Keywords: Marxism, religion, revisionists, communalism, Jonestown
From the Essenes of Qumran to the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, communal groups have struggled to exist within the pressures of the outside world. Much of this struggle is the result of the radical social, political, and economic practices that many of these groups engaged in—practices that if pursued en masse would threaten the dominant social hierarchies of the time. Many philosophers, historians, and theorists have attempted to explain the rise and fall of these groups. In particular, Marxists have paid special attention to these radical groups and developed a far more nuanced understanding of religion than academics generally credit to them. Marxist perspectives on religion, however, have become marginalized in some fields of study.
Understanding the rise and fall of religious movements was especially important to Friedrich Engels and the Marxist revisionists, such as E. Belfort Bax (1854–1925) and Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932). This interest was largely the result of the long-standing connection that these theorists, the latter two in particular, observed between religion and the failed development of a socialist revolution. Consequently, they attempted to understand the relationship between religion and the social contexts from which these groups emerge. Therefore, the work Engels, Bax, and Bernstein completed on past communal groups can help us understand some of the reasons behind the creation and degradation of other contemporary and historical groups. Furthermore, these theorists help explain the ways in which certain religious beliefs left these groups ill-equipped to deal with the pressure applied on them from the dominant social forces of the time.
In this article, I first provide a brief description and history for each group I intend to analyze. Then I explain the basic premises of Marxist and Marxist revisionist theories of religion. Next, I provide a framework developed in light of Marxist theory on religion. In this framework, I argue that three stages are present in the rise and fall of these groups: rebellion, reification, and resistance or reintegration. I substantiate this framework with examples from several Marxist theorists and from the three case studies of communal groups.
The Three Communes
For the purposes of this study, I limited the analysis to three communal religious groups: the Essenes in Qumran (100 BCE–68 CE), the Anabaptists in Munster (1534–1535), and Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana (1976–1978). These three communes are separated by more than two thousand years of history. Nonetheless, they possess a startling number of similarities. In short, all of these groups exhibited the basic tenets of communism while also exhibiting a fervent and devout religiosity. Furthermore, these three communes experienced a great deal of tension with the dominant social order, and all eventually came to violent and catastrophic ends.
The Essenes arose in a period of great social and religious unrest in Israel (ca. 100 BCE–68 CE). The last half of the second temple period saw the fall of the Hasmonean Kings to the Roman Empire, the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish Wars, and the eventual destruction of the Second Temple in 66 CE.
The Essenes were intensely critical of the state of the world around them. They determined that the political and religious leaders, such as the Temple priests in Jerusalem, were illegitimate. They formed communities, such as Qumran, where they attempted to escape the corrupted world. In these places, they practiced a highly communal lifestyle. In fact, Josephus, the Judeo-Roman historian, considered the Essenes “communists to perfection.” Members had to hand over their personal possessions to the community prior to acceptance into it, in addition to any social distinctions they may have held previously.
The obsession with ritual purity and the large number of religious texts found in archaeological work at Qumran revealed the religious devotion of the Essenes. One of these texts described an eschatological battle between the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness.” Eventually this battle would take place pitting the Essenes against the Romans. Archeological evidence does show that some sort of skirmish took place between the two sides; the result of this battle, however, did not end the way the Essenes predicted (as a victory for the sons of light and a new world order). In short, although Israel did receive a new Roman world order, the Essene experiment came to an abrupt end with the destruction of the Qumran community by the Romans in 68 CE. That community would not be the last group, however, to exemplify this form of religious belief.
