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Socialism Settled in Texas
America’s top socialist, Eugene Debs, top center, visited Texas socialists. Photo courtesy of Marty Boswell, a descendant of Halletsville’s Meitzen family
Socialism is nothing new in Texas, it has been here almost as long as in Europe.
A communistic society in Bettina, one of several, collapsed in 1848. Others lasted longer and made a more enduring mark in Texas history. During that period, several utopian communities were started. Comfort and Sisterdale in the Hill Country near Fredericksburg and La Reunion just outside Dallas were examples.
A leading European socialist, Victor Considerant, came to North Texas in 1853. Considerant had been an early influence on Karl Marx. He wrote Manifeste de la Democratie Pacifique in 1843 and Marx read it, as he read all of Considerant's writings. Five years later, Marx co-authored The Communist Manifesto. Parts of the earlier work are covered without disagreement in the later one. Thus Considerant and Marx had broad agreement on their diagnosis of the ills of capitalism, even though they differed greatly on the prescription.
Considerant had been active in French politics. When Louis Bonaparte III became President, Considerant joined a rebellion against him. For that, he was driven into exile in Belgium. From there he came to the U.S. to meet with a co-thinker and famous American socialist, Albert Brisbane. They toured the country and ended up riding horseback into North Texas.
Considerant was what Marx termed a "utopian socialist." He believed that capitalism could be coaxed into changing by providing good examples of functional socialist enterprises. His elaborate plans for experimental communities were tried in many places in Europe and America. They were not economically successful. However, many of the Europeans stayed even after their original settlements collapsed. They made great contributions in the sparsely settled areas where they finally raised their families.
In Texas, the Civil War put a final end to all of the communities. The slave-holding Confederacy could not tolerate the free thinking Europeans. A number of them were massacred at the "Battle of the Nueces" as they tried to escape conscription by fleeing from Comfort, Texas, to Mexico.
It has been suggested that Karl Marx himself once considered coming to Texas. Or, possibly, he only mentioned the idea as a ruse to throw authorities off his trail.
Texans Voted for Reds
The State of Texas web site will give you the presidential vote totals for all Texas elections. There, you’ll find that Texas may not be as backward historically as most information sources would like you to believe. In 1888, for example, the Union Labor Party received 8.2% of the total 357,513 votes. Here are some more:
1900 Total: 423,706
Eugene Victor Debs, Socialist: 1,846
Wharton Barker of People’s Party: 20,981
1904 Total: 234,008
Eugene Debs Soc: 2,791 1.1%
Silas Swallow Prohibition 4,292
Thomas Watson, People’s Party 8,062
Charles Corregan Soc. Labor: 421
1908 Total: 293,757
Eugene Debs Soc: 7,870 2.7%
Thomas Watson People's: 994
August Gillhaus Soc. Labor: 176
1912 total 305,120
Eugene Debs Soc 25,743, 8.4%
Arthur Reimer Soc. Labor: 442
1914 race for Texas Governor
Socialist E.R. Meitzen 11.7%
1916 total 372,467
Allan Benson Soc: 18,969, 5%
1920 total: 486,641
Black and Tan Republican Party: 27,247
Eugene Debs Soc: 8,121 1.7%
1924 Robert La Follette Prog: 42,881
1928: Norman Thomas Socialist: 722
William Foster Communist: 209
1932: William Foster Com: 207
Norman Thomas Soc: 4,450
1936: Norman Thomas Soc: 1,075
Earl Browder Com: 253
1940: Norman Thomas Soc: 728
Earl Browder Com: 212
1944 Norman Thomas Soc: 594
1948 Norman Thomas Soc: 874
1972: Linda Jenness Socialist Workers: 8,664
1976: Peter Camejo Soc Work 1,723
Write-In Votes 2,982
Dallas Library Has Three Books on La Reunion
On August 1, 1999, I looked at three of the Dallas Library's books about the socialist commune that contributed so much to Dallas history:
Santerre, George H, White Cliffs of Texas. The Story of La Reunion, the Old French Colony. The Book Craft, Dallas, 1955. R.976.428 S234W. A pretty complete history by an actual descendant. It includes a small excerpt in English from the original book, Au Texas, that Victor Considerant wrote to publicize his Texas project all over Europe. Santerre lists the many ways that the Europeans who stayed in the Dallas area contributed to the development of the area.
