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

Lessons of the Anti-Klan Demonstration

November 30, 1982

All who are concerned with the course of the struggle of the working class and the oppressed, all who seriously consider the path to the socialist revolution in the U.S., must study in detail the very rich lessons of the powerful anti-Klan demonstration in Washington, DC on November 27.

It is an event of considerable significance from which one can consider variants of development on the road to the socialist revolution.

Cynics of the bourgeoisie and its ideological captives in the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie will hasten to characterize what was a virtual rebellion of the masses as really a small thing; a sort of tempest in a teapot; here today, gone tomorrow, and fading fast into oblivion.

Hysterical headlines in the bourgeois press and the extreme hostility shown by the ruling class in the editorial comments betray a deep concern that more than an isolated demonstration emerged from the anti-Klan experience.

On the surface, virtually all sections of society in the country are opposed to the Klan. It would seem that if there is any issue on which the ruling class holds a position nearly identical with that of the workers and oppressed, it is opposition to the Klan. That, however, is the surface.

Just beneath the surface is a chasm as deep and as wide as any of the oceans. Opposition to the Klan means nothing. It is opposition to the existence of the Klan which is the real issue.

Historic role of terrorist Klan

The Klan is not just a right-wing political organization. From its very inception the Klan has been and is today an avowedly terrorist, racist organization whose fundamental objective is genocide.

It is a relic of the uncompleted Civil War, maintained in modern times by the capitalist state as a supplementary weapon in the struggle against the oppressed people and the working class.

The Klan is a genocide squad – like the death squads of the Nazis, of Mussolini's Black Shirts, and lately of the Christian Lebanese Phalangist murderers.

The existence of the Klan challenges the existence of the oppressed people and the working class. The Klan does not challenge the bourgeoisie. It proclaims itself as their most loyal servants and protectors.

It particularly has cultivated and continues to promote a friendly relationship with the repressive forces of the state.

Succeeding administrations of the U.S. government ever since the great betrayal after the revolutionary period of Reconstruction, have protected, defended, held undercover and even openly collaborated with and utilized the Klan in a variety of ways to suppress the Black people, to persecute other nationalities, to maintain a vicious anti-labor attitude, to promote each and every reactionary scheme of the ruling class.

Most of all it stands out as the proclaimed enemy of the Black people.

Bourgeoisie seeks legal status for Klan

The bourgeoisie defends the Klan by elevating it to the status of a legal organization on a par with other political organizations. In its early days the liberal bourgeoisie opposed this, citing the victory of the Civil War Reconstruction and the illegal terrorist character of the Klan.

Gradually the liberal bourgeoisie succumbed to accepting and even promoting a superficial and fraudulent First Amendment right for the Klan, to treat it on a formally equal footing with other organizations.

This ideological stratagem of surrender by the liberal bourgeoisie was carefully cultivated and imposed upon progressive and workers' organizations. The indifference and weakness of even the progressive elements within the working class movement in not vigorously opposing this ideological stratagem has led to the acceptance of this reactionary and extremely harmful position.

The right of the Klan to so-called free speech has therefore become a sort of inviolable principle of the bourgeoisie. When the bourgeoisie speaks of inviolable principles, you can be sure it reflects their most inviolable and fundamental principle of all principles – the principle of maintaining bourgeois private property, the framework of contemporary monopoly capitalism.

Class relations and the anti-Klan demonstration

To understand the political significance of the powerful anti-Klan demonstration, a near uprising of the masses that was wholly unanticipated, one must first of all take into account the class relations in which this political experience took place.

Without taking into account the position of each of the classes in the city, no fruitful analysis can possibly be made.

In a rebellion, large or small, the masses often, as in this case, take their lives into their own hands. When that occurs, it signifies a political crisis in the city.

No political crisis of any magnitude ever really occurs without there also being a concomitant economic crisis at the very base of society. Washington, D.C., is, in most fundamentals, representative of the great metropolitan centers of the U.S.

Washington's social structure is like a huge pyramid. At the very apex is an infinitesimally small stratum of the population which has the aura of invincibility and omnipotence.

To most people, Washington means the president and his cabinet, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Supreme Court and the vast array of agencies which support this structure.

In reality, this is not where the omnipotence and apparent invincibility rests. This, the governmental structure, is right beneath the apex and is in reality the fundmental support to the apex.

The apex of power in Washington

The apex is composed of an infinitesimally small group of the population who generally maintain a low profile: The various official and unofficial representatives of the large banks, the most powerful multinational corporations, and the ever-increasing number of military-industrial complexes.

They are buttressed by the chiefs of the military forces, the army of highly paid and privileged think tankers (particularly those on the advisory boards who need no pay), the multitude of known and unknown lobbyists, the huge number of so-called eminent law firms with their main offices on Wall Street, the arms merchant fraternity concerned with exports to all parts of the world, the equally powerful agribusiness companies so intimately linked with the sale of arms – these in essence all have the most efficient and reliable representatives in the heart of the city and constitute the next layer of the pyramid.

