Jonestown30 years ago this
week, on November 18th, 1978, roughly a year and three months
before I was born, 909 people in total – including infants who
would have been among my generation – committed suicide together by
drinking the Kool-Aid provided by Jim
Jones in Jonestown, Guyana. This is a crazy,
unbelievable story, the details of which are incredible, and should
be familiar to most readers in general if not in specifics. The
Jonestown massacre was the subject of an MSNBC
Films documentary
which premiered earlier this evening,
telling a story which sucked me in completely and left my wife
Melissa in tears. But something fundamental – absolutely
fundamental – was missing from the MSNBC account of the Jonestown
story. Jim Jones was portrayed for his drug use, his manipulative
personality and unbalanced thinking. But the heart of his
operation, his own personal driving force, the ideological
foundation of all that he did, was the advancement of socialism.
Communism. Marxism. Yet socialism barely got mentioned as the
narrative unfolded. As a child, Jones studied the teachings of Karl
Marx and became sympathetic to socialist ideas. At 21 years old he
began attending Communist meetings and rallies. From there he
married Pentecostalism with socialism:

Why I
became my own brand of Marxist. …. Not only my brand of Marxism,
but in Pentecostal tradition, I saw that when the early believers
came together, they sold their possessions and had all things
common. So I tried very hard to live up to that concept throughout
my years. [Tape Q134.]

The makings of
a perfect storm! On the MSNBC documentary, we heard some of the
famous death tape (Q42), the original of which
runs for 44 minutes, on which we could hear Jones exhorting the
members of the cult to take the medicine and lay down their lives
(as they were already doing in the background as Jones talked them
through it). But left out were the following excerpts:

This is a revolutionary suicide. ….
[Authorities would have let our kids] grow up and be dummies like
they want them to be. And not grow up to be a socialist like the
one and only Jim Jones. …. Stop this hysterics. This is not the
way for people who are Socialists or Communists to die. No way for
us to die. We must die with some dignity. …. I call on you to
quit exciting your children, when all they’re doing is going to a
quiet rest. I call on you to stop this now, if you have any respect
at all. Are we black, proud, and Socialist, or what are we? Now
stop this nonsense. …. No other way I would rather go to give my
life for socialism, communism…. We got tired. (Tape edit) We
didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide
protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.

This was an act of protest and paranoia and counter-culture
ideology, a kick back against capitalism. The members of the
People’s Temple cult believed in the promise that socialism would
produce a better world so wholeheartedly that, earlier on the same
tape, the group were having a conversation about whether they could
be airlifted to the socialist state of the USSR instead of
committing suicide. They believed it so fully that they left $7.3
million in assets to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union! Yet
the creators of the MSNBC Films piece didn’t think it was
worthwhile mentioning, virtually all throughout the documentary.
Perhaps this is because the creators themselves are part of an
American Left that likes to believe some form or mix of socialism
still holds some promise for western society, and they don’t want
to tarnish the word by associating it with Jim Jones and Jonestown.
(For the record, producer Stephen Stept has said that National Socialism and
Communism “always seem to leave mass misery in their wake,” which
seems to indicate he at least doesn’t believe that.) The election
of Barack Obama, who some have called ‘socialist’, may also provoke
a sense that the word (and concept) is being redeemed in America
right now, which may also explain the reluctance of the creators to
sully the term by Jonesifying it. Just a thought. I think the fact
that the Jonestown Brainwashed were socialists is very interesting.
Of course I could never argue that the socialism of Jim Jones is an
indictment by itself of socialism any more than corporate
corruption is an indictment of capitalism (although it must be said
that all the fraudulence in Enron, WorldCom and anywhere else added
together never did a human massacre produce). But it does say
something about the kinds of people who are attracted to left-wing
ideas and the inherent surrendering of the mind, rationality and
will that is involved in forfeiting the individual thus. At one
revealing moment on the tape, an unidentified woman tells Jones
emotionally, “We’re doing this for you.” Yes they were. They sure
as hell weren’t doing it for themselves, or even for the ideology
they say they believed in. But it was easy to see what that
ideology bred in them: a willingness to forego the individual,
their sense of personal desire and enterprise in favor of advancing
another man’s idea of a community. It was socialism. “We’re doing
this for you.” Something Ayn Rand wrote easily springs to mind:

I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I
will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to
live for mine.

