“We didn’t commit suicide,” Jim Jones insisted 40 years ago this Sunday. “We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
The transition from idealism to nihilism that the American Left experienced in a few short years during the 1970s finds expression in that short, peculiar phrase. Apart from encapsulating the decline of the Left, revolutionary suicide also advertises the link between the Black Panthers and Peoples Temple, Huey Newton and Jim Jones, the murder of a cop in Oakland in the fall of 1967 and the murder of 909 communards in Jonestown on November 18, 1978.
Jones utters some variant of the expression four times on Jonestown’s death tape, which concludes with his followers imbibing grape Flavor-Aid laced with less than a penny’s worth of cyanide per serving. The phrase strikes as idiotic as the act it gave its name to. But to Jim Jones, and the ’60s icon who gave him the idea, revolutionary suicide impressed as the next big thing in Marxist thinking.
In 1973, the year Jim Jones a tract of land in northwestern Guyana, Huey Newton published a book called Revolutionary Suicide. “The concept of revolutionary suicide is not defeatist or fatalistic,” Newton maintained. “On the contrary, it conveys an awareness of reality in combination with the possibility of hope—reality because the revolutionary must always be prepared to face death, and hope because it symbolizes a resolute determination to bring about change.”
Newton unsurprisingly consumed copious amounts of narcotics as he wrote his book. And Jones, also unsurprisingly, used large amounts of drugs as he pondered the heaviness of it all. Apart from a raging narcotics habit, Jones and Newton shared the services of radical lawyer Charles Garry, a disbelief in God, a contempt for marital strictures, followers from the urban, Northern California underclass, and a penchant for exploiting the African Americans around them. Most importantly, the odd couple, almost alone among figures of import on the American Left, shared an assessment of revolutionary suicide as ingenious. While a read of the 1973 book indicates that Jones did not quite master its author’s distinction between “revolutionary suicide” and “reactionary suicide”—surrender in response to frustrating conditions—the concept appears so ill-thought through as to make misunderstandings probable.
In 1977, Jones journeyed to Cuba following a letter of introduction from Willie Brown asking Fidel Castro to treat the preacher’s trip as a state visit. There, he held a summit not with Castro but with an exiled Huey Newton, who fled from charges in the United States involving the murder of a teenage girl and the pistol whipping of an older tailor, both of whom made the same mistake: they called Huey “baby.” In Cuba, Jones and Newton discussed “revolutionary suicide” and much else. Jones made certain to publicize the trip to his largely black congregation, which at times included Newton’s relatives—Jones boasted of healing Newton’s parents of cancer—in San Francisco. Newton, smiling behind a bushy black beard, and Jones hiding as always behind dark glasses, shakes Jones’s hand on the cover of Peoples Forum. It was not the elevation of Jones onto a pedestal with Fidel Castro, but it served his purposes nonetheless.
“In his talk with Rev. Jones,” Peoples Forum reported to readers in the United States, “Huey made it very clear that his only reason for wanting to come back to the United States was his desire to clear his name and work, in a nonviolent manner, for the emancipation of poor people in our own nation. Huey stressed that in Cuba he felt complete freedom from harassment, and emphasized that the equality of life in Cuba is a very real phenomenon that extends throughout the country—to the provinces as well as urban centers.” Jones said much of the same about the island-prison through his newspaper.
The following year, Paul Avery, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter played by Robert Downey Jr. in the film Zodiac, penned “The Party’s Over,” along with Kate Coleman, in New Times. It depicted Huey Newton as addicted to drugs and rape and bullying and much else destructive. Jones, also fond of these activities, attacked Avery instead of Newton. Like Newton, he felt the sting of a Fourth Estate that had once fawned over him. His migration to Guyana, in many ways, served as the reaction of a sensitive man against a critical press.
“He’s sold his soul to the white company store,” Jones said of Avery, who years earlier told a Temple member of Jones: “I have yet to find one shred of evidence backing up anything bad that has been said against him. In fact, most everyone I’ve contacted has had nothing but good words about Jim Jones and his work.”
For hours, Jones read the entire article—more a short book at 15,000 or so words—to his captive audience in Jonestown. Every paragraph or so, he interspersed his own critical commentary with Avery and Coleman’s words. At the conclusion of the piece, the authors point to Newton’s books To Die for the People and Revolutionary Suicide to buttress the idea that the Black Panther leader, rather than face punishment for murdering a teenager and viciously beating his tailor, would partake in some self-destructive scheme granting him martyr status.
This criticism infuriated Jones most.
