Prof. Michael E. Smith, Letter in response to the article 'Lewis Henry Morgan and Social Development'

Prof. Michael E. Smith,
Letter in response to the article
'Lewis Henry Morgan and Social Development'
***
THE PEOPLE
APRIL 1998
Vol. 108 No. 1

THE "AZTEC EMPIRE' -- PROFESSOR SMITH PROTESTS THE PEOPLE'S CRITIQUE

The following letter is from Prof. Michael E. Smith of the State University of New York at Albany, to whose article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN we referred to in our November issue.

______________________________________________________

"The Editor, THE PEOPLE

"Dear Sir:

"I am writing to protest errors and misleading statements in the article, 'Lewis Henry Morgan and Social Development,' by B.B. (November issue). The author compares my recent article on Aztec archaeological sites in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN to the cartoon series, 'The Flintstones,' in which stone age peoples are depicted with capitalist institutions. He further suggests that I simply perpetuate the biases of Cortes and the conquerors in describing the Aztec polity as an 'empire,' whereas Lewis Henry Morgan correctly classified these peoples at a tribal level comparable to the Iroquois.

"Although the Aztecs did have marketplaces where goods were bought and sold, these were not capitalist markets. Neither land nor labor could be bought in Aztec markets, and private property in its capitalist sense certainly did not exist in Aztec society. My view that the Aztec polity was an empire derives not from the opinions of the conquerors but from objective, material criteria for ancient empires such as the Roman or Assyrian cases. The Aztecs had a capital city ruled by a powerful king; they engaged in military conquest of foreign territory; they extracted tribute from subject peoples; and they had an elite class who enriched themselves at the expense of commoners. These are the characteristics of an empire, and there is abundant evidence for them among the Aztecs. There is not space in a magazine like SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN to present that evidence, but readers can see for themselves in my books, such as THE AZTECS (Blackwell Press, 1996) or AZTEC IMPERIAL STRATEGIES (by F. Berdan et al., Dumbarton Oaks, 1996).

"The author of your article was misled by his literal adherence to the work of Lewis Henry Morgan. Morgan's general theoretical approach, which remains valid a century later, should be separated from this specific historical evidence, much of which was incorrect. One of his most glaring errors, in the view of many historians, was his misclassification of the Aztec state as a tribal society. Morgan's materialist approach to cultural evolution, on the other hand, established the foundation for a century of productive empirical and theoretical research (both Marx and Engels were influenced by Morgan's work).

"As a materialist, I am sympathetic to the critical examination of cultural evolution and to the study of capitalism and its effects on knowledge. But the cause of materialism is not advanced by shoddy scholarship. For many centuries, Euro- centric thinkers tried to deny the accomplishments of the Aztecs and other American Indian groups, insisting that either they never advanced beyond the tribal stage, or that they achieved civilization only through contact with the Egyptians or Chinese. Modern archaeology takes a dim view of such preconceived notions, replacing them with the material evidence of ancient peoples' actions and accomplishments, including their struggles against the class oppression of empires like the Aztec and Inca.

"Michael E. Smith

"Professor of Anthropology

"Albany, N.Y."

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Prof. Smith says more about himself and his beliefs in his letter than he did in his article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. We do not believe that Prof. Smith can hold us responsible for any "errors" that may have flowed from what he chose not to say about his ideas and beliefs in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His article does not, for example, draw the same distinction between Aztec marketplaces and capitalist markets that his letter does. We cannot be held accountable for that. It was for Prof. Smith to make or not to make that distinction. He chose not to make it. We took notice of the omission and criticized him for it. Unfortunately, however, most other readers who saw his article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN are none the wiser for his letter. On this point at least it might be more accurate to say that it was he, and not we, who were "misleading," particularly in today's charged social atmosphere where the "virtues" of the capitalist "market economy" are being extolled from every corner of bourgeois society, including academia. If we were "misleading" in any way it was incumbent upon Prof. Smith to cite a passage or two from our criticism to support his protest. He does not do that by embellishing his letter with matter that did not appear in his article and was, until now, as much of a closed book to us as it remains to most other readers of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN.

Prof. Smith states that "many historians" disagree with Morgan's conclusions about Aztec society. We have no doubt of it. However, many historians are not all historians, and they may not even be the majority of historians. If we are guilty of "shoddy scholarship" because we agree with Morgan and disagree with Prof. Smith we are not alone.

