Ideological Totalism and Owned Reality within Political Cults

To what extent can religious concepts be applied to events ranging from the worship of ‘Mao’s mangos’ during the cultural revolution, Stalin’s proto-photoshop of adversaries during the ‘Great Purge’, and Aum Shrinrikō’s evolution from a yoga movement into an apocalyptic millenarian cult?

Soviet proto-photoshop (Stalin’s cult of personality 1934-1953)

Photo editing in the USSR was commonplace, used to make cosmetic edits of Stalin in addition to more sinister purposes. The connection between patronage and personalised power is typified by the lefthand picture below, showing the original photo which was retrospectively doctored as each deputy fell out of favour, removing them from Stalin’s physical presence. Such was the power of Stalin’s “cult of personality” that he possessed a monopoly on the truth, where the falsification of reality meant total control with regard to erasing his political enemies from “tomorrow’s picture of history” (Blakemore, 2022). The Stalin cult was “tailored to a population whose mental universe was shaped primarily by images” (Plamper, 2012, p. xv), displaying the propagation of information allowed by the merging of state power with an individual.

  1. The original photograph from left to right shows Nikolai Antipov, Stalin, Sergei Kirov and Nikolai Shvernik (1926). [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 May 2022].

  2. Wax replica mangoes cushioned on silk are carried in glass cases during the re-enactment of Beijing's National Day Parade in Harbin, October 1968. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 20 May 2022].

  3. Aum Shinrikyo leader Shoko Asahara (fourth from left) speaking at a press conference in Tokyo announcing plans to field candidates for the general election (1990) (CNN, 2018)

Idolisation of mangos during the cultural revolution (Mao’s cult of personality 1949-1976)

This refers to the strange case of ritual worship and propaganda which grew to surround mangos during the period of Mao’s cult of personality. Following a period of conflict between two rival factions of the Red Guard and Qinghua University, Mao gifted mangos to the factory workers responsible for intervening, sending one to each factory. Despite receiving little food, workers spent a great time deliberating over what to do with the gift, which the majority opted to preserve. The mango thus became a representation of the zealous reverence of Mao in 1960s China, capitalised on by the state to propagate propaganda; emblazoning mangos on items ranging from utensils to bedsheets, and even going so far as to manufacture mango flavoured cigarettes (BBC News, 2016). The sacralization of the mango also testifies to the self-perpetuating nature of the mystique surrounding cults, to the extent that propaganda and ritual need not necessarily be initiated from above.[1]

Aum Shrinrikō

Beginning as a yoga movement founded in Tokyo in the mid-1980s before morphing into an apocalyptic millenarian cult, Aum Shrinrikō would go on to organise the most extensive non-state biological weapons programme (Rosenau, 2001). Their creed evolved to include a belief in an inevitable apocalypse from which their members alone would survive, and that they should hasten such an event by launching attacks. The group is famous for the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, resulting in the death of thirteen people (Bleek, 2011; Heller, 2021).

The ideological totalism that defines such events establishes a connection between the devotion and surety found in ‘cults’ with various forms of control and legitimising functions exerted within the political realm. Ideological totalism can be defined as a psychological stance organised through a structure of dichotomies; a system of absolute thought legitimised by the claim to monopoly over interpretation and reality (Murariu, 2017, p. 77). Totalising ideologies claim to “explain all historical happenings, the total explanation of the past, the total knowledge of the present, and the reliable prediction of the future” (Arendt, 2017, p. 470). The ownership of reality exerted can often be seen through a projection of the atemporality of the ‘one true ideology’. For example, the Khmer Rouge would declare the year 1975 as ‘Year Zero’, all prior history was deemed irrelevant due to the revolutionary transformation and the intended destruction of the past (Stein, 2016, p. 339).

The Khmer Regime (Pol Pot 1975-1979)

With the aim of creating an agrarian utopia, the Khmer regime under Pol Pot undertook social engineering policies, based on the conviction that Cambodia had become corrupted by Vietnam and the capitalist West. Vast prisons were set up where anyone from intellectuals, city residents to ethnic Vietnamese (as well as their families) were tortured and executed. The most infamous of these prisons, S-21, saw only twelve survivors out of the roughly seventeen thousand people sent there. Over a million people killed resultant of the regime have been buried in mass graves, which have been termed the “Killing Fields” (BBC News, 2018; USC Shoah Foundation, n.d.).

