History professors at the Texas State Historical Association conference in Dallas on March 4 discussed the ideological foundations of the left side of the Texas political spectrum. There were a few wry jokes from the panelists and from the audience, because most people, including most historians, think Texas is just another way to spell "reactionary."
The professors expressed some surprise, though, at their findings, which were compiled into a book, "Texas Left," which won a coveted history prize at the event. The panelists had each contributed essays to the book. One of the two editors is pictured below.
The authors did not begin with the influx of socialistic Europeans who settled in Texas during the wars of the 1840s over there, but with the Farmers Alliance of the 1870s. The farmers tried to find ways to keep more of the profits that were generated from cotton farming. When they failed to raise enough capital to fund their cooperative efforts, they began calling for government help, which was considered quite "radical" at that time and was aggressively opposed by the entrenched Democratic Party.
The Texas People's Party of the 1890's represented an attempt by farmers to hang on to their waning political power as industrial capital and big bankers took over everyone's lives. It was part of a movement that covered much of the South, but the Texans were considered more progressive than similar groups in other states because they sought to bring all races together. Professor Cantwell (center, above) said that they wanted a progressive income tax, secret ballots at elections, nationalized railroads, the 8-hour day, the right to strike, paper currency, and an end to the convict lease system that made slaves of state prisoners in those days. These were very advanced demands for their time period.
Professor Buckingham said that one of the most important newspapers in the early 20th century was the "Appeal to Reason," a socialist newspaper from Kansas. Activists there sent Frank O'Hare to "stir things up" in Texas, and a reasonably large socialist movement was begun. "Red" Tom Hickey edited "The Rebel" from Halletsville. It became the second largest socialist newspaper in the country. Hickey belonged to both the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World. During its heyday, around 1914, the Texas Socialist Party became the second largest political party by out-polling the Republicans in governor's races! None of the panelists explained how the Socialist Party and the IWW were both crippled during the
reactionary government raids during and after World War I.
Other panelists said that Texas women had played a good role, and that union organizing in Texas had been as progressive as it was in other states. The leading role that Texas officials played in crushing the booming union movement around 1947 was not mentioned. Communists were barely mentioned except to say that they didn't bother with the "tiny ineffectual Marxist left," and hardly any developments after the 1930s were mentioned. Race, class, and religion were all brought up during the question and answer session.
There is a short treatment of socialism in Texas available on line.