Jim Jones and Romantic Socialism

by James L. Kelley

I have previously written about the need to tie Jim Jones’ quasi-Christian utopianism to the history of socialist thought, particularly to socialism’s own origin in July Monarchy France (1830-1848) (Kelley, forthcoming). This short article is a small step towards filling that gap in research.

The work of scholars such as J. Strube (2016; 2017), L. Sharp (2006), K. Weil (1992), W.H. Sewell (1980), P. Faxneld (2013), S.K. Grogan (1992), and N.J. Andrews (2003) have helped us to piece together a picture of early nineteenth century French socialism that belies the later historiographical distortions – put forth by Marxists and non-Marxists alike – that portray early socialists as atheistic and scientistic. This article will review the theories of some of these pre-Marx socialists and suggest some parallels with Jones’ own Peoples Temple ideology.

Pierre Leroux

Pierre Leroux (1797-1871), who is given credit for coining the term “socialism” in 1832 (Guilhaumou & Branca-Rosoff, 2002), shared the belief of many in the Age of Metternich (1815-1848) that the shattered ideals of the French Revolution were still obtainable through a revolution in hearts and minds brought about by a more egalitarian rearrangement of family, community, and state (Leroux, 1848; Andrews, 2006: 79-83). “Romantic socialism” is the term some scholars have given to those earliest socialists who eschewed both 1) the violence that sullied the years 1789 to 1814, and 2) the emphasis on competition and individual material gain that replaced the bayonets and barricades after the Congress of Vienna (Evans, 1969). For Leroux, it is “egoism” that is the enemy, for since Waterloo, man has lost his natural sense of connectedness to others. The society over which the bourgeois monarch Louis-Philippe presided was fraught with interpersonal antagonisms resulting from rampant industrialization, conflicts that Leroux traced back to the loss of feudal custom and the rise of industrialism and concomitant industrialization. Leroux looked to the human soul – or at least to the psyche or common life-principle – for the answer to human alienation.

Romantic philosophers such as Fichte and Schelling had already familiarized French progressives with the concept of a common human essence that continued to connect people, despite the innumerable differentiations that had resulted from the superficial accretions of history, tradition, and custom. Our true humanity was found in what was common to all; this was the only way to transcend selfishness, which led to literal inhumanity, since man is not man unless he lives for the whole. One can be true to oneself only by serving all. In fact, so Schelling and other like-minded thinkers averred, the equality of all men is upheld only through this Romantic communism, since any other path inevitably falls short of total unity. Strangest of all, this form of Romantic communism posited an animated “primal fluid” (Schelling, 2004/1799: 6) as an ur-substance from which the first humans sprang (through evolution of lower animals), the implication being that all men are psychically and physically connected to each other, because each and all have encoded in their bodies and minds the entire history of evolutionary differentiations that sets them apart from each other and from the undulating ooze that stands behind the entire evolutionary system (Ott, 2018: 56-57, 59-60).

Here, at the headwaters of the socialist tradition, we find Leroux, not only a faithful follower of his German Romantic predecessors, but also a precursor to Jim Jones’ teaching that the mutual love of Peoples Temple members would eventually override the greed and evil of the wider world (Kelley, 2017). As we have been hinting, Leroux’s notion of man’s collective life came just as close as did Schelling and Fichte to asserting that a healed humanity would share each other’s bodies without any selfishness or egoism. Indeed, Leroux believed that Adam was originally an androgyne, and that the common human body-spirit dictated that individuals continued to live after death, reborn, as it were, through other humans who somehow shared parts of every other human who was ever destined to live (Andrews, 2003: 444). In this doctrine of soul migration is another odd harbinger of Jones’ brand of socialism, whose insistence on reincarnation of “great souls,” so is turns out, was present in the socialist tradition from the outset (Kelley, forthcoming; Guinn, 2017: 123).

There is more: though Leroux was not a Christian in any ordinary sense, he nonetheless believed that the moral-communal aspects of Christian spirituality would be unlocked and set free by his Romantic socialist plans, which in turn would allow men and women to live in true Edenic equality. This non-exploitative utopia was thought to have been achievable, once each began using his or her individuality solely for the good of the whole (the latter containing, paradoxically, one’s own life force). Certainly, Leroux’s psycho-physical solidarity bears a marked affinity with Jones’ concept of God as a divine force that exists only in the selfless acts of human beings (Hall, 1987: 30).

