Without Enchanted Followers: Eusi Kwayana’s Reconsideration of the Jonestown Fiasco

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“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” is a phrase of popular wisdom that has a specific history, implying that we should not be mindless followers or trust romantic ideas or utopian projects for they are probably too good to be true. This adage was inspired by revelations about the mass suicide/murder of 918 people, almost all from the United States, at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. Rarely asked, however, is if this instinct about Jonestown obstructs important history and practical lessons about striving to build a new society.

Jonestown was a settlement in the hinterland of Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, linked to the Caribbean through the history of British colonialism, and home to an unsung movement for Caribbean unity and liberation. Guyana has been marked by epic moments of insurgent radical politics and also racial insecurity and disillusion among the largely Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese populations. Guyana is also unique among Caribbean communities in that there is still a large Amerindian population in the hinterland that European imperialists were not able to destroy.

Dedicated to collective living, Jonestown was a settlement in Guyana led by Reverend Jim Jones, a leader of the People’s Temple movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jones relocated his people to Guyana pursuing a promise of cooperative socialism that his church membership was attracted to and had faith in. The People’s Temple movement must be understood as emerging from the radical anti-government ferment that Huey Newton’s Black Panther Party personified in the late 1960s, and the decline of the Black Power movement following COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) in the 1970s and the collaboration with the Democratic Party and the politics of ethnic patronage thereafter.

Contemporary popular television documentaries present Jonestown as a cult and Jones as a dangerous cult leader who would not allow his followers to leave the settlement, despite a surface investigation that showed everyone in his movement appearing uncommonly happy in their pursuits, and exhibiting no dissent. Upon further investigation by American Congressman Leo Ryan, the story goes that a confrontation ensued where dissenters tried to spontaneously run for their lives; the movement’s perceived enemies were shot; and almost all were convinced by Jones to drink poison laced Kool-Aid to avoid the overturning of their way of life. As a result of the Jonestown story, many Americans today are afraid to visit Guyana even while knowing little of its history and despite being unable to locate it on a map.

However, there are deeper and multiple reasons not to “drink the Kool-Aid.” The Jonestown story tends to obscure a sincere (but failed) effort at having faith in working toward a new society by one select group of American visitors to Guyana, while papering over the cooperative and internationalist experiments of Guyanese themselves in this same historical period.

Offering a corrective is A New Look at Jonestown: Dimensions from a Guyanese Perspective (Carib House, Los Angeles, 2016), authored by elder Eusi Kwayana, who is now 91 years old and still offering penetrating political insight. Kwayana is well placed to ask difficult questions about Jonestown, for he has been closely associated with the triumvirate of major personalities in Guyana’s party politics, including Forbes Burnham, Cheddi Jagan, and Walter Rodney. Kwayana was also part of leading the movement for “people’s power and no dictator” in Guyana in the 1970s and 1980s, and has long been a dynamic cultural nationalist and advocate of class struggle.

A co-founder of the three major political parties of Guyana in the twentieth century, Kwayana has also led ruptures with the Black political class and thin projects of multi-racial unity in pursuit of more genuine power sharing and the desire to overcome racial insecurity. During the Jonestown crisis of 1978, Kwayana’s Working People’s Alliance led a national coalition for public safety to clarify what, in fact, happened at this settlement in Guyana.

While Jonestown is perceived as “an American problem,” Kwayana shows that it exposes corruption within the Forbes Burnham-led PNC government (1964-1985) that appeared to be Pan African and anti-imperialist for a time. In fact, Burnham’s government had a history of collaborating with American empire and disrupting the movement for Black autonomy and ethnic unity with Indo-Guyanese and Amerindians. This movement was rooted among rebellious bauxite workers and landless sugar workers who seized nationalized lands to build their homes and independent cooperatives. These events were particularly profound from 1970-1974. A New Look at Jonestown gives some indication of this development in the shadow of the rise and decline of the People’s Temple commune.

The contradictions of Jonestown have rarely been examined from a Guyanese perspective, and particularly from an outlook that is both sympathetic to pursuit of cooperative living and critical of its own national cults (e.g. around Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan) that disrupted a potential socialist revolution. Kwayana is unflinching in constructive criticism rooted in experience of conflicting political tendencies in freedom movements and ruptures for the better.

Jonestown is illustrated here, by Kwayana, as “a state within a state,” a settlement that undermined Guyanese national sovereignty and—at the time of the global scandal of the murder/suicide—had almost all Guyanese completely in the dark that such a community existed in their country. Kwayana also marshals the term “anarchy” here to assess Jonestown, not as a movement transparently against states and ruling classes, or inherently pejorative chaos and degeneration, but as a story that has a proliferation of possibilities.

Eusi Kwayana’s Jonestown is crafted in a manner that offers fresh perspectives. Interviews with People’s Temple members survey the problems of “using distant places” to solve America’s racial burdens, while respecting that “out of the depths” for a time, Jones produced a “dignity movement.” Kwayana allows the reader to bear witness to many contours of a complex development by asking if  Jones’s love was “genuine;” if the commune members liked one another; what Jones’s influence in mainstream politics in the San Francisco Bay area was like; and questions about Jones’s relations with the Guyanese government.

