The Klan & the Government: Foes or Allies? [Sam Marcy]

The Struggle Against the Klan

A Historical Perspective

October 25, 1982

Attitudes to the Klan, even by those who oppose it most vigorously, differ widely. It is too frequently regarded as merely an extreme expression of racism and bigotry.

This is wholly inadequate. It omits the two singularly most significant characteristics of the Klan and also disconnects the Klan from its historical evolution, which spans more than a century.

The Klan is one of the very few organizations in this country which has avowedly been a secret terrorist organization. Murders, kidnappings, burnings, lynchings, whippings, and downright mass terror have characterized its existence since its inception more than 100 years ago.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, the most authoritative but highly conservative encyclopedia in the U.S. and abroad, bluntly characterizes the Ku Klux Klan as a "secret terrorist organization." That puts the Klan on a fundamentally different plane than merely an organization which promotes racism, no matter how viciously.

The Reagan administration, as well as those of Carter, Ford, and earlier presidents as well, have studiously resisted this characterization of the Klan. The current Attorney General, as well as the previous ones have compiled lists of terrorist organizations, some of dubious validity and mostly for witchhunting purposes, but have stubbornly resisted attaching this characterization to the Klan.

The matter is of considerable importance. By failing to recognize the true character of the Klan, they accord the Klan a legal status, entitling it to so-called First Amendment protection, which no terrorist organization ever obtains anywhere else in the world.

The characterization of the Klan is often the cause of confusion in progressive organizations. Civil libertarians in general seek freedom of speech and protection of the First Amendment for all political organizations. They seek to put all political organizations under one single protective umbrella – freedom of speech under the Constitution.

In a society which is divided into antagonistic classes as well as between oppressing and oppressed peoples, this umbrella covers up the most glaring contradictions and conceals the most fundamental interests of the working class and the oppressed people in favor of the oppressors and exploiters.

It puts legitimate organizations of the workers and oppressed alongside a secret terrorist organization, on the basis of "free speech for all." Moreover, it deliberately disconnects the entire historical evolution of the Klan, which for over a century has openly proclaimed that it stood for the abolition of civil rights for Black and other oppressed people, but also stands for the abolition of the bourgeois democratic structure of the U.S. government in totality.

Its leaders have asserted, even to this day, that the U.S. Constitution merely guarantees a republican form of government, not a democratic one. This is a fascist formula fashioned according to the lines of Hitler and Mussolini.

The Klan has at various times also made Catholics, Jews, Native Americans, and other minorities principal objects of attack. It has also of course been most viciously opposed to any form of working class organization, particularly unions.

But is the Klan so important when one considers that it is numerically negligible when compared to the general mass of the population?

The capitalist state and the KKK

This is a poor criterion for judging the possibilities of the Klan. One must consider its other features besides numerical strength and the fact that it is universally hated by the mass of the people.

The Klan is an extra-legal, extra-governmental organ, promoted and maintained by the capitalist state as an instrument of special and exceptional repression under circumstances when the state itself cannot or will not intervene in the struggle against the masses.

The Klan's origins are of utmost significance in evaluating its current role and perspective. The civil libertarians and the capitalist government both separate the origins and historical evolution of the Klan from its current role. And in this, they differ fundamentally from the mass of the oppressed people as well as the more enlightened elements among the working-class organizations.

It is impossible to evaluate the contemporary role of the Klan without a critical examination of its historical antecedents, its special role in U.S. history.

The Klan originated in the South in the era of Reconstruction which followed the Civil War. Reconstruction constituted a most revolutionary phase in American history.

Judged by what a thoroughgoing bourgeois democratic revolution should have accomplished in the struggle against the slavocracy a century ago, that revolution succeeded only halfway.

The main task of the bourgeois democratic revolution as experienced by most of the European revolutions of the 19th century and earlier, was to free the serfs from feudalism and give land to the peasants. To the extent that such revolutions succeeded they were wholly progressive.

The Civil War in the U.S. was a class struggle, a struggle of the Northern capitalist class against the Southern slave oligarchy.

"The present struggle between the South and the North," wrote Karl Marx in 1861, "is ... nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labor. Because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent, the struggle has broken out." (Quoted in Heritage of the Civil War, by Will Herberg.)

Marx and Engels both closely followed the developments in the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction and had high regard for the revolutionary struggle that was put up against the slavocracy by the left wing of the radical Republicans in the U.S. in that period.

Lenin too of course recognized the revolutionary significance of the American Civil War. "Where can you find an American so pedantic, so absolutely idiotic, as to deny the revolutionary and progressive significance of the American Civil War of 1860-65?" (Ibid.)

Civil War a limited bourgeois revolution

In the Civil War in the U.S., the bourgeois democratic revolution was aborted. It did result in ending involuntary servitude. It freed the Black people from their legal ties to the slavocracy. But it failed to carry out the rest of the basic and revolutionary measures which were necessary for formal equality with the white population.