The Anabaptists rose out of the political and economic decay of feudalism in Europe, and the vacuum of spiritual guidance left in the wake of the religious fervor of the Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptist movement was based on the insight of self-proclaimed prophets. Thus, Anabaptism was not a unified movement; rather, it consisted of a number of small sects, each with a prominent prophet or disciple, who followed roughly the same precepts. These precepts included an emphasis on brotherly love (as found in the early church), and the Anabaptists used this concept as a template to apply to the current social world. Most of these groups displayed a great deal of unease toward private property and, thus, raised the communal use of goods and mutual aid to a high level of importance. Furthermore, the Anabaptists were intensely sectarian. In other words, they generally rejected the outside world and built small, cohesive communities to protect themselves from it. As a result, many of the Anabaptists’ powerful contemporaries regarded the movement’s views, such as those on “the function of the state, of the oath, of violence, religious liberty and economics” as “a threat to the established order.”
In Munster, Anabaptism took its most radical form. Jan Matthys (d. 1534) and Jan Bockelson (1509?–1536) formed what they considered the New Jerusalem, or Kingdom of God, in the town of Munster and implemented their own brand of militant millenarianism. In short, they felt that Munster was the site where the “elect” would fight the final battle with the forces of evil, as described in the biblical Book of Revelations. Eventually, Matthys and Bockelson expelled or killed all of the “godless ones,” those who were not Anabaptists, thereby removing any opposition to their religiopolitical aspirations. They implemented a simplistic brand of communism in which all persons in the community surrendered their money and private property to communal storehouses.
In the spring of 1534, little more than a year after the Anabaptists gained control of Munster, a local Bishop, Franz von Waldeck (1491–1553), besieged and eventually captured the city. Before von Waldeck could capture Munster, however, Bockelson, who took power after Matthys died, implemented polygamy and led the community through a dreadful famine. Eventually, Bockelson was captured, tortured, and his remains hung in a cage at the top of Munster’s cathedral. In the end, the Anabaptists in Munster reinforced Lutheran and Calvinist suspicion of Anabaptism and of human attempts to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, both of which largely remain intact to this day.
The Peoples Temple
Jim Jones emerged in spite of this suspicion of human attempts to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. In 1955, Jones founded the Wings of Deliverance, the corporate body of what was to become the Peoples Temple. Eventually, Jones moved to California, where he set up his most prominent, wealthy, and politically active church. Here he honed his message of socialism, Christianity, and racial equality. In California, Jones proclaimed himself the messiah or “living God.” As the media began to threaten Jones by exposing some of the church’s more questionable and abusive financial and religious practices, he and his followers left to set up a Christian communist utopia in Jonestown, Guyana.
Although the group had some initial success in Guyana, Jonestown did have its opposition. Some of the opposition with which Jones often had to deal were complaints of commune members who said their socialist paradise resembled a jungle work camp. Indeed, working and living conditions were harsh, and so were many of the group-enforced social practices, which often involved child abuse, humiliation, harsh punishments for misbehavior, and isolation. Eventually, a number of people who were hostile to Jones and Jonestown and who had relatives in the commune formed a group called the Concerned Relatives.
The purpose of this group was to raise awareness of the plight of those people who were with Jones. This effort resulted in a government-sponsored fact-finding mission to Jonestown in November 1978. Congressman Leo J. Ryan (1925–1978) led this mission, and several members of the media accompanied him. The efforts of the Concerned Relatives played into Jones’ paranoia of infringement from the outside. Thus, after murdering the congressman and some of his entourage, Jones proclaimed that it was time for his people to “die with dignity”; it was time for “revolutionary suicide.” On November 18, 1978, more than nine hundred Jonestown residents drank or were forcibly injected with cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid in “protest” of what Jones believed was going to happen to them.
Partially because of the reactionary and rebellious tendencies that I have summarized in the three communist-type groups, religion is a topic that has been central to many Marxist critiques of society. Karl Marx (1818–1883) called religion “the table of contents of theoretical battles,” thereby acknowledging that in the past the majority of theoretical conflicts have taken place within the discourse of religion. Engels and the revisionists carried on this critique of religion. They engaged with, and expanded on, what Marx argued previously. Thus, they produced a more nuanced and tactful analysis of religion—one that certainly applies to various communistic religious communes.
