Peoples Temple and socialism

(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 analysisIslands of autonomy, and Was Jonestown sustainable? He can be reached at

In the years both before and after the tragedy of 1978, Peoples Temple has been presented – for good and for ill – as a socialist organization. But what does that mean? What constitutes a socialist organization, and does Peoples Temple qualify as such?

Certainly Jim Jones began to consider himself a socialist and communist in his late teens, when he came under the intellectual influence of a work supervisor who was a member of the Communist Party USA. He continued to consider himself a socialist and communist right up to his death. Everything he did was justified in the name of the struggle for socialism and communism.

Yet many people would question whether he was a socialist and whether Peoples Temple or Jonestown was a socialist or communist society. One of those who denied the socialist character of Jonestown was the late Guyanese historian and political activist Walter Rodney (‘Jonestown: A Caribbean/Guyanese Perspective’).

The trouble is that there has never been a consensus about exactly what ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ mean. I start by making some points about the range of meanings attached to these words and about the evolution of the socialist movement. (For a somewhat fuller discussion, see Shenfield 2019.) Then I consider the place occupied by Peoples Temple and especially Jonestown within this range of meanings. This leads to a discussion of specific aspects of the society constituted by Peoples Temple: the ‘leadership cult’ or ‘cult of personality,’ criticism and self-criticism, inequality, class structure, and the nature of work. Finally, I consider Jonestown as an example of American victims of Stalinism and try to place the experience within the broad context of social progress.

Meanings of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’

The basic idea of a society based upon public ownership of property was presented by Thomas More in fictional form in his novel Utopia as early as 1516. However, the words ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ did not come into use until the early 19th century. They signified an imagined alternative to capitalism – the individualistic system of ruthless competition that had arisen, mainly in Britain, over the preceding decades.

There was agreement concerning the negative meaning of socialism – what it was not, to what it offered an alternative. From this follow a couple of positive attributes: if capitalism is individualistic and competitive, then socialism must be collectivistic and cooperative, though not necessarily to the extent of excluding individuality and competition altogether.

However, this is only a partial specification. It leaves many important questions open. In particular, does a society have to be egalitarian or democratic in order be considered as socialist?

Let’s begin with the society of the Inca Empire in the pre-Columbian Andes. Some 19th and 20th century writers describe it as socialist. A book by a well-known French economist is entitled A Socialist Empire: The Incas of Peru (Baudin); an Italian historian also refers to ‘the socialism of the Incas’ (Mingardi).

Inca society was indeed collectivistic. There was no private property, and money was used only when dealing with the outside world. However, it was by no means egalitarian or even classless. While the common people were not allowed to starve or go naked, there was a deep gulf between them and the aristocrats, who monopolized official positions and enjoyed many other privileges (they alone, for instance, drank chocolate). So people who think of socialism as a classless or democratic society are not going to apply the word to the Inca Empire.

It may help to draw a distinction between authoritarian and democratic socialism, with ‘collectivism’ serving as an umbrella term for both kinds. Or we could reserve the word ‘socialism’ for the democratic type of collectivism and refer to the authoritarian type as ‘authoritarian collectivism.’ The main thing to bear in mind is that different people use the same words to mean different things.

Evolution of the socialist movement

Means shape ends. The nature of a socialist society is determined to a large extent by the nature of the movement that establishes it. In the early and middle 19th century, it was widely anticipated that socialism would be established after a conspiratorial elite seized power at a time of social upheaval. Later in the century, the growth of workers’ parties inspired hopes of establishing socialism by winning elections. Socialism itself came to be envisioned as ‘social democracy’ – the extension of democracy from politics in the narrow sense to social and economic life. The lyrics of the socialist anthem The Internationale warn workers not to rely on leaders. Karl Marx, among others, adopted the motto that ‘the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.’