Nevertheless, as a result of the revolutionary prosecution of the war against the Southern slavocracy, the Southern slave state governments were immensely weakened and in part replaced through federal intervention and military occupation by the central government.

These measures were made necessary in order to defend the rights of the Black people and to insure that the Southern slave-state governments did not violate the new federal legislation which the U.S. government had promulgated.

The Southern state governments were thus under the jurisdiction of the U.S. military and had to obey its orders. Unable to do anything legally to subvert the new status and rights of the Black people, the Southern planters resorted to building a conspiratorial terrorist organization to supplement the Southern states' legalized governments.

We see therefore that the KKK arose as an illegal, extra-governmental secret apparatus, nourished, promoted, and organized by the then legalized governments of the South. No matter what transformations the Klan has experienced throughout its more than a century of existence, it has retained its fundamental characteristics to this

By failing to take account of these two exceptional characteristics of the Klan, recognized even by the conservative Encyclopedia Britannica the civil libertarians and the capitalist government define the Klan by purely superficial and external characteristics. They ignore that which is inherently fundamental to the Klan – secrecy of organization and preparation ideologically and politically for mass terror.

By putting the KKK on a plane with other organizations, they ignore the very core of the matter.

Even so the rise of the KKK and its subsequent evolution during the Reconstruction period might not have been significant had it not been for some very important historical developments.

Need for people's militia

The duty of the federal government in the South under Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, and Hayes was not merely to juridically proclaim and defend the rights of the freed men and women. Its duty was also to train, educate, and organize them, above all on a military basis so they would be able to properly defend themselves against the violence instigated and perpetrated by the revival of the slavocracy's political power.

It was not enough to have subdued the slavocracy militarily. There had to be a counter-force or a parallel force as against the armed forces and repressive organs still wielded by the Southern states, notwithstanding the breakup of the old Confederacy.

It's true that the Confederacy seemed crushed and powerless, insofar as exercising its political sway against the Northern bourgeoisie. But the old planter aristocracy was permitted to rebuild and revive on the basis of retaining all its private property and land as well as whatever financial and commercial assets it still had.

Under these circumstances, the economic and state power of the planter aristocracy remained an overwhelming force as against the Black people, notwithstanding the gains made – including those in the state legislatures of the South. What the Black population needed to resist the growth of the KKK was an organized militia, trained, armed, and financed by the federal government to protect and defend their newly won rights and also to contest the planters' right to the land – which the former slaves were entitled to no less than the serfs in Europe during the bourgeois revolutions there.

The great model of the European democratic revolutions was of course the French Revolution of a century earlier, which was the deepest and profoundest of all the bourgeois revolutions. It is interesting to note that during the revolutionary Jacobin period, the Jacobins exercised a military dictatorship over the reactionary rural departments of France and insured the distribution of the land to the peasants and the confiscation of the estates of the nobility.

This is a very striking parallel to the Reconstruction period in the U.S., with this difference, that the military dictatorship of the Jacobins carried out its tasks, at least insofar as dividing the land and organizing a militia to defend against a return of the royalists. This unfortunately did not happen eighty years later during the period of Reconstruction.

Treachery of Northern bourgeoisie

The federal government retreated under pressure from many of the capitalists in the North Who felt that they had got what they wanted: (1) a centralized government which had crushed the political power of the South as against the Northern bourgeoisie, and (2) the replacement of chattel slavery by the capitalist wage slave system which accelerated capitalist production and increased the political authority of the federal government of the newly enriched bourgeoisie.

As a result the treacherous bourgeoisie withdrew the federal troops from the South and left the Black people defenseless against the KKK. The Southern aristocracy thereafter began a large-scale campaign to secretly recruit, organize, and promote the Klan as a mass terror weapon with an extra-legal and extra-state character, in order to destroy the ability of the Black people to utilize their newly won legal rights as proclaimed by the Constitution. The right of self-defense was virtually nullified by the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

It is interesting to note that years earlier the Lincoln administration had been well aware that the right of self-defense by Black people was indispensable for their full freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1863 contained a specific provision affirming the right of Black people to self-defense.

To ignore this highly significant chapter in the freedom struggle of the Black people in this country, to try and divorce the democratic and highly progressive aspects of the Reconstruction period from the development of the Klan, not only mutilates and distorts history, but makes it impossible to understand the contemporary role of the Klan and the continuing racist character of capitalist society in the U.S. in general. This is not at all an academic struggle over a definition or characterization of the Klan, but in reality a difference in class approach.

It is not for nothing that most of the bourgeois history books on the Reconstruction period, as well as the novels, movies, and television shows, are glorified fairy tales about the "beauties of the old South." They vilify and scandalize the period of Reconstruction; they submerge its modest achievements and its heroic figures, both Black and white, North and South.

