Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 20, 2013

Thinking about the Aztecs

Filed under: indigenous,Mexico — louisproyect @ 4:47 pm

Back in the late 90s, when I first began to research indigenous societies with an eye toward applying Mariategui’s writings to the contemporary world, I received stiff resistance from leftists—particularly on PEN-L, the Progressive Economists Network mailing list. There were two talking points heard over and over again. The first is that there was no such thing as an ecological Indian, the proof being their role in fomenting bison stampedes that supposedly left hundreds of animals to the vultures (thus begging the question of the role of carrion in sustaining raptors and other predators, not to speak of the virtual inability of hunting-and-gathering societies to make a real dent in the animal population.)

The other point was directed more toward the class societies of Mexico and Peru, with the Aztecs taking the brunt of the attacks. This was typical, coming from Barkley Rosser, a post-Keynesian:


     Ah, but then we have the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs.  Next we shall hear about the “light rule” by the Germans at Auschwitz.

Barkley Rosser

With this in the back of my mind, I looked forward to my vacation in Mexico City last May since it would enable me to see the ruins left by this “savage” race with my own eyes. Upon my return, I read volume one of Alan Knight’s 3-part history of Mexico that ends with the arrival of the Conquistadores. I had major problems with Knight’s analysis but in retrospect found it useful as a source of basic information as well as an example of the difficulty of fully “understanding” what motivated the Aztecs, particularly the controversial practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism.

sun_pyramidThe Sun pyramid in Teotihuacan

sun_pyramid_halfwayHalfway up the Sun pyramid

Despite the impression that many tourists have that the great pyramids in Teotihuacan were built by Aztecs, they were actually built by Indians whose ethnicity remains indeterminate. At its peak, Teotihuacan had a population of 200,000 making it one of the largest cities in the world in the early 10th century. When you go to Teotihuacan, you can see the two great pyramids that will be there until the end of time, as well as small groups of buildings that illustrate how ordinary people lived and worked.

Just north of Mexico City, Teotihuacan was in effect the capital of the valley that coincides with the modern state of Mexico, within the country of the same name, and that refers to an Aztec subgroup, the Mexicas.

Knight attributes Teotihuancan’s rapid growth to the advantage it enjoyed over control of obsidian that it traded near and far. Obsidian is glass formed by volcanic eruptions that can be transformed into a weapon, including the daggers that were used in sacrifices.

Knight sums up the Teotihuacan economy as follows, with an obvious bid to define it in terms of basic Marxist categories.

Mesoamerican exchange, being both ancient and extensive, embraced many forms. It involved both subsistence and ‘exotic’ goods; it was dictated by ecological endowment and local craft specialization; and it was governed by principles of both reciprocity-whereby groups exchanged mutually desired goods, sometimes along chains of actual or fictive kin – and redistribution, whereby chiefs and elites, enjoying privileged access to the supply of goods, were responsible for collecting and distributing them among their people. Such forms of exchange were not premised on considerations of profit-maximization or capital accumulation. ‘Use-values’ rather than ‘exchange-values’ predominated. [G.A. Cohen’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of History is referenced here.] There was no profit motive to serve as a spur to greater production. To the extent that (modest) accumulation occurred, it did so for reasons of insurance: agricultural surpluses could not be banked, but they could, to a limited extent, be converted into durable exchange goods which, when times were hard, could be traded for consumption goods. Pots or jade were the Mesoamerican equivalent of the French peasant’s cache of louis d’or hidden under the floor.

Inexplicably Knight, who is certainly erudite in the Marxist canon, does not refer to pre-Columbian societies as tributary, a term that encompasses European feudalism as well as far more primitive societies such as the kind that existed in Teotihuacan. John Haldon’s “The State and the Tributary Mode of Production” is key to this understanding but not referenced in Knight at all.