That was not how things worked out. In 1903, the Russian social-democratic party split into two factions – the Mensheviks, who wanted a mass party open to anyone who shared its goal, and Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who aimed to build a disciplined and centralized ‘vanguard party of professional revolutionaries.’ And it was the Bolsheviks who seized power during the upheaval of 1917-18. The Leninist model of party organization was imposed not only in Soviet Russia but through the Communist International on communist parties in other countries. Later the same model was reproduced (with minor variations) in other socialist countries.

Under Josef Stalin, the Soviet regime became even more authoritarian. The Leninist model allows a certain scope to the expression of different opinions, though only inside the party and only until a decision is reached. The Stalinist model imposes monolithic unity even inside the party, concentrating all power in the hands of a supreme leader. This model was later extended to Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, etc. After Stalin’s death, a process of de-Stalinization occurred in most socialist countries, although it was soon reversed in China and North Korea.

In short, the regimes that came to power between 1917 and 1954 under the labels of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ were undemocratic and oppressive. This result, however, was contrary to the ideals and expectations of socialists in the preceding period. Some socialists remained loyal to the traditions of the pre-1914 socialist movement and refused to recognize the Bolsheviks and the societies they created as ‘socialist.’ However, most went along with the Bolsheviks and accepted the identification of those societies as ‘socialist.’ These were the people who came to be known as ‘communists.’

Why did so many socialists follow the Bolsheviks? Rank-and-file communists believed the highly distorted image of communist societies fed to them, dismissing honest accounts as enemy propaganda. Leading communists acquired a truer picture from personal experience but also learned a series of plausible excuses.

Bolsheviks argued along these lines: ‘Yes, socialism has turned out differently from what we all expected. So what? This is what socialism is in real life. Whatever the difficulties and disappointments, isn’t it better to live in reality than in books and dreams?’ Many people find this sort of talk persuasive. They don’t want to be mocked as dreamers or ‘snowflakes.’

Another attraction was money. Parties loyal to Moscow received money. Money is always a problem for organizations that recruit mainly from the poorer sections of society.

One result of this shift is that the meaning of socialism changed. It lost its association with democracy; indeed, the two principles come to be seen as opposites. Those of us who remain attached to socialism as it was widely understood before 1914 find that we can no longer easily explain what we stand for. The words we are accustomed to using have been usurped by others and given different meanings.

Peoples Temple was highly collectivistic, but at the same time it was highly authoritarian. Jones was an avowed Stalinist, inspired by the Stalinist model of socialism, if you want to call it that, with himself as Stalin (as well as Lenin!). So it is not surprising to find parallels between the Jonestown settlement and Stalin’s USSR or Mao Zedong’s China, as well as differences arising out of different circumstances, a different cultural background, and so on. I examine a few of the parallels in the next five sections.

Leadership cults

Like many authoritarian state leaders, Jones cultivated a ‘personality cult’ or ‘leadership cult’ (the two terms are equivalent). This cult served the same basic purpose as other such cults: it placed him far above all other members of his church and made him immune to their criticism. Mao Zedong in China and Kim Il Sung in North Korea rejected Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult as an attack on all such cults, including their own. Together with Khrushchev’s affirmation of the principle of collective leadership, it delegitimized their claim to supreme power and strengthened the position of their intraparty rivals. It is thought that Mao resolved to get rid of Liu Shaoqi because, alone among the top Chinese leaders, he was in the habit of addressing Mao as an equal, a colleague, without special deference. It must have been similar considerations, together with a thirst for power rooted in early childhood experience, that led Jones to create and sustain his own personality cult.

Perhaps ‘leadership cult’ is the clearer term. After all, it was said of Leonid Brezhnev: Kul’t yest’; lichnosti nyet (There is a cult, but no personality).

Admittedly, in the early years of his ministry, Jones’ cult bore a much closer resemblance to the cults of other charismatic Christian preachers than to those of leaders of communist states. He was influenced especially by Father Divine, whose taped sermons he carefully studied. Jones based his cult on charisma, mostly fraudulent performances as a faith healer and clairvoyant, and his claim to be a God-sent savior or liberator, or God himself, or the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. When he finally declared unequivocally that God does not exist, however, he undermined his own claim to divine authority. Thenceforth he had to rely primarily on his status as the reincarnation of Lenin.

