Lewis Henry Morgan and Social Development

Lewis Henry Morgan and Social Development
Vol. 107 No. 8


"Until the idea of property had advanced far beyond the point they [the American aborigines] had attained, the substitution of political for gentile society was impossible."

-- Lewis Henry Morgan, ANCIENT SOCIETY


Wherever a social system is based on classes, the ideas of those who form the ruling class inevitably influence ideas that seemingly have nothing to do with social relations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fields of archeology and anthropology.

Physical anthropology traces, across eons, the evolution of the species to its origins in extinct species of hominids. Similarly, archeology and social anthropology uncover the technology and the social relations of the past.

The farther back one goes in uncovering the ways in which humanity progressed in asserting some control over natural forces and organized itself into social units, the more one appreciates what Lewis Henry Morgan meant when he said:

"The latest investigations respecting the early condition of the human race are tending to the conclusion that mankind commenced their career at the bottom of the scale and worked their way up from savagery to civilization through the slow accumulations of experimental knowledge." (ANCIENT SOCIETY.)

Yet, as humanity progressed from primitive beginnings into civilization, as new areas of scientific knowledge opened to it, it lost sight of its social origins, just as it lost sight of its biological origins. Both became shrouded in mystery, and ignorance took the form of ideology that was, and still is, used to justify the social, political and economic status quo. In short, whole fields of science come under the influence of wealth and power. Science loses its character as science and becomes myth disguised as science. The social sciences in particular are subject to this perversion of objective science into a new science of propaganda. Indeed, it is no accident that, "The word propaganda was derived from the title of the Congregation for Propagating the Faith (Congregatio de propaganda fide), established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, which had jurisdiction over missionary work conducted by the Roman Catholic Church." (GROLIER'S ENCYCLOPEDIA.)

Similarly, capitalist society labors to instill the notion of its own immutability, that it is the best of all possible systems and that it has existed for all time. In this view of things, there is no place for the concept of progressive social development, despite overwhelming evidence showing that social is as real as technological development. It is nothing less than "social creationism," and it is as mystical in its way as is biblical creationism. It is an idea that is caricatured in "The Flintstones," where capitalist property and social relationships are depicted as existing unchanged since before the dawn of civilization, complete with monogamy, the marketplace, the stock exchange, investments and private property. All these institutions are depicted as fully developed within "primitive" societies. In this way, capitalism makes topsy-turviness out of an orderly progression of governmental and social institutions, and it uses the science of anthropology to do it.

An article appearing in the September issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN entitled "Life in the Provinces of the Aztec Empire" offers a case in point. Its author, Prof. Michael E. Smith of the State University of New York at Albany, repeats all the fanciful misconceptions heaped upon Aztec society by that pack of unwashed vandals styled the "conquistadors," the Spanish military conquerors of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Prof. Smith offers the following observations of his recent excavations of artifacts from the Aztec sites of Cuexcomate, Yautepec and Capilco just south of Cuernavaca: "The emperor Motecuhzoma [Montezuma] sat atop a complex social and political hierarchy, and the Aztec populace owed allegiance and tribute to nobles at various levels. Below the emperor were the kings of subject city-states" and below these were "local nobles...who were subjects of their city-state kings. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the commoners, whose tribute payments supported all these nobles." This background commentary sets the Aztec into the context of a fully developed feudal society and with a political government, fully two ethnical periods in advance of what their material conditions of production would have permitted.

When Hernan Cortez arrived at the Pueblo of Mexico in 1519, he and his compadre marauders not only rapidly destroyed what they found, they also encumbered the Aztecs with all of the trappings of feudal monarchy. Steeped in that society and the darkest period of Catholic reaction in history, they had neither the interest nor the imagination to investigate the social and governmental relationships that actually existed, even though their reports have betrayed their narrow parochial views.

They perceived that Montezuma, the elected military leader of the Aztecs, was an "emperor," ruling over an "empire" which in turn had "provinces." All of this was very quaint since none of it existed, but it "played well" in the royal court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Their vassal Cortez conquered an "empire"! What better way to have impressed their British, Dutch and Portuguese competitors?

Remarkably, the myth of this feudal Aztec empire has not only survived the centuries but other pre-Columbian societies, including Mayan and Inca, have been thrown into this stew. Indeed, the world over peoples steeped in tribal societies, devoid of the concept of private property and practicing a rudimentary communism, are and have been regularly invested with the trappings of monarchical splendor.

Not until Lewis Henry Morgan came on the scene was anything sensible said about the Aztecs. It was Morgan, who having lived among the Iroquois tribes of North America, gained an intimate familiarity with their institutions. In doing so, he began to compare them with other tribal peoples throughout the Americas and the world. Through customs and language he discovered the "fossilized" remains of the institutions of earlier societies that were no longer supported by the social relationships they had once represented. His discoveries were summarized in his monumental work ANCIENT SOCIETY.

His writings confirmed the essential unity of humanity's development; the fact that social development was not a capricious adaptation of fashionable institutions; that property forms have been developing for millennia and that the idea of private property took eons to evolve and gradually became seated in human consciousness; that the experience of humanity has developed but two forms of government: one based upon familial relationships, and the other, the political, based on geographical areas. Most importantly, Morgan discovered the materialist conception of history working independently of Marx and Engels who had made this discovery decades before.

The materialist conception of history was the death knell of all arbitrary postulations of historical and social development. Morgan demonstrated that the arts of subsistence, or what Marx and Engels termed the modes of production and distribution, were the ultimate determinants of governmental, social and cultural institutions.

The mode of production that existed among the aboriginal people of the Americas was communal ownership and tilling of tribal lands. The governmental organization resided in a series of blood-related tribal groupings and admitted no political organizational basis. These were termed by Morgan, from smallest unit to the largest: the gens, the phratry, the tribe, and the confederacy or league of tribes. Among such groups were elected chiefs. Montezuma was the elected military chief deposable at the behest of his tribal constituents.

The Aztecs, unlike the Greeks at the time of Cliestenes or Rome at the time of Romulus, had not reached that level wherein freemen of wealth and property outside of the tribal gens challenged the governmental form and drove society to adopt a territorial plan of government based upon ownership of land and private property.

The historical development of human social institutions is a fascinating and engrossing study that demonstrates the ephemeral character of the abominable system currently enthralling the human race. It is a study that points the way to a higher level of social development and a revolutionary change in property relationships; one that society is currently immersed in. It is a study that socialism embodies and that "establishment" anthropology knows nothing of as it remains academic and puerile.