Historical Materialism--
Lessons From the History of Mexico

Part 1: Changes in Society--The Material Basis and the Role of Force

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP,USA

Revolutionary Worker #1093, March 4, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

Some years ago a comrade went, with his mother, to a museum exhibit about Mexico in ancient and modern times. His mother, as well as his father, had been born in Mexico and then had come to the U.S. As they went through this exhibit, they first saw the parts with the different artifacts and things about the Aztecs, the different Aztec religious symbols and so on, and then...boom!--all of a sudden there was a gigantic cross. And this, of course, was the beginning of the period of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and of Spanish domination and colonization in the Americas, and along with it the imposition of the Christian religion. At this point, this comrade turned to his mother, who was very deeply religious, a devout Catholic, and he said to her: "See, ma, if those people had won" (and he pointed to the Aztec side) "instead of those people, you'd be praying to their gods instead of the one you're praying to now."

What was his point? That the Aztec religion was better than the Catholic-Christian religion? Naw. He was speaking from the standpoint of the proletariat and, in a joking and lively way, he was bringing out a basic point about how and from where people get their religious ideas and also a basic point of Marxism: In a given economic and social system, where society is divided into classes, the outlook and ideas of the ruling class will be the ruling ideas in society. This includes religion as well as culture and ideology generally.

With the Spanish conquest and plunder of Mexico and much of the Americas, the Spanish colonialists (and then other colonial powers) devastated the existing societies and their prevailing economic and social systems, replacing them with even more extreme forms of exploitation and oppression, carried to the level of genocide. Along with this, they toppled the old political system and the old culture and ways of thinking--the SUPERSTRUCTURE of society--and instituted a new superstructure that corresponded to the economic and social relations the Spanish were imposing. And included within all this, as a very important part of the new superstructure, was the indoctrination of the masses with the Catholic religion, which was also backed up by force (much as the slaveowners in the U.S. imposed Christianity on the slaves, in place of their previous religious beliefs and practices).

But is it all just a matter of plunder, then--is it just a matter of force? No. There must be a certain material basis, or force cannot succeed in bringing about a new economic and social system, or cannot succeed in firmly establishing that new economic and social system. For example, with the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Spanish colonialists brought over various domesticated plants and animals that at that time were not indigenous to the area of Mexico. This included horses, which played a major role in war but also in production and transportation. (Horses had existed in the area of Mexico in ancient times but had later become extinct there.) And the Spanish brought certain technology, such as iron tools and plows. If they had not been in a position to do this--or, if the plants and animals they brought over had been unable to survive in the Americas, or if the tools and technology they brought had been of no use there--it is unlikely that the Spanish would have been able to forcefully impose a new economic base and its corresponding political and ideological superstructure. They would have instead adapted to the prevailing mode of existence in the areas they were seeking to colonize. (They would have adopted the Aztec way of life, for example.) Or, perhaps more likely, they would have failed in their attempt to colonize the Americas. It's not that the Spanish had a developed economic mode of existence and corresponding culture and the Aztecs did not. In fact, the Aztecs had a very developed civilization. But it was based on different particular material factors and a different particular mode of production and corresponding superstructure of politics and ideology.

Now, one thing that stands out if you study the history of Mexico and compare it to the history of what's called the "Eurasian land mass"--the area that goes from Europe into Asia and includes the areas where civilization developed a long time ago in Mesopotamia and so on--one of the differences you see is that in the area of what is now Mexico, in particular, there were not many large animals that could be successfully domesticated by the people there--raised for food, used to pull plows, or whatever. Whereas in the areas of the Eurasian land mass, in Mesopotamia and other places, they did have large animals that they were able to domesticate. This included the horse and oxen and things like this.

So for example, in the ancient Mexican societies, they knew about the principle of the wheel--they had it in little toys for children and things like that--but they didn't make very extensive use of wheeled transportation because they had no large domestic animals to pull these wheeled vehicles: and it's kind of hard to do it with a dog or a rabbit or something like that. And you can only get so far using human beings to carry heavy loads around--although in ancient civilizations there was a tremendous amount of brutally exploited human labor that was used to build all kinds of these different manifestations of civilization that we see today, in various ruins and so on. So the Spanish were able to build a productive system and also a war system that was able to use wheeled vehicles pulled by these large domesticated animals, whereas the Aztecs did not do this, not because of any so-called "superiority" of the Spanish, but because of the differences in the actual conditions of life in the two different places.

