Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu May 10 07:15:04 MDT 2001

Last night I watched the first part of a PBS television show on the
Conquistadors (, which devoted one hour
to Hernán Cortés, who did to the Aztec empire what Hitler did to the USSR,
and the second to Francisco Pizarro, destroyer of the Incas.

There is a certain morbid fascination to the career of such murderers.
Writer-director-narrator Michael Brooks is shown on a country road 100
miles outside of Mexico City. He asks a nearby farmer, "Is this the road
that Cortés and his men marched on?" For me, this is roughly equivalent to
taking a camera crew to present-day Munich and tracing the foot-steps of
Hitler. Perhaps I am being unkind to Hitler. If anything, he had more
dedication to civilized values than the conquistadors, who were murderous
kleptomaniacs. At least Hitler built the autobahn and launched Volkswagen.
A modern day conquistador would have dynamited all roads and factories,
except those that could facilitate the removal of blood-drenched booty.

Of much more interest was the peoples they victimized, especially--for
me--the Aztecs who I had not devoted much time to study in the past. Mostly
my reading has revolved around the Incas, since I was trying to understand
the background to some modern day issues in Mariategui's Marxism and the
Shining Path in Peru.

The great merit to Brooks' documentary is his careful attention to the
glories of 16th century Mexico through interviews with Aztec scholars and
graphic recreation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the realm of the emperor
Motecuhzoma. (i.e. Montezuma), usually juxtaposed against the ruins of the
old city in modern day Mexico City. With an Aztec pyramid set against a
Macdonald's, one surely has to question such terms as "barbarism" and
"civilization" as they are usually applied.

Even Cortés was forced to admit how impressive the city 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."

Well, we can say more. 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.

After the show ended, I went to the indigenous studies bookshelf of my home
library and picked up "The Daily Life of the Aztecs" by Jacques Soustelle,
a book published by Stanford University Press in 1961 that I recommend
highly. Based on a cursory reading last night and this morning. Soustelle
appears to be informed by the Marxist method to some extent. He makes no
bones 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.

Although there has been an enormous effort in recent years to justify
conquistador/colonist genocide on the basis that the Aztecs were just as
"class-dominated" and violent, there are vast differences between the way
that Motecuhzoma ruled and the way that the viceroy ruled.

(I leave aside the question of human sacrifice here, except to say that
pro-colonizing apologists never deal with the question in context. They
neglect, for example, to point out that those sacrificed tended to be
captive soldiers rather than innocent civilians. In the last week or so,
during the aftermath of the revelations about ex-Senator Bob Kerrey's war
crimes in Vietnam, we have discovered how normal it is for the United
States to accept such "sacrifices" when they are in the name of protecting
"civilization". At least with the Aztecs, you understand that they believed
the gods would punish them if they did not follow a ritual. US imperialism,
with all its science and advanced thinking, makes no such excuses.)

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 battle-field. Finally, he could vote in the election
of local chiefs, a right that indigenous peoples lost as a consequence of

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" before jumping to any conclusions.

Louis Proyect
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