An Overview of the History of Labor and the Communist Party in Texas
Socialism and communism have deep roots in American soil, intertwined with the roots of democracy and liberty and all the principles that form the bedrock of the American Revolution. The history of America, and of Texas, is a history of struggle. It is a history through which what was once reserved as privilege for a select few has become more and more basic rights to be enjoyed by all - and it isn't over yet.
The Declaration of Independence, signed 4 July 1776, says "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." This statement of principle is at the core of the American Revolution. This revolution is an ongoing process of expanding democracy and unalienable rights, and it is the driving force that has moved our history forward so far and so fast.
Socialism Takes Root
The people of Texas have always lived in a spirit of friendship and community, acquiring through necessity a sense of neighborly interdependence and a healthy work ethic. However, much of the history of Texas is shadowed in a dark side of slavery, racism and other forms of institutional oppression to which the democratic and socialist movements have arisen in response. The modern socialist movement in Texas has its origins in the mid-19th century. Since the beginning of eastern settlement, Texas was at different times occupied by various imperial powers. Each period of occupation brought new and unique cultural influences to Texas, but the common sentiment that was strengthened throughout this time was a yearning for independence. In 1836, at the Battle of San Jacinto, General Sam Houston declared victory over the Mexican forces led by General Santa Anna, thus making Texas an independent republic. Nine years later, in 1845, Texans voted to join the United States of America.
Around this time is when the first distinctively socialist presence became known. The economy of Texas at the time was heavily dominated by African American slave trafficking and agriculture. From the northern Atlantic coast, where a capitalist economy had been established and industrialization was already underway, came many new ideas in response to observed shortcomings in capitalist development. Communities were established by industrialists who sought to create a model society in which the problems of capitalism were solved, in which every member is an equal co-owner of the company and democracy is put into full practice. It was thought that by providing a working model of what they believed society should be, capitalists around the world would take head and put this model into practice on a grand scale. Among such communities were Bettina, Comfort, Sisterdale, and La Reunion.
In 1848, a wave of revolution shook Europe at its feudal foundations, during which time the original Communist Manifesto was published by the prominent social theorists Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. In this earth-shattering document, they proclaimed that the continuing decline of living conditions of working people under the new capitalist system was no accident or result of natural disaster, but rather the direct result of systemic theft ensuing from working people not being in control of industry, and could only be reversed by workers uniting and ultimately abolishing exploitation. The revolutions were defeated by reactionary powers by the next year and those who organized it were deemed enemies to be persecuted, prompting many into exile in America which prided itself as a haven for revolutionaries. Texas was a popular destination for German immigrants, and it has been suggested that Karl Marx once considered coming to Texas.
German immigrants brought many cultural contributions that would be essential in the forming of the modern Texan culture, not the least among these being a passion for the democracy and socialist industrialism they had dreamed of in Europe. Surrounded by a society of religious fundamentalism and racism, German immigrants were seen as dangerous free-thinkers and abolitionists, and as such were marginalized and isolated into their own communities in which German was the sole language. Of the many socialist communities that were founded, however, none of them were able to fulfill their goals of prospering and becoming models for the world. As chance would have it, the 1840s-50s was a period of severe droubt in Texas. This combined with the fact that most community members were neither well-skilled farmers nor familiar with the climate and nature of the area, as well as external political pressures and isolation, led to the eventual decline and collapse of all the attempted socialist communities. Karl Marx pointed to this as a failure of utopian thinking and he, along with Frederich Engels, dedicated much of his academic work to disecting the development of this trend and showing how socialism can only be legitimate if it is put into practice upon existing industrial systems that have matured to the point at which economic development can no longer continue without it.
The Second American Revolution
From the original adoption of the Constitution of the United States in 1789, the relationship between member states and the federal government was a matter of some dispute. Federalists saw the US as a solidified state composed of regional states to manage smaller affairs, while others saw the US as a voluntary union of sovereign states based on mutual interests. The latter view became the dominant view held by slave-owning self-fancied aristocrats in the southern states with unindustrial agricultural economies. The divide between the southern slave system and the northern capitalist system only grew further over time until the two economic systems could no longer peacefully coexist under one government.
In 1859, the abolitionist hero John Brown led the raid on Harpers Ferry in Virginia, in which he and his comrades attempted to seize a federal arsenal to initiate an full-scale armed slave revolt. The raid failed, but the attempt only fanned the flames of growing anti-slavery sentiment. By this time, the Abolitionist Movement which sought to abolish slavery had successfully stamped out slave trafficking in the northern states and, alongside socialist labor organizers, had consolidated itself into a new political party called the Republican Party.
In the 1860 election, the Republican Party's presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln won narrowly on a platform of opposition to slavery's expansion and non-interference in slave states. While many in the movement saw the election of such a moderate as unfavorable, the slave owning aristocracy saw Lincoln as a radical extremist and would not stand to be governed by someone who threatened their way of life. Before he could take office, seven states, including Texas, seceeded from the United States and established a confederate government.
In the ensuing Civil War, socialists and communists (mostly German and Irish immigrants and their descendents) were the first, and in most areas only, ones to fight for the Union army. By doing so, they were quickly met with open terrorism and mass murder from their white-supremacist neighbors. Martial law was instituted by the confederate state and many saw no other option but to flee their homes for better conditions elsewhere. In 1862, a band of families from Comfort trying to flee southwest to Mexico was intercepted by confederate soldiers and massacred. So affraid of the anti-abolitionist terror, the mothers and wives of Comfort did not gather and bury the bones until after Texas was liberated by the Union army in 1865. In 1998, a monument to the victims was erected saying the defiant words (in German) "True to the Union." Unfortunately, in 2000, right-wing confederate sympathizers succeeded in getting the monument removed.
With the victory of the Union, the revolutionary overthrow of slavery was complete. On 19 June 1865, what is now called Juneteenth, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and began to oversee the process of restoring order and establishing a post-slavery government that would protect the freedoms of former slaves. However, the war had taken its toll and those who weren't murdered for supporting the Union had fled. The remaining Texan population consisted of former slaves and those who either actively supported the confederacy or took no side either way, and for former slaves who did not move north life would become a living hell.
Texan Capitalism Meets Texan Socialism
The war left the old south in ruins, and reconstruction brought to Texas all but the freedom and cooperation that post-slavery society was hoped to be. The Republican Party was empowered through a series of provisional governments and introduced fundamental reforms, such as in public education and water systems. However, by the later 1870s, the Republican Party was diminished into a minority and Southern Democrats took full control over the state. In effort to re-institute white supremacy, they immediately began passing "Jim Crow" laws that legalized segregation and discrimination, fostering an atmosphere of open terror upon former slaves and their descendants.
Northeast Texas became a killing field for African Americans. Public lynchings and bodily mutilations of African Americans became a popular phenomenon in white culture. Freed slaves who weren't intimidated and attempted to organize were supported by the Freedmen's Bureau and the Republican Party; however, neither of the two had the resources or support to be very effective, and the liberties that were supposed to be guaranteed to all were in fact non existent. Non-whites, especially African Americans, and their defenders were vilified, terrorized, and in constant danger. Communists and socialists were the only ones brave enough to stand up to white supremacy and organize a united front against racism, but this campaign would take many decades before becoming successful and many white communists were lynched in the process.
Virtually all work in reconstruction Texas was agricultural work, making Texas a society of farm hands working long days with little pay. Industrialization gave poor and propertyless people a new way to survive: by leasing their labor to the property owners and industrialists. This led to the formation of a working class, which grew rapidly to become the majority of the population. Concurrently, the property owning former slave owners joined forces with the merchants and formed a capitalist class. Strikes were frequent in Texas, with cowboys going on strike for better pay in 1883 and stone cutters going on strike in 1885 over enslaved convict labor in the construction of the capitol in Austin. Strikes for a 12 hour workday, and later a 10 hour workday, were successful. In 1886, the strike for the 8 hour day, partly led by Texan Lucy Parsons, led to the Haymarket massacre in Chicago, Illinois, and after succeeding became honored worldwide on the 1st of May as International Workers' Day.
The labor movement grew rapidly across America. As workers continued to strike and organize, living conditions would rise and a sense of camaraderie blossomed in the hearts of American workers. In 1901, the Socialist Party of America was founded and quickly gained popularity, especially in Texas where socialists and communists could emerge from the shadows of post-war terror and begin to organize once again. Its leader, Eugene V. Debs, was a well known union organizer and a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Texans voted for the Socialist Party in the tens of thousands in the 1910s elections, and socialist newspapers were heavily circulated. In 1914, the Socialist candidate for governor, E. R. Meitzen, received 11.7% of the vote, making the Socialist Party the second largest party in Texas.
But the growing successes of the Socialist Party in Texas were met with reaction soon enough. Workers attempting to organize faced more and more well organized resistance. Strikes would innitially receive public support but inconveniences would turn opinion around. Into the 1920s, the white-supremacist group called the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rapidly grew, claiming 400,000 members in Texas. Attacks on African Americans spiked up again, Socialist meetings were raided, and known supporters of the progressive movement were targeted for persecution.