Marx on Religion
Marx’s description of religion was functional. He understood it to be a “substance” that dulls the pain of exploitation. In his own words, “Religion is the sigh of an oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people.” It directs a person’s consciousness away from both the material world and the material struggles that exist within it. This misdirection occurs through religion’s provision of rituals and ideologies, such as prayer and a belief in an afterlife, that enable one to detach from one’s immediate surroundings. According to Marxists, invoking such concepts provides a capitalist society with ideal conditions for the continued exploitation of a religiously deluded proletariat.
For Marx, religion dehumanized the masses. That is, religion stood to reduce humanity to something less than it was. Marx compared the “brutalization” of man by the state to religion. In jest, Marx stated, “But this [brutalization] is no contradiction of religiosity, for the animal religion is the most consistent manifestation of religion, and perhaps it will soon be necessary to speak of religious zoology instead of religious anthropology.” Marx felt that we needed to reawaken “the self-worth of men—freedom,” something that the dominant classes progressively had drained from humanity since the Greeks and had completely emptied with the arrival of Christianity.
Also key to Marx was the source, or etiology, of religion. Marx was adamant about religion’s artificiality and explained, “…man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-awareness of man who either has not yet attained to himself or has already lost himself again.” Marx believed that religion, which the human brain produced, had come to rule over its creators. He argued that religion had no biological basis nor was it an essential component of human social life. Thus, religion was ripe for decay and eventual abolishment.
For the most part, Marx tackled the concept of religion as a general component of immaterial human culture. For instance, he did not separate religion from the basic tenets of superstition. He cited Christianity, however, as the pinnacle of the etiology of religion. Christianity and, in particular, Protestantism are the ideal religions for a capitalist society. In Capital, Marx explained that Protestant doctrines surrounding “abstract man” have severed the “tribal ties” that previously existed between people and their communities, which would have inhibited the free flow of capital. Thus, Protestantism would help facilitate the separation between workers, labour, and community.
In addition, Marx claimed that every historical stage in society had a matching religious order: “The religious world is but a reflex of the real world.” Consequently, just as Catholicism was linked to feudalism, and Protestantism was linked to capitalism, atheism, which is the antithesis of religion, then would be linked to communism.
Marx did not completely write off Protestantism as a negative development. Periodically, Marx spoke quite highly of Martin Luther and the changes brought on by the Reformation. He almost paralleled the Reformation with the coming revolution of the proletariat:
Once it was the monk’s brain in which the revolution began, now it is in the philosopher.
Certainly, Luther removed the servitude of devotion by replacing it by the servitude of conviction. He destroyed faith in authority by restoring the authority of faith. He turned priests into laymen by turning laymen into priests. He liberated man from exterior religiosity by making man’s inner conscience religious. He emancipated the body from chains by enchaining the heart.
Historically, according to Marx, protest and social change often came about through religious movements. This opinion is important to note, considering that Marx was advocating for the eventual abolition of religion.
Engels and the Revisionists on Religion
Revisionists were Marxists who had given up on the cataclysmic revolution other theorists had predicted. Instead, they felt that socialism was more likely to come by evolution and political reform. Some scholars have argued that Engels was the first of these revisionists. This argument stemmed from Engels’ statement in the Preface to the Class Struggles in France 1848–1850. In this preface, Engels appeared to move away from the need for a violent revolution and instead advocated for gradual reform. As a result, Engels and the revisionists were able to further develop their theoretical perspectives in many topical areas, including religion.
Engels expanded on the idea of religion as a vehicle for protest. He explained that, historically, religion often acted as an “ideological costume” for a revolt rooted in proletarian interests. In this light, Engels was particularly interested in early Christianity:
The history of early Christianity has notable points of resemblance with the modern working-class movement. Like the latter, Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of people subjugated or dispersed by Rome.