Haldon suggests that the most logical definition of this mode is one that centers on the extraction of surpluses from the direct producers either in the form of tax or rent through “extra-economic” means. In other words, the state itself is the appropriator. Haldon cites this passage from Vol. 3 of Capital in order to establish the Marxist credentials of such an approach:

It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct laborer remains the ’possessor’ of the means of production and labor conditions necessary for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property relationship must simultaneously appear as a direct relationship of lordship and servitude, so that the direct producer is not free; a lack of freedom which may be reduced from serfdom with enforced labor to a mere tributary relationship. [Haldon’s emphasis]

As our tour guide explained in our day trip to Teotihuacan, the Aztecs simply took over abandoned buildings almost like squatters in Detroit taking over luxury buildings abandoned early on in the financial crisis.

But the one site that we saw in Mexico City of Aztec origin is as impressive as Teotihuacan even if much smaller in size. I am speaking of Tlatelolco, today a working-class neighborhood in the west of the city that was the heart of their civilization.

tlatlelocoIn Tlatelolco

The Aztec empire was centered in today’s Mexico City that sat upon Lake Texcoco and which they called Tenochtitlan. After the Spanish conquest, the lake was drained in order to make way for capitalist development with dire environmental consequences. There was room now for textile mills and plantations at the expense of fresh water, a general consequence of the creation of many modern cities like Los Angeles.

Tlatelolco was the site of the Aztec’s last stand against the Spanish in 1519 as well as the site of the massacre against university students in 1968. If you visit the Plaza of the Three Cultures, you will see monuments to both massacres.

In April 1519 Hernán Cortés defeated the last Aztec emperor Moctezuma, taking advantage of resentment toward Aztec rule. Tribes paying tribute to the Aztecs in terms of crops, labor, and skulls were more than willing to ally with the Spaniards as would happen in Peru with the Incas. In both cases, the indigenous subjects of these native empires ended up far worse.

In Knight’s chapter on the Aztecs, there’s a lot more substance because the scholarship is grounded in first-hand accounts of Aztec society. This much is pretty well established. The people who eventually constituted Mexico’s most powerful empire started out in the north of the country as primitive warriors. As they moved south toward Tenochtitlan, they grew more powerful and more sophisticated economically and socially but always ruling through force more than consent. Their reign was relatively short-lived; for the two centuries prior to the arrival of the Spaniards they were the Romans of Mexico with subject peoples both benefiting and suffering under their domination.

Despite Knight’s tendency to create specious analogies between the Aztecs and European elites such as the Bourbons or the Prussian gentry, he does make some useful points. Since he is not a specialist in early Mexican history, his scholarship rests understandably on secondary sources.

According to Knight, the Spaniards were “horrified” to discover 100,000 skulls in Aztec temples. Although human sacrifice predated Aztec civilization, there is general agreement that the practice accelerated in the period of their ascendancy during the 14th and 15th centuries. Explaining such a bloodbath is a major challenge to archaeologists and anthropologists.

Knight raises the possibility that mass sacrifices were linked to cannibalism. Despite the religious role such institutions played in Aztec society, there was a more functional explanation for their growth and persistence, namely a need to get adequate amounts of food due to population pressures in the context of unfavorable ecological conditions. In other words, human flesh was devoured for the same reason the Mormons in the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism. Either consume human flesh or die. This theory was advanced by Marvin Harris in “Cannibals and Kings” but ultimately rejected by Knight.

Knight does give credence to the idea that sacrifice and cannibalism served “materialist” ends but finally subsumes it under the generalized needs of a warrior/priestly caste to maintain its hegemony:

Domestically, the latent function of sacrifice was to legitimize the role of the tlatoani and his immediate entourage (a role greatly enhanced with the revolution of the 1420s). Constant sacrifice attested to the political virility and social indispensability of the new ruling class. It linked rulers and ruled in a system of rewards and sanctions which underwrote the revamped, imperialist Aztec state. Warriors won promotion by hauling in prisoners of war for sacrifice (even though this might be militarily counterproductive in terms of battles won and territory subdued); merchants bought prestige by offering up slaves for the slab. In the massive redistribution of goods which the Aztec empire undertook (which, in a sense, was the Aztec imperial economy), sacrificial victims were a basic commodity. Rulers ruled by redistributing such commodities, and their (better-off) subordinates gained preferment and honour by playing their part in the great re-distributive system. This system was so pervasive and – in terms of certain economic principles – irrational, that the Aztec state has, with justice, been termed a gigantic ‘potlatch state’, a state predicated on the collection, redistribution and conspicuous consumption of a vast quantity of diverse goods. Sacrifice represented a hypertrophied form of potlatch, with humans playing the part elsewhere reserved for pigs.

