Jim Jones: an attempt at psychic-political analysis

(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 Peoples Temple and socialism, Islands of autonomy, and Was Jonestown sustainable? He can be reached at sshenfield@verizon.net.)

Good and evil coexisted within Jim Jones, much as the characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel. As with Jones, these two sides of Jekyll and Hyde interacted without ever neutralizing or even moderating each other.

I suggest that we view Jones’ good and evil sides in terms of alternative strategies that he pursued simultaneously for dealing with one and the same basic psychological problem, namely, the damage to his self-esteem caused by early experiences.

Gary Maynard has described some of the severe ‘abuse, neglect, and ostracism’ Jones endured as a child, both at home and at school. As a toddler he was often left unattended and covered in his own feces (Maynard).

Would you blame his mother? She had to go to work to earn a living and couldn’t take him along. No relatives lived nearby. But did any of the neighbors who noticed him in that sorry condition and apparently regarded themselves as Christians offer to help? Think what misery they could have averted if they had.

So Jones grew up feeling rejected and despised. People looked down on him. At best they made fun of him. This, he came to believe, was because he was from a poor working class family – born on the wrong side of the tracks, as it were. This belief was drummed into him by his mother. While not ‘political’ in a narrow sense, she was active as a trade union shop stewardess who conveyed grievances for a group of her fellow workers. She told her son how the rich exploit the poor.

Jones’ psychological problem was a matter of esteem and self-esteem. How could he claim dignity in others’ eyes and in his own? From an early age, he developed two means. On the one hand, he could fight for social justice, against inequalities of class, race, and sex. On the other hand, he could acquire personal power over others. A biographer tells us that at the age of about ten, he got a bunch of younger kids to march in formation, just like the images he had seen in the movies of Hitler’s followers. Those who did not march properly, he struck with a stick (Guinn).

There was an obvious and logical inconsistency between these two means, between his belief in social justice and his craving for personal power. He did not apply to his own relationships with others the standard of equality that he wished to prevail generally in society. In his own relationships equality was not good enough. He demanded supremacy.

This sort of logical inconsistency is called a double standard. It is castigated as hypocrisy. However, such hypocrisyis consistent after its own fashion, in the sense that the two apparently contradictory elements, each in its own way, serve the same purpose – the repair of injured self-esteem.

Some people suspect that psychoanalysis exaggerates the importance of early childhood experience. Don’t later experiences also have an impact? A case like that of Jim Jones strongly suggests that such doubt is unjustified. Of course, later experience must have some impact, but even should it appear to offer direct compensation for the suffering caused by early experience, in fact it hardly makes a dent.

The human psyche is not a pair of scales.  Jones basked in the love and worship of five thousand souls, but it was not enough to quieten his distress. Five million would not have been enough. He was insatiable. If within himself, he was still the unloved and abandoned toddler covered in his own feces, how much adulation could ever have been enough to remove it?

Was there nothing that could have helped him, given him a little inner peace, aroused in him a desire to live, and so saved all those people in the Guyana jungle?

In principle, yes, perhaps. Insight might have helped him: insight into himself. It is the purpose of psychoanalysis to provide such insight to those who seek it. But  Jones was not one who ever sought insight into himself. The thought never occurred to him.

Jones discovers Stalinism

In his late teens Jones had the great good fortune of encountering Stalinism, a political ideology that was a close fit to his rather complex psychic needs.

Stalinism is a form of Bolshevism, which is a form of socialist thought. All forms of socialist thought share a general commitment to full social equality, and Bolshevism is no exception in this respect. Unlike many other forms of socialist thought, however, it does justify one kind of social inequality, namely, leadership of the backward masses by an advanced minority organized as a ‘revolutionary party’ or ‘revolutionary vanguard.’ This inequality is supposed to be a temporary expedient in service of the ultimate goal of full equality.

Stalinism differs from other forms of Bolshevism in the emphasis that it places on the ‘revolutionary leader,’ the individual who heads the revolutionary party or vanguard. Speaking of his own leadership role, Jones used an alternative term – ‘socialist liberator’ – but the two terms have the same basic meaning.

Thus Stalinism combines a general commitment to equality with the supremacy of an individual leader. It was exactly what Jones’ damaged psyche needed.

Jones and his ‘family’

Jones’ power over others was always personal in nature. Emotional and sexual power are best exercised in the context of direct interpersonal interaction. At a distance it loses much of its effectiveness. That is why he did not make any serious attempt to establish a nationwide (let alone an international) movement. He always tried to keep his flock together with him in a single locality. When he decided to move from one place to another – from Indianapolis to California, and later from California to Guyana – he wanted all the members of Peoples Temple to come with him.

But perhaps it was not only a matter of power. When he believed the time had come to die, he again insisted on taking all the members of Peoples Temple with him, even though he surely did not expect to sustain his power over them after death. Even if he expected to be reborn as yet another ‘socialist liberator,’ he could hardly have expected to be reborn together with his existing followers, as a reborn community in the same place and time. Reincarnated as a new liberator, he would have to gather a new flock around himself. Rather, he wanted his followers to die with him because he needed them to be with him at the point of death.

As an informant who knew Jones well suggested to me, he did not want to die alone. The rightful place for his followers was with him. He loved them! They were his family! They belonged to him! Families stick together, don’t they? The rightful place of a wife is with her husband. The rightful place of children is with their father. It’s called ‘family values,’ didn’t you know?

And so, like any other jealous husband and father who cannot bear to lose his family, who cannot bear the thought that they might belong to someone else, Jim Jones put them to death and then killed himself. Father Jim did what he had to do.


Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), p. 33.

Gary Maynard, ‘Jim Jones and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD),’ https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29416

Gary Maynard, ‘Jim Jones and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD): Part II: Origins from Jim Jones’ early childhood and teen years,’ https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=34300