The leadership cult of Lenin, created after Lenin’s death in 1924 against his express wishes, has been analyzed by Olga Velikanova (1996). My late father, who left the Soviet Union for England at the age of six, a year or two after Lenin died, used to recite the following rhymed couplet:

Kto govorit, chto Lenina nyet?

Vsyudu gorit Leninskii svyet.

Who says that Lenin is no more?

Everywhere shines Lenin’s light.

But the source of light is the sun. Lenin is the sun, even after his death. Stalin too is the sun:

One of the key symbols associated with Stalin in propaganda is the sun, with its related qualities of light and warmth. The sun is a recurrent motif throughout propaganda associated with leaders since pre-Christian times. (Pisch 2016)

And so is Mao, whose head often appears inside a circular patch of luminous red or yellow in the sky, like the sun deity of Chinese mythology. And the ubiquitous hymn to Mao opens with:

The East is red,

Rises the sun.

China has brought forth

A Mao Zedong.

The Mao cult, especially at its height during the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent period of military rule, was at least semi-religious in character. People performed ‘loyalty dances’ and stood before Mao’s portrait to pledge allegiance, ask for instructions, report achievements, and confess thought crimes (Leese 2011).

As it turns out, there is not after all so sharp a contrast between the leadership cults of Christian preachers and communist dictators. All are suffused with religious motifs.

One puzzling question arises: why did Jim Jones not have himself worshipped as a sun god? Is it perhaps because worship of sun gods is less deeply rooted in the New World than it is in Eurasia? But the Aztecs worshipped the sun. Or it may be that Jones was influenced by the North Korean model, in which the patriarch is deified directly, without resort to superfluous symbolism. After Kim Il Sung’s death, his son and heir, the ‘beloved leader’ Kim Jong Il, declared that his father had ‘divine authority’ and instructed North Koreans to worship him as their ‘eternal leader’ (Kim 2017). And so they do, alone or in groups, kneeling with heads down before his statues.

A further point. Leadership cults can arise only where there are leaders. Therefore the most reliable protection against the danger of leadership cults is not to have leaders. And the most reliable protection against any leader is not to offer ourselves as his followers, however appealing his personality, however worthy his good works (there are other, better ways of getting involved in good works).

Criticism and self-criticism

Lenin advocated ‘self-criticism’ as early as 1904. The Bolshevik Party, he said, must engage in self-criticism in order to ‘expose [its] weaknesses’ with a view to overcoming them (Lenin 1904). But ‘criticism and self-criticism’ as an organized group practice did not appear until the early 1920s. Its necessity has been reaffirmed by all Bolshevik regimes, including Peoples Temple.

Self-criticism as defined by Lenin seems harmless enough. Drawbacks emerge when it is practiced in the context of the Leadership Cult. Under Bolshevik dictatorships, the Leader – the most powerful person in society – is exempt from criticism and self-criticism. Criticism of the Leader marks you as a ‘counterrevolutionary.’ In Soviet Russia Article 58 of the Penal Code, introduced in 1927, made counterrevolutionary activity punishable by ten years’ imprisonment or death, while in Maoist China the only punishment for counterrevolutionaries (as distinct from lesser sinners like ‘rightists’) was execution.

In Peoples Temple, some critics of Jim Jones were punished for voicing discontent. In her journal entry for March 1, 1978 Edith Roller describes what happened to one old woman in Jonestown:

Kay Rosas had been reported as saying: ‘God damn Dad; I wish I hadn’t come.’  Rose Shelton and Lula Ratin [Ruben] pummeled her. After discussion of putting seniors on the Learning Crew (they are not immune), she was assigned to it [Members of the Learning Crew were made to work especially hard—SS]

On the same day, a man sprayed a co-worker in the eyes with insecticide and was let off with a mere warning.

