Islands of autonomy

(Stephen Shenfield is an independent researcher and author. He is also secretary of the World Socialist Party US. His articles in this edition of the jonestown report include Jim Jones: an attempt at psychic-political analysis, Peoples Temple and socialism, and Was Jonestown sustainable? He can be reached at

No organization, if it is of any size or has any kind of power structure, can be completely monolithic or completely subject to the authority of a single person. Even within a highly authoritarian community, it is possible under certain circumstances for an ‘island of autonomy’ to arise, a sub-community governed by relations more democratic than those prevailing elsewhere or in the community as a whole. This may occur especially when distance, combined with other factors, impedes communication with the community’s leader. Examples can be found in the history both of ‘communist’ parties and states and of Peoples Temple.

During its early, formative years in Indianapolis, and more notably and successfully during its California years, Peoples Temple undertook many social projects, such as free restaurants and clinics, children’s homes, facilities for the rehabilitation of drug addicts, and centers offering advice on welfare and other problems. Jim Jones could not be everywhere all the time, exercising close control over everyone. That means those who worked on the projects – or at least the project supervisors – must have had some scope for initiative and creativity. Similarly, it is known that Jones relinquished detailed control over the teachers in the Jonestown school, the medical staff in the clinics, the construction crews, the farm crews, the procurers of the community’s supplies, and the administrative staff. They all had some scope for creativity.

Judging by their reports and survivors’ reminiscences, the pioneers who prepared and developed the site of the settlement in Guyana during the initial stages had even greater autonomy, from the beginning of land-clearing operations in 1974 until Jones arrived there in August 1977. Despite harsh living and working conditions, they clearly had a strong esprit de corps and found the venture exciting and meaningful. Ellie A. DeIanni describes this experience of ‘Jonestown without Jones’ as follows:

The original settlers of Jonestown were determined to build a utopia that was free from the inequality they faced back in the United States… While Jones was not in Jonestown, the settlers lived happily. Conditions were difficult to adjust to, but not impossible. The settlers worked long hours but made sure to eat enough food, get enough rest, take time out of the day to enjoy each other’s company and indulge in small pleasures such as reading and watching movies. Stephan Jones was sent to help in Jonestown because his father feared his defection, but Stephan was grateful for this opportunity because he found a sense of belongingness that he had been lacking for years.

It seems to me that only the existence of ‘islands of autonomy’ can lend credibility to the statement of Jonestown survivor Tim Carter that ‘if you believed in the vision of what could be accomplished – in spite of Jim Jones – [Jonestown] was an opportunity.’ This is presumably why people who no longer believed in Jim Jones (or perhaps had never done so) nonetheless chose to remain in PT because they ‘believed in the vision.’

The case of Hainan

Shortly before I renewed my interest in Peoples Temple, I happened to read Jeremy Murray’s history of the communist movement in Hainan, a tropical island off China’s southern coast. For almost two decades the movement in Hainan developed in complete isolation from the progress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the mainland. As a result, it escaped the process that turned the mainland movement into a totalitarian machine. Like the community of pioneers at Jonestown, it became an island of autonomy.

Most histories of the CCP accurately state that the CCP was founded in Shanghai in 1921, and for the first few years it was based mainly in the cities. There it formed part of a broader left-wing milieu that included anarchist groups as well as massive and combative trade unions. It was relatively open to debate and to outside influences.

In 1927 the troops of Chiang Kaishek’s Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or Guomindang), with which the CCP had unwisely formed an alliance, entered the cities and massacred thousands of communists and other radicals. The survivors withdrew from the cities and regrouped in the mostly rural southwest, where the Soviet Republic of China (SRC) was proclaimed in 1931.

By 1934, however, the SRC faced the prospect of encirclement by the Kuomintang. The communist forces broke out and embarked on the year-long trek known as the Long March, which ended at Yenan (or Yanan) in China’s far northwest. The caves of Yenan served as the CCP ‘capital’ until early 1947, when the Red armies moved east. With the benefits of Soviet arms and training in Manchuria, the armies finally reached Beijing, where Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Finally, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) turned south. By 1950 the whole country – except for Taiwan – was united under CCP rule.

What this narrative omits – but what we’ve already suggested – is that even though the CCP was mainly based in the cities in the mid-1920s, it was not wholly or exclusively based in urban areas. By 1927 there were already guerrilla bases in some rural areas of the south, including the establishment of a communist presence in Hainan in 1926. When the main forces of the CCP set off on the Long March, the communists in Hainan remained where they were. Lacking any means of long-distance radio communication, they lost all contact with the party leadership. They had to rely on their own efforts and make their own policies. As the Hainan Independent Column, led by Feng Baiju, they survived by forming a firm alliance with the indigenous peoples of the island’s mountainous interior. ‘For 23 years,’ they would later boast, ‘the Red Flag did not fall.’

After Hainan became part of the PRC, Feng was invited to Beijing for consultations with the central leaders. The visit seemed to go well. Nevertheless, sharp conflict soon arose between Feng’s ‘local cadres’ and ‘southbound cadres’ sent by Beijing to ensure implementation of national policies. Feng complained that the newcomers did not understand local conditions; many were ‘Great Han chauvinists’ whose attitudes endangered the alliance with the indigenous peoples. CCP leaders complained that land reform in Hainan was proceeding too slowly and involved too little violence. They insisted not only that land be redistributed but also that the expropriated landlords be killed. The conflict even led to armed confrontation when local cadres used force to liberate colleagues from a prison where they were detained for interrogation by southbound cadres.

The upshot was that Feng was temporarily allowed a measure of autonomy and an intra-communist civil war was averted. Before long, however, Feng was transferred to posts outside Hainan. He died in 1973.

Nevertheless, Feng’s forthright claims to autonomy for Hainan were astonishing for an official in a ‘totalitarian’ regime. For example, he openly denounced as anti-Marxist a slogan being promoted by the CCP leadership. The local Hainan cadres, I suggest, were less anxious than most of their mainland colleagues to conform to central dictates because, having never been with Mao at Yenan, they had not gone through the Rectification Movement conducted there from 1942 to 1945. This movement had delegitimized dissent, consolidated Mao’s dominant position, established his leadership cult, and introduced the characteristically Maoist techniques of thought control, culminating in a purge of over 10,000 party members (Dai Qing, Goldman). It was the crucial event in the transformation of the relatively open and pluralistic CCP of the early years into a totalitarian monster.


For anyone who aspires to a more democratic and humane society, it is encouraging that such a phenomenon as ‘islands of autonomy’ should be possible even within a power structure that on the whole is highly authoritarian. Are there enough of them and do they last long enough to make a really significant difference? That is hard to say. It partly depends on whether or not their memory is preserved in the historical record.


Tim Carter, ‘Jonestown: A Conundrum’ (2018)

Dai Qing, Wang Shiwei and Wild Lilies: Rectification and Purges in the Chinese Communist Party 1942–1944 (Routledge, 2020)

Ellie A. DeIanni, The Legacy of Peoples Temple: A Movement Created and Destroyed by Jim Jones (2018)

Merle Goldman, Literary Dissent in Communist China (Harvard University Press, 1967)

Jeremy A. Murray, China’s Lonely Revolution: The Local Communist Movement of Hainan Island, 1926—1956 (SUNY Press, 2017)