By Sacha Ismail
North Korea’s underground detonation of a nuclear device on 9 October, with the threat of more tests to come, should be a cause of major alarm for the labour movement and left internationally.
So should the Bush government's push for sanctions against North Korea and the increased possibility of conflict in the region. Unfortunately the crisis has elicited a distinct lack of internationalist, “third camp” responses.
In Britain, we are used to the leaders of the labour movement supporting nuclear weapons. At this year’s TUC Congress, the General Council tried to force the RMT to withdraw a resolution against the replacement of Trident because Amicus, which organises those who work on the UK’s nuclear systems, objected (as Bob Crow put it, no doubt the executioners’ union objected to the abolition of the death penalty too). When it passed, the General Council issued a statement trying to explain it away, for fear of embarrassing the Blair government on the issue.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the debate, a proliferation of Stalinist and semi- or quarter-Stalinist “Trotskyist” groups across the world have defended North Korea’s nuclear test, usually posing the issue in terms of the country’s “right” to develop the bomb in order to defend itself or, even more bizarrely, its need to develop nuclear energy as a basis for economic development.
More than a week after the bang, most of the British far left has (somewhat oddly) yet to comment on the nuclear crisis in north-east Asia. Workers Power, however, might act as a stand-in for the bulk of pro-North Korean opinion internationally.
The 10 October edition of Workers Power argues that while “ordinary workers and peasants though should be clear that such weaponry in the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy of the country is hardly a source for celebrations”, “we defend North Korea’s right to possess nuclear weapons precisely because it is a powerful deterrent against Western imperialist threats against them.” Having defined North Korea, because of its nationalised economy, as a “degenerated workers’ state”, WP poses the issues more in terms of anti-imperialism: “Only a liberal pacifist, who has no concept of the unequal power relations between nation states under imperialism, would claim that semi-colonies must be or remain disarmed in the face of [imperialism].” (So North Korea is both a workers' state and a semi-colony?!)
What a mess. Firstly, the idea that North Korea, probably the most totalitarian regime on earth, and where a third of children suffer from chronic malnutrition, is a workers’ state! Secondly, although it is certainly a small nation threatened by giant imperialist powers, North Korea is not a colony or semi-colony fighting for national liberation.
Beyond that, however, Workers Power poses the issue wrongly: “Of course, the question for socialists is why is North Korea not allowed nuclear weapons but the USA, France, UK and Israel are?” In fact the question for revolutionaries should be just the opposite: why would we want any state to possess nuclear weapons?
The old Stalinist idea of the “workers’ bomb” was in large part wrong because the USSR was quite self-evidently not ruled by the workers, but by an aggressive and predatory bureaucracy (much like North Korea, though of course on a much larger scale). But should socialists want even a genuine workers’ democracy to have nuclear weapons? There is nothing pacifist about answering no.
The first workers’ states to be established after a socialist revolution will have to defend themselves with armed force, both against internal counter-revolution and assaults from the capitalist world. This will, clearly, require weapons. It will almost certainly require the killing of human beings. But nuclear weapons are a different order of things. By their very nature, they are instruments of mass murder and terror, wiping out whole cities and causing lasting damage to people and the environment even after the flames have died. The threat to use these weapons, which is implied by possessing them, is necessarily an act of counter-revolutionary terrorism and savagery.
For obvious reasons, then, we do not want the ruling class of any country to have its finger on the nuclear button. With the International Atomic Energy Authority saying that between 20 and 30 now have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a “very short time-span”, this should be a massive issue for the anti-war movement. But equally we should advocate nuclear disarmament as part of the programme to be carried out by a workers’ government, as an act of propaganda to workers and the oppressed everywhere.
It is important to state this clearly because even socialists less bug-eyed than Workers Power seem to be missing the point. The 12 October edition of Scottish Socialist Voice, for instance, leads with a satirical piece attacking the British government’s “nuclear ambitions”, next to a picture of Blair in Kim Jong-Il-style garb. The problem here is not the SSP’s opposition to Britain’s nuclear programme, with which Solidarity wholeheartedly agrees, but the failure to recognise that the development of nuclear bombs by the Stalinist lunatics who run North Korea is even an issue.
This does not mean - of course - that socialists should support the US’s sabre-rattling or the threat of sanctions against North Korea. The latter will almost certainly, as in Iraq, further immiserate the North Korean masses while strengthening the dictatorship’s control. We must also oppose the threat of a military conflict, which could draw China and Japan into a regional whirlpool. Resisting economic sanctions and military action is at least as important as sounding the alarm bell against North Korea’s nuclear tests.
Nonetheless, socialists must oppose nuclear all weapons and demand their immediate dismantling - in North Korea, the US, Israel, the UK and everywhere.