Both movements offered salvation to their adherents and relief from bondage and misery. Socialism offered salvation in this world; Christianity offered emancipation in the afterlife. Engels believed that the problem with early Christianity originated when the Roman Empire adopted it. This adoption separated Christianity from its revolutionary roots.
Engels did imply, however, that some of the revolutionary spirit persisted. Groups such as the Lollards, the Flagellants, and the Protestant uprisings of the Reformation drew upon these revolutionary roots. In particular, Engels spoke highly of Thomas Münzer (1488–1525), a particularly active member of the early Anabaptist movement.
Engels, therefore, appears to have left room for religion in the expected class revolution. Historian Delos B. McKown went so far as to say that Engels did not advocate the complete abolition of religion as did Marx. Rather, Engels hoped that some of the revolutionary elements of religion, in particular, Christianity, would continue into the socialist era. Nonetheless, Engels stated that religion did not have a place in society after the Revolution. The message in much of his other works on religion, such as his understanding of Münzer and the Peasants’ War, seem to contradict this point.
E. Belfort Bax continued to build on Engels’ understanding of religion, with the addition of a new perspective of the evolution of society. Evolution was central to Bax’s understanding of religion. Bax stated, “The one fact most prominent in the evolution of religion is that every step in advance has consisted in an eclipse of the theological by the moral.” Therefore, he felt that, eventually, values intrinsic to the betterment of humanity, “the moral,” would supplant superstition, “the theological,” through social evolution.
Nonetheless, Bax mirrored Engels’ understanding of political and social revolutions posing as religious ones. His central examples of this phenomenon were the Protestant Reformation, the Peasants’ War (1524–1525), the Thuringian revolt under Thomas Münzer, and the Anabaptist uprising in Münster (1534–1535). With the exception of the Reformation, Bax described all of these movements as failed revolutions.
Bax, however, did not have a problem with the idea of religion. He, in fact, felt that a religious or theological revolution must take place along with an economic one. Religion was then a “reflex” of the revolution, just as Marx felt it was a “reflex of the real world.” The Reformation and concurrent rise of capitalism substantiated this process, just as atheism and the concurrent rise of communism would occur in the next revolution.
Bax conceded that one could never limit the development of the human consciousness. He linked religion to the understanding of those things that may not be in existence; consequently, art, morality, and philosophy all contained elements of religion. In socialism, Bax stated; “Religion would suppose Humanity as an eternal object of worship, only taking the highest ideal conceivable at the time as its then type.” At this point, Bax moved away from Marx and stated what Engels could never quite bring himself to say. Bax’s religion of humanity strayed from strict materialism and condoned humanity’s ability to conceive of things beyond the material. This understanding was contrary to what Marx believed.
Finally, we come to Bernstein. He argued that religion, for the most part, was a private affair. Bernstein’s defense of homosexuality depicted this consideration. In The Judgment of Abnormal Sexual Intercourse, he began to question the right of government to inflict its political and moral imperatives onto the bodies and actions of others. He noticed the application of law to be particularly unfair when it dealt with homosexual and female bodies. Conversely, Bernstein was wholly committed to social democracy’s ability to erode these ideological imperatives and their sources, such as religion.
Therefore, it is difficult to generate a direct, concise summary of Bernstein’s understanding of religion. As I stated previously, he did predict that social democracy, and the general process of social evolution, selected (in the evolutionary sense of the word) against ideologies, such as religion. Bernstein also had, however, a deep attachment to personal freedoms and civil rights. Therefore, one would suspect that, if Bernstein advocated for the freedom of the sexual body (which he did), then he would do the same for the religious one.
Bernstein also left remnants of Engels’ understanding of religious movements as a guise for proletarian interests. He cited a multitude of situations in which he observed religious revolts taking place for sociopolitical reasons. For Bernstein, however, the “guise” did not function only to conceal proletarian interests, as it did for Bax and Engels. Instead, he viewed religious revolts to function alongside political ones, and the issues embedded in each of these became inseparable from each other.