In China, many targets of criticism had to undergo one or more ‘struggle sessions’ – mass meetings at which members of the audience would insult, beat, and spit at the victim. In Jonestown, much time at the daily meetings was devoted to criticism and self-criticism, often concerning the most trivial as well as the most personal matters. A kitchen worker might confess to eating a banana to which she was not entitled. A regular topic was the sexual feelings that residents had for one another – an innovation thought up by Jones. Self-criticism and criticism of others were also expressed in personal ‘Letters to Dad.’

Particularly unpleasant was being forced to make a self-criticism. You were obliged not only to renounce views that had been judged unacceptable but also to attribute such incorrect views to character flaws, failures in thought reform, and unreliable class background. Mao himself was able to use criticism and self-criticism to control even his highest-ranking colleagues. In the days before his death, Prime Minister Chou Enlai, who had always been careful to defer to Mao, was still required by the Great Helmsman to write another self-criticism. Dissatisfied with successive drafts, Mao kept on demanding that it be rewritten. Chou could have excused himself by saying that he was too sick and spent his last evenings with his family instead of in his study, but he remained submissive to Mao to his dying breath.

Edith Roller reveals in her journal that she wrote a memo setting out her ideas for making the administration of Jonestown more efficient. She showed the memo to various acquaintances. Some agreed with it, but one – an administrator herself – took offense and advised her to ‘examine her own motives’ for writing such a memo. As a result, she decided not to submit the memo to Jones as she had intended. Unfortunately, the memo does not seem to have been preserved.

Under the laxer communist regimes, criticism and self-criticism evolved into a harmless ritual. A former student from communist Vietnam told me about criticism and self-criticism at his university. Students had to meet in small groups for one-hour weekly sessions. By secret mutual agreement the students in my informant’s group confined their criticism and self-criticism to matters that seemed very unlikely to distress or alarm anyone. Much of the time at their disposal, for example, they devoted to criticizing themselves and one another for not being punctual enough. Despite this arrangement, one girl did get upset during a session. Afterward another member of the group met with her privately to reassure her.

Inequality at Jonestown

It is true that in terms of consumption, inequality at Jonestown did not take extreme forms. No one lived in palatial splendor and no one died of starvation. In the context of a settlement in the middle of tropical rainforest, however, moderate differences acquire greater significance.

The Jones family lived in a separate house with such facilities as beds, a sofa, mosquito netting, and a refrigerator kept stocked with snacks and soft drinks. There would be nothing special about any of that in American suburbia, but it counted as highly privileged accommodation in a community in which most people lived in crowded multi-occupant structures. These were of two types. There were five large dorms or apartments, each housing between 30 and 50 persons (three mainly for old people, one for young children, one for teenagers and young adults assigned to projects or to the Learning Crew) and 48 smaller cottages for 8-to-12 persons (‘Housing’).

Adults slept in beds or in bunks with up to three tiers. Those assigned beds were more fortunate than those given bunks, in terms not only of space and convenience but also of safety. Some occupants of top bunks sustained serious injury when they accidentally fell out in their sleep. It was especially cruel to make weak and elderly people climb up to and down from top bunks.

One memoirist reports that upon arrival at Jonestown, her prescription medication was confiscated. Later it was spotted in a store of medications at Jones’ house, presumably kept there just in case he or a member of his family should happen to need it. Evidently the needs of some mattered more than the needs of others. Other confiscated drugs were used to sedate discontented individuals detained in a special unit. Some did go to the clinic, where the person for whom they were originally prescribed might obtain access to them.

Clothing, bedding, towels, and items of personal hygiene were distributed from a warehouse. Judging by complaints and confessions, things were constantly getting lost or stolen. In June 1978 it was announced that Jonestown was now able to manufacture its own soap and shampoo.