Prisoners of the Khmer Rouge (Prisoners of the Khmer Regime, n.d.)

The creation of “a fictitious world within a hermetically sealed totalist system” (Stein, 2016, p. 328) thus means that seemingly disparate groups can be closely related on psychological grounds. As opposed to ritual and practices being definitive features, cults are instead an exercise of ideological totalism formed by an interaction between structure and function. This is where structure, in the form of a closed and controlled belief system, is sustained by function; a mechanism ensuring absolute control, the justification of loyalty and the separation of the group from the outside world (Stein 2016, pp. 55-56). The ‘total’ effect of totalising ideology can perhaps best be understood through the comparison of partial ideology. For example, a Christian Scientist may use the Bible to guide many areas of their life, but is still able to come to logical conclusions when faced with evidence that may be contradictory to its contents (such as when conducting research on the subject of evolution). Partial ideology is therefore not subject to the same rigidity found within a totalising ideology claiming ownership over one’s reality, and the scientist is still able to exercise reasoned judgement regarding both their beliefs and observations (Stein, 2016).

Current research surrounding cults displays a tendency to separate what Lifton (2019) terms “mental predators” into two disparate groups. Using this framework, the first group is characterised by ideological totalism, based around a set of ideas claiming absolute truth and virtue, and the second as ‘cults’; sealed off communities where reality can be dispensed and controlled (Lifton, 2019, pp. 1-2). A divisionist approach is however misleading, as it ignores the commonality of the two phenomena which often exist as part of a single entity. Totalistic movements, accordingly, can include entire political regimes in addition to the sealed off communities typically described as cults. Therefore, the often ‘bizarre’ or ‘cultlike’ practices associated with such movements, are not in themselves a sufficient condition for qualification as a cult. Moreover, what is considered ‘excessive’ devotion and/or worship depends on contingent cultural and historical factors (Márquez, 2018, pp. 268-269). As such, the condescending and pejorative connotations of ‘cult’, is often used as a synonym for “religion I don't like”. This means that a consideration of individual positionality is highly relevant, with personal values and world views shaping one’s perception of unfamiliar practices. The human tendency of believing some ideas to be so abnormal that they require an individual to dispense of their free will is thus inaccurate and largely responsible for the rise of pseudo-scientific brainwashing theories.

‘Brainwashing’ theories and owned reality

The frequently observed contradiction between utopic proclamations and oppressive physical conditions naturally leads to intrigue about the subversion of reality afforded by cult psychology (Stein, 2016, pp. 56-57; Sharps, 2020). Brainwashing theories emerged as a popular theoretical construct in the United States in the 1970s with the term originally used to describe ‘thought-reform’ practiced by the Maoist regime (Heller, 2021; Melton, 1999). When detached from its anti-communist origins, brainwashing can be described as a technique intended to manipulate human thought and action against the desire, will, or knowledge of the individual (Schein, 1960). While “coercive persuasion” models can be linked to a degree of heuristic value regarding an understanding of indoctrination, the tendency of brainwashing theories to espouse the destruction of free will and “the status of authoritarian religiosity as a medical pathology” (Robbins & Anthony, 1980, p. 66) has been widely dismissed as pseudo-science.

As opposed to brainwashing models, cult attachment is instead better conceptualised under the guise of conversion, conditioning, and coercion. In terms of conversion, a wide variety of recruitment pathways is evident, ranging from self-selection to the forced conscription of child soldiers as in the case of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Retention processes, on the other hand, display commonalities that transcend context (Stein, 2016, p. 64). Lifton, despite often regarded within the field of psychohistory as an early proponent of brainwashing theories, has since clarified his position to dispel an understanding of brainwashing as “an all-powerful, irresistible, unfathomable, and magical method of achieving total control over the human mind” (Lifton, 2019, p. 17). In his more recent work concerning the psychology of human zealotry, he instead conceptualised eight ‘deadly sins’ of ideological totalism, intended as a guide for understanding the “imposed dogmas, inquisitions and mass conversion movements” aimed at social control and individual change (Lifton, 2019, p. 18). These are:

Milieu control

This refers to the control of information and communication resulting in the permeation of one’s inner psyche. The utmost control of information, as well as deprivation of external information, are required to test the realities of an individual’s environment and maintain a measure of identity separate from it. Milieu control accordingly aims to achieve absolute polarization of the real (the prevailing ideology) and the unreal (all else) (Lifton, 2019, p. 68-70).