Below the governmental bureaucracy, there is a broader layer of officialdom whose tenure and social status is insecure but well-paid and whose job is to serve the administrative machinery of the capitalist state as it is represented in Washington's succeeding administrations.

Further down is still another layer of civil servants who in the last three decades in particular have grown to encompass a large section of Black workers, more women workers, and also other oppressed people.

The service proletariat

Finally, at the very base of this unique edifice, is the service proletariat, the granite stone on which this huge structure sits. Bourgeois literature is full of descriptions of the service employees and how they are rapidly displacing manual workers.

It avoids, however, describing them as the service proletariat, with good reason. This city cannot run for a minute without the service proletariat – those who really do the work, both manually and clerically.

From sanitation to electricity, to the maintenance of all forms of transportation, to feeding the public, bringing to and fro all that makes the city livable – it only takes one look at the city to know that there is a vast service proletariat that digs the ditches, shuffles the papers, cooks the food, washes the dishes, prunes the trees, maintains the shiny monuments, and, yes, also rides to and from the suburbs to perform domestic and other services for the suburban rich.

All these are the service proletariat who, along with the industrial proletariat, stand in objective irreconcilable opposition to finance capital at the top of the pyramid and the substructures that service it.

Like every other city, Washington is wracked by capitalist crisis. The city fathers take pride that Washington, D.C., has the second or third highest per capita income in the country. But that merely indicates the vast gulf that separates the few rich from the many poor. It also exaggerates the income of the middle layers, whose growing insecurity could drive them into the ranks of the revolutionaries but whose petty bourgeois mentality could also make them candidates for the extreme right.

What differentiates the District, as it is called, from other cities in the U.S. is that it is an administrative center. It administers the functions of the capitalist state.

Unlike other administrative centers in the imperialist world, it doesn't have a red belt of working class suburbs (like Paris for instance). But it does have a green belt where the wealthy from the District relax in fashionable country-style homes.

There are also a not inconsiderable number of so-called Black enclaves outside the city where there are many white workers as well.

Washington as a Black city

The other characteristic which is far more significant is that Washington is a Black city, especially at its base. And the officialdom of the city – the mayor, the city council, and so on – are mostly Black.

The city has only in the last two decades really emerged from semi-colonial tutelage to the federal government. Originally it was a sort of fief to the federal capitalist administration. Ever fearful of a growing Black population, the federal government has kept a tight hold on it.

While loosening the reins a bit to allow gradual autonomy, the capitalist state hangs over the city administration like a heavy weight and controls the vital arteries on behalf of the banks and insurance companies.

The DIC, officialdom must always bear in mind that the purse strings are really held by the federal establishment. It is the federal establishment which has supervised the District. It has done so through its Senators and Representatives as well as the executive office. It is hardly necessary to state that most of the people whom the District leadership had to deal with in the federal administration have been of a most racist character, sometimes deliberately picked from the South.

The other matter that the District leadership has to constantly keep in mind is the weight of the so-called private sector – the banks, insurance companies, and the multitude of businesses which have grown up. Between the heavy weight of the governmental structure and the so-called private sector, the city administration has to delicately maneuver to maintain the little room which, for lack of a better word, we call autonomy.

The people of the District take pride that their leaders can govern as well if not better than in other cities administered by a so-called white power structure.

But the Black population too has its class divisions and stratification notwithstanding the universal national (racist) oppression which affects all Black people and all other oppressed nationalities.

In this year of the profoundest capitalist crisis since the Great Crash there are more unemployed than there have been in decades in the District. For the first time bag women and unemployed men young and old are sleeping on the lawns near the Washington and Lincoln Monuments and even near the White House. They are homeless, destitute, desperate, and downright hungry in the literal meaning of the word.

At this particular time, holiday time, the Klan decided to make its bold move and demonstrate in the heart of this Black city where it hadn't set foot in more than half a century.

Klan march poses acute problem

Naturally this posed an acute problem for the city administration first of all, for many of the federal government officials, for the various federal agencies under the Reagan administration, and for the mass of the people as a whole. Deep anger and anxiety seemed to be the prevailing mood in some currents of the population, fear among others.

As we said earlier, opposition to the Klan seemed unanimous on the surface. But the real question was whether the Klan should have the right to set foot in the city, whether the genocide squad could parade on Pennsylvania Avenue and thereby gain legitimacy as an organization with legal status.

In the face of the impending Klan march, would the city retain that superficial unanimity of opposition to the Klan? Or would the city become divided both on the basis of oppressor and oppressed nationalities and class antagonisms? Would the antagonisms always inherent in the class structure now break through? And would the deep feeling of national oppression of all Black people reveal itself in a mammoth united front to oppose the humiliation of the city (which in this context does not include the upper capitalist layers of the pyramid)?

