La Réunion was a short-lived French socialist utopian society founded near Dallas, Texas. From the first arrivals of the settlers in 1855 to its fall in 1860, La Réunion was never a “success.” While the society failed, it’s memory lives on through several monuments: La Réunion Tower, a memorial in Steven’s Park, and the La Réunion Cemetery. The location of this economic experiment have now been entirely absorbed by the greater Dallas metropolitan area, but the memory, and its lessons, live on.
It’s important to understand that La Réunion was not the first of its kind, nor was it original. Socialist utopian societies had been explored by the French intellectual elite for decades, many of which came under the criticism of Karl Marx, the most prominent advocate for socialism in history. By the 1850s, there had already been dozens of successful and unsuccessful socialist utopian societies across the United States and the world. Victor Considerant, a prominent French socialist and author, likewise decided that he wanted to put his utopian values to the test. Throughout his book Principes du Socialisme, Considerant lays out the argument that socialism is the most effective way to combat the problems that exist within modern capitalist civilization. His intense dedication to these ideals inspired him to purchase land in Texas and set his experiment in motion. His plans ran into some trouble, however, when his society was denied by the Texas congress. After an appeal and a second vote his society was approved. After this hurdle, Considerant set out to settle his society.
Considerant set out from Belgium, where he was in exile after joining a failed insurrection, and made his way to America. Considerant and two hundred French settlers found their way to Galveston, a coastal city in Texas, before finally reaching Dallas and then La Réunion in June 1855. The two hundred settlers were far less than the 2,000 registrees who had agreed to come. Although they saw a decent number of American settlers and immigrants, the population never climbed beyond their record of 350 in the fall of 1856. Many settlers left early on, and, by early 1857, the colony was officially dissolved. It wasn’t until 1860, however, that what remained of the colony was absorbed by the greater Dallas area and incorporated into the city. The failures of the settlement were numerous and compounding, and solidified the short-lived nature of La Réunion.
The first problem La Réunion ran into was the rapidity of the decreasing population. Although the population reached a peak a little under a year in, the fact that only one tenth of the registered immigrants had come and that many settlers left early on created a massive labor deficiency. While they had some Americans join the colony, around twenty, La Réunion never had enough to make up for the lack of French settlers. This American apathy mixed with a lack of settlers marked a clear sign that La Réunion was destined to fail.
The second problem La Réunion had was the poor environment at the time. Texas, during La Réunion’s existence, was not an ideal place for farming. There had been a series of droughts in the spring which led to poor crop harvests. The winters were also particularly nasty, often reaching temperatures of 15 °F within their cabins. These environmental conditions meant that the settlers needed to prioritize basic necessities, which amplified the hardships that a new colony must face.
The final problem La Réunion faced was the economic and administrative failures of its leadership. Considerant, while a true socialist ideologue, was a horrid administrator. Despite being the leader of the colony, Considerant failed to spend much time actually in the colony and also failed to take on the administrative tasks that come with leadership. Considerant also wasted thousands of dollars that was for the project on poor houses that would need to be replace, personal horses, and an ineffective gardner among others. Considerant’s failures would come to a head in 1856, and he named a new successor before departing in secret. While the colony would continue to stay afloat for a little while, the fact it was doomed was apparent. In 1857, Allyre Bureau, a director of the colony, would officially declare its dissolution and cement the failure.
While La Réunion was, undoubtedly, a failure, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t teach us a lot. The experiment taught us the benefits of planning, good administration, and the power of the environment. While it’s impossible to say La Réunion would have been a success under a better administrator and with a more favorable environment, it certainly would have been more successful. The failure also brings to light the inconsistencies between theory and praxis, the application of theory. The settlement, on paper, looked good, but the reality was met with great unforeseen challenges that shook the settlement to its core. Still, the fact that a socialist society existed (and is now celebrated) in Texas at one point is incredible. While the failures may have helped compound anti-socialist thought in America, the point remains that America truly is a land of experimentation.