Commentary on Lewis Henry Morgan, Montezuma's Dinner


Commentary on Lewis Henry Morgan,
Montezuma's Dinner : An Essay on the
Tribal Society of the North American Indians
reprinted from

Montezuma's Dinner

The Materialist Conception of History, like many other significant scientific advances, was the codiscovery of three men. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, working together in Europe, were the first to give expression to the concept. In America it was Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881), the pioneer ethnologist, who, independently of the others, uncovered the key to historical processes. Marx and Engels expressed their views on history throughout their writings. Much of what they did, however, especially as it dealt with the primitive beginnings of mankind's social structures, was sharply limited to the realm of theory. What was wanting was factual substantiation of the theory that the human species did, in fact, commence its history subject to the same material qualifications that were evident in recorded times.

"Ancient Society," Morgan's great work, was published in 1877. It contained the factual substantiation that was needed to give to historical materialism the solid, demonstrable evidence it required-that prehistoric man was eventually guided in the direction of civilization by determinable, material facts.

Morgan's work, then, is pivotal to any understanding of mankind's origins and, consequently, of his potential in the future. In "Ancient Society," Morgan proved that prehistoric society passed through discernible stages of development, achieved and surpassed by means of productive discoveries that made possible subsequent political, philosophical and productive arrangements that have culminated in modern capitalism.

Lenin once noted that Daniel De Leon's discovery of Socialist Industrial Unionism was the only qualitative contribution to the science of Socialism since Marx originally dissected the capitalist system in his monumental work, "Capital." But De Leon's subsequent discovery is more clearly understood if the basic Marxian concepts upon which it is based are understood. It is not ordinarily advisable for the newcomer to economics to initiate his studies by reading "Capital" without preparation. That is why the Socialist Labor Party generally recommends that the beginner in Socialism first grasp the basic principles and terminology of Marxian economics by mastering Marx's smaller, introductory work, "Value, Price and Profit."

Similarly with Morgan's "Ancient Society." Every serious student of the Materialist Conception of History should study this master work, but here, too, a fine introductory work is available. It admirably introduces the student of Socialism to Morgan's masterpiece. Like "Value, Price and Profit," it comes from the hand of the original author, in this case Lewis Henry Morgan. The work is "Montezuma's Dinner," Morgan's examination of Aztec customs and social arrangements through his science-based interpretation of what the Spaniards mistakenly thought they saw as they interpreted their observations in terms of European feudal conditions. In Morgan's own words, he made his examination and wrote "Montezuma's Dinner" to resolve "The Historical Problem Posed by the Conquistadors' Ignorance, Romanticism and Feudal Interpretation of Indian Social Relations." No man was better qualified than Morgan to do this, for he lived among Indians and studied their customs and social relations in many parts of America.

"The Spanish adventurers who captured the pueblo of Mexico saw a king in Montezuma, lords in Aztec chiefs, and a palace in the large joint-tenement house occupied, Indian fashion, by Montezuma and his fellow householders. It was, perhaps, an unavoidable self-deception at the time, because they knew nothing of the Aztec social system. Unfortunately, it inaugurated American aboriginal history upon a misconception of Indian life which has remained substantially unquestioned to the present hour."

These introductory remarks by Morgan simply reveal the immediate intent of his essay. The ultimate object, though possibly not by conscious design, was to refute not only the "ignorance, romanticism and feudal interpretation of Indian social relations" held by a group of ancient "adventurers," but to refute the identical, inexcusable "feudal interpretation" of all social relationships that are still, 94 years later, "substantially unquestioned."

The Spanish Conquistadors were excused of their self-deception by Morgan because: "Ignorant of its [Aztec society] structure and principles, and unable to comprehend its peculiarities, they invoked the imagination to supply whatever was necessary to fill out the picture. When the reason, from want of facts, is unable to understand and therefore unable to explain the structure of a given society, imagination walks bravely in and fearlessly rears its glittering fabric to the skies." (Our italics.)

What was excusable in the 16th century, and, perhaps, even in 1876, is not excusable in 1970. Yet there is more in the way of imaginative, useless, even slanderous, tracts on human social origins available today than ever before. Notable among these are the writings of Robert Ardrey, a one-time playwright now trying his hand at ethnology.

Morgan had a premonition that the feudal romances of the conquistadors and the Ardreys would continue to gain in notoriety. "These picturesque tales have been read with wonder and admiration, as they successively appeared .. though shown to be romances, they will continue to be read, not because they are true, but because they are pleasing."

If such "romances" were simply "pleasing," there would be little harm in them. Today, however, when capitalism is tottering on its last legs, such "picturesque tales" bear a more significant meaning. Since Morgan's time, anthropology has won its niche in the hall of sciences. Social, or, cultural anthropology, the determinable facts of which refute the concept that mankind is doomed to remain forever locked within a class-divided, strife-torn social structure, has become subject to deliberate distortions. As "in the domain of political economy, free scientific inquiry [into ethnology] meets not only with the same enemies as in all other domains. The peculiar nature of the material it deals with, summons as foes into the field of battle the most violent, mean and malignant passions of the human breast, the furies of private interest." ("Capital.")




Montezuma's Dinner

By Lewis Henry Morgan

A demolition of myth. Brilliant example of how Morgan put ethnology on a scientific foundation. Deals with myths about Aztec society set on foot by Spanish conquerors, adopted in the "best" academic circles and used as capitalist aids in fostering a false belief in the ancient origins of class rule and private property. Includes Morgan's defense of the victors at Little Big Horn and the Custer "massacre." Also, a tribute to the great scientist by Frederick Engels.

New York Labor News