Jones ministered to his followers at times, and especially early on, by genuinely attempting to heal racial and other insecurities, including drug addiction. He was particularly caring toward children. But his socialist vision also became tangled up in collaborating with capitalists and elite politicians, and  compromised by encouraging a collective self-discipline in the group, including a pathological culture of collective flogging. Jones as a youth had been influenced by the Harlem-based Father Divine movement that blurred collectivist, anti-racist, and Black capitalist aspirations. Father Divine’s movement was not unlike the Marcus Garvey movement or the Nation of Islam. It was not opposed to collaborating with anti-imperialist movements, but its first concern was the accumulation of personal power on the hierarchical terms of the racial capitalist ordera response that can be difficult to discern from movements rebelling against a society where dignity and self-government are institutionally denied, and where empowerment is something held exclusively.

Jones’s group appeared to be marked by racial equality on the surface, with proportionate representation of black and white, men and women. A white man who rebelled against white supremacy in his native Indiana, Jones had a particular way of appealing to young Black men, who were disproportionately the commune’s security. While Jones’s planning committee was quantitatively diverse in representation, Jones’s actual leadership style was top down where decisions were made by mostly white women who were compromised and manipulated in various ways by having slept with him.

The book reveals that some African Americans of the People’s Temple movement recognized that the lifestyle in Guyana was not what it was said to be, and Jones put a hit out on some of these dissidents, encouraging some to “bump off” the others. More than one Black critic emerged in untimely moments to stand up to Jones’s authority in organizational disputes. Among those were Archie Ijames and Christine Miller. There were also multi-racial factions of dissidents. Interestingly, there was also a culture of solidarity to this self-criticism, even when offered to the aspiring leader.

Jones also can be seen as both “a compassionate healer” who was also “quite petty” and had double standards about sexuality, encouraging collective confession of sins while being silent and less transparent about his own affairs. Jones could use “prophetic statements” and mea culpas, to suggest violence against members of the commune were unfortunate, mystical events that had hidden meanings about the need for loyalty, but were beyond his control. Jones was not always present in Jonestown, and there were moments of greater collective autonomy from his leadership. But his intermittent absences also contributed to a lack of awareness by some of his growing paranoia and mental illness.

Kwayana’s Jonestown has a chapter “on Race and Gender in the People’s Temple” that is a blockbuster that should be circulated for discussion by small groupings with communal aspirations, for it explores difficult problems of leadership and sexuality. (This chapter should be shared internationally along with Kwayana’s pamphlet Guyana: No Guilty Race.) Many People’s Temple members found a sense of release of their own racial insecurity, as they understood it in black/white terms in the United States, in the different sociological/cultural environment of Guyana. Like many visitors to Latin America and the Caribbean, they were not psychologically attuned to the fact that racial insecurity functions differently in nations where people of color are the majority (but that there also can be some similar pathologies associated with internalized white racism across global spaces).

Especially when some People’s Temple members traveled to Georgetown, the capital city, those from Jonestown made easy friends. But complex issues of power and identity were always present. The white women visitors made easy sexual connections with Black men in the Guyana government; the latter were generally not interested in the African American women. The white people of Jonestown were at times used as symbols of global unity with the Burnham government in parades (this could paper over the racial tensions that Burnham was responsible for in his own country and indicates some of the contradictions in his own party, that Kwayana’s African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa [ASCRIA] would criticize).

Today, the story of Jonestown is used to discredit aspiring socialist and racial unity projects and discourage attempts at alternative living (as difficult as these can be with genuine effort), but it also obscures that Guyana in the 1970s was the center of a little known Pan African movement that linked the Caribbean with African and African American political exiles in the fight against empire.

Out of Guyana, there was a Pan African Secretariat began in 1970 led by Brother Zolili that began the movement for the Sixth Pan African Congress in Tanzania of 1974. This global movement was far more significant than the actual congress itself, as internationally controversial as that gathering came to be.

Guyana was also a refuge for African American political prisoners, particularly of the Revolutionary Action Movement and Republic of New Africa. Guyana was distinguished for a time by successful communal settlements interested in popular self-management that linked native Guyanese and international visitors (from South Africans to African Americans). In particular we should remember the Uhuru Sasa/East collective from Brooklyn, the Marudi Collective led by the Guyana native Joe Maxwell, and the Young Farmers’ Collective led by the Guyana natives Roy Wilson and Neville Jacobs (later Ohene Koama). Peculiarly, Forbes Burnham in 1971-1973 abolished all the independent cooperatives at the same time that it was cultivating the linkage to the People’s Temple.

Kwayana’s A New Look at Jonestown is a dynamic book because it also includes contributions from Walter Rodney, Jan Carew, Keith Scott, James Garrett, PD Sharma, Suzanne Shukuru Copeland Sanders, George K Danns, and others. It is distinguished by oral histories, reproduction of archival documents, and dynamic glossaries that introduce the reader to key personalities in Guyana’s politics and history, as well as Amerindian language and culture, so as to better understand the hinterland where Jonestown and other cooperatives were found.

Kwayana concludes that movements for popular freedom and justice “may not avoid strong egos but will fail if [they] entertain cult leaders.” Genuine leadership will have to distinguish itself by avoiding an “enchanted following” and instead cultivate an “open society” to conduct their revolution. “We will have to learn that leaders or messiahs are humans and will carry over into their liberation work the same complexes that helped or haunted them as persons.”