Bourgeois scholars of Reconstruction, especially the more reactionary ones, underestimate the tremendous role played by the Black people in achieving the victory over the Southern oligarchy. They do everything to belittle the role of Black people and only rarely is there any mention of what W.E.B. Du Bois in his great book Black Reconstruction calls the general strike of Black people, that is, the abandonment of service on the plantations and the support it rendered to the Northern army which was indispensable for the victory over the plantation aristocracy.

In modern times, the vicious attacks against the Civil Rights movement, the pillorying of Black leaders and white progressives, especially those in the working-class movement, are merely a continuation of the same old struggle that the bourgeoisie, especially its most reactionary elements, carried on against those struggling for the implementation and extension of the achievements during the period of Reconstruction.

Reconstruction and the imperialist epoch

In discussing the withdrawal of federal troops from the South during Reconstruction, which constituted a crime of enormous historical proportions and left the Black people defenseless, it should be related to contemporary developments arising out of the predatory nature of imperialist politics.

Angola may be thousands of miles away from the Black South of the U.S. and separated by more than a century from the days of Reconstruction. But there are certain lessons to be learned there, too.

The Angolan people won a tremendous revolutionary victory in 1975. Had they been left alone to reconstruct society as they saw fit without interference, Angola would be a strong and prosperous country on the road to constructing a socialist society. But the U.S., in conspiracy with the South African government, used the UNITA mercenary organization headed by Jonas Savimbi against Angola.

As a result of South African support for the mercenary expeditions of Savimbi and UNITA, which were (and are) supplemented by direct South African air raids and invasions, the Angolan military forces were hard pressed to sustain the revolutionary struggle. The Cuban government offered internationalist support in the form of a military contingent and supplies in order to offset the counter-revolutionary forces supplied by the South African racist regime and its mercenaries.

An untimely withdrawal of the Cuban support forces would leave the Angolan people at the mercy of U.S.-supported South African intervention in Angola, similar to the withdrawal of Northern troops from the South a century earlier.

One need hardly mention the tragic forced withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the Beirut area, with the consequent ghastly massacre which followed. The Phalangist murderers are nothing but a Lebanese version of the KKK.

Amin Gemayel is comparable to the Grand Wizard of the Invisible Imperial Empire. His visit to the White House at the invitation of Reagan is as though the ghost of Jefferson Davis, the head of the Confederacy, were to be called to a White House ceremony celebrating the victory of the old Confederacy in newer racist garments.

The same applies to an untimely Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, were that to take place under imperialist pressure.

KKK part and parcel of capitalist state

We have seen that the KKK is not merely an organization that grew up autonomously and spontaneously to promote racism. It is an offspring of the capitalist state of which the Southern states once again became an integral part.

The Klan has always been part and parcel, sometimes secretly, sometimes openly, of the capitalist state, especially in the police and military forces of the U.S.

The KKK is the prototype of an international phenomenon. In old Russia, they were known as the Black Hundreds (called this because of the black garments worn by their horsemen).

They go under different names in various countries. But everywhere they are counterrevolutionary organizations which grow up in response to the needs of the capitalist state for supplementary, illegal, extra-state, and extra-governmental repression and terror.

Their targets vary from time to time, but their general objective is the same – the destruction of the democratic rights of the workers and oppressed. They are the closest approximation to a fascist apparatus.

Always they grow out of a period of acute class struggle. It was so in Germany, in Italy, and in old Russia.

There are embryo fascist organizations all over Europe. The U.S. finances fascist gangs in the less developed countries as a means of threatening, intimidating, and overthrowing, where possible, governments which are striving to be independent of U.S. imperialist interests.

The lessons of armed self-defense are especially necessary and indispensable in the light of the congenital propensity of monopoly capitalism to rely more and more on illegal force at home and abroad. The fact that the Klan has been numerically small in different periods of U.S. history has not prevented it from suddenly surging forth as a mass organization, as it did in an earlier period of the U.S. when the ruling class needed it more frequently.

Now, with the capitalist crisis ever deepening and widening, it is inconceivable that the ruling class, which through the CIA promotes covert operations on a world scale, will suddenly drop its interest in supporting and maintaining clandestine, extra-legal support groups to promote its domestic objectives.

The capitalist crisis is bound to produce a tremendous resurgence of the working class. It is equally certain that the ruling class will attempt to inhibit, derail, and utilize all sorts of support organizations in the struggle against an aroused and united working class and oppressed peoples' united front. It is in light of this perspective that one needs to view each and every step in the development of not only KKK activity but other forms as well, and to properly organize against it with all the diligence, energy, and devotion which are necessary in the struggle.

Last updated: 18 August 2017