It pains me to admit it, but the Klan won. The three dozen or so Klansmen apparently had no supporters on the scene of Saturday's rally. The anti-Klan ralliers had supporters they couldn't control, and in the aftermath, the labels reserved for the Klan -- vicious, violent, ignorant, cowardly, mob-minded -- were stuck all over the Klan's enemies.

The Klan won.

They didn't win converts, of course. The long-touted, twice-delayed rally was never about winning converts, at least not here in Washington. No one expected any serious switching of philosophies, from Klan to anti-Klan, or vice versa. Rallies of this sort are not political debates. They are public-relations gimmicks, calculated to make the marchers look good and their targets look bad. They are calculated to say to the nation, through means of television and other news media: you may not agree with everything we say, but if you'll just pay attention to us, you'll have to admit that there is some truth behind our allegations. And even if you don't agree, the favorable publicity, whether we come off as surprisingly self-controlled or manage only to expose the ignorance and savagery of the other side, will help our cause.

The Klan won.

It wasn't a shut-out, by any means. There were intelligent, thoughtful speeches by some of the anti-Klan demonstrators who thought it was worthwhile to make clear that the white-robed racists were not welcome in the national capital, to show that this 126-year-old hate group no longer had the capacity to strike fear in the hearts of blacks and Jews, to charge the Reagan administration with having created the economic and political climate that encourages the Klan's resurgence.

It is fair to point out that the organizers of the counterdemonstrations were as dismayed as anyone at the smashing and looting that took place largely after the handful of Klansmen were long gone. It is fair to note that only a small, uncontrolled and unaffiliated minority of those present at the rallies actually engaged in lawlessness. But it is also fair to point out that the memories that will remain are not of impassioned and well-reasoned speeches or the Klan's exhortations against amnesty for illegal aliens. What will be remembered is the smashing and looting and cop-baiting.

The Klan won.

It had been my private opinion that the counterdemonstrations were a mistake in the first place, not because I anticipated that there would be looting or that the crowd would turn on the police, but because I thought the counterdemonstrations would increase the national publicity that was the Klan's purpose all along. If the power had been mine, I would have limited the participants to three dozen robed bigots, 50 or 60 police officers and no one else: no counter rallies, no heckling, no TV cameras. Nothing.

Unfortunately, other, more influential people saw it differently. Now that the mistake has been made, my only hope is that we will stop compounding it by trying to make what happened Saturday the fault of the Klan in particular or of white racism in general (though there is still plenty of that around).

The black leadership would be well advised to take its losses and not try to shift the blame, whether to "Trotskyist radicals" who, according to D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, incited black youths to violence, or to Reaganomics-induced despair.

There seems to have been some incitement, and certainly there is much despair. But my hunch is that most of Saturday's looting had less to do with despair than with the opportunity for getting something for nothing and having a little fun. After all, Sholl's Cafeteria, the Madison National Bank and the Big Wheel bike shop, which suffered the brunt of the looting and smashing, are no more allied with the Klan than the most fervent anti-Klan demonstrator.

What happened Saturday is more helpful to the Klan and more harmful to black people than anything a few dozen hooded idiots could have managed on their own.

Instead of trying to justify the violence, Washington's leadership should be proposing ways to reimburse its innocent victims. It may be too late to deny the Klan its victory, but it isn't too late for responsible people to start acting responsibly.