Socialism is both loved and despised in America today. To those who have heard the word on Soviet slave labor camps and “National Socialists,” the word sounds “pretty sus.” To some Bernie Babies, socialism is practically synonymous with “virtue”: Any decent person should share with the needy!
So how did a movement that espoused high ideals come to be associated in some minds (and in history) with torture, barbed wire, ugly art, dunce caps, and “mostly peaceful protests” in front of burning buildings?
A Snake in the Garden
The answer to this modern enigma can be found in an ancient story of a snake who promised a man and woman, “You will be as gods, knowing good and evil!” It is illustrated by the life of a modern socialist named Jim Jones, who tempted a contemporary American Adam and Eve — and Steve, too; Jones was bisexual — to destruction.
Jim Jones came to prominence at a time of intense civil strife. Conflict in Vietnam was escalating. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had recently been assassinated. African-Americans were still excluded from many churches and neighborhoods.
Jones displayed genuine empathy for the downtrodden. Appointed by the mayor of Indianapolis as director of a human rights commission, he proved a dynamo of social reform, speaking boldly against racism, setting up sting operations to catch those who discriminated. When placed accidentally in the black ward of a hospital, he refused to leave, making beds and emptying pans for fellow patients.
The Joneses adopted children of multiple races, founded effective programs for the elderly and drug addicts (his wife was a nurse), and preached constantly against abuse of the weak by the strong.
As a boy Jimmy had loved ceremony, copying the pageantry of Adolf Hitler, then hopping from church to church to mimic preaching styles. He also developed an odd penchant for conducting funerals for dead animals.
The adult Jones found that good works lent him power. He rejected “bourgeois” (and Christian) morality, however, seeking, like the snake in Genesis, to decide good and evil for himself. As Jones gained influence, his socialist ideals replaced the Ten Commandments, which he treated with scorn.
He cursed God, promoted himself as divine, beat church members, swindled them of pensions, funneling millions into overseas accounts, drugged and raped, tortured malcontents and the disobedient, treated church members as slaves, and carried out “White Nights,” rehearsals of group suicides. (Jones admired the Jews who killed themselves at Masada.)
Then came the coup de grace. Jones instituted the greatest mass suicide in American history when he coerced some 900 followers into “drinking the Kool-Aid.” (Actually Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide.) In his last speech he spoke of “socialism” and “communism,” and explained that Russia would not allow the community to immigrate. His last recorded words were:
“We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
The motives of such “snakes in the garden” may seem straightforward. “It is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” as John Milton’s Satan put it. Jones “lived his dream,” you might say: worshipped as a god, enjoying the perks of absolute rule, and finally acting out his fantasy of a grand revolutionary exit.
A Teflon Ideology
But why did almost a thousand people follow the man in sunglasses to their deaths? Why did prominent political figures, including the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles, accept him as a valued member of the left-wing coalition? (He even corresponded briefly with Rosalynn Carter.) Why did Kamala Harris’s old flame, Willie Brown, stand up for him even after his church’s abuses began to come to light?
Regarded as God in human flesh by many members of Peoples Temple, Jim Jones redefined right and wrong for them. And that veneer of virtue-signaling covered his allies as well.
While Christians had stood at the forefront of justice movements for centuries, socialism stole their panache in the late 19th Century. Improve life? Yes, and not piece-meal like the Christians, but by revolutionary social change. And since the Ten Commandments are bourgeois, get laid along the way!
The socialist brand remains remarkably durable, even after Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim, and Pol Pot killed multiple millions. It is a Teflon ideology: its crimes do not stick. (“Not real socialism,” people will say.) So even after the Angel has evicted us from many gardens, half of young adults maintain positive views of socialism.
Jones offered the full menu of communist miseries in one stop: communal bunks, communal dining, slave labor, endless moralizing, hunger, paranoia, spies, armed guards, idolization of the Soviet Union and Cuba, then Flavor-Aid.
And yet it remain true that Jones did much good for the disenfranchised, especially in his early years.
Karl Marx said communism “abolishes all morality, instead of constituting it on a new basis.” Why, then, did communist regimes also institute numerous laudable reforms along with their atrocities? How could they have had such appeal in the eyes of young idealists? And how should we understand the paradoxical attractions of socialism, and avoid repeating its horrors?
Adam and Eve were tempted to “be as gods, knowing good and evil.” (What’s wrong with learning that? goes the question. Does anyone think humans should remain children all our lives?) They ate, and their eyes were opened as promised.
We Sin — Then Hide
But the Angel of Death came calling. They realized their nudity and felt ashamed, “covering up” with leaves. When God appeared, they hid. “Where are you?” God asked, not because He did not know, but so they would realize they were lost. God then stitched together not cheap plant-fibers, but sacrificial furs.
So sorry, Marx, no one can “abolish morality!” Our hearts now accuse us, now defend us, as Paul put it. But we cover our crimes in moral fig leaves, or drug ourselves into a stupor, as Jones and his followers finally did.
Even greater than the lure of “social justice” is the temptation to be “as gods.” As I wrote in my 2000 book, Jesus and the Religions of Man:
Marx succeeded by making the common man and woman feel the franchise of godhood was also within their grasp. Communism was about seeking cosmic power in the collective self, of whom the supreme leader was image and model.
The word “people” is popular in Marxist jargon. Jones’s church was the “Peoples Temple.” Thoroughfares in China are called “People’s Way.” A park in Shanghai where parents gather to matchmake for their children, a venue for horse-racing under British imperialists, is now “People’s Park.”
Gods with ear wax and pot bellies cannot really “abolish morality.” So Marxists claim to “know good and evil” in three revolutionary forms:
- The morality, borrowed from Christianity and distorted, by which they judge enemies as racist and privileged.
- The morality by which they chastise followers. Quit drugs! Don’t waste money! Work harder! Free yourself of material possessions! (Here’s an offering plate to help you do so, for the fifth time tonight!) Once I spotted a young man and woman stealing a woman’s purse just outside People’s Park. When I told the police, they did not ask, as they might in San Francisco, “Were they downtrodden workers seeking redistributive justice?”
- Nor do revolutionaries lack rules for themselves. Like other Marxists, Jones believed the end justified the means. Since his church was lighting the path to Utopia for the world to follow, he cut corners. He stole. He blasphemed. He treated temple women (and some men) as his personal harem. Ultimately, Jones committed mass murder, including against more than two hundred children, mouthing his affection for them as they mouthed their Flavor-Aid.
Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves after they broke God’s law. Aside from clothing his sin in good deeds, Jim Jones began taking drugs, to deaden his awareness that he was blaspheming God by taking his place.
Chimps steal and kill with no apparent compunction. But those made in the image of God feel conflicted. We sin, then hide.
But this is not just “those people.” It’s all of us. If we seek to “make America great again” while hating enemies or cheating on wives, Genesis has us nailed. If we try building a classless — and godless — Utopia, Genesis has that covered, too. We virtue-signal and scapegoat to distract from our sins.
So God provided a lamb, and clothing that endured for our journey into the world. The point of the Genesis story of the Fall is not that we are doomed by Fates, but that we need a Savior.
David Marshall, an educator and writer, has a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia.