The DPRK, Nuclear Weapons, and ‘Morality’
26 April 2021
Objective, material reality can be measured. In accordance with that, beliefs about the nature of novel viruses or beliefs about our Solar System evolve over time and are subject to change; and it is because of ongoing observations, measurements, and advances in science. In contrast to that, morality– or rather, bourgeois morality, does not change on such grounds because it is purely social and cultural. At best, it is a weak argument for or against an issue. There have always been competing doctrines, ideologies, and theories; but ongoing methodical and investigative analyses of evidence points to one of those ideas or concepts as being correct, most accurate, or most principled.
For instance, communists who take a principled anti-imperialist stance do not have a problem with North Korea (a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) building defensive nuclear weapons — vis-à-vis the formal linkage between nuclear arms development and economic advance — in order to deter the United States and its allies who seek to invade the country, destroy them, reverse their revolutionary gains, and exploit their natural resources and labour power. The DPRK need not look any further than the examples of Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, and the “shock therapy” they received, to see what would happen if the U.S. were to succeed in completely destroying it.
However, communists do take major issue with the U.S. maintaining its nuclear umbrella doctrine and using it to threaten countries — such as the aforementioned DPRK, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela — which are bulwarks against imperialism and are not friendly towards Wall Street’s interests. As long as the U.S. refuses to give up its nuclear weapons, and as long as imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism , continues its drive towards war, there can be no true world peace and by extension there will be no reason for such a small nation such as the DPRK to give up its nuclear deterrents. Therefore, the principled objection is to the material conditions around that American nuclear umbrella and the very real consequences that befall the targets of U.S. foreign policy. Regardless of what one may think of their destructive powers and capabilities, nuclear weapons themselves are, in the end, inanimate objects; but historical context and how they are used matters. This is not to deny that ridding the world of nuclear weapons in the future is a noble goal; but it would need to be done on a worldwide scale, and the United States needs to give up its own nuclear weapons first.
As is always the case, Washington and the Western mainstream media will hypocritically finger-wag over the issue of North Korea building nuclear weapons and, as part of the imperialist propaganda effort, will condemn and demonize the nation, call for them to disarm, and paint them as a significant threat to U.S. national security. Even more baffling is when they also paint North Korea as a threat to the world. Nevermind the fact that in the past, the United States exterminated 20 percent of the North Korean population and literally burned the country to the ground during its 1950-1953 war of aggression on the nation (which was fighting in defense of its then-newly gained independence). On top of that, harsh sanctions have been imposed, along with countless imperialist-led regime change campaigns being waged against Pyongyang. Thus, the DPRK is exercising its right to self-defense, which is a clear principle for an oppressed nation to take up in response to a very real threat of invasion from an imperial superpower; inaction in this situation is considerably more risky than taking action. And as the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia (or whatever was left of it), Iraq, and Libya have shown, the American Empire will not hesitate to use the full force of its military against an already-battered nation that mistakenly gave up its most effective deterrent under international economic pressure from imperialist powers. It is not only absurd for purported “leftists” or “progressives” to uncritically parrot imperialist propaganda campaigns by condemning the DPRK for holding nuclear weapons, as well as to call for them to disarm, but it is also a failure on their part to take into account the material reality and environment which we live in: a world where the imperialists have massive nuclear arsenals themselves. “Peace” and “peaceful disarmament” in imperialist terms is nothing more than the justification and continuation of imperialist plunder; and those who work tirelessly to resist it by any means necessary are, essentially, castigated for being “morally impure” because unconventional methods such as the DPRK’s nuclear deterrents do not fit the “neat”, “clean”, pacifist ventures permitted by Utopian thinking. As Stephen Gowans wrote in a 2018 article in response to a diatribe against the Syrian Arab Republic and those who take a principled anti-imperialist stance:
“The beautiful soul is not of this world. The options available to people who achieve real gains in real world political struggles are rarely simple, and are often ugly and disagreeable to one degree or another. The beautiful soul removes himself from the real world of politics, like the monk retreating from the world into his cell, and thereby avoids having to make choices whose consequences may be regrettable. His politics revolve around denunciations of the choices made by people who act on the world to change it.”
Indeed, such liberal, Utopian thinking espouses the bourgeois sense of morality which is preoccupied with the avoidance of the destructive impact of nuclear weapons rather than looking at the reasons why the DPRK needs them, and the reasons why the United States needs them — the latter of which they offer little to no criticism to. It has even come to a point where these Western Utopianist-leaning “leftist peace activists”, in their moral-posturing, vehemently and hysterically oppose nuclear energy, which they wrongly equate with nuclear weapons. According to their naive if not warped view, anything and everything to do with nuclear power must be done away with now because it makes countries like the DPRK more “bloodthirsty,” “violent,” and “authoritarian”; but, at the same time, nuclear weapons should still remain in the hands of the United States. What this view fails to understand is that nuclear weapons are just symptoms of imperialist development and are results of the intensification of social antagonisms that arise from the capitalist system, which produces contradictions that have expanded beyond borders. Ending imperialism and capitalism, which would naturally end the drive towards war, is the only way to truly eliminate the need for nuclear weapons. In the words of Lenin on ‘the national and colonial questions’: “In this age of imperialism, it is particularly important for the proletariat and the Communist International to establish the concrete economic facts and to proceed from concrete realities, not from abstract postulates, in all colonial and national problems.”