Nonetheless, it would be irresponsible to use Marxist theory to explain the whole of religion. Most obviously for our purposes, religion has not withered away as Marx and the revisionists predicted. In fact, there is evidence of an increase in religious activity in both the United States and in Canada. Researchers can use the more nuanced portions of these theories, however, to better understand particular religious movements.
Specifically, the theoretical perspectives of Marx, Engels, Bax, and Bernstein provide a great deal of insight into the rise and fall of communal religious movements. If one treats the works of these theorists as an entire semicohesive body, then one begins to see the development of a framework of events that these groups have followed. Essentially, these groups moved through three stages, which purposely bear a great deal of resemblance to ritual processes a number of anthropologists have identified:
Rebellion: A group decides to rebel against one or more dominant social ideologies. In this process, the members begin to separate from the dominant social order.
Reification: Group members then form sectarian communities in which they can more easily escape dominant ideologies and reify their own.
Resist or Reintegrate: Finally, members come into direct conflict with mainstream society, at which point they are then forced to resist, most often violently, or reintegrate by giving up their revolutionary spirit and return to society at large.
These theorists tended to spend more time analyzing the first and last stages of this framework. They acknowledged, however, the existence of the second stage in the process.
The three communes that I highlighted developed from periods of great social unrest. The Essenes existed in a time when traditional Judaism was under a great deal of pressure from both Roman commercial domination and Greek cultural domination. The historian John Dominic Crossan made the following comparison to the situation in first-century Israel: “Modernization for many then was Hellenization—Greek internationalism—just as modernization for many now is Americanization.” The Essenes had taken particular offense at the Roman appointing of Temple priests and Jewish kings. The Essenes, however, evolved as one of many responses to this oppression. The Zealots, who were a militant Jewish sect, and the Pharisees, who were the predecessors of modern Judaism, represent different responses to this same situation. Engels understood that Jesus of Nazareth arose because of these proletarian pressures, as well.
The Anabaptists emerged out of the late stages of the Protestant Reformation, which was a response to the Catholic Church’s oppressive feudalist doctrines. As a byproduct, this new religious freedom created a vacuum of spiritual guidance. People began to legitimately feel that they could come face to face with the will of God. As Marx said, “Man was therefore not freed from religion; he received the freedom of religion.” The Peasants’ War in Germany was an example of this newfound freedom infused with the sociopolitical angst caused by the oppression of the peasant class in Europe. The Anabaptists rose from a similar freedom and angst.
The Peoples Temple developed out of the social turmoil and racial tension of 1960s America. The 1960s’ counterculture movement emerged as a result of the repressive culture of the postwar era. Upheavals in race, class, and family relationships were commonplace and, as a result, numerous subcultures and submovements formed. People, especially youth, began to search for alternative lifestyles, such as communes, that would enable a person to experiment with different forms of sociopolitical relations. Jim Jones tapped into this desire for a new way of being and the racial tensions that remained in America to attract people to his church.
Religion appeared in each of these situations, and many others, as an answer to social and political strife; religion became “the soul of soulless circumstances.” Therefore, even for Marx, religion was far more than an opiate. Michel Foucault noted this fact in his analysis of the Iranian Revolution: “People always quote Marx and the opium of the people. The sentence that immediately preceded that statement and which is never quoted says that religion is the spirit of a world without spirit.” Therefore, religion stood as a reaction to oppression in the material world.
Engels and Bax described this situation in a different fashion. Both understood religious revolts to be a guise for sociopolitical ones. Bax explained the conditions in Germany, where the Anabaptists developed, as follows:
The political and economic aspirations of the democracies, especially of the German cities, called forth by the pressure of circumstances, readily and naturally clothed themselves in a religious or theological garb, whilst the religious aspirations themselves seemed to demand political and economic revolution as the conditions of their fulfillment.
