I personally dislike cults, although I regard them as a possible bulwark against the state (like gangs and militias). Cults could certainly be constituencies for a mass movement toward intentional communities and away from the state and ruling class institutions. However, there is always the danger of cults being co-opted by the state (like the Christian Zionists).
By Gus Breslauer, Cosmonaut
Destructive cults are usually considered the domain of religious movements. The Left, however, has its own track record of cults. Gus Breslauer sympathetically examines this history in search of the political questions that produce such groups, how they operate, and how to overcome them.
“Take our life from us. We laid it down. We got tired. We didn’t commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” Rev. James Warren “Jim” Jones, last words, 1978
JONESTOWN, Guyana, November 18, 1978. Over 900 people are dead, mostly black, mostly women, many children, and at least one is a Holocaust survivor. The tragedy was one of the most widely discussed news stories of that year, and to this day, it remains a symbol of the danger of cults. Many know the story, and yet the consequences of how that story is remembered and understood are often understated. Jonestown and the Peoples Temple need to be understood as a continuum; too often its triumphant road of struggle and liberation is overshadowed by its extreme end. Jim Jones is often remembered as an evil tyrant and murderer, and less often as the person almost entirely responsible for the integration of Indianapolis in the early 1960s.1 To truly learn the lessons we need from this tragedy we must look at both.
Communists, already the bearers of a burdensome history, rarely take any ownership of the tragedy at Jonestown. There is a common way the story is told which leaves a lot of the politics to the side and gives a dangerous presentation of a New Religious Movement with a side of the New Communist Movement, rather than the other way around. The Peoples Temple wasn’t a “doomsday cult” either, even if Jim Jones did prophesize a coming reckoning; the threat he identified was real. Although he wrapped this up in his own delusions about his “Trotskyite defectors”, the FBI and CIA had destroyed black movements and socialist movements all over the world throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and Jones decided early on they would be his enemy.2 There was a major shift away from religion and spirituality altogether in the period after the settlement of Jonestown in Guyana. The truth is, The People’s Temple were pretty serious about being communists, and emerged directly out of the Civil Rights movement. Think less Woodstock counterculture, and more March on Washington and the Freedom Riders. Members changed their names to Lenin, Stalin and Guevara. They eagerly awaited transmissions from Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton.3 Listening to the infamous death tape and sermons leading up to the tragedy, the only logical conclusion is that the boogeyman of Jonestown was not the Devil or the Rapture, but rather the FBI, CIA, and US State Department. Despite their fate, the Peoples Temple were communists, and therefore in the face of the tragedy and out of respect for their sacrifice, they deserve critique and guidance.