“And Paul Avery ought to be sick in his gut, because he knew what those historic words meant,” Jones claimed. “To die for the people means to give up your life for the people you love. And revolutionary suicide is an act of giving yourself—if it even sacrifices yourself—to bring down the corrupt racist capitalist system.”
In ridiculing Newton’s half-baked book titles, Avery and Coleman inadvertently mocked Jones, who regarded the ideological gibberish as “historic words.” For the past several years, Jones labored glacially to put Newton’s theory into practice. He leased the jungle outpost the same year Revolutionary Suicide hit bookstores. In the intervening years, he conducted dry runs of revolutionary suicide. At Jonestown, he orchestrated “white nights”—chaotic episodes in which Peoples Temple leadership led residents to believe that some outside force lurked beyond the community’s perimeter ready to invade.
In writing Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco, I heard jarring testimony from veterans of the dry-run poison tests and the white nights.
Jones, startled to see Tim Stoen, the attorney who served as his deputy, in the 1975 planning commission meeting in which he unveiled a “wine test,” assured his deputy that he did not intend to kill anyone. Stoen recalled in an interview for Cult City, “I surprised him because I didn’t go to the planning commission meetings; I showed up, and he had surprise on his face. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Tim, whatever happens tonight, I want you to know I do not believe in suicide.’”
Jones informed his flock that the wine they had just enjoyed contained poison. They had about 45 minutes to live.
“People were panicking,” Yulanda Crawford, a young African American woman whose complaints about the racial composition of the planning commission catapulted her into Temple leadership, told me in an interview for Cult City. “Patty Cartmell, she panicked. She panicked because she didn’t want to die that way and she didn’t want to die with all these people. He told her that she was disloyal to the cause. People ostracized her and everything. And then in the end, he laughed at her because he said, ‘There was nothing poisonous in it.’ He was just testing to see how faithful they would or would not be. He told her he couldn’t trust her.”
In reality, Jones could trust Cartmell, a loyalist from Jones’s Indiana days. They tricked everyone. Another loyalist shot Cartmell with blanks when she attempted to flee. People fell for Cartmell’s histrionics. The lesson? Drink the potion. Do not rebel. Nobody gets hurt.
In Jonestown, “white nights” further brought revolutionary suicide closer to reality. Jones, haranguing members for hours on Jonestown’s public address system, announced attacks from outsiders bent on exterminating the Peoples Temple. The white nights lasted for days. “Everybody’s there,” Mike Carter, one of nine people present when the killings began in Jonestown to survive, explained in a Cult City interview. “There’s a lot of ranting and raving and the world’s coming to an end. There was definitely a lot of Jim going off on tangents. You just wanted it to end.”
Newton, Angela Davis, and others bolstered this siege mentality by addressing Jonestown’s inhabitants over shortwave radio via the public address system. By the time November 18, 1978, arrived, the people of Peoples Temple—deprived of sleep and nutrition, worked inhumanely, brainwashed into believing a siege imminent, and drilled for years with dry runs of revolutionary suicide that seemed like little more than perverse loyalty tests—appeared primed for drinking the Kool-Aid.
With Congressman Leo Ryan, three journalists, and a Jonestown defector murdered by Temple security on an airstrip outside Jonestown, Jim Jones’s inner circle, with gunmen and archers surrounding the flock, provided Flavor-Aid laced with valium and cyanide in a vat under the Jonestown pavilion. The lone adult objection to the collective immolation on the death tape offers migration to the Soviet Union as an alternative to revolutionary suicide. Such were the choices—a dreary life in a cold totalitarian state far away or death in the jungle—in Jonestown.
Parents poisoned their children first, which sapped a will to live from the adults. What outsiders later clearly saw as an act of nihilism, the cultists regarded as an act imbued with profound meaning. Jim Jones told them that they gave their lives for the glory of Communism. They did not surrender in laying down their lives. They protested.
“This is not the way for people who are socialistic Communists to die, no way for us to die,” Jones announced as children cried and his followers convulsed and collapsed. “We must die with some dignity.”
No adult, save for Christine Miller, publicly objected (though four African Americans escaped or evaded the fate of the 909 others). The communards shouted Miller down. Several followers expressed gratitude to Jones for allowing them to die for Communism.
“It’s been a pleasure walking with all of you in this revolutionary struggle,” one explains on the death tape. “No other way I would rather go than to give my life for Socialism, Communism, and I thank Dad very, very much.”
Forty years later, revolutionary suicide, the book and the act, strikes observers as profound—just not in the way the authors of the word and deed imagined.
Daniel J. Flynn, a senior editor for the American Spectator, authored Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco (ISI Books, 2018).