The Communist Party is Born
In 1917, after campaigning on an explicit promise not to, President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, sending over four million young men to Europe to fight in what would become known as World War I. The war itself was a violent conflict stemming from disagreements among European aristocrats on how to divide up the world for the imperial acquisition and exploitation by their respective nation states. American corporations made large sums of money by supplying weapons to western powers and, in order to protect their investment, decided to rally the American people to fight along side them and make money supplying them as well. The Socialist Party opposed the war and rallied Americans to do the same.
In October of the same year, on the other side of the globe, workers and soldiers in Russia overthrew the provisional capitalist regime and established the world's first workers' government. Led by Vladimir Lenin, the new government ended involvement in the war, established public ownership of all the country's land and resources, and declared its mission of building the conditions in which communism would become a reality. The Communist International was established in order to spread the world socialist revolution, and Lenin invited the Socialist Party of America to be a member.
The American response to the Russian Revolution was not uniform, however. The Socialists' opposition to the war had already made them prone to being labeled by reactionaries as foreign agents. Moderates within the party opposed associating itself with Lenin. When it came to a vote, however, 90% of participating members voted in favor of joining the Comintern. To the outrage of many, the leadership of the Socialist Party refused to follow the results of the referendum, prompting a split of internal factions. By September 1919, two separate Communist Parties had emerged which, in May 1921, united to form the Communist Party USA.
The Communist Party hit the ground running, with 60,000 members after its founding. Inspired by the victories working people were making across the world, the Communists initially made the ambitious aim of a full overthrow of the American capitalist government part of their program. However, they quickly found that such aspousals made them easy targets for defamation and slander by reactionaries to a public that was largely oblivious as to what 'communism' means. The ensuing 'Red Scare' prompted a wave of irrational anti-communist paranoia which made possible the rise of far-right movements, including the KKK revival which reached up to six million members, as well as the implementation of radically destructive but profitable economic policies. The US government began to crack down on Communist organizers, having many Communist immigrants deported and the rest subject to random police raids and violence; it effectively became illegal to be a Communist.
With the war in Europe ended and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) established in Russia, the Communist Party recognized that capitalism had restabilized itself and therefore a workers' revolution was not yet in the immediate future. Turning its focus onto building alliances and a united front for the labor movement, Communists began to spread out and work to unite workers and build momentum through strikes and other resistance actions. The effects of the Red Scare would be longlasting, but the Communist message became more and more resonant as the collapse of capitalism in 1929 led to mass unemployment, poverty, and famine.
New Deal and New Prospects
In the aftermath of the capitalist crash of 1929, the working people of America experienced the toughest times since the end of the Civil War. Farmers who had worked on their land for generations were evicted by the banks. Workers who had built skyscrapers were jobless and desparate. Soldiers who had fought and suffered in war were without income or dignity. Factories that were running full speed a year before were shut down while people ready to work were left unemployed. Environmentally wreckless and irrisponsible agriclutural practices had led to dangerous climate change turning the fertile fields of the Great Plains into a desert, creating food shortages and leading to severe malnutrition and famine in the rural populations. All in all, the people of America, who had been taught to be proud of their free and prosperous country, lived in insecurity and shame - they could no longer be tricked into fearing change.
In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became President of the United States, having won in a landslide victory against the defeated Republican Party from which organized labor had divorced. On the other side of the globe, meanwhile, the socialist industrialization of the USSR was transforming what had been the world's most backwards and undeveloped country into the fastest growing economy with revolutionary social equality and transcendence. The Communist Party USA began to grow at an accelerating rate, gaining widespread popularity in urban areas where it had organized trade unions and in rural areas where farmers increasingly demanded public institutions to regulate crop prices and bring stability. Under increasing pressure from the "Reds" who were becoming a stronger and stronger force to be reckoned with, over the course of the coming years Roosevelt delivered on his promise to give America a "New Deal" through public work programs, a federal minimum wage, social security, airtight regulations on finance, and progressive tax rates making for equitable income.
In Texas this period was the height of worker unity, as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with federal support, organized workers in factories and farms throughout the country. The Communist campaign for unity against racism was beginning to see success, as racial boundaries were overcome with integrated unions being organized and strengthening the workforce. Strikes were robustly successful and working people were gaining unprecedented levels of autonomous control over their workplaces and lives. As the ideas of socialism were becoming more and more mainstream and embraced by the general public, the Communist Party became the leading organization within socialist politics in America.