Therefore, the Anabaptists’ religious aspirations to bring about the Kingdom of God were deeply embedded in their material conditions. Their desire to bring about equality in their religious lives paralleled the same want in their material lives.
This same analysis applies to the Essenes and the Peoples Temple. The Damascus Document, which is a text found at Qumran, revealed the Essenes’ contempt for the condition of Jewish society: “But in the present age Belial [Satan] is unrestrained in Israel, just as God said by Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, saying, ‘Fear and pit and snare upon these, dweller in the land.’” The text continues to describe three reasons why Israel had descended to this situation: “[t]he first is fornication; the second is wealth; the third is defiling the sanctuary.” The author of the text also stated, “They [the Temple priests] must not rob ‘the poor of God’s people, making widows’ wealth their booty…’” The Essenes saw a large number of political, religious, and social problems in Israel and described them in primarily religious terms. They responded to the corruption they felt existed in mainstream Judaism by creating isolated communities, such as Qumran. In other words, this community acted out their religious problems in social and political ways, in much the same way as Bax described.
Jones provided an even clearer example of the “guise.” In one of his sermons, he exhorted, “‘And you can become your own God! Not in condescension but in resurrection and upliftment from whatever economic condition, injustice or racism or servitude which you have had to endure. Within you rest the keys of deliverance.’” Jones, in fact, blended socialism and religion to such a degree that, at times, it was difficult to notice if his religion was masking his socialism or his socialism was masking his religion. His rhetoric, for instance, was an intricate blend of Christian terminology and socialist rhetoric. After a demonstration in 1976, he admitted to using religion to legitimize a socialist statement:
‘But you’ve got to understand these people. If I had said, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to buy on time,’ now, if you are coming from up the mountains [of Appalachia], you get into all sorts of troubles. It wouldn’t have meant anything to them. I had to talk their language. Their language is “God says.”’
In another instance, he proclaimed the eventual dissolution of religion, yet followed this statement by claiming to be able to conduct miracles and provide cures for diseases. For Jones, socialism was religion; God was a socialist; and he was God. In fact, in one sermon Jones referred to himself as the “‘God personification of Socialism,’” and compared himself to Jesus. As religion scholar David Chidester explained, “The real Jesus was an incarnation of socialism, a militant revolutionary, a black liberationist. The same Principle of socialism, revolution, and black liberation, Jones insisted, was incarnated in Jim Jones.” Jones is almost a mirror image of Engels’ Thomas Münzer; both were devoutly committed to communism and Christians (at least superficially), and both were completely delusional.
To summarize, these groups all struck out against the social order of their time. They all represented the poorest and most oppressed members of society. The Essenes primarily consisted of people who had become disenfranchised by the Temple authorities. The Anabaptists attracted throngs of homeless and poor peoples to Munster in hope of a new social order. The population of Jonestown was 70 percent African-American, many of whom grew up in the ghettos of southern United States, and all of whom were looking for a better life. Therefore, these communal religious groups provided people with a chance to achieve equality. The rub became whether this equality would come to fruition in the material world or in the afterlife.
After each of these groups rebelled, there followed a period of time during which they were able to implement and enforce their ideologies to some degree. Bernstein observed how Judeo-Christian communal sects tended to identify themselves as Israelites. For example, like the Essenes in their Dead Sea communes or Jonestown in Guyana, they drew on themes from the Exodus story relating to the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering through the desert in Sinai. Also, some groups, such as the Anabaptists in Munster, actually claimed to be God’s chosen people; they claimed to be new Israelites building a New Jerusalem. In fact, Bernstein believed that communes could exist only when they had some sort of religious ideology as their base. Religion, he thought, was the central component of their solidarity. Additionally, Engels felt that working-class movements of this type were impossible in larger centers; however, he believed they could gain some limited success if they were to take place in remote enough areas.