The food served to residents seems to have been more or less adequate in quantity, but it was usually deficient in protein and vitamins. Only on rare occasions – above all, when guests were present – was it varied or of high nutritional value. Chloe Schildhause describes a typical daily menu as follows:

Community residents would typically wake up to oatmeal or some sort of wheat cereal. A peanut butter and honey sandwich with a banana for lunch. Some sort of green, rice, and gravy with bits of meat in it for dinner.

Food served to the elderly was especially monotonous – often just rice with gravy or milk. Inner staff had access to better food when they visited Jones at his house. Kitchen staff were also able to eat well (Thrash 1995).

In her journals, teacher Edith Roller noted down points of interest, including the content of some meals – presumably those that were unusually tasty or nutritious. Over a period of seven months, from her arrival at Jonestown on January 27 to the end of August 1978, she described 80 meals (12% of the total). Here are the numbers of times she mentions various food items:

Meat 25 (including chicken 16, pork 6, liver 2)
Fish   9
Eggs   7
Pancakes 3
Cheese 6
Coffee 14
Donuts 8
Fruits 13 (pineapple 6, papaya 3, banana 2, orange 2)

It is surprising that citrus fruits should have been served so rarely, given the favorable conditions for their cultivation.

Thus inequality in consumption was not altogether insignificant. In any case, consumption is not crucial to an assessment of social inequality. More important is the distribution of opportunities for public self-expression and decision-making. Jones concentrated enormous decision-making power in his hands. Others could offer ideas and suggestions, but all decisions were made by him alone. The meetings held several times a week in the pavilion were totally dominated by Jones, who had much more opportunity to speak than anyone else. He talked hour after hour, and everyone was expected to pay attention. Woe betide any who fell asleep while Jim was speaking! Others might manage if lucky to interject a brief comment now and then.

Peoples Temple accumulated substantial property, including land, buildings, vehicles, machinery, and stocks. According to Gus Breslauer, the organization’s financial assets, mostly held in multiple accounts in foreign banks, exceeded $27 million. All this money and property was effectively controlled by Jones, who may therefore be considered a multimillionaire. All major and most minor expenditures had to receive his approval. Although checks were signed by members of the inner staff rather than by Jones, he chose as signatories individuals whom he knew to be reliably devoted to himself (almost all members of the inner staff were women). There was a Planning Commission but Jones used it mainly to harass and humiliate its members.

Jones was therefore at least as well placed to dominate his organization as the sole owner and CEO of a private company. Whether the setup can be described as socialist, I leave to the reader’s judgment. I suppose that if the Inca empire qualified as socialist, then perhaps Peoples Temple did too.

Karl Marx, to whom Jones paid lip service but whose doctrine he never seriously studied, declared that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. Distrust of self-styled saviors and liberators finds clear expression in the lyrics of The Internationale, which Jones’ followers evidently sang as a ritual, never pondering its meaning.

Class structure

Peoples Temple was a despotism. It consisted of two classes: the despot Jim Jones (if a single individual can be said to constitute a class) and all other members. What was the status of the other members? They were not wage laborers: they received no wages. Nor can they be considered free cooperators, as they had no decision-making rights and were not even free to leave. They were, in fact, de facto slaves, although they could not be bought and sold. To some degree, Jonestown came to resemble a plantation in the antebellum South, especially considering that Jones and most of his staff were white while the majority of the other members were black.

An alternative hypothesis might insert a third class between Jones and ordinary members – a bureaucracy corresponding to the staff or perhaps just the inner staff. The idea that these individuals formed a class with its own interests and outlook, distinct from those of Jones himself, acquired some credibility when a group of young defectors known as ‘the Eight Revolutionaries’ sent Jim a letter complaining about the attitudes and behavior of staff. According to an informant with experience in the leadership milieu of Peoples Temple, however, ordinary members like the Eight Revolutionaries had no knowledge of relationships at the top of the organization.

