In November 1982, the Ku Klux Klan announced it would be holding a demonstration in the heart of Washington, D.C. Ronald Reagan had run with the endorsement of David Duke and the KKK and was in the second year of his presidency. A powerful anti-Klan demonstration took over the streets of Washington on Nov. 27, 1982, and drove them out. Below is an excerpt from the foreword to the book “The Klan and the Government: Foes or Allies?” The book is a collection of articles by Sam Marcy, the founder of Workers World Party, written in the midst of the struggle to smash the Klan. It can be read online at www.workers.org/marcy/klan/.
Bourgeois liberals most concerned with Klan’s ‘rights’
The police massacres in Memphis and New Orleans [in 1982] aroused less concern among the liberal bourgeoisie than did the Klan demonstration in Washington, D.C. Strange as it may seem, some of the liberals, pressured by the way the media handled the counter-demonstration against the Klan, turned their fire on the counter-demonstration rather than on the Klan itself.
For instance, a long letter in the Guardian of January 19, 1983, spent hundreds and hundreds of words attacking the counter-demonstration. It was written by a “socialist,” no less, David McReynolds, a leader of the Socialist Party, USA.
His conclusion, like that of many others in the camp of the liberal bourgeoisie, was: The counter-rally would only result in “the level of violence within society increasing. … Are we going to undermine our own right to speak fully and freely by calling for the selective enforcement of the Bill of Rights? Is there anything the Klan can say that is one-half as dangerous as our saying it should not be allowed to speak?”
This is the standard bourgeois liberal position and has been the prevailing current of bourgeois political thought on this question ever since the Klan came into existence. …
While interest in the resurgence of the Klan in liberal circles seems to be on the wane, the controversy which the counter-demonstration aroused continues to have more than topical interest. This is because in the eyes of the liberal bourgeoisie a militant struggle against the Klan, that is, to drive it out wherever possible, violates the sacred norms of imperialist democracy.
The axis of the controversy takes the usual form: “The Klan and other fascist organizations should be permitted to exist and exercise the rights of free speech and organization the same as other political organizations.”
Unless one sees the Klan and other fascist organizations in the general context of the developing struggle of the workers and oppressed, one runs the danger of completely abdicating, if not surrendering, the struggle and using the free speech amendment as a cover for it all. …
Violence and the state
It has to be remembered that the use of violence and mass repression is a congenital tendency of the capitalist state. Even in the so-called best of times the capitalist government not only tolerates terrorist organizations like the Klan, but once the class struggle of the workers and oppressed people takes on the character of a genuine mass upsurge, the capitalist government is more likely than ever to encourage and promote the likes of the Klan and other mediums of repression.
If the U.S. is resorting more and more to naked armed force on a world scale to the point of threatening nuclear first strikes, if it is hastily building super aircraft carriers for the Navy to prowl the seven seas, threatening mass destruction of Third World people, is it likely under these circumstances that so-called “domestic tranquility” will prevail, that is, class peace, the peace of the oppressor imposed on the oppressed?
Indeed, one should put the shoe on the other foot. It is the ever-expanding growth of the police and military forces at home which makes repression and violent outbursts an inevitable outgrowth of the deepening class antagonisms. The preachments of the liberal bourgeoisie to rely on First Amendment rights are a mere cover-up for a grim reality which is expanding and not in any way receding.
Besides, First Amendment moralists frequently abandon their own position in moments of great crisis. They either surrender or fall to pieces altogether under the stress of right-wing political pressures.
In 1939 when there was a brief but very hysterical witchhunt which rose out of the short-lived Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, the liberal bourgeoisie completely defected on the question of civil rights and joined the camp of the right-wing witchhunters.
That splendid defender of civil liberties, the ACLU, capitulated to the witchhunters during that 1939-1940 nightmare. Its national board expelled from board membership Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was then an outstanding leader of the Communist Party.
None other than Norman Thomas, leader of the Socialist Party and the ideological godfather of David McReynolds who so sanctimoniously cites the First Amendment against the anti-Klan counter-demonstration, called for a purge of communists in the ACLU. He did so in an article in the Socialist Call of December 16, 1939.
So what did freedom of speech amount to in a time when the bourgeoisie was putting on the pressure?
The vote for expulsion was a shameless exhibition of liberals voting in unison and goose-stepping to the tune set by the FBI and capitalist government. J. Edgar Hoover had his own personal attorney, Morris Ernst, sitting on the ACLU board and acting as its co-counsel. How in the world can one be a counsel for the ACLU board and at the same time be the attorney for J. Edgar Hoover? This is how consistent liberalism can be in a crisis – they go over to the other side. (See Corliss Lamont’s excellent account in his “The Trial of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.”) During the 1950s, they crumbled altogether and then became victims themselves of the witchhunt.
As the capitalist crisis deepens, as unemployment grows, as the U.S settles its international disputes not merely on the basis of gunboat diplomacy as of old but of nuclear might, what is the only realistic expectation? Some utopian era, when class antagonisms will soften and diminish and collisions between the classes slowly disappear, leaving extremist right-wing organizations like the KKK with no material basis for existence and therefore tending to disintegrate and disappear?
On the contrary, this is the most unlikely and the least possible variant in the next stage of capitalist development.
That being the case, it is most important to discard the liberal straitjacket that only leads to defeat and frustration and arm the mass movement of the working class and oppressed with a revolutionary perspective. It is necessary to politically prepare for the impending struggle not less, but better than, the bourgeoisie prepared to win their struggle when they were a subject and oppressed class centuries ago in Europe under feudalism.
It is better to learn the progressive lessons that the bourgeoisie assimilated in their struggle than to become an object of mass confusion through the medium of petty bourgeois preachers and moralists who righteously wave the flag of freedom but abandon it as soon as the class struggle sharpens.