Prof. Smith insists that "the Aztec polity was an empire." In THE AZTEC: MAN AND TRIBE, however, Victor von Hagen said "very definitely they were not an empire" and "that the misconception of there being an 'Aztec Empire' is actually a non sequitur of history...."

Prof. Smith claims that a capital city, ruled by a "powerful king," military conquest of foreign territory and the extraction of tribute from those they conquered "are the characteristics of an empire, and there is abundant evidence for them among the Aztecs." Working with much of that same abundance of evidence, however, Victor von Hagen came to much different conclusions. Concerning the "powerful king" Prof. Smith believes ruled over the "Aztec Empire," von Hagen said:

"The ruler of the Aztec had as title 'One Who Speaks' (derived from the verb tlatoa, to speak); he was elected....He was not absolute...he did not claim ownership of the land, the earth, the people...the Aztec were in theory democratic. Each family was a member of a soil community; a cluster of these families formed a clan, of which 20 made up the tribe of the Tenochas. Each clan had its own council and an elected leader; of these the oldest or wisest or more experienced were selected to make up a council, and these were the link between the clans and the tribe's governing body...."

Regarding some other of Prof. Smith's other "characteristics of empire," von Hagen said:

"This clan, the basic unit...of the [Aztec] system, enforced clan peace, organized for war, rounded out clan taxation; orders through these methods reached down to the very last rung of the social ladder. It seems that the Aztec did not administer the affairs of conquered peoples. Perhaps they were not interested in doing so....They imposed a tribute, not excessive, except for sacrificial victims, a contribution which fitted into the conquerors' economy. This was brought every six months to Tenochtitlan. Still the Aztec won no friends and forged no empire. They went through all the social evolution of Neolithic states everywhere: passed from land where first all worked at agriculture, to city which became temple-city, where a social surplus produced nonfarmers, specialists in architecture, sculpture, lapidaries and priest-craft, people who themselves no longer grew food. Then their society passed into the city-state with satellite towns, and Tenochtitlan developed an extended priestly class who exacted 'first fruits' for the temples. Then lastly it became the conquering and finally the tribute-city...."

We have our differences with Victor von Hagen, of course, and have chosen the passages cited with care. It is not difficult to imagine that Prof. Smith also has differences with him, or what they might be, or that he could easily choose different passages to support his point of view. The point, however, is that there is enough in von Hagen's work (and in works by other historians) to lend support to both points of view.

Of course, Prof. Smith might object that much has been discovered about the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican societies since von Hagen's book was printed in 1958. That certainly is so, and Prof. Smith's own on-site archaeological work undoubtedly has added to the storehouse of physical knowledge. However, would Prof. Smith accuse von Hagen of "shoddy scholarship" because of these differences and the passage of time? That would surprise us, since Prof. Smith deemed another and much older book of von Hagen's, THE AZTEC AND MAYAN PAPERMAKERS (1944), worthy of inclusion among the reference books listed at the back of his own.

(Incidentally, Prof. Smith invited us to look at his book. When we did we were not surprised to find that it supports Prof. Smith's point of view in all matters. What it does not do, however, is draw the same distinction between Aztec marketplaces and capitalist markets that is absent from his article but present in his letter. The closest he came in his book was this:

("Aztec markets continued to flourish after the Spanish conquest and...the weekly market remains a major provider of food and other goods and has yet to be superseded by the expanding numbers of discount stores and supermarket chains....")

Prof. Smith concludes his letter of "protest" by lumping THE PEOPLE together with those "Euro-centric thinkers [who] tried to deny the accomplishments of the Aztecs and other American Indian groups," or who deny "the material evidence of ancient peoples' actions and accomplishments, including their struggles against the class oppression of empires like the Aztec and Inca."

No Marxist denies "the accomplishments of the Aztecs and other American Indian groups," much less "the material evidence of ancient peoples' actions and accomplishments, including their struggles against the class oppression of empires." Furthermore, there was nothing in our article -- and certainly there is nothing in Morgan or in Marxism -- to warrant such a gratuitous, even disingenuous, suggestion. Prof. Smith knows Marxists draw a distinction between ancient class-divided societies, such as the Roman Empire, and what they regard as prehistoric societies, or societies in transition, such as the Aztec.

Perhaps more work and future discoveries by scientists such as Prof. Smith will sort it all out; or, perhaps, the line that divides prehistory from history will forever remain obscure. On one thing Prof. Smith and THE PEOPLE can agree, however, and that is that "Morgan's general theoretical approach...remains valid," regardless of how much we may differ on the accuracy and the value of his "specific historical evidence."

-- Editor