Texas Was Once a Hotbed of Socialism

Thomas Alter II

In the early 1900s heyday of the Socialist Party, Texas boasted a vibrant state party that attracted oppressed farmers in droves. The Texas Socialists promoted both land reform and labor rights — and forged a powerful farmer-labor bloc that reshaped US politics.

Eugene Debs with Texas and Oklahoma socialists, c. 1910–14. Debs, top row center; E. O. Meitzen, center with gray beard; directly above Meitzen, Theodore Debs; to left of Meitzen, Tom Hickey (with dark beard); to left of Hickey, Oklahoma Socialist Party leaders Patrick Nagle (with mustache) and Fred Holt (partially cut off). (Courtesy Ann Meitzen)

Interview by
Yaseen Al-Sheikh

When we think about socialism in the United States, we tend to think of big Northern cities like New York. But in the early 1900s heyday of the Socialist Party of America, many of its most notable figures and strongest bases of support were rooted in the rural Midwest, Far West, and South.

Few states better showcase this agrarian socialism than Texas, where the agricultural worker played a pivotal part in the state Socialist Party, and a German immigrant family by the name of Meitzen — who fled their homeland after the failed 1848 revolution — formed part of the “radical glue,” historian Thomas Alter II writes, “that held the [farmer-labor] coalition together.” Otto Meitzen, his son E. O., and his grandson E. R. — as well as their spouses — forged a multigenerational radicalism in the Lone Star State; E.O.’s political activity stretched from the Greenback and Populist movements of the late 1800s all the way through the height of the Socialist Party in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Along with land reform and labor rights, these Texas Socialists promoted radical positions like women’s suffrage and support for the Mexican Revolution while bumping up against the nascent Jim Crow regime.

Jacobin contributor Yaseen Al-Sheikh sat down with Alter to discuss his recently released book, Toward a Cooperative Commonwealth: The Transplanted Roots of Farmer-Labor Radicalism in Texas, and the forgotten tales of the Texas Socialist Party, which flourished until state-sponsored suppression came down upon them.

Yaseen Al-Sheikh

Toward a Cooperative Commonwealth is the story of an international, multigenerational struggle for a just economic and political order. Tell us about the Meitzens, a “Forty-Eighter” family, starting with the failed revolution of that year in Germany and how it shaped their politics once they moved to the States.

Thomas Alter II

The Meitzens were from the province of Silesia in the then German state of Prussia. While the Silesian economy was primarily agricultural, it was also one of the most industrialized areas of the Germanic states due to the growing textile industry. In many ways, Silesia is the soul of Marxism. It was the 1844 Silesian Weavers Revolt that showed Marx the working class in action and its revolutionary potential.

While in other regions of Europe, the 1848 revolutions were led by middle-class forces that called for a constitutional monarchy, in Silesia it was led in part by organizations based in the working classes that forged an alliance between workers and peasants calling for a socialist republic. When the Meitzens and Forty-Eighter Silesians immigrated to Texas, they brought with them their working-class politics based on an alliance of laborers and working farmers.

Yaseen Al-Sheikh

A central theme of your book is the strength of this farmer-labor bloc in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States. Can you talk about this coalition and how it shaped the country’s politics?

Thomas Alter II

The dominant image of working-class people in the United States during this time is that of an urban industrial factory worker, even though, up to the 1920s, the majority of people lived in rural areas and had jobs connected to agriculture. Even large number of industrial wage workers viewed wage work as hopefully temporary until they could afford to buy their own farm.

As such, agrarian-based demands for land reform came not only from farm areas but urban areas as well. Those working the land also saw how easily they could become wage laborers and in turn advocated labor demands such as union rights and the eight-hour day. Whether one toiled in a Chicago factory or as a tenant farmer in a Texas cotton field, one faced capitalist exploitation.

A family of cotton farmers in Texas, 1913. (Wikimedia Commons)

The sustained farmer-labor bloc began with the Knights of Labor, Greenback Labor Party, and Grange of the 1870s and 1880s. It then progressed through the Farmers’ Alliance, the Populist movement, the Socialist Party, the Nonpartisan League, and attempts to form a labor party during the 1920s.

Working independently of the Democratic and Republican parties, the bloc served as a bulwark against unrestrained capitalism. Though enacted into law in much watered-down versions, many of the historic reforms of the Progressive and New Deal eras originated and were tirelessly championed by organizations within the farmer-labor bloc. Without their efforts, I think it is hard to see either of these eras of reform happening.