Once the Spanish established their rule over the indigenous peoples, they abolished sacrifice and erected cathedrals over the demolished ruins of Aztec temples. As Christians with a firm grasp of scientific principles, the Spaniards adopted a missionary zeal in pursuit of civilizing the savages. The net result was an end to ritualized murder and its replacement by the normal attrition found through starvation wages in the silver mines of Mexico or through disease. When the Spaniards arrived in the beginning of the 16th century, there were 14 million inhabitants of the Aztec empire. By the end of the century there were 1 million. No Spaniard would have been “horrified” by this since it was simply the expected outcome of the natural world governed by the laws of property.

Although Knight’s scholarship is trustworthy for the most part, it is utterly bereft of any discussion of the benefits of Aztec rule. If the Romans were cruel, they at least were the source of Virgil’s poetry and temples galore.

Even Cortés was forced to admit how impressive Tenochtitlan was, starting with the palace of the ruler: “Motecuhzoma had a palace in the town of such a kind, and so marvellous, that it seems to me almost impossible to describe its beauty and magnificence. I will say no more than there is nothing like it in Spain.”

The Aztec capital city was literally a great work of art that people lived in. There were flower gardens everywhere, including those that hung from the roofs of government buildings. The Aztecs loved birds as much as they loved flowers and public aviaries dominated the center of the city. After the conquistadors overthrew the Aztec monarch, they torched the gardens and the aviaries.

That was the Tenochtitlan described by Jacques SoustellesS in “The Daily Life of the Aztecs”, a book published by Stanford University Press in 1961 that I recommend highly. Soustelle has no qualms about calling the Aztecs a “ruling class” and explains how their power rested on the sort of tributary extraction of surplus product from peasants that typified all such societies. Keep in mind that indigenous peoples in the New World were not exclusively communalist. If the North American Indians adhered to a strict egalitarian sharing of bison, seal, corn, etc., their Mayan, Incan and Aztec cousins to the South had already evolved toward a highly sophisticated class society with all the full-time specialized occupations: officials, tradesmen, warriors, artisans, peasants, etc.

What we learn from Soustelle is that even the lowliest peasant in the Aztec empire had a right to retain the land he lived on for his entire life, a right that modern-day Mexicans do not even enjoy. Furthermore, unlike tributary societies in Europe and Asia, an Aztec commoner could rise out of his class and become honored and wealthy, especially through accomplishments on the battlefield. Finally, he could vote in the election of local chiefs, a right that indigenous peoples lost as a consequence of colonialism.

Does European colonialism usher in a “higher stage” of social development? Before jumping to any such conclusions, one should examine Soustelle’s “Daily Life of the Aztecs”.


  1. Richard Greeman told me that Victor Serge wrote some stuff on the Aztecs. Do you know it it’s been translated?

    Comment by David Berger — August 20, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

  2. The Aztecs are but one of the pre Columbian groupings in Mexico. Think Zapotec, etc. Their achievements are dwarfed by those of the Inca in South America, who built 1,500 miles of roads, and of the Mayan civilization which was literate. Also see “1491”.

    Comment by Peter Myers — August 20, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

  3. There is more on the tributary mode of production in Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages.

    Why the fascination with moral judgments on successive modes of production? We’re in a mess right now, and we want to find the way out. The dynamics of pre-capitalist societies may provide lessons about ways that history moves; moral judgments only make it more difficult to learn them.

    Comment by Anthroanthropomorphic — August 20, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

  4. The Donner Party was headed west into California, well past Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Mormons settled. I don’t think any of the people in the Donner Party were Mormons.

    My family and I took a road trip out to Colorado this summer and saw the country that the Mormons (traveling west: the Colorado Plateau, Wasatch Mountains, Great Salt Lake) and the Donner Party (once past the Bonneville Salt Flats straddling Utah and Nevada, continuing west through the Basin and Ranges, and then the Sierra Nevada Mountains with Interstate 80 passing over the Donner Summit and Donner Pass area before dipping down into the Sacramento Valley). The land east of the Sierras (down-slope east and on) is considerably drier, and hot in summer.

