The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

What Is the Way to Oppose the Klan?

Dec 31, 1980

On November 18, an all-white jury in Greensboro, North Carolina, found a group of Klansmen and Nazis not guilty of the murder of 5 militants. One year before, the CWP (Communist Workers Party) had held an anti-Klan rally in Greensboro. They had challenged the Klan to show up. The Klan and the Nazis took up the challenge, and with the complicity of the local police, they shot and killed 5 people. The incident was filmed and shown on the evening TV news. Now one year later, in spite of the overwhelming evidence of the Klan’s and the Nazis’ guilt in the attack and murder, these same assassins are free to kill again.

The horror of Greensboro is not simply an isolated incident of racist violence by the Klan or the Nazis. Over the last few years we have seen an increasing activity on the part of the racists. They put out their literature in white working class neighborhoods and high schools and in the factories. They have been active in cities all over the country. For example, they have even opened a public bookstore in a black majority city like Detroit. They have had outdoor rallies and cross burnings in the Baltimore area. They have demonstrated in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.

This year they presented candidates in the elections in both California and Michigan. It is a sign of the times that an open Klan candidate ran officially as a Democrat, and an open Nazi candidate ran as a Republican.

Over the last few years there have also been Klan attacks on black families who have moved into white neighborhoods, attempting to run the families out of the neighborhood by terror. The Klan has set up paramilitary training camps in Texas and Alabama. Greensboro, however, represented the first actual open armed attack against an organized demonstration.

Today the Klan and the Nazis are putting themselves forward once again under their racist banner, with their fiery crosses and their swastikas. They wear the label of “white racist” as a badge. Their symbols are a reminder of the violence and murders in their past tradition. Their increased activity and current violence represent a potential threat against the lives of revolutionaries, union militants, all black people, and the whole working class.

The attack in Greensboro showed that the Klan is willing to use violence. It also showed that the authorities are ready to tolerate the violence. So the events in Greensboro could easily convince such groups that this kind of tactic was successful, and could encourage them to try it again.

Why Is the Klan And Nazi Activity Increasing Now?

Today we are in a period of economic crisis, which has existed more or less steadily since the 1974-1975 recession. The continuing inflation has meant a cut in the standard of living of the working class and of the petty bourgeoisie. This, coupled with the continuing high rate of unemployment, has made life more and more insecure for the working class and a part of the petty bourgeoisie. In this context, the unions have not tried to mobilize the workers for a fight but instead have proposed a seemingly unending series of sacrifices.

As their standard of living worsens, and the competition for jobs increases, working and petty bourgeois people have become more demoralized and frustrated. In some cases their frustrations have been expressed in an increased division in the working class, and an increased racism on the part of some of the white workers and the white petty bourgeoisie.

It is in this situation that the Klan and the Nazis seem to be putting themselves forward. They could calculate now that they have some prospects, where for years they had none.

The economic situation in the 1960s and the early 1970s meant a social climate that was not conducive for the Klan to declare their beliefs or appear openly. Also in that period when there was an active, mobilized black movement, it was often more difficult for the Klan to have a hearing. But, today, the Klan and the Nazis have attacked people in broad daylight with impunity. Today there is an economic crisis and at the same time the black movement is also demobilized and the workers are also inactive; for this reason the Klan and the Nazis have enjoyed a certain success and probably at least a small growth.

But in addition, there is another factor. The Klan has also received encouragement from a part of the representatives of the ruling class. For today the news media pay a great deal of attention to the Klan and Nazis where for years they were treated as the lunatic fringe or relegated to total obscurity. Today the police in a town like Greensboro cooperate with the Klan and Nazis openly and without consequences. And today the state courts declare the Klan and the Nazis innocent while the Federal government debates whether to take action or not. All of these things make it seem like the bourgeoisie has decided at least to tolerate the Klan and the Nazis if not actively to support or finance them. And if they have, it’s because the Klan and the Nazis can be used to encourage racism and divisions in the society. With the economic crisis, it could be important for the bourgeoisie to keep society, and especially the working class, divided, and to reinforce the most common division–white against black. It is a good way for them to head off working class struggles.

Recently we have seen the bourgeoisie using the same methods of exacerbating divisions, using patriotism and chauvinism as well as racism. For example, the government manipulated the hostage crisis to promote patriotism and anti-Iranian feeling to help take people’s minds off the crisis and the government’s own responsibility for it. In some instances this sentiment was translated into physical attacks on Iranians, Arabs and sometimes by whites even against black people. We have also seen the big auto and steel and other companies, with the help of their respective unions, use the excuse of foreign competition to increase national chauvinism and refocus the hostility of the working class away from a fight against the U.S. bosses and their economic policies. The ruling class has many ways to play its games.