On Page 80, Considerant says: "I not only say to you, 'Let us enrich ourselves and live happily and free in Texas,' but let us progress with humanity and establish a land of freedom and plenty for our descendants." Thus is revealed his intention of doing a whole lot more than just establishing an economically viable community.
Page 72 says that all traces of the settlement were eventually blasted away as later generations searched for the valuable limestone beneath the old buildings. In 1934, though, a few blocks from one house were still pictured in the daily paper. Santerre also says that some of the settlers were political refugees from the regime of Louis Napoleon III in France. Considerant himself was such a fugitive.
Page 58: They celebrated both July 4, the American Independence, and July 14, Bastille Day in France. They built no church, but held services every Sunday for those that wanted them. "…all were permitted to worship in any manner which they desired."
Page 62: May 1856, a blue norther ruined their early-planted crops. They planted again, but a grasshopper plague in July destroyed most of it.
Page 65: By 1857, communal efforts had pretty much failed, and individualism was the order of the day. In 1858, the stockholders in France wanted the corporation put into receivership and the assets liquidated so they could recover as much as possible of their money. They also went after the home-country assets of the settlers.
Although the settlers resisted the war and were not citizens, some of them eventually joined and served the Confederacy.
Considerant, Victor, Au Texas, New York, 1855. Included in a volume REF R334.683 C755A 1975 at Dallas Public Library. It's in French. In English is another Considerant work, European Colonization in Texas. An Address to the American People. Also by Considerant, The Great West. A new Social and Industrial Life in Its Fertile Regions, New York, 1854. Introduction to the volume by Rondel V Davidson. Volume by Porcupine Press, Philadelphia, 1975. This is the best single source for studying La Reunion that I saw. The introduction says that Considerant met with Albert Brisbane in early 1853. Brisbane was the foremost popularizer of Fourierest ideas in America as Considerant was in Europe. Fourier was dead by this time. They bought horses in Ft Smith and rode into Texas in May, 1853.
Considerant settled for Dallas County after his first plan for Cook County fell through. He had projected a lot more money for a successful economic venture. He also pleaded with the European organizers to send mostly farmers, but they took anybody. There were only 6 farmers among the 200 or so families that constituted the core group. The land grant that they procured specified that they could not outlaw slavery in their settlement. Considerant wrote that his socialists were not abolitionists and constituted no threat to the slave holders. But they didn't take it that way.
A strongly worded editorial from an Austin newspaper is included in the book. Here is part of it: "There is one class, however, that we are opposed to, and have no disposition to hold out to them inducements to settle among us. This class is of that Propagandist school which in France and in parts of the United States has and is seeking to sap the foundations of society. The socialist desires to destroy individual rights in property; and, if he is not a very intelligent and moral man -- a rare thing -- we may have in him a neighbor who will rob and plunder us whenever he can get the chance; for he holds it as a primary principle in his creed, that no individual has a right to accumulate property for himself, and all above what is necessary to sustain him belongs to the rest of society. Again, the socialist is an abolitionist everywhere…. We note this advent of socialism in Texas as foreboding us no good; and we wish them to have a fair understanding before they reach our soil, that as a political sect our whole people are against them."
Thus the cards were stacked for failure long before the first settlers reached North Texas. They were going into a hostile area, both physically and socially. They were short of money and way short of skill. There was very little inducement to stay with almost free land all around them. By the second year, they were starting to ignore Considerant's advice. He stayed from 1855 to 1859, then moved to the San Antonio area for 10 years. When he received amnesty from Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III, he moved back to Paris and continued to teach his brand of socialism until he died in 1896.
Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson. _Adolf Douai, 1819-1888: The Turbulent Life of a German Forty-Eighter in the Homeland and in the United States_. New German American Studies; Neue Deutsch-Amerikanische Studien. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. 364 pp.Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $67.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8204-4881-8.
Reviewed for H-GAGCS by Walter D. Kamphoefner <firstname.lastname@example.org>,Department of History, Texas A&M University
Texas Had Socialist Newspapers
The UT-Austin Barclay library had listings for the following Texas Socialist Newspapers: Halletsville: The Rebel, New Era, Pozor (Beohemian); Dallas: The Laborer The Pitchfork; Comanche: The Socialist; Mingus: The Militant, Tyler: Oak Valley Socialists, Texarkana: Texarkana Socialists, and a propaganda leaflet named “The Scout.”
Texas Socialist Party Peaked Around 1914
A great deal of what is known about the Socialist Party in Texas is intertwined with the history of the remarkable Meitzen family of the Halletsville area. From the 1850’s to today, and from Texas to Florida and Connecticut, Meitzens have been involved in progressive political activities.