    This post reminds me of my own trip to Chichen Itza, the Aztec city in the Yucatan, a part of Mayan territory under Aztec rule at the time of the Conquest. The Mayans had practiced human sacrifice long before Aztec rule, and there seems little doubt that the practice was a part of keeping elites in power. The practice was excused as a religious ritual to implore the rain gods to favor Mayan agriculture (there are no surface rivers in the Yucatan); it was enjoyed as a victory celebration by sacrificing war captives (something like the assassination of Osama Bin Laden); and it was undoubtedly maintained as a frightening reminder to the populace of just who was in charge and the wisdom of remaining obedient (something like the prosecution of Bradley Manning).

    We still live in a world of pyramid builders and pyramid schemes.

    Comment by Manuel Garcia, Jr. — August 21, 2013 @ 12:34 am

  5. The story of the Donner Party is well known. What is not as well known is the “Mormon Connection” to this story. This section is to acquaint the reader with this interesting, but little known, information.


    Comment by louisproyect — August 21, 2013 @ 12:52 am

  6. Why does man seem to repeat such economic arrangements? The European continent is just far enough from the Americas to make the Americas seem an impossibility beyond endless water so how is it that both places experienced something Marxists would describe as feudalism? Or am I wrong about that assertion? I think I can see why man, however separated different groups might be, would experience tribal life as the natural state but why would this lead to feudalism?

    Comment by Pandora — August 21, 2013 @ 4:54 am

  7. Briefly (I assert here I’m afraid, no room to argue) Amin and Haldon are wrong to conflate ancient states and feudalism into one mode, ie tributary. That Haldon does this even though as a historian of Byzantine he follows its passage from classic Roman imperial state into a medieval kingdom, I find strange. Still we Marxists have been know to construct theories based on the flimsiest evidence to suit our own little hobby horses. Wickham may well be evolving away from his earlier positions, hard to tell from his latest stuff but I’d personally argue he was at his clearest in his contribution to The Feudalism Debate ed. Harbans Mukhia, when Wickham argued that ancient societies were a distinct mode of production compared to feudalism: his basis being that centrally organized “tax” (I add by a ruling class based in the cities working through the state) society is not the same as rural ruling class extracting surplus directly from the bulk of the population. Therefore none of the urban civilizations of the Americas were feudal, all “ancient”.
    More importantly thanks for the great review of Knight must read it now and see what he says.

    Comment by Harry Monro — August 21, 2013 @ 9:33 am

  8. Pandora: “Why does man seem to repeat such economic arrangements?”

    The universals go even further.
    * About ten thousand years ago, populations around the world turned from hunting plus rudimentary gardening to real agriculture. Diffusion from one society to a neighboring one does not explain it all.
    * Classes emerge in nearly all agrarian societies.
    * And there are clear signs of capitalism germinating in India and China before European colonialists subjugated their economies.

    Must be something to that paradigm of the forces of production always inching forward – which gives rise to revolutionary changes in relations of production.

    Comment by Follow the labor — August 21, 2013 @ 7:11 pm

  9. Im fine with the idea of the forces of production giving birth to new societies but why is it those societies, separated to such an extent they know nothing about one another, develop into feudal realms or tributaries etc? I think I can understand why tribalism is the first such order but anything after that reshaping itself into feudalism, or tributary, the world over is that much more curious to me.