In fact, Jones went to great lengths to ensure that staff did not develop into a cohesive group with a common outlook. First, there seems to have been no system of graduated material privileges for staff at various levels, such as existed for ‘cadres’ in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. Second, Jones assigned separate tasks to and cultivated a separate relationship with each member of staff. As several of these relationships had a sexual component, jealousy impeded the emergence of any sort of solidarity among staff. Jones also encouraged staff to criticize and inform on one another.

For a small society like Peoples Temple these methods were adequate. In this respect it differed from large communist states, where conditions were more favorable for the emergence of a cohesive bureaucratic class. In a big country such as Russia or China, it is clearly impossible for a supreme leader to cultivate personal relationships with all officials of any importance. Stalin fought the tendency toward bureaucratization with purges, Mao with his so-called Cultural Revolution. In the Soviet Union, the bureaucracy finally came into its own after Stalin’s death and especially after Khrushchev was overthrown, when the new collective leadership instituted the policy of ‘stability of cadres.’

Alienation in Peoples Temple

The alienation of the worker in capitalism is an important theme in Marx. Unlike the independent craftsman, who has the satisfaction of making a whole product, let’s say a shoe, perhaps for the use of someone he knows personally, the factory worker endlessly repeats the same action to supply an anonymous market. He is alienated or estranged from his own activity, from the end product and its users, and from himself.

Phyllis A. Marley summarizes Marx’s view of alienation in capitalism, questions whether alienation can be overcome in socialism, and on the basis of survivors’ accounts, demonstrates the existence of alienation in Peoples Temple. The question of ‘alienation in socialism’ was raised in China during the brief period of relative freedom of thought inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping. My own view is that alienation can be overcome, at least partly, in democratic socialism, provided that deliberate efforts are undertaken for that purpose. Alienation does not affect most members in the Israeli kibbutzim, which are run in a democratic manner.

I do not think that most members of Peoples Temple experienced alienation as soon as they joined the organization. On the contrary, they sincerely believed that they were engaged in useful activity in the service of a beloved community to which they belonged. Their attitude gradually changed as they became more aware of the oppressive aspects of Peoples Temple. The potential for alienation also increased over time as management of the organization became harsher, less rational, more regimented, and more reliant on punishment.

Consider one of the examples given by Marley:

[Deborah] Layton told the story of a woman who toiled to develop a recipe for good tasting, nutritious cookies using only the foods available at the compound. When she proudly offered one to Jones, he rebuked her for wasting the valuable resources of the people on a frivolous pursuit.

The initiative and creativity of this woman show that she was not yet alienated when she was working on her recipe. Her alienation began with the humiliation of Jones’ unjust rebuke.

Another example. Odell Rhodes is remembered as one of the most enthusiastic members of Peoples Temple. In her article about him, Laura Johnston Kohl says that he ‘seemed to be happy and fulfilled as he worked in the community. He always had young people he mentored.’ Ethan Feinsod’s book, based on a series of interviews with Rhodes, is a rich source of insights into his psychology. He describes how he felt about his work during his first months in Jonestown:

[In the evenings] I could have been listening to the band rehearse or watching TV, but lots of times I just wanted to have a look at what we’d accomplished that day. There was so much satisfaction in it; I mean there I was, 33, 34 years old, never done a damn thing worth shit in my life, and all of a sudden I’m watching myself make 10,000 banana trees into 70,000, watching us push the jungle back a few feet more every day… It was just entirely different than working for money. I’d be tired as hell, but I felt like I couldn’t wait for it to be morning again so I could get back at it again.

This is how people would feel about their work in a genuinely socialist society.

Later Rhodes’ enthusiasm dissipates and he distances himself mentally from the Jones regime; it is this that enables him to survive. Idealistic motives give way to fear of punishments, an expanding range of which are at Jones’ disposal. Your toil will bring you little joy, once you notice a man with a gun watching to check how hard you’re working.

A late entry in Edith Roller’s journal notes that residents were now required — as an incentive to language study in preparation for their next move, which never took place — to ‘say a Russian or Chinese word’ before receiving a plate of food. Even difficulty in memorizing foreign language vocabulary was being punished — with hunger.