Otto Meitzen and Jennie Caroline Alpine Holmgren emigrated from Germany after the repression following the failed revolution of 1848. They arrived in Texas in early 1850. Like most of the Germans in Texas, they opposed slavery. The Meitzens waited out the Civil War rather than attempting to flee to Mexico as others did.
They educated their son, Edward Otto, who eventually worked as a blacksmith, teacher, lawyer, publisher, and political leader. E.O. was active in the entire succession of progressive organizations in Texas from the Greenback Party in the 1880s, through the Farmer’s Alliance and the Texas Populist movement, to the Socialist Party. Many historians believe that the end of the progressive movement began when they co-endorsed William Jennings Bryan for President in 1896 along with the Democrats. Meitzen and others of the Texas movement opposed that endorsement at the convention.
During that period, small farmers and tenant farmers constituted the biggest voting block in Texas. The Republican Party had lost its hold when Reconstruction ended in 1876, and the dominant party was the Democratic. Race was a major issue. Texas populists had a reputation for being more progressive on race questions than both Democrats and the rest of the populist movement.
E.O. Meitzen and his sons published a number of progressive newspapers in their shop in Halletsville. The most famous was The Rebel. It’s slogan, “The great appear great to us only because we are on our knees, LET US ARISE!” tells their orientation and how militant they were. Their success is told by their circulation, which went over 20,000. After the Appeal to Reason, published in Kansas City, the little Halletsville paper had the largest circulation in the socialist movement. Editor T.A. “Red Tom” Hickey also deserves a special treatment in Texas socialist history. The Rebel, and most progressive news in America, was suppressed by the United States government as World War I began and never was reborn. The Socialist Party began to disintegrate in Texas.
In their own day, Meitzens were famous as socialists and as regular denouncers of corruption in politics. In 1914, E.O. Meitzen was shot by a sheriff he had accused of “losing” important records concerning county monies. He survived the shooting and other physical assaults and died in Houston in 1934 at the ripe age of 79.
E.O. Meitzen was elected County Judge in LaVaca County, and E.R. Meitzen became the most successful Socialist candidate in Texas history when he gathered 11.7% of the vote in the governor’s race in 1914. E.O., E.R., and Tom Hickey also worked with the Non-Partisan League in Texas and North Dakota. E.R. distinguished himself in Florida, where he published a newspaper, in the Civil Rights movement. Several of E.O.’s children went on beyond him, and their children’s children’s children continue to the present day.
Remarkably, very little of the information known about the Meitzens has ever been made available to the Texas reading public. Much of this summary was taken from an excellent paper by John Meitzen, “The Meitzen Type: The Texas Socialist Party and E.O. Meitzen.” Contact this webmaster to be referred to a member of the Meitzen family who continues to trace their illustrious history.
Click here for more on the amazing Meitzens.
A prominent figure in the labor movement of the mid-1930s was Emma Tenayuca of San Antonio. She died July 23, 1999 and was given honorable mention at the Texas AFL-CIO Convention of that year by Congressman Gonzalez. The handwriting on this photo says, "Emma Tenayuca, in prison for the cause of the worker. 6-29-37." In 1938, Tenayuca was the most prominent public leader of the pecan sheller's strike that was called the most important labor action in the Southwest up to that time. Tenayuca was a member of the Communist Party (CPUSA).
According to a podcast interview by Bernard Sampson, the first records of the Communist Party in Texas occur in 1924. Red-baiting came far earlier. The pages of the Dallas Morning News are warning of the red peril in the 1880s. Considering the difficulties they faced, it is rather amazing that CPUSA has had its sporadic existence in one Texas city or another since the early days. During the worst days of the McCarthy witch hunt, the party actually asked its Texas members to leave the state because repression was so great here and the national apparatus did not have the means to defend everybody who was being persecuted.
According to the movie "Reds," CPUSA was formed in Chicago in 1919. Actually, though, there were two separate origins that were eventually merged.
For a look at what Texas Reds were discussing around 1940, you might want to read a book by Walter & Elizabeth Rogers. For a short review, click here.
In 1943, UAW Local 645 was formed in Dallas, Texas. Its First Vice President was Fred Estes. Estes was later the head of the Texas Communist Party (CPUSA). Local 645 went through several transformations as the company changed hands. Today it is UAW Local 848 in Grand Prairie. For more on Local 848, click here.
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