Leroux was associated with another big name in early socialism, Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), who hoped that industrialists would be influenced by his writings to alter the then-present mode of industrial development, which had up to that time forced men into harmful, egoistic competition (Kolakowski, 1978: 1.188-192). Leroux broke with the Saint-Simonians over their belief that the state could be trusted to oversee the transition of this newly industrialized society fairly and impartially into something more communal and less alienating.

Later Saint-Simonians took rather literally their founder’s notion that the moral ideas of Christianity were an antidote to individualism. They formed a Saint-Simonian church. The Saint-Simonians’ leaders, the male priests, felt that they had a sacred right to have sexual relations with those women among them who exhibited a trait they called “changeability” (Grogan, 1992: 141). The priests had this quality, as well as the quality called “fidelity.” Women who did not feel comfortable having sex with the priests, but who preferred instead to stay in their homes and instruct their young, had this latter quality (Grogan, 1992: 141-142). Only the Saint-Simonian priests – male, of course – possessed both “changeability” and “fidelity,” and thus could minister both to the homemakers and to those who welcomed priestly intercourse.

All of this reminds one of Jim Jones’ practice of justifying sexual activity with his co-religionists as a necessary means of “cultivating” them (Kelley, 2016; Reiterman with Jacobs, 1987/1982: 177). Jones told one Peoples Temple member, Deborah Layton, “I am doing this for you…to help you,” just before he “cultivated” her sexually (Layton, 1998: 74; On Jones’ use of the term “cultivates” in the context of sex with Peoples Temple members, see Jones, 1978b). In one speech, Jones refers to a “balmy-eyed, blue-eyed” woman who was raised above her egotistic desire to be “something special” by protracted, painful sex with Jones on a “briar patch” (Jones, 1978a). Indeed, Jones’ firmly-held idea that he could only “relate” to some of the women in Peoples Temple by having sex with them is parallel with Saint-Simonian practice, which proclaimed that greater freedom would result from loosening the familial bonds that undergirt class and gender rivalries (For an example of a Peoples Temple member using the term “related” in the context of sex with Jones, see Reiterman with Jacobs, 1987/1982: 177).

The Saint-Simonian movement, incidentally, was the first organization to search for locations outside of Europe for colonies to further realize their vision of a “universal association” (Chevalier, 1832). Their idea, which seems old hat today only because it has become so ubiquitous, was to set up colonies outside of class-dominated Europe that would serve as beacons to the world. Here we are reminded of a Jonestown resident who wrote in her journal that opposition to the Guyanese settlement from world governments could be overcome simply through greater agricultural production inside the colony (Christian, 1978). As if we did not have enough evidence of the Saint-Simonians’ presaging of Peoples Temple, note that the followers of Saint-Simon established outposts in Latin America, predating Jones’ forays into Brazil and Guyana by century and a half (Billington, 1980: 218).

At this point it should be patently obvious that socialism began, not as an atheistic, anti-property creed, but rather as a plurality of quasi-religious belief systems that emphasized “universal association” in general, and a modified or non-traditional sexuality in particular, as the key to what Marx later called “alienation” (Marx, 1964/1932). Some have emphasized that the era we are considering, the so-called Romantic Age, was a turning point in the history of sexuality. The Romantics, with their emphasis on sexual deviance in the form of homoeroticism (Sha, 2009), incest (Chateaubriand, 1947/1803), and even pederasty (Goethe, 1974/1796), can be said to have “reinvented love” (Foerster, 2012), and the Saint-Simonians and others contributed to this tendency. Charles Fourier (1772-1837), another famous early socialist, envisioned a new society organized into special “grand hotels” or Phalanstères that grouped people together based upon their predominant “passions,” which Fourier believed could be turned into pleasure once everyone was engaged in a job that corresponded to their desires (Fourier, 1841).

Charles Fourier

Like Jim Jones, though, Fourier thought it was his business to tinker with his followers’ sex lives. In the Phalanstères, “fairies” would be sent to have sexual intercourse with individuals who were too unattractive to otherwise find a partner (the recent “incel” terrorist controversies insure that this issue retains its relevance; cf. Dastagir, 2018). Fourier, like Jones after him, held that, properly regulated by the sect’s leader, sexual relations would progress from the merely passionate into the intermediate “sentimental” form, the latter leading to the highest form of sex, the “spiritual.” The latter guaranteed complete satisfaction of all desires and a concomitant cementing of social bonds (Fourier, 1843-1845). As one scholar put it, “Paradoxically, [Fourier’s] world of sexual liberty was also a world in which ‘sainthood,’ or social status, was achieved by sexual self-denial” (Grogan, 1992: 62). Jones’ teaching that modified forms of sexuality were necessary transitions to an age free from possessive sexual desire―what I have elsewhere termed his “antinomianism” (Kelley, 2016)―doubtless finds an analogue in Fourier’s presumption that an engineered balance of psychic forces will bring about universal happiness.