Both Bernstein and Engels’ thoughts help explain these groups’ tendencies toward identifying with the Israelites. The Israelites, according to the biblical myth, used their time in the desert to solidify doctrine and social relations. For example, the biblical texts state that the Commandments, the basic structure of the Temple, the social relations associated with the Temple, and various other social and religious requirements were created and enforced at this time. In the desert, the Israelites were transformed from persecuted Egyptian slaves to God’s chosen people.
Bax described how communal religious movements tended to set up a primitive form of communism based on the “communisation of the economic product,” instead of the “communisation of the means of production.” Consequently, the return to mediaeval communism the Anabaptists and related groups proposed limited their economic alterations to the exterior of the economy and did not change relationship between an individual’s labor and the economic product.
All three groups utilized this form of communism. First, Josephus described how the Essenes practiced this basic form:
Contemptuous of wealth, they [the Essenes] are communists to perfection, and none of them will be found to be better off than the rest: their rule is that novices admitted to the sect must surrender their property to the order, so that among them all neither humiliating poverty nor excessive wealth is ever seen, but each man’s possessions go into the pool and as with brothers their entire property belongs to them all.
Therefore, even to an outsider such as Josephus, the Essenes’ communism stood out as a challenge to their surroundings.
After the Anabaptists had rebelled and gained control of Munster, they proposed a similar system of communism. The community leadership confiscated all the property of Munster’s emigrants and redistributed it amongst the community. The Anabaptist leaders set up central supply depots where they systematically distributed goods amongst the populace. To remove economic disparity, they destroyed all the account books and contracts present in the community. In addition, Matthys violently punished dissenters through exile, imprisonment, and even public execution. The theocratic government had confiscated all money in the community and had taken over the payment of individuals for their work. Eventually, the leaders of Munster hoped to eliminate money and private property: “[A]s Bockelson [one of the Munster leaders] later expressed it—‘all things were to be in common, there was to be no private property and nobody was to do anymore work, but simply trust in God.’”
Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple left for Guyana to implement their own brand of communism. In the beginning, most sources agree that Jones’ communist experiment experienced some limited success. The communal and socialist aspects of the community allowed Jonestown to virtually run itself. The community had developed an advanced individual-based education system, it grew food systematically and efficiently, and the communal supply centers distributed goods efficiently and relatively equally. The commune was ethnically diverse, most members came from poor backgrounds, and the inhabitants truly felt they were building a model for future socialist communities—a model for hinterland development. This attitude existed despite the harsh punishments and difficult working conditions. For instance, Jones regularly punished members for the most minor of discretions, such as one’s complaining about life in Jonestown, by placing the accused on the “learning crew” (hard labor), subjecting them to public beatings, or drugging them. Nonetheless, many viewed life in Jonestown as better than their previous lives in American ghettos.
The Essenes, Anabaptists, and Peoples Temple never successfully changed the fundamental way they produced goods. Even though each group displayed an ability to share the products they produced, they never changed their relationship to the products they created; they remained alienated from their work and the products they created. Moreover, they attempted to return to an earlier form of communism, rather than forge a new one, which was what Bax observed of the Anabaptists. Nonetheless, each group did experience an “Israelite stage” in which they were able to enforce and implement their communal and religious ideologies.
Resistance or Reintegration
Marx, Engels, Bax, and Bernstein generally agreed that communal religious movements were doomed to fail by either being destroyed or losing their revolutionary spirit. The three groups examined in this paper all came to violent ends. The Essenes of Qumran were decimated by the Romans. Imperial forces eventually surrounded Munster and, after a lengthy siege, slaughtered its Anabaptist inhabitants. And residents of Jonestown met their end in a mass murder-suicide ritual.
Bernstein reasoned that communal religious movements failed because no industrial working class existed to provide the critical mass for a successful revolt. Instead, he believed most of the people in these groups would become political reformers or their existence would progress society closer to socialism.