The advancement to socialism was not being made worldwide, however. As the Soviet Union industrialized and saw enormous advancements in their economy, reactionaries took notice and began to consolidate themselves and their power structures in such a way that would prevent the increasingly revolutionary working people from overthrowing them. In Italy and Germany, where Communists were the strongest, capitalists resorted to fascism - the systemic use of violence through militaristic nationalism - in order to keep their working populations under control. Communists were the first to be sent to prison camps, and then the Jews who were the historically scapegoated minority of Europe. The increasing militarization led to the invasions and occupations of surrounding countries, turning into what would be known in America as World War II.
The Communist Party had campaigned for peaceful coexistence between the world powers, trying to avoid war at all costs. But when the peace pact between Germany and the USSR was broken in the summer of 1941 and Japan bombed the US base in Hawaii that winter, the party immediately reversed its position and called for a second front to be opened in Europe and for global unity in the fight against fascism. American Communists had already been leaving for Spain throughout the 1930s to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight alongside Spanish Communists and Republicans against the fascists, who were being armed by American arms businesses. With the US in the war, unemployment was eliminated as federal spending created strong demand for work and production. A rationing system was instituted which gave universal equal access to food and living necessities.
The war ended in the decisive defeat of the fascist axis and the victory of the democratic allies. In the immediate period following the victory in Europe and the victory in the Pacific, the Communist Party anticipated a period of global social harmony with friendship and cooperation between the USA and the USSR. In order to better integrate the Communist Party into the American political system, the party was briefly dissolved and reorganized into the "Communist Political Association."
Cold War and Second Red Scare
Despite best efforts, the end of the war did not bring the period of global social harmony that Communists aspired for. In the ruins left by the war in Europe, the rebuilding of society was conflicted by the differing class interests represented by the two emerged superpowers. The USSR initially demanded that the nations of Europe be left as non-militarized and politically independent states with no international allignment. The USA, however, insisted that all countries be able to join the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance. Differences between the two superpowers grew more apparent and relations turned sour. The reactionary elements of capital, which had been compressed under the decades of the Democratic FDR administration, began to reorganize into the Republican Party and reclaim federal power through massively undercutting the gains labor had made in the last two decades and a wave of xenophobic and jingoist hysteria in a second Red Scare.
Into the 1950s, led by US Senator Joseph McCarthy, a witch hunt against all Communists who had been working in the federal government during the FDR era culminated in thousands of arbitrary firings and arrests. The Taft-Hartley Act and other anti-labor initiatives effectively purged all Communists from organizing unions. All of the Communist Party's top leaders were arrested and tried under charges of conspiring to violently overthrow the government, with many found guilty and imprisoned despite the alleged conspiracy being non-existent. The May Day parades in major cities, which attracted tens of thousands in the 1930s and 40s, were targeted by far-right groups with violence supported by police brigades. In 1954, the governor of Texas proposed that all members of the Communist Party be put to death. In 1957, Nikita Khruschev, the leader of the Soviet Union, addressed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on a past of gross injustices, violations of collective leadership norms, and persecutions of political opposition within the party. This speech sent shockwaves through the world communist movement, and the Communist Party USA, already wounded from the McCarthyist period, was dealt a critical blow. In the course of the decade, membership dropped from nearly half a million to about 10,000.
Civil Rights Movement and Anti-War Resistance
The Communists could not be disheartened by the blows dealt to the party and the movement. The long fought struggle against racism was gaining public attention both within the United States and internationally, thanks in great part to the dynamics of working class power pressure from the USSR. The terror and horror faced by black people in the South was no longer deniable, and now no longer excusable. It was well known that Communists were the primary organizers of the united front against racism, making the media weary of promoting their agenda through exposure.
Through various organizations, Communists and socialist allies built a grassroots movement to directly confront the systemic white supremacy established in the South since the Civil War ended. Though the movement to end lynchings and overt psychopathic violence had been quietly successful in the previous decades, it was not enough to retain white supremacy in a relatively more peaceful form. The aim of full racial integration, previously seen by liberals as a pie in the sky fantasy, became a broadly accepted goal and protests against racial segregation grew at an accelerating rate. The most notable leader of this movement, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., was trained alongside many other notable organizers in the activist schools of the Communist Party. King, through his insistance non-violent civil disobedience as being the most effective tool to challenge existing conditions, quickly became the face of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. When the movement successfuly pressured the federal government to enforce integration of schools and communities, King and the broader movement began to focus on the US's policies abroad.