Mystical manipulation

Initiated from above, this seeks to provoke specific patterns of behaviour and emotion in such a way that these will appear to have arisen spontaneously from the environment. Endeavouring to evoke a sense of “higher purpose” and having “directly perceived some imminent law of social development” the leaders of totalistic movements present themselves as agents “chosen” (by history God or some supernatural force) to carry out a mystical imperative. This affords a legitimising function to harsh material realities, as the pursuit of the imperative must supersede all considerations of decency or immediate human welfare (Lifton, 2019, p. 71-73).

The demand for purity

Reality is viewed through a dichotomy, between, for instance, a framework of pure and impure. The demand for purity is underlined by a philosophical judgement that purity in an absolute form is attainable. Experience of totalist polarization affects one’s ability to gain a balanced inner sensitivity to the complexities of human morality, and hence guilt and shame can become powerful devices of control (Lifton, 2019, p. 73-76).

The cult of confession

There exists “a demand that one confesses to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that is arbitrarily induced, in the name of a cure that is arbitrarily imposed” (Lifton, 2019, p. 76). In this sense, private ownership of the mind is in a sense deemed immoral. This creates a structure in which confession serves several functions, including as a vehicle for personal purification, an act of symbolic self-surrender and a means of maintaining an ethos of total surrender (Lifton, 2019, p. 76-79).

The “Sacred Science”

The dogma of a totalist milieu contains an aura of sacredness; the ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. The seeming unification of the mystical and the logical (in psychoanalytical terms of the primary and secondary processes of thought) can often be seen to manifest in the leader as the divine interpreter of truth and action (Lifton, 2019, p. 79-81).

Loading the language

Lifton uses the phrase “thought-terminating cliché” which serves to impact thought processes to conform to the pre-determined way of thinking. For example, the phrase “bourgeois mentality”, is utilised to encompass and dismiss ordinary concerns such as the quest for individual self-expression. This phenomenon creates a sense that language is a possession and function of the group (Lifton, 2019, p. 81-83).

Doctrine over person

Subordination of the individual to doctrine occurs, whereby the personal is dominated by the dominant ideology, with contrary experiences denied or reinterpreted (Lifton, 2019, p. 83-86). The term “cognitive dissonance” has been used to describe the unpleasant feeling that arises when an established belief is confronted by clearly contradictory evidence (Heller 2021).

The dispensing of existence

The totalist environment has a prerogative over those whose right to exist can be recognised or denied (i.e those declared enemies, to be either extinguished or converted) (Lifton, 2019, p. 87-89).

According to Lifton’s conceptualisation, the more clearly a milieu accords with these eight psychological themes, the greater its resemblance to ideological totalism. As such, while any ideology may be mobilised by its advocates towards totalism, this is more likely to occur within ideological systems which are more extensive and messianic.

Personality cults and the charismatic leader

The phenomenon of ‘personality cult’ refers to the idealised, even god-like, public image of an individual consciously shaped and moulded through constant propaganda and media exposure. As a result, one is able to manipulate others based on the influence of public personality. The term, “cult of personality” was popularised by the 1956 speech by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during the 20thth Party Congress; “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”. This term was used to explain the consolidation of Stalin's personal dictatorship, the ensuing abuses of power and what Khrushchev called “loathsome adulation” using the denouncement to initiate the process of de-stalinization in the USSR (Dikötter, 2020, p. Xi; Rees, 2004:3). Hunter (2012, p. 13) identified the necessary conditions for the formation and classification of a personality cult as “a unifying ideology, the image of the leader as an ideal type, media control, and the constant reminder of a leader in the lives of the people”. Working from Jeremy Paltiel’s definition of the ‘cult of communism’ Hunter’s modified definition aims to be applicable beyond a particular established institutional state authority. She defines cult of personality as “the acceptance of absolute personal authority regardless of the institutionally defined position”, importantly drawing attention to the relationship between a formal position and an individual; the latter of which establishes a relation of higher importance (Hunter, 2012, p. 3). The lack of need for institutional authority is thus what sets personality cults apart from dictatorships, where fear or respect of the position becomes irrelevant in the face of “reverence for the person” (Hunter, 2012, pp. 3-4).