At first the ruling class press tried to avoid mentioning the Klan at all, until the Black press and Black media picked it up and began to publicize it. That stalwart champion of liberalism, the Washington Post, initially relegated it to a single paragraph and waited almost three weeks before mentioning it again.

All this time the All-Peoples Congress kept up a steady barrage of leaflets, notices, press releases, and requests for interviews, while also carrying out a massive campaign of organization and propaganda. It hoped to go beyond its own and allied supporters and arouse the city to the danger in order to build a truly tremendous mass opposition, an opposition that would take the form in this concrete situation of a mass demonstration the likes of which would make it impossible for the Klan to ever reach the outskirts of the city.

Other organizations also planned activities. Unfortunately they were in the nature of actions where the groups substitute themselves for the mass, thereby merely projecting the strength of their individual organizations rather than facilitating the emergence of the vast mass of the working class, which alone can play the key role in a decisive struggle.

Bitter hatred of the Klan is general in the Black community. This generally prevails in all layers of the Black officialdom as well.

The white liberal establishment in Washington – which also takes in the petty bourgeoisie, the merchants, the small manufacturers, the horde of lawyers and accountants, the commuters who come in to manage the small industry enclaves as well as lawyers and doctors in the administrative apparatus of the state – all seemed to be deaf to the ferment in the Black community regarding the Klan.

White liberal establishment remained silent

But what about the varied groupings of bourgeois liberals who pride themselves on their anti-racism (while at the same time denouncing affirmative action and quotas!)? No word came from them, although they are generally a very articulate class grouping.

Some of the Black officialdom thought it might not be such a bad idea if, in the spirit of Martin Luther King, they went arm-in-arm – the mayor, the president of the city council, all the council members, and DC's congressional representative – as the advance guard in a truly huge mammoth march to the very edge of the city to confront the Klan, the same way it happened on the bridge during the Selma march. Is the issue here any less significant?

Had the right to ban the Klan

Only here there is a vast difference. This time it was possible to say to the enemy, "No entrance, the city is closed to you. It is closed to the squads of genocide. It is closed to an illegal, terrorist organization aimed at our destruction. There is no Constitutional protection for you."

As the administrators of the city, they have the right to instruct the police, including the police chief, and tell them that the Klan has no Constitutional right whatsoever, that their very presence creates the danger of violence precisely because they are the symbol of violence and their presence ignites and generates it.

The vision of such a tremendous array of the mass of the population – Black, Latin, and white, young and old – was not impossible. But the officialdom were nowhere around on the day the Klan set foot in Washington.

Many were on their way to Los Angeles to a great gathering of mayors, where they would hear Reagan telling them what they have been hearing for the last two years – more layoffs, more cutbacks, more belt tightening for the masses. Conferences of mayors and legislators should not be underestimated as important forums, but they should not supersede a political crisis, especially one growing out of a flagrant attempt to humiliate the city as a whole and gain legitimacy for racism as a legal institution.

Of course the Black establishment did not want the Klan to come to Washington. They would rather that the Klan died on the way.

But there is a vast difference between having a sentiment or an opinion or even a deep-seated conviction and giving it overt political expression in practical activity. This was conspicuous by its absence.

There was considerable effort by several independent Black organizations, but unfortunately with very modest influence. The influence of the establishment and the sway they hold over the mass of the people was exercised in a negative way when the police chief, voicing the official policy of the administration, told a press conference that he advised the people to stay away from the demonstration.

Without authoritative leaders from the Black community openly and clearly taking an affirmative position to stop the Klan from coming on the basis of both legal and political grounds (which are super-abundant), the Black community was left virtually leaderless at a moment of crisis.

The deep hatred and profound antagonism which welled up in the heart of the Black community seemed to be destined to remain underground, muffled, silenced, or mistaken for indifference altogether.

But right before the demonstration, after it became known that the APC was holding a demonstration at McPherson Square as a staging area and a base for all participants, the capitalist press announced that a number of organizations were calling for demonstrations and posters and leaflets were being disseminated in large numbers.

Confrontation was inevitable

When the Klan finally arrived, buttressed by the police, it was virtually a foregone conclusion that a confrontation was inevitable, not merely because several political organizations had vowed to demonstrate against the Klan, but because so many from the community were not going to allow the Klan to set foot without being challenged – eyeball to eyeball so to speak – and quite a number expressed it that way.

What happened then was of historic significance. A truly strong and powerful surge of many thousands from the heart of the Black community, with many white supporters as well, began to emerge as though from out of the earth. In their readiness and determination to drive the Klan out, their outrage and anger spilled over on the police.

