This week I listened to an episode of a podcast called Cults on Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. I won’t say I am obsessed with learning about that story, because I am not (things I can can admit to info obsessions with: Malcolm X, The Clash, graffiti), but I am drawn to the story because I find it interesting and fascinating. And because it’s a great example of how an idea can seem so great on the surface and be so rotten at the core.
I’d never heard before that, at some point in his preaching career, Jim Jones started referring to himself as “a communalist.” In the middle of my bike ride, I had to just have a couple of hard blinks on that. “Digital communalist” is the fake title that I gave myself when my colleagues and I started the Moonfish Collective last summer (more another time about what that means to be me in a Moonfish sense). Yikes. I don’t want to be associated with that.
I “made up” the word when we were brainstorming titles that day, sure that it existed in some other capacity but completely unfamiliar with those contexts. So after the Jim Jones connection, I did some more research. Communalism has a history to it, one related to terms like post-communist, anarchist, libertarian socialism and the 20th century philosopher Murray Bookchin.
Communalism is an established, complicated political concept with some deep literature. Picking around at the term for an hour or so though, I was able to determine: if Jones called himself a communalist, he might have been doing so under the influence of ideas that tie back to Bookchin. Bookchin was, in a progressive sense, the real deal; in the 1960’s he worked with Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and published a book on the impact of human social systems on the environment. But the antecedent of this thinking is hard to determine. According to Understanding Jonestown and People’s Temple (2009) by Rebecca Moore, Jones was using the term as early as 1957.
Either way, Jones’s definition and Bookchin’s definition are different. I’ll hang onto the term and tie back to Bookchin’s research. Also, I wouldn’t recommend the podcast. It wasn’t well researched (too hype-y and sensationalistic, not enough journalism), which surprised me because I found it in the NPR One app. It did, however, prompt this research rabbit-hole experience, which I always appreciate.