    Comment by Pandora — August 22, 2013 @ 2:55 am

  10. I still think reading V Gordon Childe is useful on this, OK since he died decades ago much new evidence on the Neolithic Revolution and later the emergence of the Bronze Age, his language (barbarism etc) seems odd to some, but his arguments are still pertinent. The first think not all humans made to change from forager to neolithic farmer; and most probably picked up the changes from neighbors rather than made the transition themselves. In different parts of the world some regions began to produce larger an larger surpluses and better methods of long term storage; and I suspect most of them were happy with that. In some places though embryonic elites did emerge and through perhaps a combination of ideology and violence emerged as a ruling class. But everywhere the circumstance for the development were different, so emergent forms of crops, livestock (and therefore the basis for the economy) were different, control of water was important in some places negligible in others, topography no doubt played a part. So cultures around the world looked very different in dress, cuisine, language etc. However I think there are only so many ways to coerce the majority of the population to accept rule by the minority; and given that in the transition from Neolithic to Bronze age populations were small and technologies limited, the elite everywhere was forced through trial and error to combine together into a strong state, based on urban fortresses/palaces. I’d argue that American civilizations never proceeded further than this stage.
    The arrival of the iron age vastly increased populations, productivity and weapon technologies; a strong state (often capable of constructing huge empires that were more homogeneous than Bronze Age “empires”) was still the most successful form of rule.
    If that is a bit reductionist for some, I’m sorry, but I think Marxists really fall out amongst themselves over what happens next. Iron age empires have crises and collapse but in most regions a strong state re-emerges and either subsumes or destroys embryonic feudalism within it, China, India for instance; however these places remain regions of technological and economic innovation. In Japan feudalism emerges and becomes dominate before civil war forces the elite to curb their individualism and to go back to a dominant state. In some parts of Europe feudalism becomes completely dominant and in some of those places capitalism seems to emerge not just as a economic sub-system but take on a political role role as a new confident class. In other parts of Europe and also in places like Iran the capitalists will instead help curb feudal power by building absolutist states. But all of these events in terms of changes are just trial by error by ruling elites the world over. Changes can be as much about individual accident as by bigger things like plagues, famines, aggressive neighbors etc. But throughout all of this, the most successful ways to exploit and dominate lasted the longest, even though cultures could remain wildly different; and of course ruling classes from the bronze age onwards learnt lessons from their rivals and from distant systems. I think their are parrallels with evolution, there is no grand design or plan; yet bats and birds can both fly, and marsupial “wolves” emerged much like real wolves in other parts of the world; even though they fed off fantastically different prey.

    Comment by Harry Monro — August 22, 2013 @ 11:35 am

  11. Louis,

    I do not know why you necessarily go to a historian to read about the Aztecs instead of many of the anthropological archaeologists who are much better versed in both the early Spanish historical sources and the archaeology of the region.

    Two names come to mind: Michael E. Smith who specializes in the Aztecs, and who may not be explicitly Marxist, but is definitely materialist and whose work can be translated into a Marxist perspective. He has published a book “The Aztecs” for a non-specialist audience. Here is his home page:


    There is a lot of material linked there, including bibliographies, non-technical articles and peer-reviewed stuff.

    Another name that comes to mind that publishes on gender and class and is definitely influenced by Marxism, is Elizabeth Brumfiel.

    I just went to look her page up and was shocked to see that she passed away in January 2012. (I was a grad student, specializing in the Inca and Wari of Peru, and now a Ph. D. dropout in the early part of of the 2000, so I am out of the academic archaeology game). But Smith and Brumfiel would have been on my go-to sources for the Aztecs. Here is a Brumfiel obituary:


    Teotihuacan was abandoned by its original inhabitants by 800 A.D. or so by the way, its peak being in the centuries later. That’s why you go to the archaeologists, not the tour guides.

    Comment by Sheldon — August 25, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

  12. Short follow up:

    From Brumfiel’s obituary linked above, she was bestowed this honor:

    “Her strong voice on social justice and human rights as AAA President led conservative author David Horowitz to list Brumfiel as one of the “101 Most Dangerous Professors in America” in 2006.”

    Comment by Sheldon — August 25, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

  13. I do not know why you necessarily go to a historian to read about the Aztecs instead of many of the anthropological archaeologists who are much better versed in both the early Spanish historical sources and the archaeology of the region.

    If I could start over, that’s exactly what I would have done. The next time I am over at Columbia, I will definitely take out something by Brumfiel. That being said, I have some investment in understanding Knight’s work since it is so tightly connected with the Political Marxism group.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 25, 2013 @ 7:26 pm

  14. Fair enough! Smith is good also.

    Comment by Sheldon — August 25, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

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