Or die for him. One woman was
there that evening who didn’t want to die, and said it. Perhaps she
began to realize that what Rand said was true: she couldn’t do the
opposite of what her individualist spirit was screaming at her to
do; she needed to fight this mass hysteria, this communal
sacrificing of the self, this socialism that she’d become wrapped
up in. Her name was Christine Miller. Christine was an enterprising
individual before joining the cult. According to Michael Bellefountaine, she said, “I
pulled myself up by the bootstraps,” and, working hard, found her
way to Los Angeles where she “…earned enough to buy a home and
car, and still have money for jewelry, furs and travel. She
probably enjoyed these things more than most because of the hard
work it took to get herself there.” Hardly the definition of
socialist. When she joined the commune, she was one of the few who
was allowed to keep many of her material possessions and bring them
with her. “It could be that Christine Miller was one of the few
people who simply refused to give up the things for which she had
worked so hard.” Either way, she was not one of them. Christine
started off by asking about the possibility of going to Russia
instead. When Jones shot it down, she repeated her suggestion,
saying, “That’s what I say. I don’t think nothing is impossible if
you believe it.” She and Jones argued back and forth for a few
minutes, during which time it’s obvious that Christine was becoming
desperate to find an alternative to giving up her life:

Christine: I said I’m not ready to die. But I
know… (unintelligible) Jones: I don’t think you are. I don’t
think you are. Christine: But, ah, I look about at the babies and I
think they deserve to live, you know? Jones: I — I agree. But they
— But don’t they also they deserve much more, they deserve peace.
Crowd: Right. Christine: We all came here for peace. Jones: And
we’ve — have we had it? Christine: No!

right she didn’t have it. How can any socialist society lead to
peace? Only the freedom of the human being at the individual level
gives any prospect of peace. Christine goes on: “When … we
destroy ourselves, we’re defeated.” But that’s exactly what Jones’
socialist ideology does: it destroys the self in order to advance
the community. They were defeated already. This incredible
conversation, in these lucid moments before their impending deaths,
went to the heart of ideology, the heart of the debate between
socialism and capitalism, communism and individualism, Left and
Right, tyranny and liberty.

Jones: I cannot
separate myself from the pain of my people. You can’t either,
Christine, if you stop to think about it. You can’t separate
yourself. We’ve walked too long together. Christine: I well know
that. But I still think, as an individual, I have a right to —
Jones: You do, and I’m listening. Christine: — to say what I
think, what I feel. And I think we all have a right to our own
destiny as individuals. Jones: Right. Christine: And I think I have
a right to choose mine, and everybody else has a right to choose
theirs. Jones: Mmm-hmm. Christine: You know? Jones: Mmm-hmm. I’m
not criticizing…

Was she kidding? An
individual? In a socialist commune? There is no room for the
individual within socialism. Everything is done collectively. Of
course there was the illusion of
individuality. But Christine was doomed – literally – to the hell
of the choice she made to accept a group which chose communism over
capitalism. Jones was never going to listen. It was a community
decision. There’s no dissent. Finally, a third party steps in:

“McElvane: Christine, you’re only standing here
because he was here in the first place. So I don’t know what you’re
talking about, having an individual life. Your life has been
extended to the day that you’re standing there, because of him.

Precisely. From there, the crowd gets loud and
Christine is essentially resigned to her fate. She was found among
the rows of dead, on the second row. In this situation (which
happened 13 months before I was even born) Christine Miller was my
hero. She represented reason, rationality, bravery, dissent,
individualism, liberty, the good of capitalism and so much more. So
that is Jonestown. And the story is not complete (take heed MSNBC)
without acknowledging the ideological premise, the beating heart,
of Jonestown: socialism.