counterrevolution, despite the assurances of their cults to their revolutionary nature. Personality cults never serve revolution, and must be exposed for their bourgeois nature and counterrevolutionary purpose.

The Metaphysics of the Magic Man

To expose the reactionary nature of personality cults, one must understand that the theoretical basis for a cult of personality is entirely metaphysical. Rather than accurately view individuals in their role in history, which requires that one examine the material conditions which existed outside of the volition of individuals, what we see employed in cults of personality is a metaphysics — an analysis which attributes events in the material realm as being influenced by forces outside or above the material — that serves to fetishize the central character within the personality cult as having insight, abilities and inherent worth greater than any other human being. When it becomes the policy of a group, a movement or a society to refer to any particular leader or leaders using messianic terms, treating a person or persons as being “more” than human, a cult and the metaphysics which guide it are formed.

In a personality cult, the cult leader’s word is final — it is the pinnacle of their analysis, the chief lens of their historical analysis and the origin of activity. The consistency of the analysis that a movement begins to fade as the cult rises. It is because the standard of the “magic man,” the metaphysical notion that the leader is always right and no other analysis is necessary, takes precedence over whatever ideology or systems they had put forward before. When confronted with a contradiction between past and present actions and statements of their cult, the good cultist will reach for an excuse, often a sound-bite generated by the cult leader themselves. These attempts at artful dodges reveal the priorities of the cult, which are the cult itself and not a movement, and reveal norms which are at play. Whereas Marxist-Leninist discourse and norms of democratic-centralism promote criticism and self-criticism among all members of an organization, for a cult, there must always be one exception. How an organization treats democratic-centralism in relation to the figure acknowledged to be their leader represents the dividing line between cult and party — any organization who would put any person above democratic centralism has engaged in cultism and taken up metaphysics as their ideological base, ultimately leading to the promotion of bourgeois theory.

Bourgeois Theory, Bourgeois Practice

In the view of a personality cult, the wisdom and guidance of the leader is the best means, and often the only means, of achieving revolution and remaking society. The analysis of a cult leader being the sole means of attaining social change might sound at first like something that would not have a place outside of small religious and political cults like those of Heaven’s Gate and Lyndon LaRouche’s “movement,” yet we can find a similar analysis in the writings of Max Weber, a bourgeois sociologist who played a significant role in developing bourgeois sociology and the American conception of class.

Weber argued that in our society there exists three kinds of authority: legal-rational authority, traditional authority and charismatic authority. While downplaying (if not eliminating altogether) the role of class, he generalized that the emergence of capitalism signified a shift from traditionalism, basing one’s norms and rules on what had been done since the very beginning, to rationalism, engendering the creation of vast bureaucracies to manage human activity. He referred to the latter as the “iron cage” of legal rational authority, which was ultimately inescapable, save for a few brief moments of rebellion against bureaucratism.

These few moments of resistance, in Weber’s view, originated in the third kind of authority being implemented by charismatic actors. The charismatic actor is perceived as being the only means of achieving motion against the juggernaut of bureaucracy and legal-rational authority. This analysis falls in line with the “great man theory of history,” which has it that historical events are brought about through the volition and movement of individuals of spectacular qualities. What Weber does with this analysis is attempt to apply it as the rule and central motivating factor behind social movements against existing institutions of power. While it is inevitable that we will be gobbled up by the encroachment of bureaucracy into our daily lives and habits, Weber argues, we find temporary relief in charismatic figures who lead resistance efforts against the inevitable and promise an alternative to the iron cage.

Weber’s Delusion and Bourgeois Political Practice

Max Weber’s notions of charismatic authority should sound familiar to anyone who has for any length monitored media coverage of U.S. Presidential elections, or has sat in a classroom learning U.S. history from the prevailing perspective. Personality politics and bourgeois historical analysis attribute societal change, both positive and negative, as being generated by individuals themselves rather than as a result of the motion of larger forces. As such, every election in our country becomes a pageant with the leading politicians and their campaigns geared around inflating the personality and achievements of one political actor while targeting the personality flaws and personal histories of his opponents.