Most research regarding personality cults draws upon Max Weber’s classification of authority. Weber’s theorisation surrounding charisma rests upon the necessary conditions for a state’s continuation; the submission of those who are ruled to the leadership. According to the framework, legitimate authority can be derived in one of three ways where the validity of the claims to rule are based on either traditional, legal-rational or charismatic grounds (Lu & Soboleva, 2014, p. 3). Traditional authority (e.g monarchies) characterises legitimation from the perception of certain traditions as embedded with a quality of sanctity. Legal-rational authority is centred around rationally derived rules; whereby obedience is owed to impersonal principles rather than an individual. Alternatively, the basis of charismatic authority is “the entirely personal devotion to, and personal trust in, revelations, heroism, or other qualities of leadership in an individual” (Weber, 1994, p. 312). The leadership system responsible for the generation of personality cults can thus be seen as embodying the routinisation of charismatic authority.

A brief comment on the rise of the digital ‘cult’

The “political groupthing” created by the rise of the online platform can be seen as resulting in the ideal settings for the germination and dissemination of extremist ideas and alternative realities (Heller, 2021). The manifestation of a digital ‘cultic phenomenon’ is exemplified in movements such as Q-Anon and incels. But to what extent do such movements actually fit within the framework of cultist rhetoric? Bates (2020, p. 17) describes incels as a community that “excels at conveying a tribal sense of cohesion”, with an origin story which “immediately positions all acolytes as heroic, doomed visionaries, and all critics and disbelievers as either pitifully ignorant or part of the oppressive system itself” (Bates, 2020, p. 17).


As a starting point incels take the idea of a feminist conspiracy and a deeply rigged sexual marketplace which is brutally hierarchical (Bates, 2020, p. 26). The group displays a striking contradiction, in that they both hate and desire women. The group makes use of extensive jargon, with the most attractive men ‘Chads’, the superficially beautiful women ‘Stacys’ and the promiscuous and less attractive women who are still able to attract sexual partners ‘Beckys’. Within the ‘incelosphere’ the phrase “go ER” is used in homage to the actions of Eliot Rogers who carried out a massacre of six people in the California suburb of Isla Vista, stating “I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blonde slut I see” (Bates, 2020).[2]

Victims of the Isla Vista Massacre from top left: Christopher Michaels-Martinez, Veronika Weiss, Katie Cooper, Cheng-Yuan Hong, George Chen, Weihan Wang (ABC News, 2014)


Named one of the largest extremism networks in the US, Q-Anon centres on the claims made by the anonymous "Q”, self-reported to be an insider of the Trump network. According to the ideological claims of the group, a group of cannibalistic paedophiles including Hilary Clinton and George Soros conspired against Donald Trump during his presidency. Inclusive of cryptic language, anti-Semitism and conspiracy Q-Anon’s totalising ideology can be displayed through believers’ commitment to the doctrine even in the face of implausibility, with believers contending that deliberate misinformation is entangled within Q’s messages (Wendling, 2021).

The ‘Q-Anon Shaman’ at the 6th January insurrection at the US Capitol (Stirton, 2021)

While such groups undoubtedly have strong elements of a totalising belief system they can be seen as lacking in structure and function to accompany their zealotry. Moreover, the application of cultist rhetoric to such groups can be contested in the absence of an apparent leader. While both groups have notable figures (e.g ‘Q’ in the case of Q-Anon and the martyrised Eliot Rogers with regard to the incel movement) the centrality of the leader to understanding cults remains a relevant critique. To account for the inclusion of a ‘crowdsourced model’, traditional definitions of what constitutes a cult will thus need adapt to accommodate the dissemination of information in an online context (Heller, 2021).

Notes: [1] Mao is reported to dislike fruit, reportedly finding amusement and laughter in the fact that a cult had begun to form around mangos. Here I believe it is noteworthy to mention the contrast of the laughing leader with the estimated 15 to 55 million people who died in China during the Great Chinese Famine, one of (if not the) largest famine in human history (Vaclav, 1999).

[2] The founder of the incel movement was in fact a woman who created what was then known as ‘Alana's Involuntary Celibacy Project’ (later to evolve into the incel movement) as an online community for those who were struggling to form loving relationships. She has since, perhaps quite predictively, distanced herself from the movement, publicly denouncing it (Taylor, 2018).


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