Since the mid 19th century, the Southeast Asian country of Vietnam was occupied as a colony of France. After the end of World War II, the United States supported the end of European colonial rule in Asia. However, once the McCarthyist backlash overtook the government, the US resinded its position and supported the continuation of colonialism. Vietnam was divided into two states from the influence of the two world superpowers: in the south stood the state of the colonial government supported by the United States, in the north stood the state of the Vietnamese people led by their Communist Party supported by the Soviet Union. After successively building up a greater and greater conflict between the colonial regime and the increasingly revolutionary Vietnamese people, military conflict ensued, with thousands of young American men being sent to fight on behalf of the colonial government against the Vietnamese National Liberation Front.
American resistance to US involvement in Vietnam and solidarity with the people of Vietnam intensified as the conflict became more violent and more Americans were killed for no apparent reason other than the perpetuation of an unpopular regime in a foreign country that maintained a profitable relationship for capital investors. Communists plaid vital roles in organizing the opposition movement, with many protests and demonstrations building a new base of membership for the party. Under the presidency of Richard Nixon, who had been a crusader in the persecution of Communists during the McCarthy period, the US government began to crack down on anti-war activists through pervasive spying and violent intimidation. When Martin Luther King, Jr. began to speak out against the war, it wouldn't be long before he was assassinated in a conspiracy that the US government was found responsible for in federal court in 1999. In 1975, the United States military was successfully defeated by the Vietnamese people who overthrew the colonial government and reunified the country under a socialist republic.
Neoliberalism and the Right Restoration
Since the FDR era, the American working class, though not yet at the helm of governing the country, had won itself a seat at the table of government and was greatly empowered through the reforms that gave people the right to be represented by a union and the benefits that come with it. As decades progressed, with the Communist Party remaining politically stifled and therefore leaving the unions under the control of management, American capitalists had re-consolidated total control over the economy and were now poised to completely destroy the unions.
In 1981, in a world shift towards neoliberalism, the right wing came to power and this time would be taking no prisoners. Using one of America's most famous commercial spokesmen, Ronald Reagan, as a figurehead to assume the presidency, the monopoly faction of capital took total control over the government and removed all remaining traces of labor representation within its departments. Reforms introduced led to the nearly complete liquidation of all industrial manufacturing in the northern United States in order to exploit ununionized labor in the South, which temporarily gave Texas an economic adrenaline boost as capital surged into the state. From then on afterwards, the Republican Party consolidated control over Texas and boasted its success in bringing businesses in from more union represented states to exploit its unionized population for lower wages and fewer benefits, which remains its basic platform today.
The Communist Party had gone up and down in popularity over the years, but never overcame the stigmas set in place by McCarthyism to regain mass popularity as it had in the 1930s and 40s. Gus Hall, the leader of the Communist Party since 1959, was a well known advocate for American socialism. Under Hall's leadership, the party made many attempts to form a New Left in the United States, but these attempts were ultimately unsuccessful. Marred by sectarian disputes and factional infighting, the left posed no threat to the power held by the right wing. With one third of the world living in socialism, the idea that 'socialism is inevitable and forever' was a common sentiment that kept socialists patient in their internal struggles. However, this understanding soon proved to be a fundamental mistake.
In 1985, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union made a major shift towards liberal reforms led by Mikhail Gorbachev. The reforms, intended to reignite economic growth after a period of stagnation since the late 1970s, led to the empowerment of black market capitalists who had thrived off of corruption and system manipulation. The new capitalists, now free to pursue their aims under the reforms, consolidated a major power bloc within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and ultimately overthrew it and the entire USSR, restoring capitalism in a violent and disastrous period of counter revolution throughout the 1990s. Other socialist countries in Europe faced similar fates albeit differing according to local circumstances. The counter revolutions in Europe changed the world balance of forces dramatically, and the neoliberal reforms set in place remain to this day.
The United States invaded and began its occupation of Iraq in 2003, triggering a massive wave of anti-war resistance. This event ignited a rebirth of socialist solidarity in America into a broadly cooperative movement. The Communist Party began to grow as war opposition dominated public sentiment. In 2007, the casino economy of neoliberalism imploded on itself, bringing fundamental questions of capitalism into public discussion and, as the crisis deepened, leading to overt class warfare in the Occupy Movement of 2011, bringing the issue of capitalism and social inequality into the spotlight.
The renaissance of socialist consciousness and anti-imperialist solidarity continues to grow today, and with it grows the Communist Party. As the ideas of socialism manifest themselves more and more into the logical response to the now obvious contradictions of capitalism, the choice will only become clearer that we can either go down the same road that created these problems or we can take a new road to solving these problems with new solutions that put people before profits: the road to Socialism USA. Which ever path we take, the Communist Party will continue to stand by the people and lead its struggle in as great a capacity as it can. It's what we've always done and what we will always do until the end.
Eugene V. Debs
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Martin Luther King, Jr.