The close – and nihilistic – relationship between Huey Newton and Jim Jones.
“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. more here