So, the Spanish brought these domestic animals with them. And that did make a great difference. It wouldn't have been possible to have the slave-like labor in the mines--or at least on the same scale--without the wheeled vehicles and other tools that the Spanish brought with them. To get a sense of this, by comparison, think about what the difference would be in a society like the U.S. if there were no motorized vehicles--no cars, no trucks, or any of that kind of thing--it would be a very different kind of society. Similarly, when the Spanish conquered Mexico and instituted their rule, they made major changes in the economic system--one of them being the changes that revolved around the introduction of these wheeled vehicles pulled by large domesticated animals.

At the same time, in order to have the necessary force to impose their rule and a new system of exploitation and oppression, in place of the old ones, in the Americas, the Spanish had to have a material foundation built up in Spain and in their developing empire as a whole--they had to have ships and weapons of warfare as well as technology to be used in production, and so on. It is important to note, however, that even with their devastating weapons, compared to those of the Aztecs, the Spanish Conquistadors did not defeat the Aztecs all by themselves. They also were able to enlist, as subordinate allies, or really as puppet troops, other peoples who had been dominated by and forced to pay tribute to the Aztec empire, including many fierce and experienced warriors. (And diseases the Spanish carried to the Americas--things like smallpox--against which the people there often had no immunity and no defense, also played a big role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and then the Incas, for example.)

In all this, we can see the dialectical relation--the back-and-forth interaction and mutually reinforcing role--between the development of a material foundation, on the one hand, and the use of force, on the other. Is it the case that the Spanish, and other colonial powers, first just concentrated on organizing production in their own "home countries," and only after a long period when they had built up a powerful material foundation in this way, then they began using force and conquest? Of course not--force and conquest was an integral and indispensable part, an absolutely necessary ingredient, in building up their power and its underlying material foundation, well before they sent conquistadors to the Americas.

(In the case of Spain, for a considerable period prior to the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Spain's material foundation was in part built up under the regime of the Moors, from North Africa. The Moors ruled parts of Spain for several centuries and battled Spanish feudal forces for control of the country over a long period, but then the Moors were finally driven out, in what the Spanish called the "Reconquest" of Spain, in the late 1400s. It was then that the Spanish government financed people like Columbus and Cortez and their conquest of the Americas. And it was when the Spanish drove out the Moors that Christianity fully prevailed over Islam as the dominant religion in Spain and was then, in turn, imposed on the conquered peoples in the Americas. And, of course, in Spain itself, the triumph of Christianity and obedience to the officially decreed Catholic religion was accompanied, and enforced, by the incredibly cruel and brutal terror of the Inquisition and the related persecution of the Jews.)

But, in all this, as Marx showed, production is the underlying and fundamental factor. As Marx also made clear, even in order for one group or society to plunder another, there must first be something to plunder--some material wealth that the people who are being plundered have accumulated, through production, and perhaps also through their own plunder of other peoples. (To put it simply, you can't rob somebody if they ain't got nothin' to rob!) This was true of the Aztec empire itself: it thrived through tribute, enforced payment which the Aztec lower classes and peoples the Aztecs conquered had to pay to the central Aztec authorities; but this tribute, in turn, was based on production, especially agricultural production (and in fact this tribute was paid largely in agricultural products). Or, if you are going to conquer and then enslave people, there has to be a basis for that slave system to take root.

Imagine, for example, if someone tried to enforce a literal slave-plantation system of agriculture throughout Manhattan, New York today! First of all, without completely destroying what now exists in Manhattan and forcing things back to an agricultural way of life there, this could not be done. And, besides everything else, most plantation crops would not grow very well in the climate of New York--this is one of the main reasons why plantation slavery did not take root in New York, and generally in the northern U.S., in the first place. So, in Manhattan today --and in Los Angeles and other cities across the U.S.--there is very little outright and literal slavery, and such slavery is officially illegal; but there is a great deal of vicious exploitation, in the form of wage slavery, in the garment sweatshops, for example--and this is not only legal but "business as usual" for the capitalist system.

Returning to the Spanish conquests in the Americas, if it had not been for the overall material factors I have referred to, the Spanish would not have been able to finance people like Columbus and Cortez, and they would not have been able to send waves of colonialists after the initial conquests. They would not have been able to forcibly impose a new mode of production and exploitation in the Americas, with its horrendous consequences for the masses of people there, including their virtual enslavement working in haciendas (large landed estates) and in silver mines, which killed off millions, over many generations.