But the police, true to their role as the repressive force of the capitalist state, as the guardian of the interests of the ruling bourgeoisie, did not look the other way or fraternize with the demonstrators as has occasionally been done in great historic situations where the masses came out in the defense of freedom, liberty, and the preservation of their very lives.

Instead of fraternization there was a merciless assault upon them. Inevitably the retaliation by the masses was swift and direct – a glimpse of the future of the liberation struggle of the oppressed and the working class.

The bourgeois press began to scream. The media howled. The abuse cast upon the demonstrators was as odious and shameless as it was reactionary. In addition they had to lie and exaggerate about "looting," and trashing a few windows here and there, all in defense of the "peace-loving" genocide squad.

What does it really indicate?

Here was the officialdom of a great city, which in a way represents the multimillion oppressed people of the country, showing kinship to the same strategy and tactics employed by the officialdom, liberals, social democrats and people far to the left of them in pre-Hitler Germany.

Instead of striking back with all the force available to them (and they had both legal and political force), they bowed before the gods of bourgeois legality, which merely served as a screen for the gestation and development of the Nazi movement that went on to destroy the working class, bourgeois liberalism, and democracy to boot.

Two paths to socialism

We saw in the District a microcosm of things to come. We saw that in the two variants to the road to the socialist reconstruction of society, the bourgeoisie will utilize legality against the working class and the oppressed, not for them, a lesson that must be impressed indelibly on all who seek to cut a path toward a socialist society.

We saw that the bourgeois liberals and conservatives are not serious in the struggle against fascism, are tolerant of racism, cultivate and generate it to suit their interests. They are however great specialists in sanctimonious hypocritical incantations and prayers against racism. But in the face of danger, they crumble.

Who came out on behalf of the District to really fight back? It was the unemployed, the youth, the most disadvantaged. They were the vanguard of the working class of the District, with all its friends inside and outside the city.

From this the conclusion is inescapable that the bourgeois establishment whether it be liberal or conservative, whether it be Black or white, in a decisive showdown, even on a miniature scale, demonstrates that it is utterly incapable of carrying out its most fundamental and elementary duty in the struggle against the most dangerous and contemptible enemy of the workers and oppressed.

The bourgeois establishment of the District, like bourgeois establishments everywhere, in the face of the crisis tended to vacillate and become immobilized and thereby also immobilized the most viable section of society, the working class which supports them.

Vanguard carried out a historic duty

Hence it was that only the vanguard of the community, only the most oppressed but also the most determined and most politically advanced and conscious took it upon their shoulders to carry out a historic duty.

It is to them that the working class and oppressed people of the whole country owe a genuine debt of deep and profound gratitude for driving the Klan out of the city. This was no mere skirmish nor was it a revolutionary struggle for power but it was intensely political in character and conscious of the significance of the mass action that was undertaken.

As such it was a magnificent feat. All the more so because it was carried out spontaneously by the masses. It is true that a number of organizations participated in this and helped to stimulate the movement. And it is true, of course, that the All-Peoples Congress initiated, organized, and agitated energetically and tirelessly over a prolonged period without letup for precisely such an eventuality.

But by and large it was, as Marx once put it very aptly, an instinctive and elemental surge forward which was like a spontaneous outpouring in the manner of a minor earthquake and would have come independently even if no organization had participated or initiated a campaign at all.

Necessity of organization

This, too, is an important lesson. It doesn't negate the necessity for organization. On the contrary it really underscores it.

Preparation facilitates organization and converts the spontaneous struggle from sporadic activities into a coordinated offensive.

But powerful though the demonstration was, its duration was not long enough or sustained enough to arouse the reserve elements of the working class to join the struggle.

It did not draw up the vast reserves from the hundreds of thousands whose deep sympathy was with those in the vanguard of the struggle. This requires more than spontaneity. It requires preparation and leadership. Of course, no one really expected such a tremendous outpouring on a spontaneous basis.

In times of routine, parliamentary struggle, it is the middle, more conservative layers who seem in the forefront. But more crucial struggles are almost always begun by the most oppressed, going back to the sans culottes (the unemployed and poor workers of the time) of the French Revolution.

If the struggle is sustained, it ultimately draws in broader layers of the working class. Here the struggle was aborted for the moment by the preponderance of police force and violence against the unarmed demonstrators.

The fact that the reserves were not yet ready attests to the fact that the situation had not yet fully matured and that the obstructions from the capitalist establishment and its repressive forces were overwhelming.

Yet the demonstration served another purpose. It symbolized the end of the period of despondency – the period of givebacks to the ruling class, of takeaways by the bosses, of cutbacks of social services and of brazen, unbridled reaction riding high under the protection of the capitalist police.

The demonstrators who were the vanguard played a truly historic role in this situation, and the experiences from it will enhance the struggle and bring it to victory.

Last updated: 18 August 2017