Yaseen Al-Sheikh

Founded in 1901, the Socialist Party of America was a heterogenous organization that looked very different from state to state. Trade unionist Eugene Debs, of Indiana, was the party’s perennial presidential candidate, and members included everyone from Jewish garment workers in New York City to tenant farmers in Oklahoma; everyone from the incendiary Big Bill Haywood to the “sewer socialist” Victor Berger. What did the Socialist Party look like in Texas?

Thomas Alter II

The Texas Socialist Party was overwhelmingly based and geared toward working farmers — small landowners, tenants, and sharecroppers. By 1910, 52 percent of all Texas farmers were tenant farmers. Among black farmers, the rate reached as high as 80 percent in some counties. Working farmers squeezed by landlords, bankers, land speculation, Wall Street speculation, middlemen, and high railroad freight rates turned against the capitalist system.

The party campaigned on a program of ending tenancy and sharecropping. It called for a tax on land held for speculation to make speculation unprofitable, the nationalization of railroads, and a proposal that once a tenant paid half the land’s value in rent, they would receive the title to the land. Socialists declared, “Use and occupancy as the only just title to land.”

The party was also the only one in Texas for years advocating women’s suffrage, and it promoted Margaret Sanger’s birth control campaign. The party was not limited to farmers, having locals in urban areas, and one of the largest state locals was among coal miners west of Fort Worth. Texas Socialists actively campaigned for traditional labor and union demands as well.

In many histories of the Socialist Party, farmers are placed on the right wing of the party as “petty bourgeois” landowners. This is inaccurate. As noted, most Socialist farmers did not own the land they worked. And Texas Socialists openly identified with the party’s left-wing led by Big Bill Haywood. The Texas SP ran vigorous electoral campaigns and at the same time saw the importance of direct action as advocated by Haywood. When Haywood was expelled from the party in 1912 for promoting militant strikes, this angered many Texas Socialists and caused a decline in party membership.

Yaseen Al-Sheikh

One of the central organizing tools in rural settings like Texas was the encampment. What were these encampments, and how did they reflect the internal life of the party?

Thomas Alter II

The encampments were usually held during the summer, in between planting and harvest seasons, and lasted two to three days, sometimes an entire week. They featured food, music, dancing, fair rides, and plenty of political talks and meetings. These massive gatherings drew upward of ten thousand people, mostly farmers, especially if popular speakers like Debs, Mother Jones, Kate Richards O’Hare, or Big Bill Haywood were in attendance.

Education was one of the main purposes of the encampments, but even more so, participants would feel empowered being around large numbers of comrades, giving them a true sense of being part of a movement. The mass participation in the encampments reflected the bottom-up, decentralized nature of the Texas Socialist Party, contrasting with the more top-down organization of the party in urban areas like the Wisconsin SP under Victor Berger.

One could argue that people attended the encampments not so much for socialist politics but rather to escape the drudgery of farm life. This, however, is not what Debs found when he attended the 1914 summer encampments in Texas and Oklahoma. Of the encampment attendees, Debs observed:

The most class-conscious industrial workers in the cities are not more keenly alive to the social revolution nor more loyal to its principles or more eager to serve than are these farmers. These are Socialists, real Socialist, and they are ready for action, and if the time comes when men are needed at the front to fight and die for the cause, the farmers of Texas and Oklahoma will be found there and their wives and children will not be far behind them.

Yaseen Al-Sheikh

One major shortcoming of the Texas Socialist Party was black rights, though views varied within the state party. The Meitzens, for instance, were more thoroughgoing racial egalitarians than another party leader, Tom Hickey. So what was the Texas party’s record on black rights? And how might the Texas Socialists have fared had they more aggressively attempted to integrate the black citizenry into the struggle?

Thomas Alter II

The Texas party’s record on black rights was rather poor. It saw how the ruling class used race to divide the working class, yet it offered no specific program to fight racism. Instead, the SP argued that overthrowing capitalism and creating a socialist society would automatically end racism.

Debs called on all workers regardless of race to join the SP on equal terms. However, the Texas SP did not even initially do this. In the first years of its existence, it followed Jim Crow practices with segregated meetings. When the Texas SP created the Renters’ Union in 1911 to organize tenant farmers, it limited membership to “white persons over 16 years of age.”

Eugene Debs, circa 1910s. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, the racially exclusive membership policy of the Renters’ Union did not last long. In 1912, lumberjacks in western Louisiana organized by the IWW were making modest gains against the lumber barons through interracial organizing and direct-action tactics. Inspired by this, the Renters’ Union, at its 1912 convention, eliminated the word “white” from its membership requirements and called on black tenant farmers to organize separate local unions. Still, from the available evidence, one does not find black farmers forming their own locals of the Renters’ Union, and very few African Americans joined the Texas SP.

