America is born out of capitalism. In this type of society, a dominant class retains its power by constantly keeping a large reserve of poor people, who exist merely to be exploited by the capitalists. Furthermore, according to Nora Woods (a scholar who writes about Jonestown), in order for those who belong to the ruling class to perceive themselves as moral beings, the poor must be “constructed as being responsible for their own poverty.” This is not to blame America, since the reliance on the ideologies of capitalism happens naturally when a country seeks to develop and trade. But with this phenomenon unavoidably comes elitisms and cultural hierarchies stemming from the by-products of capitalist exploitation, namely: racism, sexism, ageism and classism. American society, thus, is built upon these ruins of historical oppression. Is there a way to return to Eden? To an era not marked by the needs of industrial capitalism? Or perhaps to another world, where communism and socialism ensure the mutual benefits of citizens?
It is in this context that Peoples Temple was created in the late 1950s. The primary motive of its members was to seek “a society free from elitism,” intending to bring back a world of free association and equality. They wanted “to build a community that allowed [their] children to grow up in a more peaceful, humane, and caring society that eventually might become a ‘Utopia’” (Carter). Unfortunately, this simple yet unrealistic attempt to subvert the normative social order would lead to the largest mass murder/suicide in American history, when more than 900 people died of cyanide poisoning in a ritual led by Jim Jones on 18 November 1978. However, even though this incident was shocking, the most important components of the Jonestown story have not endured the passing of time. The stories comprising Peoples Temple and the historical events constituting Jonestown have, according to Tim Carter, gradually “eroded into a distant and unpleasant aberrant memory in the public’s collective consciousness.” This fact signals America’s incapability to acknowledge lessons learned from history. Almost forty years have passed, and, in the mind of most Americans, there is still little known that might represent the truth of the matter.
Tim Carter is one of the few survivors of Jonestown tragedy, who until now still actively dedicates himself to providing a historical account of Jonestown. In his essay “Thirty Years Later,” Carter reflects on the tragedy of Jonestown, attempting to characterize everyone in Peoples Temple as “carry[ing] some burden and weight for [this] manifestation.” Their ultimate mistake, Carter asserts, was in their dreaming of more “fulfilled and prosperous lives.” Their refusal to follow the social rules of classifying races, sexualities and ages was a well-intended starting point, but their ability to rationalize and justify was quickly blinded by the environment they were intentionally placed in, where people developed the culture of “acquiescence to ‘group think’” (Carter). Perhaps too late to notice, their search for religious comfort was abused by Jones, a supporter of Marxism and communism, as a cover to promote his radical agenda. Towards the end, Carter reaches a resolution where he deals with the incident with a tone of forgiveness and acceptance, reassuring his reader that salvation, or God, can only be found within.
While it is true that Jones manipulated the hopes and dreams of his followers by masking himself first as a preacher and later as a political revolutionary, not all charismatic leaders are alike. South African civil rights activist Nelson Mandela also addresses his admiration for socialism in his speech “An Ideal for which I Am Prepared To Die.” With the enactment of apartheid laws in South Africa in 1948, racial discrimination and white supremacy were deeply institutionalized. Mandela’s speech aimed to protest this apartheid regime at the time. Having always denied being a communist, Mandela describes his evolution, arguing that, after “many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of [his] people” (186), he is now “attracted by the idea of a classless society” (189). He explains that though South Africa is one of the richest countries in the world, the wealth disparity means that only the rich whites are able to enjoy the economic benefits while most Africans are “impoverished by low incomes and high cost of living” (191), making South Africa another victim of capitalism. Not only so, Mandela argues, the current laws “are designed to preserve this situation” (191). To that end, he concludes that he has “cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities” (193), reassuring his stand constructed upon the principles of communism.
Mandela’s people in South Africa resemble the members of Peoples Temple in the sense that both are the victims of social circumstances produced by the machinations of capitalist growth. Carter believes that in making an effort to defy against their material circumstances, members of Peoples Temple “could make a difference in eliminating the polymorphous and odious specters of elitism.” Just as Mandela, who was ready to die for the ideal he proposed, the members of Peoples Temple also “committed [their] lives to working toward that goal” (Carter), suggesting perhaps that many residents of Jonestown believed that they died for dignity. Mandela and his group did not conform to normality by refusing to live up to the standards the oppressors set them and fighting for their own rights. The members of Peoples Temple too “chose to leave the United States and live communally in an agrarian cooperative” due to “their discontent with the status quo” (Carter). They did not die religiously, but rather politically – their death demonstrates how American society often considers differences with disdain and set laws to demonize the weak and poor, emphasizing individualism so strongly that communities can be destroyed (Woods).