Conversely, Bax felt that this degradation to political reform was a negative development. In his analysis of Christian socialism he stated that, over the long term, “…either their Christianity ousts their Socialism, or their Socialism ousts their Christianity.” According to Bax, Christian Socialist groups tended to lose their revolutionary spirit and degrade to passive resistance. The Brethren, the Hutterian Brethren, the Mennonites, the Baptists, and the Quakers, for instance, are examples of pacified Anabaptism.
In addition, Bax claimed communal religious movements failed because they attempted to reinstate a form of communism that was incompatible with their contemporaneous societies. In his analysis of the Anabaptists, he offered this:
The dream of the impoverished townsman of a millennial kingdom [the Münster uprising], based on mediaeval domestic communism and animated by the ideals of the small artificer of the time, was in itself as hopeless as the corresponding dream of the peasant—ten years [the Peasants War] before, which also aimed at harking back to an idealized form of a condition of things that had passed away. The lines of social development were moving in quite another direction.
Consequently, the Anabaptists’ attempt to recreate the communism of the early church and the Essenes’ endeavor to return Israel to the purity of the first Temple period were fruitless.
The situation in Jonestown was more complex. Unlike the leaders of the Essenes and Anabaptists, Jones was familiar with Marxist social theory. Therefore, Jones did not attempt to hearken back to a previous form of socialism, as Bax understood. Rather, he was trying to carve out an example for future communist movements. The events in Jonestown, however, failed to generate any socialist reform in America, as Jones had hoped, and as Bernstein had predicted. Rather, the outsider’s response to Jonestown was that its inhabitants had been duped by a psychotic Jones. Their story became a deviant case, which society in general, and the media in particular, used to set an example for the rest of society. Consequently, Bax and Bernstein’s theoretical insights come short of explaining the events in Jonestown.
Marx and Engels, however, can help us explain the Jonestown tragedy. In Engels’ analysis of Christianity, he affirmed that both socialism and Christianity offered salvation to their adherents and relief from bondage and misery. Socialism offered salvation in this world; Christianity offered emancipation in the afterlife. Jones referred to his mass-suicide ritual as “revolutionary suicide.” In his last recorded words, Jones stated, “‘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.’” Therefore, the understanding that Jones and some of his people considered their deaths a protest, that they were killing themselves for socialism, was far from accurate.
As Engels explained, Marxist materialism does not provide for salvation in the afterlife—religion does. Thus, it was not the socialist aspects of the Peoples Temple that drove them to mass murder/suicide; rather, it was their religious belief in an afterlife and religious faith in and fear of their charismatic leader. Furthermore, Judeo-Christianity provided a deep tradition of mass suicide for Jones to draw on: the Sicarii in Masada, the Jews in Mainz, and, of course, the biblical account of Jesus Christ on Calvary. The latter, by allowing himself to be killed on the cross, provided what was possibly Jones’ best example of “revolutionary suicide.” Jesus died to save the world; Jones and his people died in an attempt to revolutionize it.
Nevertheless, Jones was not faced with the same circumstances as the groups mentioned above, such as a Roman legion and a throng of hate-filled crusaders. Rather, Jones constructed his own enemy at the gate. He convinced himself and his followers that there were immediate threats to Jonestown. Jones proclaimed that the only way to preserve peace was to die today and be raised up tomorrow. Death in this way was a decisively un-Marxist action.
Marx argued that the religious aspects of Christian socialist groups would steer them away from the material world. Therefore, from Marx’s perspective, religion kept the Essenes of Qumran from fleeing from the impeding Roman attack. Religion was what drove the Anabaptists to remain in Munster to the brink of starvation, holding out for the millennial events prophesized by their leaders. And religion, a lack of understanding of the material world, allowed the suicidal in Jonestown to drink the cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid and legitimized the actions of others who forced many in the community to drink Jones’ concoction. Religion left these groups ill-equipped to deal with their material world; the reaction caused by their social, political, and religious rebellion was far more than they could bear.