What is the definition of “revolutionary suicide”?

There are two answers to this question.

Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton coined the term “revolutionary suicide” in the late 1960s in the context of what a revolutionary should expect as the consequence of challenging the system: if you carried the banner of revolution into the street – to stand up against the power of the Man – the Man was going to shoot you down. You would die at the hands of the oppressor. But the movement would continue: a brother or sister walking behind you would pick up that banner and keep walking. They would likely be shot down as well, as well as numerous revolutionaries following them. But one day, one of your successors was going to carry that banner all the way to freedom from the oppression and tyranny of the system.

However, this definition should be differentiated from Jim Jones’ interpretation of it. Jones appropriated much of the language of the radical left and its political manifestations in  the Black Panther and Communist parties, including his references to the Soviet Union as the “vanguard of liberation” and his characterizations of US government as fascist, racist, and imperialistic. Even his description of the Temple as “socialist” was an effort to distinguish itself from the American society he was rejecting.

But Jones’ definition and use of all of these terms depended upon the circumstances before him at any given time: a good socialist is completely self aware, does not waste his time with diversions, will not betray a political ally, will not fear death. The vanguard of liberation – the Soviet Union – may monitor its people’s activities, even if such practices in the United States proves its fascism.

Similarly, Jones used the term “revolutionary suicide” – especially the threat of it for his people – in numerous ways, primarily as a rhetorical device to achieve some specific goal. The people of Jonestown would commit revolutionary suicide, he says in one tape, “unless we are given freedom from harassment and given asylum.”  In another tape, Jones  describes “revolutionary suicide” as an appropriate alternative to being taken prisoner or going into slavery. The people of Jonestown also described the action of a “revolutionary suicide” as someone who would strap on a bomb and walk into a crowd of enemies before detonating it. And of course, the world came to know of Jones’ use of the phrase from the final words of the death tape, in which he defined it as “protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

Discussions about “revolutionary suicide” appear on the site in articles by Bonnie YatesRichard Lawrence and Maggie Pechanick, among other resources.

Last modified on October 22nd, 2013.
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