It is hard to say how the Texas SP would have fared had it truly attempted to stand up for black liberation. Following World War I, black Texas veterans returned home determined to fight for their rights, and militant chapters of the NAACP were formed across the state. By this time, though, the Texas SP had been repressed due to its opposition to the war. And after a brief flurry of civil rights activism, the NAACP in Texas was rapidly repressed as well by the state government.

An interracial alliance of workers in the Texas SP definitely would have made our class and the party stronger. At the same time, it would have attracted the full force of white supremacist terrorism, most likely crushing the movement. Yet even in defeat, a black-white alliance of workers in the Texas SP would have provided a shining example and laid an earlier foundation to put us in a better position to win racial and economic justice in our present.

Yaseen Al-Sheikh

One admirable episode in the Texas party’s history was its linking with Mexican revolutionaries, whom Hickey and others admired for their bravery and tenacity. How did the Texas Socialists get involved in this fight south of the border for tierra y libertad? And what does it tell us about their view of internationalism?

Thomas Alter II

Many white Texas Socialists held racist views toward Mexicans, viewing them as slavish peons. But the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 caused a change in racial attitudes among Texas Socialists; while white Socialists were calling for a revolution on the land, Mexicans were actually doing it. Texas Socialists no longer saw Mexicans as peons but fellow comrades.

The Texas SP held aloft the Mexican Revolution as an example to emulate if the party’s land reform demands were not enacted. The party campaigned against US military intervention in Mexico, supported speaking tours of Mexican revolutionaries, and frequently reprinted articles by Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón. The party’s support of the Mexican Revolution, as led by Emiliano Zapata, along with its own land reform program, drew large numbers of ethnic Mexicans into the Texas SP.

In his 1914 campaign as the SP candidate for governor of Texas, E. R. Meitzen declared that our “only gauge of battle shall be the principles of International Socialism.” Internationalism in principle and action guided Texas Socialists. It led them to support the Mexican Revolution, the cause of Irish republicanism, and oppose US involvement in World War I.

Yaseen Al-Sheikh

The repression of the Socialist Party during and after World War I was a major reason for its precipitous decline across the country. Was that the main cause of the party’s demise in Texas? And what did that repression look like?

Thomas Alter II

The repression of the Texas Socialist Party began before the war, with Texas Rangers and the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) targeting ethnic Mexican party members in a campaign of harassment, censorship, jailings, and deportations. The party came to the defense of members, though the repressive campaign had its desired effect, with many ethnic Mexicans leaving the party.

An edition of The Rebel, the state party’s newspaper, from 1911. (UT San Antonio Libraries)

Once the US entered the war, the Texas SP’s weekly newspaper, the Rebel, was the first periodical barred from the US mail by the federal government. The Rebel had the third-highest circulation of socialist newspapers nationally. Texas Rangers and US Marshals kidnapped party leader Tom Hickey and held him incommunicado for two days before a lawyer obtained his release. Numerous Socialists were arrested across the state, with some serving lengthy prison sentences along with other political prisoners at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.

This repression effectively crushed the once vibrant Texas Socialist Party.

Yaseen Al-Sheikh

What happened to the Meitzens after the decline of the party? And what is the legacy of the Texas Socialist Party and the Meitzens today?

Thomas Alter II

After the decline of the Texas SP, the Meitzens put much of their organizing efforts into building the Nonpartisan League (NPL), based in North Dakota. The NPL won control of the North Dakota state government after 1915 and began enacting reforms to benefit working farmers, such as a state-run bank and grain elevators.

E. R. Meitzen was a national organizer for the NPL and attempted to build it in Texas through an alliance of farmers and urban workers in the Houston area. The NPL shared the same demise as the SP through government repression.

Meitzen then participated in the numerous farmer-labor conventions of the 1920s that attempted to form a labor party, working closely with communists though not joining the Communist Party himself. Needing to provide for a growing family, Meitzen moved his family to northern Florida, where he ran a local newspaper and joined the successful campaign against the state poll tax in 1941.

By this time, Meitzen and many of his co-thinkers had decided that their best option in fighting for working-class-based reforms was to join the left-wing of the New Deal coalition and attempt to change the Democratic Party from within. Farmer-labor activists had attempted this tactic numerous times since the 1870s with the same failed results. Though rarely achieving electoral success, the farmer-labor bloc, when acting independently of the two-party system, moved the political spectrum to the left and brought about meaningful reforms while raising class consciousness.

Independent working-class political action and internationalism are the lasting legacies of the Meitzens and the Texas Socialist Party.