Eric Hass introduction to Lewis Henry Morgan, Montezuma's Dinner


Eric Hass, 1950 introduction to the pamphlet:
Lewis Henry Morgan,
Montezuma's Dinner : An Essay on the
Tribal Society of the North American Indians,
New York Labor News Co., second printing, 1967


In the thousands of years since mankind first organized itself into a society it has developed but three basic plans of government -- using plan in its scientific sense.

The first and most ancient of these is the gentile or tribal government of primitive society, which was based on blood-related groups called gentes or clans.

The second, which has existed since the dawn of civiliza-. tiojQ, is political government based on territory and proj)-

The third basic plan of government has not yet been put into operation. It is the plan, formulated by the great American Marxist and social architect, Daniel De Leon, for reorganizing society along industrial lines, rearing an Industrial Government on the foundation of industrial constituencies.

In making the epochal discovery concerning the industrial structure of the government of the future Socialist Commonwealth, De Leon was inspired in large measure by the work of the great American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, especially by Morgan's book, "Ancient Society," which treats of the first basic plan of government. Frederick Engels, the co-worker of Karl Marx, called this volume "one of the few epochal publications of our time," and Marx concurred.

Morgan had developed the materialist conception of history independently of Marx, and he had, applied it to the ancient world. In Engels's words, Morgan had discovered "in the sexual organizations [gentes] of the North American Indians the key that opens all the unfathomable riddles of most ancient Greek, Roman and German history."

Engels, whose book, "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State," is based in its main outlines on Morgan's work, adds in this connection that Morgan's discovery "has the same signification for primeval history that Darwin's theory of evolution had for biology and Marx's theory of surplus value for political economy."

"Montezuma's Dinner" contains a condensation of important sections of Morgan's main work. As such it constitutes an excellent introduction to "Ancient Society," doing for this latter work what "Value, Price and Profit" does for Marx's "Capital."

"Montezuma's Dinner" appeared originally in North American Review in April, 1876. It was written as a criticism of Hubert Howe Bancroft's five-volume work on'"The Native Races of the Pacific States" (1874-75, D. Appleton & Company). The Spaniards who conquered Mexico in the 16th century had represented the Aztecs and their institutions in terms of European culture and civilization, embroidering their observations with imaginative flights of fancy in order to enhance the glory of their own achievements. Bancroft made the mistake of accepting these misleading representations uncritically, and, by including them in his work, gave them fresh "authoritativeness."

The result of these misleading representations was that a. false historical concept was embedded so deeply in our literature that to this day the mistaken talief IF almost universal that Montezuma was a "king" or "emperor," and the Aztec community his "empire."

Actually, as Morgan demonstrates with scientific lucidity in this essay, "kings," "empires" and "royal banquets" were not only wholly unknown to the Aztecs, but they could not possibly have existed under the Aztec social system. The truth is that the Aztecs lived under a communal system and were organized as a military democracy. Montezuma, far from being an emperor, was a war chief who was elected to his post.

To emphasize the persistence of the false conceptions concerning Montezuma and the Aztecs we mention that even so enlightened a man as Dr. John Collier, former U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, repeatedly refers to Indian "kings" in his recent book, "Indians of the Americas." In this work Montezuma is described as an "Aztec emperor" and misleading reference is made to "the pomp and luxuriousness of his court." Yet Dr. Collier himself critically observes that the historian, William Hickling Prescott, "did not escape the point of view of his culture and civilization," and he appeals to us to make "a strenuous effort at empathy"-that is, at imaginatively taking the point of view of the Indians themselves and sympathetically appraising their institutions.

In acknowledging receipt of copies of the WEEKLY PEOPLE in which "Montezuma's Dinner" was published serially a year ago, Dr. Collier said, Morgan is a great figure in American intellectual history and in world anthropology. But rather more is known now, than he could know, about the Aztecs." This we concede. But the point is that what Morgan did know of the Aztecs sufficed to blow to smithereens the mistaken concepts of the Spanish conquistadors, i Prescott, Bancroft and others who accept the Spaniards' Misleading representations. Like Humpty Dumpty, not all the king's horses nor all the king's men could put the Spanish myth of the "Emperor" Montezuma back together again.

Morgan was indeed a great figure in American intellectual history and in world anthropology, but capitalist society denies him the recognition he deserves because tp give him this recognition would focus attention on Morgan's revolutionary philosophy of history. Although Morgan was himself an eminently respected member of thu bourgeois community, a director of the New York Central Railroad for a time, a member of the New York State Legislature and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, his philosophy denied the perpetuity of capitalist conditions. As he said in the closing chapter of "Ancient Society":

"A mere property career is not the final destiny of mankind, if progress is to be the law of the future as it has been of the past. The time which has passed away since civilization began is but a fragment of the past duration of man's existence; and but a fragment of the ages yet to come. The dissolution of society bids fair to become the termination of a career of which property is the end and aim; because such a career contains the elements of self-destruction. Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes."

The primary purpose of the publishers in issuing Morgan's essay in pamphlet form is not just to dig out the embedded fallacious concepts of Aztec society and culture, although we hope to accomplish something in this direction too. Our primary purpose, rather, is to aid in the understanding of a social organization that was not peculiar to the Aztecs alone, but that prevailed among all primitive people, including our own prehistoric ancestors. And we wish to throw light upon the governmental organization of primitive man because we thereby help to illumine the foremost problem of our own age -- the building of a social system of harmony and abundance, and one in which the human family can survive and prosper in freedom.

For the rest, we deem it helpful to the cause of freedom to restore the name and works of the father of anthropology to their high place in science, and make them more widely known to the present generation. To many, we hope, "Montezuma's Dinner" will be an introduction to Morgan's main work, "Ancient Society," which was published just one year after this essay appeared in the North American Review.


January 21, 1950.