Meanwhile, the White House press secretary in Washington will say that the United States needs its nuclear weapons to protect itself from foreign army invasions and threats to its national security. This is laughable considering that the power and the scale of the conventional U.S. military makes the possibility of a foreign army invasion very highly unlikely. By now it should be clear that the United States needs its nuclear weapons as tools to help maintain its global hegemonic position and to project its geopolitical interests abroad as an Empire. Essentially, nuclear weapons in the hands of the United States are a means for them to ensure that challenging its global dictatorship is made difficult — thus making it all the more easy to steal wealth and resources from other countries, even at just the mere implicit threat of possibly using them — as well as to stop any nation that wants to assert its independence and sovereignty and preserve its socialist gains. It should be fairly obvious that the American Empire is actually well aware of the destruction and the unnecessary deaths that its highly sophisticated nuclear weapons can cause; but that does not matter when there are profits to be extracted and preserved. The American Empire only has a problem with nuclear weapons when it is in the hands of a country such as North Korea because it is a threat to Wall Street’s profits and global monopoly.
The DPRK, on the other hand, is not only a small nation but also does not have the means to project power and use its nuclear weapons to wage wars of aggression abroad, unlike the United States; its nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) program are wholly defensive. Although the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is unable to compete with the U.S. military in terms of budget, resources, and scale, it cannot be denied that the DPRK’s nuclear deterrents have thus far prevented the United States from bringing another full-scale military invasion on North Korean soil. Ironically, the DPRK’s practical application of the ‘mutually assured destruction’ principle through its nuclear warheads and ICBM programs has actually done more to preserve the relative peace within its borders than any moral-posturing or fetishization of martyrdom from anti-nuclear Western “peace activists” could ever do; it has also prevented any residual damage that Japan (a U.S. ally) and Guam (a major strategic asset for the U.S. military) would receive if Washington were to bring about mass destruction and death again on the Korean peninsula. As Mao Zedong once aptly said: “…war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.”
More importantly, what we see here is a contradiction between bourgeois morality and proletarian morality under capitalism on the global stage, with each side struggling against the other and representing two different stages of historical development and existing economic relations. For all its promotion of asceticism to the poor, bourgeois morality has a tendency towards hypocrisy and double standards where codes of conduct rule in favour of the capitalist class (the oppressors). In contrast, proletarian morality or ‘human morality’ seeks to remove the contradictions of capitalism, is concerned with the collective well-being of society as a whole, and is consequential; it rejects “morality” on the basis of Utopianism. Friedrich Engels explains in Chapter 9 in Part I of Anti-Dühring:
“We maintain on the contrary that all moral theories have been hitherto the product, in the last analysis, of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality has always been class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or ever since the oppressed class became powerful enough, it has represented its indignation against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, no one will doubt. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which stands above class antagonisms and above any recollection of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life.”
The core of Marx’s criticism of capitalism is that it always expands without any regard to rationality. Bourgeois morality reflects this disregard to rationality and is a product of it, which Engels illustrates, in the same chapter, using the example of “Thou shalt not steal,” a Biblical phrase adopted into laws that exist to protect private ownership. Of course, under the world dominant system of capitalism, “Thou shalt not steal” does not apply to the capitalist class who extract wealth through mass exploitation and theft of wages. However, if someone who has a family to feed, and lives in poverty, were to resort to stealing food, then he or she will most likely feel the full force of the law if caught because his or her actions undermine the sanctity of private property. On top of that, bourgeois morality teaches and encourages people to direct feelings of self-righteousness and moral superiority towards the person who may have used a disagreeable method to achieve a goal, even if that person’s goal is survival — unlike the capitalists’, which is profit — under a system which creates the conditions for stealing in the first place. To which Engels says,
“Does this injunction thereby become an eternal moral injunction? By no means. In a society in which all motives for stealing have been done away with, in which therefore at the very most only lunatics would ever steal, how the preacher of morals would be laughed at who tried solemnly to proclaim the eternal truth: Thou shalt not steal!” 
Likewise, in the age of imperialism, the “eternal moral injunction” is “Thou shalt not build nukes — unless you are the United States,” the main difference being that the North Korean nuclear deterrents project is a nationwide collective effort; but in either case, survival (in the face of oppression) is a goal in spite of the possibly disagreeable method being used, while the capitalists’ profit-making goals remain the same. Just as motives for stealing would be done away with when capitalism ends and all of human society makes the transition towards communism, so would any reason to build nuclear weapons because, again, the end of capitalism and imperialism would mean the end of the drive towards war. Engels makes it clear that communists do not assume that there is no such thing as good or bad, but rather that ”…men, consciously or unconsciously, derive their ethical ideas in the last resort from the practical relations on which their class position is based — from the economic relations in which they carry on production and exchange.” Hence, proletarian morality acknowledges material conditions and accepts that political struggles should be based on scientific thinking and that sometimes a degree of flexibility is needed where “all the tools in the tool box” are used, figuratively speaking.
As Marxists, we should be supporting the positions we put forth because they are principled, and taking sides and making choices based on consequences — not because we believe that we should act the part of retreating monks and virtue-signal about how “clean” our hands are or how much “we turn the other cheek,” so to speak. Nor is it because we enjoy being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. The world has yet to reach ‘human morality’, but what the DPRK is exercising is a form of proletarian morality (a necessary step towards ‘human morality’) in their struggle against the imperialist bourgeoisie. This proletarian morality, as opposed to the individualistic constraints of bourgeois moralism, is driven by a hard-headed realism which produces quantifiable results for the benefit of the masses of a post-colonial society.
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Featured Image: Allegory with a portrait of a Venetian senator (Allegory of the morality of earthly things), by Tintoretto, 1585.