American politics throughout history has been characterized by a number of personality cults, with great monuments, fictitious legends and spectacular feats laid at the feet of these figures. In South Dakota, a massive monument to “founding fathers” George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, “the great emancipator” Abraham “Honest Abe” Lincoln and Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, is carved into the side of a mountain on lands stolen from the Lakota. We are taught in schools that a small group of brilliant and freedom-loving men one day decided to throw off the bonds of European colonialism, who built a “democracy,” despite the inability for women, the poor and those not deemed “white” inherent in this “democracy,” despite owning slaves and vast tracts of land as the basis for their economic and political power. We are taught that the documents they authored are “living documents,” that the constitution of this country is “sacred” and the basis of our legal system uses constitutionality (from a constitution which originally allowed slavery) as being the final standard for legal action.

The ghosts of these men are seen as the final authority on correct action even today. The Republican Party, for instance, beats the corpse of Ronald Reagan on a daily basis, while the Democrats try to resurrect Franklin Delano Roosevelt, despite the fact that both figures would be politically unacceptable among the contemporary Republican and Democratic Parties. The old cults, and new personality cults, are shoved down our throats every election year. The cult of Ron Paul has been trying to impose itself on the electoral cycle as an “alternative” to the leading parties, for instance. Outside of electoral politics we are subjected to a myriad of cults –cults of wealth, cults of celebrity and cults of athletic achievement — giving us examples of “magic” men and women who are fetishized for having money, being famous, being attractive, being good at a sport, etc. Oprah Winfrey has her own network, the “Oprah Winfrey Network,” (OWN) her own magazine with her image on every cover and a television show entitled “Oprah Presents: Master Class” where Oprah interviews other highly fetishized people. Personality cults, some more extreme than others, are something we’re raised with and exposed to every day of our lives. It’s what we’re taught to expect when the topic of politics is raised.

The Difference Between Theoretical Allegiance and Cultism, Science and Fetish

In order to avoid the pitfalls of metaphysical thinking, of personality politics and cultism, the revolutionary-minded person must be careful as to how individuals are treated in the context of the larger movement. This is not to say that we must not, or cannot, acknowledge the achievements and struggles of individuals in the context of history and in contemporary political practice. To do this is to not only deny the role that individuals have played in shaping history, to nullify these achievements and to downplay the struggle as it was felt on an individual level, but it also alienates us from our own role in the broader context of society. Our contributions matter, just as the contributions the revolutionaries and activists of the past mattered.

The central difference between acknowledging the contributions of individuals and fetishizing those individuals is in the method employed in analysis. The Marxist-Leninist utilizes a sober, scientific frame of analysis when regarding any historical figure, whether they are a revolutionary or a reactionary and basing their analysis on what can be demonstrated in material reality. The cultist, on the other hand, bases their analysis on what is ultimately an emotionalist plea. They have been taught to like the person they fetishize, and see them as being “in the right” because they are who they are, not so much what they did and how they did it. The Marxist-Leninist upholds Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin not out of some emotional affection, some love or worship of them as personalities. Rather, the Marxist-Leninist upholds them because their analysis is vindicated by history, and their efforts based within that theoretical analysis served the cause of revolution.

Stalin in particular has been viewed as being host to a cult of personality, and the presence of this cult has been utilized as a means of smearing Stalin as being megalomaniacal. Those who champion this line do not bother to consider that he rejected and spoke out against those who would try to form a cult around him, that one of the biggest proponents of the cult used it to speak out against him politically after his death and advance counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. Yet, at the same time, we must acknowledge that the presence of a cult meant that there was a weakness within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the years following the Second World War. Cults of personality are anti-Marxist no matter who is at the center of them, and it was the responsibility of those within the CPSU who were aware of the formation of this cult to work against it. While it is difficult to prescribe what must have been done in that situation, and while we must take into consideration that the Soviet Union was in the position of rebuilding after a World War, it is clear that the Marxist-Leninists must remain vigilant when it comes to cults of personality.

Conclusion: Cults Don’t Win Revolutions, Workers Do

While we cannot ignore the role of individuals in the development of history, in leading revolutions and in waging revolutionary struggles, at the same time we must maintain a materialist outlook and temper appreciation with sobriety. To do otherwise is to open the door for disaster, to create a situation wherein the revolutionary ideology of Marxism-Leninism can be abandoned for metaphysical worship. Cult’s don’t win revolutions — they sabotage them. Those who promote cultism within the revolutionary worker’s movement are either misguided or opportunist. Any “revolutionary” who promotes a cult of personality around themselves is a traitor, who has placed class struggle second to their own whims. Those who struggle for revolution must be made aware of the danger that cultism poses, because the struggle for revolution is bigger than any one person.

Categories: History, Imperialism, Media & Culture, Revolutionary History, Science, Theory, World History

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