Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3
THE FIVE-HUNDREDTH anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the new world unleashed a flood of left wing nostalgia, a stream in which anti-imperialist feeling merged with utopian sentimentality about the societies swept away by the Spanish conquest. This book should bring us back to dry land again with its cool appraisal of one of the most spectacular of these civilisations, that of the Aztecs, probing the structure of their society, and unlocking the driving forces of its development.
The author points out that the capital, Tenochtitlan, was ‘a beautiful parasite, feeding on the lives and labour of other peoples’ (p. 8), emphasising how it took less than a century for ‘a miserable collection of mud huts scraped together on a swampy island by a clutch of miserable refugees’ to develop the ‘imperial splendour and the massive elaboration of the vision of the city’ (p. 37). This naturally involved a move ‘from the relative egalitarianism and known neighbourliness of the early days of settlement and struggle to the inequalities and social distances of the city in its maturity’ (pp. 37–8). The social gap between beggar and noble was enforced by differential law codes, sumptuary regulations and tribute obligations, underpinned by the plundering of other communities of wealth and sacrificial victims by a protection racket that could have taught Al Capone a thing or two.
Whilst developing her analysis the writer deals damaging blows to the naive assumption that capitalism alone is a society built on competition, and the fiercely competitive mechanism of Aztec society had the added unpleasantness that it centred around obtaining human sacrificial victims. Socialists who have for so long accepted Lewis Henry Morgan’s analysis of it as some sort of ‘democracy’ in Ancient Society and Montezuma’s Dinner should take a good hard look at this book. So however we may regret the loss of so much beautiful art, which can be sampled by a visit to the British Museum’s new Mexican gallery, it was not the least of Spanish imperialism’s achievements during its ‘golden century’ to have swept this appalling system away, whatever we may feel about what replaced it.
Of course, the Aztecs were not the first civilisation in the Valley of Mexico to develop so spectacularly, or to fall so completely. Whilst the author has an acute sense of the rapidity with which Aztec society developed, she does not agree that it was bound for a collapse that could be just as rapid. Here she departs from the view held previously that this society had already overreached itself by the time of the Spanish conquest, describing the idea that ‘any polity has “inevitable limits”, to be an underestimation of ‘the flexibility of human arrangements and invention’ (p. 309, n41). This has probably more to do with the self-confidence of American capitalism during its own ‘golden century’ than with any generalisation about society based upon history, which has always passed its own verdict on imperial splendour. But be that as it may, it does not alter the fact that this book is useful, informative and enjoyable.
Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011