Most importantly, after all the damages capitalism has done, we often forget that the causes of our hardships and toil are very much a symptom of capitalism itself. Outsiders often regard the members of Peoples Temple as so insane and brainwashed that they can barely be recognized as human beings, but forget the fact that they too “were common folk” and are in fact the epitome of “the faces of America” (Carter). The birth of such political collectives and organizations, as well as our memory of their works, reflect the internal flaws of society itself.
The doubts about brainwashing of Jonestown tragedy can be considered from a different viewpoint, through psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiment “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” The experiment was conducted to investigate the conflict between authority and self-interest, an effort made to comprehend the atrocities of Nazi behaviour during World War II. In the experiment, the participant, the “teacher”, is paired with Milgram’s accomplice, the “learner”. The learner is strapped to a chair with electrodes and is asked to learn a list of words (162). Then, the teacher is instructed to test him and each time the learner makes a mistake, the teacher will administer an electric shock on him, increasing the level of shock each time (163). The results show that while all participants continue up to 300 volts, 65% of the participants continue up to the highest level of 450 volts. Milgram, thus, concludes that “human beings will obey authority even when ordered to perform unethical acts” (159).
People often question how and why the members of Peoples Temple blindly followed Jim Jones, just as Carter states in his essay, “when inconsistency of purpose was evident, [they] turned a blind eye because he was the leader.” This is as a result of their fundamentally flawed belief that “the ends justify the means.” Although Peoples Temple members “didn’t agree with some of what [they] saw, heard, and felt” (Carter), it did not matter as they were only concerned with the results, even if the means were inconsistent with the moral values they were brought up with in the organization. In this respect, Milgram’s experiment brings a new perspective to the Jonestown tragedy. The teacher who administers the learner a shock whenever he makes mistakes until he gets the perfect answer too follows this principle: as long as the learner gets the correct answer, the process of getting to the outcome does not matter, regardless of how cruel and inhumane it is. Still, how does this apparent inconsistency with common sense appear?
Upon joining Peoples Temple, Carter desired a sense of reason and freedom from conformity, but these fantasies quickly degenerated into an unhealthy dependence on the group. Jones was its charismatic leader, the allegorical “authority” we see in Milgram’s experiment. More than that, Jones established himself as the divine and transcendental figure with all “his actions and instruction minded almost without question” (Carter). Peoples Temple was not a cult, because Jones never intended to spread religious beliefs in the first place. Rather, in the name of God, Jones controlled the psyche of people and infiltrated the church with his unorthodox beliefs, which were formed even before he created Peoples Temples and had persisted until the very last day of its existence (Abbott). By establishing a commune in the jungles of Guyana, Jones treated Peoples Temple as a political party, not a religious group, and himself as the political leader. He regarded the organization as a means to get to his end.
This leads to the question of whether Jonestown tragedy was a mass murder or suicide, since people were essentially brainwashed into their own suicides. This question too is one that Carter himself struggles the most with. It is never possible to be definite how many people willingly killed themselves and how many were forced to die. However, given that nearly one third of those who died were children, it is impossible to classify all of the deaths as suicide. Some, even at the point of dying, held to the very core of their heart that they died as a “revolutionary act” because they were brainwashed with the idea that otherwise their enemies, the evil capitalists, would shoot at their innocent babies. It was a courageous suicide in their conscious mind, but was seen as an inhumane murder by the outsiders. The root cause of the Jonestown massacre does certainly fall onto the shoulders of Jim Jones; that said, blame also has to fall on American society as a whole. The deaths in Jonestown are a reflection of a capitalistic trend that obstructs the moral progression of society.
Can America ever return to the world of equality? Peoples Temple was not the first group to attempt the incorporation of a charismatic leader into politics and allow him to assert control over administrative bureaucracy. It is systematically fallacious for both the leader to act according to his own revolutionary will and the followers to be psychologically dependent on their leader and group. Peoples Temple might have ended in 1978, but its legacy lives on forever, constantly reminding people that charismatic political leadership is never possible in a capitalist America.
Abbott, Catherine. “Communism, Marxism, and Socialism: Radical Politics and Jim Jones.” Accessed 13 September 2017.
Carter, Tim. “Thirty Years Later.” Accessed 13 September 2017.
Mandela, Nelson. “An Ideal for which I Am Prepared to Die.” The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose, edited by Laura Buzzard, Don Lepan, Nora Rubbock, and Alexandria Stuart, Broadview Press, 2016, pp. 185-193.
Milgram, Stanley. “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose, pp. 159-169.
Woods, Nora. “Jonestown As a Reflection of American Society.” Accessed 13 September 2017.
(Jasmine Hia wrote this paper as a freshman for the class “Writing The Essay” at New York University. She can be reached at email@example.com.)