American victims of Stalinism

When we hear the phrase ‘victims of Stalinism,’ we naturally think of Russians and other inhabitants of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist states. However, Jonestown too was a sort of Stalinist state: although within the territory of Guyana, the Guyanese government allowed it to run its own affairs as a state within a state. So the 914 members of Peoples Temple poisoned or otherwise murdered there on November 18, 1978 also qualify as victims of Stalinism.

Moreover, the members of Peoples Temple who died in Guyana were not the only Americans to fall victim to Stalinism. Not the only ones and not the first. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many thousands of unemployed Americans went to work in the Soviet Union, hungry for skilled labor to fulfill the first two Five Year Plans. The emerging Soviet American community had a palpable impact on Soviet life. Baseball, for instance, was officially recognized as a Soviet sport. Then, at the end of 1936, came the crackdown. Most Soviet Americans were arrested. The American embassy in Moscow callously abandoned them to their fate. The ambassador hoped to be granted the honor of a face-to-face meeting with Stalin before he returned home. He didn’t want to jeopardize this prospect by making trouble. The ambassador got his tete-a-tete with Stalin, and the Soviet Americans ended up in the Gulag. A few survived to tell their stories (Tzouliadis).

Another case in which Americans fell victim to Stalinism is that of the Field family. In 1949 Noel Field, a Quaker relief worker, went to Prague to take up a university teaching post. Worried that they hadn’t heard from him, relatives went over to investigate. They too vanished – all arrested, imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, because a double agent high up in Polish intelligence, acting at the behest of the CIA, had spread disinformation about them. They had come to Eastern Europe, he said, to set up a spy network. The Fields were victims of Stalinism and the CIA (Shenfield 2022).

Conclusion: Peoples Temple and socialism

What lessons can we draw from the tragedy of Peoples Temple? I have mentioned one already – not to trust or empower leaders, however sexy and inspiring they may be. In general, to take care in choosing the means by which you work for socialism.

Because the work for socialism is more important than ever. How many more years of capitalist rivalry, exploitation, and plunder can we and our natural environment survive? I am very far from concluding that the socialist goal must be abandoned. The fact that many people will have drawn precisely this conclusion from the fate of Peoples Temple is no small part of the tragedy.

Humanity must be united. That requires that capitalism be overcome and replaced by some form of global collectivism. However, collectivism has its own dangers. If we ignore them, we may find that we have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.

The capitalist boss exploits your labor. It is possible that he will make you listen to capitalist propaganda, but probably he will be satisfied so long as you do a good job. The Stalinist or Maoist boss also exploits your labor. But he wants more. He wants to possess your whole being, to dig into every crevice of your heart and soul. And he will punish you for even the slightest expression of discontent.

If your capitalist boss is abusive, you may at least have the option of changing jobs and working for a new boss. Escape from the communist boss is much more difficult and perilous.

Of course, it would be best to have no bosses at all, and instead exercise democratic control over resources by and in the interest of the community as a whole – that is, socialism.

If, as I suggest, we distinguish between the concepts of ‘collectivism’ and ‘socialism,’ then how should we conceptualize Peoples Temple and other non-socialist varieties of collectivism? By what names should we refer to such societies? These are difficult questions. I have discussed them elsewhere with reference to the so-called Soviet system of the communist party-states (Shenfield 2016). They are especially difficult with reference to Peoples Temple, because it is unclear how Jones might have further developed his movement had he not decided to liquidate it.

The main point is that democracy is indispensable to socialism. Any attempt to build socialism without democracy is doomed to failure. It cannot realize the ideals historically associated with socialism. And this would still be true even with a leader whose initial good intentions could not be doubted. Because the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

To quote the nineteenth-century socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the founders of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany:

Socialism without democracy is pseudo-socialism, just as democracy without socialism is pseudo-democracy.


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