Moctezuma and the Crisis of Aztec Society

“History is the most dangerous of subjects.” So said Malcolm X, and a history class I’m taking at Laney College shows why. Called “world history” and taught by Dr. Susan Kahn, it focuses on how different societies around the world interacted. The main part of the class is spent discussing different original source material, for example an Aztec description of the first encounter between Moctezuma and Cortes. “Who wrote this and what was his intent?” Dr. Kahn asks. “Who translated it and do you think their translation was accurate?” In this way, she gets people thinking critically about what they are reading. Hopefully, this will carry over to the news people read or see on TV. That’s a dangerous thing, especially nowadays. (I should add: This is the most interesting history class I’ve ever taken.)

The history of Mexico as portrayed by famed muralist, Diego Rivera

Just as the plant and animal species evolved without forethought, without plan, without conscious understanding of the future consequences of the changes wrought, so it has been for social evolution. The first “food producing” society developed in the Fertile Crescent, and private property and class differentiation evolved out of “food production” (vs. “food gathering”), but this happened without any plan, without any forethought to the more remote consequences.

Collapse of Mayan Society
The rise and fall of the great kingdoms of MesoAmerica are a perfect example of this, starting with the collapse of the great Maya society in and around what is now Guatemala. Jared Diamond1 has proposed that this collapse was due to the contradiction between the economic base and the natural environment of Mayan territory. Ever more elaborate headdresses and structures built to glorify the rulers accompanied the increasing natural pressures. “The Maya kings and nobles did not heed long-term problems, insofar as they perceived them…. Maya kings sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster – reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs.”2

Aztec society as pictured by famed muralist Diego Rivera.
It’s amazing developed complexity could not save it.

The Mayan collapse preceded the Spanish invasion of what is now Mexico by some 1700 years, but Aztec society was already headed in the same direction by the time Cortes arrived there. Consider the description given in “The Broken Spear” of the many riches – gold, turquoise, etc. – that the ruling class used to adorn the replicas of their gods. Just one example will illustrate: A “magic headdress (on one of the statues) made of hummingbird feathers.” Given the tiny size of a hummingbird, how many such birds would it take to make a headdress, and how much labor time would be required? Or consider the 50,000 men required to drag just one stone to the building site of the giant temples. And bear in mind that every hour of labor must be “paid for” in terms of calories and nutrition and water required by the laborer.

Moctezuma and Cortes
There are several indications that Aztec society was entering into a crisis similar to that of the Maya, including simply the reception that Moctezuma gave to Cortes and his men as reported in “Broken Spears”: “You have come to your city, Mexico. You have come here to sit on your throne…” And consider how this same report describes

Moctezuma meets Cortes.
It’s not credible that Moctezuma didn’t see through him.

Cortes and his men eyeing the gold and, as well, the Aztec women with what most certainly have been an equal lust. Moctezuma was not ignorant. His entire society was built around wars and raiding the surrounding peoples. He must have recognized the attitude of Cortes and his men. So why did he not take preemptive action? Why did he welcome Cortes and his men? Why do some consider him to have been “a depressive individual”?

Aztec Society
The answer lies in the crisis of the society over which he presided.

In part, this was a slave society – those were the ones who provided the tens of thousands of human sacrifices every year. From the document of Juan Sepulveda (“On the Causes of Just War with the Indians, 1547”), it seems it was also partly a feudal society. Sepulveda describes how the lands and fields are divided one third owned by the king, one third by the religious hierarchy and one third “for the benefit of everyone”. “They lived as servants of the king and at his mercy, paying extremely large tributes,” Sepulveda writes. He also describes a system whereby the first born son inherits all the family’s wealth (primogeniture). That he could as well have been describing feudal Europe makes his denunciations of all this ironic. Or some might say “hypocritical”, but since when has hypocrisy stood in the way of self interest?

Crisis of Aztec Society
It seems that Aztec society was in the process of transformation away from a slave and feudal society to the beginnings of merchant capitalist society. Cockroft refers to a crackdown by Moctezuma against rival power sources including “aspiring merchants”.3 He (Cockroft) explains the situation: In the latter years of the Aztec rule “human sacrifices notably increased – as did internal dissension within the Aztecs’ domains, especially from other Indian societies, which revolted in various parts of Mexica…. Then, after the famine of 1505 (i.e., before Cortes’ invasion), the emperor Moctezuma faced tensions with the Valley of Mexico, from allied cities and even from groups inside Tenochtitlan. His response was to massacre opponents… and deify himself so that all loyalty had to go not to the rule and the state – as in the past – but to the god-emperor, Moctezuma.”4 (Among other things, this decisively refutes the claim of Sepulveda that Moctezuma’s rule “is not the result of coercion but is voluntary and spontaneous [and] is a certain sign of the servile… spirit”.)
And what was the source of the internal opposition? Consider this graph on the left1

Economic Inequality
Note how economic inequality was increasing from 1400 up until the time of Cortes’s invasion.

So, we have several different reasons for the “insecurity” of Moctezuma: A society that was in transition; a society whose economic model was coming into increasing conflict with the natural environment (remember the great famine of 1505); a society whose working class (slaves and serfs) was seeing increasing economic exploitation and was starting to join a rising rebellion of tribes who were being ruled over (and exploited) by the Aztec ruling class.

Human Sacrifice
As a footnote, we should consider the issue of human sacrifice. Most historians paint it as simply a practice of their religion. But why did their religion develop as it did? On the one hand, Cockroft explains it as being an issue of repression – a means of terrorizing those who might rebel. Is it anything new that religion is used to justify the crimes of a ruling class? Isn’t that what Sepulveda was doing in his essay, for example? The other aspect is the fact that human sacrifice went along with cannibalism. The only question is whether this was just ritual cannibalism as practiced in many early societies, or whether it went beyond that. The fact that the Aztecs lacked the big food animals like pigs, sheep, cattle, etc. has been used as an argument for claiming that cannibalism in Aztec society became an important source of protein. In any case, it certainly added to and is additional evidence of the crisis that was developing in this advanced civilization.

In other words, just like ancient Rome, which was already degenerating when it was overwhelmed by an invasion from the Huns of the north, Aztec society was already in crisis, and symptomatic of that crisis was the “weakness” of its ruler, Moctezuma. It was overwhelmed by a combination of internal contradictions and outside invasion. There is one remaining question:

Cultural Basis for Class Rule
Why, far from adapting, did the Aztec ruling class cling to and even increase their symbols of wealth, when these symbols were exacerbating the economic crisis? The answer lies in the fact that while mass terror and repression are always a necessary ingredient for any ruling class to maintain itself, they always need cultural symbols to confuse and lull the mass population, to justify their rule. But these symbols – whether they be headdresses made of hummingbird feathers and massive stone pyramids or Maserati’s and glittering million-dollar destination weddings and parties – are an absolutely necessary ingredient also. And, just like with repression, the more these symbols increase, the more we see a degeneration and coming disaster in those societies.

Added note: The collapse of Mayan society and the impending environmental crisis of Aztec society serve as a warning for us today. The ruling classes, be they slave owners, feudalists or modern day capitalists, are incapable of adapting to the contradiction between the economic basis of exploitative societies and the laws of nature. The biggest difference is that those ancient societies were local whereas capitalism has penetrated every corner of the globe.

1From Scheidel, Walter, “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality”, Princeton University Press, p. 104


1Diamond, Jared. “Collapse”, Penguin Books, 2005

2Diamond, p. 177

3Cockroft, James D. “Mexico: Class Formation, Capital Accumulation and the State”, Monthly Review Press, 1983, p. 20.

4Cockroft, pp. 17-18

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