If the Klan and the Nazis can be used by the bourgeoisie in such a way today, they could possibly be even more useful tomorrow. If the economic crisis deepens and there is a real and profound reaction among the poorest layers of society and in the working class, this could lead to new social struggles. In this case the bourgeoisie could have need of more than racist propaganda and isolated violence. The bourgeoisie would find it necessary to oppose and attack the workers, black people and others. If they need to make these kinds of attacks, groups like the Klan and the Nazis would be useful to carry out this work for them, to break these movements by extra-legal violence.

How Can the Klan and the Nazis Be Opposed?

Right wing groups like the Klan and the Nazis aim their attacks against specific groups like black people or Jewish people or workers. But we have from the past examples of communities who mobilized themselves to oppose threats of racist groups like the Klan or the Nazis.

We have especially seen this in Monroe, North Carolina, a small southern town.

In 1955, Robert Williams, a black Marine Corps veteran came home to Monroe and joined the local chapter of the NAACP. He began to help organize to integrate public facilities in Monroe. In response to a campaign to integrate the town swimming pool, the Klan began to mobilize and threaten violence. Local authorities looked the other way and eventually the Klan was able to mobilize crowds of up to 7,500. They rode through the black community honking their horns and firing pistols. The authorities refused to intervene.

Robert Williams, seeing no other choice, proposed that the community organize to defend itself. He saw no other way to do this than by also taking up arms. So he organized a chapter of the National Rifle Association, which began to function as a guard to protect the black community. In the summer of 1957 the Klan sent an armed motorcade to attack the house of an NAACP activist. There was a shoot-out between the Klan and Williams’ group and the Klan was forced to flee. The potential for violence where whites might have been killed, and the fact that Williams’ group was keeping order in place of the police, frightened the local authorities badly enough to bring them to take a certain stance of neutrality. They passed a city ordinance banning the Klan from Monroe without a special police permit.

The result of the black community’s being armed and prepared to defend itself meant in this circumstance that the Klan was prevented for a period from enforcing its will on the black community. We can also say that no black people were killed.

The struggles continued over the next few years, and for the most part the attacks by the Klan were thrown back, because the black people of Monroe remained organized and armed.

Williams was later framed up and fled into exile. But the example of Monroe shows that when a community is threatened, there are people in it who are ready to answer the threat. And if someone is able, like Williams, to show them the way, they are able to mobilize their community. The black community of Monroe by organizing itself was able to defend itself. Williams and the black people of Monroe were not afraid to take up arms and defend themselves. They faced violence and death. But they would have faced the same risks with worse odds if they themselves had done nothing to oppose the Klan violence.

This fall we saw a community mobilization against the Nazis. When the Nazis threatened marches and rallies in Evanston and Skokie, suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, the communities organized themselves against this invasion. In one case a crowd threw rocks and tomatoes and wounded a Nazi leader and forced the Nazis to stop their rally. In another case several thousand people from the community drove the Nazis out, refusing to allow them to march.

These communities have a substantial number of Jewish people living there, some of whom were victims of the Nazi concentration camps. The American Nazis stand in the tradition of the Holocaust, and it outraged the people of these communities that the Nazis dared to present themselves. Because there was a real mobilization of the community, the Nazis were forced out.

It is possible to mobilize people when they feel themselves immediately threatened. We have seen this in the last few months in the city of Atlanta, Georgia. Fearing that they are the victims of a racist maniac, who has killed over a dozen black children, the black community of Atlanta has been beginning to organize its own defense through a community mobilization. Rather than accepting that they are simply fated to continue to be the victims of such a killer, while the authorities have done little to deal with the problem, the community has tried to come up with ways to look after the children and to patrol the community itself.

These three examples show that people can learn to have confidence in themselves and to depend on their own solutions, implemented by their own organization and based on their own activity.

In Monroe, Evanston or even Atlanta there were no other forces in the society that could be counted on to solve the problems confronting people. Obviously there is no guarantee of protection or of averting violence. But for people under attack to put their faith in the authorities or someone outside of themselves, is much more dangerous. It is the first thing that people have to learn. And it is the first thing that revolutionaries have to teach people who come under attack.

How Do the Leftists Propose to Oppose the Nazis and the Klan Today?