Each of the socialist thinkers we have examined held to some form of modified Christian view, if only as a metaphor for the higher consciousness that a proposed utopia would bring. With Pierre-Simon Ballanche (1776-1847), however, we get a first inkling that socialist utopia does not always equate to optimism. Ballanche was convinced that the Christian God would periodically regenerate or reincarnate society as a whole, but that the individual should expect nothing more than the suffering brought on by Original Sin. We have the sacred task of moralizing the world, so Ballanche avers, but we cannot mechanically induce God to bring about a greater solidarité, hope though we must that God brings about such a change (Sharp, 2004: 361-362). The same Augustinian spiritual pessimism is obliquely reflected in Jones’ destructive side, reflected in his assessment that “life is shit” (Jones, 1978a), and in his conviction that all redemptive efforts result in “nothing but pain” (Jones, 1977). Jones’ discourse on the meaning of death to his assembled followers on one “White Night” not long before the final tragedy is a particularly chilling example of the Temple leader’s unwillingness to look for conventional happy endings:

I don’t know anything but the fact that everybody dies.  [It] Used to be, you say, everybody paid taxes, but we don’t have to do that anymore, but everybody has to die. It can be prolonged, and I have, it can be resurrected, and I have, but everybody has to go through pain and suffering and death. So why not make it for a revolutionary purpose, a beautiful goal, something that makes us above the animals, ‘cause there’s no way around the suffering. And the only thing that can make your life feel a bit noble is that you found the best idea and stand by it bravely through allthe stormy weather. And communism, sharing, if it is unobtainable, is the only right way to live (Jones 1978b).

Here we see the odd mixture of hope and hopelessness in Jones socialist religion, and this ambivalence toward here-and-now utopia is further evinced in his occasional promise of an endless succession of lives for his followers through reincarnation (Jones, n.d., b: 6-7; Kelley, 2016), just as Ballanche’s system preached progress in some form, though Ballanche, like Jones, left the question of success in this life unanswered. In one sermon he gave in Redwood Valley, California, Jones broached the question of recurring lives, and concluded that “Humanist socialists don’t need motivation, but people who have religious backgrounds need motivation” (Jones, 1972). So, Peoples Temple members were given a layered message when the subject of the “promised land” came up:

Layer one: Yes, you will have paradise, perhaps in a future life.

Layer two: For those of the highest “divine socialist” consciousness, the curtain is pulled down and all that remains is the members’ knowledge that they fought for the highest principle, even unto death.

Interestingly, this same ambivalence toward soul transmigration is found in many Romantic socialist writers. And, just like Jones, these thinkers leaned upon belief in metempsychosis to explain how suffering and alienation in this life might lead to communion and equality in the future. In fact, Fourier (Beecher, 2001: 35, 49), along with a later Spiritualist of the Left, Paul Louisy (Monroe, 2015: 256), believed that reincarnated human beings would live on various planets in the future, a belief that corresponds somewhat with Jones’ promise to take his followers to “a higher planet,” which the properly attuned socialist should interpret as nothing but a more evolved state of being (Jones, n.d., a).

In conclusion, let us note that the Romantic socialists we have been examining have continued to influence European and American social theory up to the present day. There are many paths we could follow to get from Saint-Simon to today’s New Religious Movements, with their visions of regenerated societies and invisible, yet spiritually palpable interconnections between people, places, and higher realities. Such a genealogy of spiritual socialism will have to wait for a fuller consideration elsewhere. Here we have suggested that Jones’ paranormal socialism was not as off-the-wall as it may at first seem, once it is placed in the context of socialism’s pre-Marx manifestations. In fact, it could be said that Jim Jones was truer to Marx’ early, more “Romantic” theory of alienation than was Engel’s The Holy Familyor Lenin’s Materialism and Empirico-Criticism. But that is another story for another day.

(This article is copyrighted (©) 2018 by James L. Kelley, an independent scholar based in Norman, Oklahoma. Mr. Kelley is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His complete collection of articles may be found here. He has published books and articles about religion since 2009, when A Realism of Glory (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute) appeared. Mr. Kelley’s research interests include new religious movements, western esotericism, and modern Eastern Orthodox theology. He has taught at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, and the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He may be reached at romeosyne@gmail.com.)



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Originally posted on August 10th, 2018.

Last modified on October 17th, 2018.
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