Over the last few years many of the small revolutionary groups from several political tendencies, including some Trotskyists, have focused a good part of their time and attention on what they call fighting the Klan and the Nazis.

In Detroit, for example, a number of these groups spent several months demonstrating against a bookstore opened by the Nazis. If the leftists hadn’t shown up, the bookstore probably would have gone almost unnoticed. Instead it became a big news item. PL (Progressive Labor) also got some attention when a dozen or so of their members attacked several Nazis in downtown Detroit. But what did all this accomplish? If no one feels threatened or upset by the opening of such a bookstore or of a few Nazis who want to parade downtown what does the revolutionary movement accomplish by attacking them? At most it seems a little silly to people and at worst it may be the revolutionaries who make the worst impression on the workers, as being undemocratic and bullies.

In fact in these circumstances, the leftists acted by themselves when no one else cared about it, given that no one else felt endangered by the Nazis. In these circumstances not only did the revolutionaries do nothing to teach people about what to do, but they also presented themselves and the left as something alien to the people. That was the only result of their activity.

If these activities in Detroit were useless, the events in Greensboro were tragic. Several times in recent months, leftists have organized demonstrations against the Klan. As long as the Klan was not a real threat, their bluff had little consequence. Probably those leftists, themselves, didn’t believe that the Klan was a real threat, but they could pretend that they had done something important. But if the Klan and the Nazis are a real threat, the problem is not to demonstrate against them but to be prepared and armed to defend yourself against them. When people are ready to kill you, it is wrong and worse than stupid to think that a demonstration is the answer. In Greensboro when the CWP yelled “Death to the Klan” it was the CWP who did the dying.

Today it is the tragic death of a few revolutionary militants we have witnessed; tomorrow it could mean the death of many workers and black people if they too would follow such a strategy. If the workers or black people or anyone threatened by the Klan believes that the answer to the Klan is an unarmed demonstration, it could be tragic.

The answer to the violence and the racist attacks of the Klan is the answer of Robert Williams and the people of Monroe. The answer is the mobilization of the community, understanding in a clear and conscious way what it is up against and prepared to defend itself by whatever means are necessary and possible at the time.

The task of the revolutionaries is to tell people that the only answer to problems like those posed by the Nazis or the Klan is to organize and depend on defending themselves. It is to find people who are ready to do this and help them to do it, as Williams did in Monroe. The task is to help people gain a confidence in themselves and see that they can depend on themselves and their own activity. When the people who are affected are not part and parcel of a fight, then the fight does not mean anything.

A Competition between the Working Class Movement and the Right Wing

With the deepening of the economic and social crisis, we could see groups like the Klan and the Nazis experience a quick development and rapid growth. They could have an influence at least among a section of the white workers. They could be used in this circumstance really to divide the working class.

They could constitute an organized strength against all parts of the working class movement: the unions, other workers’ organizations, civil rights groups, and any organizations of the left.

If we look at the Klan and the Nazis today, we can understand why people who are disgusted with the current situation could be attracted to them. They may be small but they want to grow and recruit cadre and put together an organizational network. Today they are very active.

Today by their statements and their violence they give a militant and tough appearance. They seem ready to fight. And they attempt to be present in the working class. They appeal to those people whose minds are twisted by racism. But they also appeal to some people who are frustrated and angry at the society and want to act.

If a large number of people in the future would be ready to go to the Klan and the Nazis, it would be because they are drawn to radical and violent solutions. But it’s not only the right wing which can propose radical solutions. The left also has its own to propose.

To prevent groups like the Klan and the Nazis from attracting people, there has to be a kind of competition against them by the workers’ movement. It must be able to present other solutions, a different policy and perspective which allows people to fight back against the effects of the crisis. The working class movement must be able to show both the working class and the petty bourgeoisie a way out of the problems that they face, problems that the Klan hopes to exploit. To do this, the working class movement must appear as tough and militant and determined as the right wing looks, and it must also offer radical solutions.

If the workers’ movement is able to do this, the oppressed could be mobilized, not only against the Nazis and the Klan, but in a fight for a better life. Even those workers who today are racist could be mobilized through such activity. Through their struggles, they could put their racism behind them.

The revolutionaries are the only ones who can propose radical solutions to the working class. To organize demonstrations which are just for the leftist groups, to put themselves forward in the place of the working class–all of this is to avoid the task of the revolutionaries. Their task is, when they can, to help the oppressed attacked by the Klan to organize themselves, in the manner of Monroe. But above all, the task of revolutionaries is to be active in the working class, to defend a radical and revolutionary perspective.