On the other hand, Marx also pointed out that there were "barbarians"--that is, nomadic herdsmen, hunters, and warriors from parts of Europe and Asia--who defeated the ancient Roman empire in battle and made themselves rulers of Rome, but then they adopted the Roman way of life. Why? Because, in that case, they could not rule over Rome without (as the saying goes) "doing as the Romans do." Their nomadic way of life--hunting and raising herds and fighting battles over a wide-ranging territory--did not represent any new mode of existence, any new economic and social system that could replace the Roman empire without undermining and destroying the basis of that empire's power. And if these new rulers had attempted to impose their old way of life on the Roman empire, they would in fact have undermined and destroyed the very foundation of the power they had acquired in the first place through defeating the Romans in warfare. In short, you could not have maintained and run the Roman empire on the basis of a nomadic way of life--that empire depended on, and its power was based in, an extensive agricultural system of peasant and slave labor as well as mining operations, concentrations of settled population, the extensive construction of housing and public buildings, developed roads and water and plumbing systems, and so forth. So we can see that it is not only, or even mainly and essentially, a matter of force--whoever has the most force can impose any kind of system they want--that is not the way it is. But, if there is a certain material basis, force can play the decisive role in destroying an old economic and social system and bringing a new one into being, or into the dominant position. This is the case even in conflict between two exploiting systems (as with the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and then the Incas).

In fact, once the material basis has developed for a radical change in a given society, then, as Marx insisted, force is the necessary means of carrying out such a radical transformation. (He used this metaphor: "force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with the new.") This role of force--of revolutionary violence, of a revolutionary war of the oppressed masses--is all the more essential, is crucial and absolutely necessary, in the revolutionary struggle to abolish all exploitation and oppression. Why? Because only in this way can the "lock" the exploiting classes have on society--and in particular their monopoly of armed force--be shattered and then the economic system and the social relations, together with the whole superstructure of politics, ideology and culture, be radically transformed to abolish the basis for exploitation and oppression.

Just look at what happens every time people make a serious move even to protest and rebel against the continual injustices and outrages of this system: who is called out to "control and contain" people when they try to do this, and to brutally attack them whenever that is deemed necessary to enforce such "control"? The police--and when the police can't handle it, the National Guard, the army and so on--this is the experience in the recent protests in Philadelphia and Los Angeles against the Republican and Democratic conventions, as well as in Seattle and Washington, D.C. against the WTO and the IMF/World Bank; and this was even more dramatically and murderously shown in the '92 rebellion in L.A. How can all these outrages and injustices--and beyond that the economic, social and political relations and institutions that embody and enforce all this--how can all this be gotten rid of, unless the armed force of the bourgeois state is completely smashed and dismantled and a new state brought into being which serves and puts its power behind--instead of against, puts its power behind--the struggle to abolish all this oppression and exploitation?

We are now living in the time when this revolutionary struggle has been placed on the historical agenda. Why? Because we want it to be? No. Fundamentally, because the forces of production--and by this I mean the masses of people and their knowledge and abilities, as well as land and resources, tools, machinery, and technology in general--have developed to such a point and in such a way that they can only be used in the fullest way and really unleashed by making the land and resources, as well as the machinery and technology in general, the common property of the people themselves, the common property of all of society. And this means liberating the masses of people and everything that has been created through the labor of people--all the technology and knowledge that humanity has collectively created--liberating this from the control and domination of a small number of exploiters. This is not just an abstract concept or some theoretical dogma.

The fact that all this is still the "private property" of a handful of exploiters is the basis and the reason for the obscene reality that, while there is such highly developed technology in the world, while there is so much scientific and other knowledge acquired, and so much material wealth produced, at the same time half of humanity is living in starvation or on the brink of starvation every day, and the great majority of humanity is subjected to all kinds of agony and torment. There is no reason for this other than the continuing existence and dominance of the capitalist mode of production and exploitation and imperialist rule in the world. This is the fundamental reason why what is required is a violent revolutionary struggle--a revolutionary war of the masses--to overthrow and smash and dismantle the machinery of force and suppression that these exploiters control and which they use to maintain and enforce their system. There is no other way it can be done.

Mao said that when tools need to be liberated, they speak through people. Now what did he mean? Obviously he didn't mean that literally--he wasn't crazy. What he meant was this: when the productive forces (technology and all that) develop to the point where they are being held back, restrained, distorted by the character of the mode of production, by the relations of production, by the nature of society--when that happens, then sooner or later this is reflected in the consciousness of people. People become increasingly conscious of this fact. This material reality gives rise to a consciousness among first some people and then greater numbers of people that: "Hey! We have to change this society or we can't really make use of this technology (these tools) in the way that they could be fully used if we change the society." So this understanding becomes manifest in people and they begin to formulate programs and strategies to try to change this, and then it also becomes manifest in actual struggles where people rise up against the old system and seek to bring it down and institute a new system. This is what Mao meant--this is his characteristic way of putting things provocatively and from a different angle, in kind of an artistic way, so that you think about them differently than you ordinarily would and they stand out sharply. When tools need to be liberated, they speak through people, that is, this becomes part of people's consciousness and it becomes part of their revolutionary action.

This is the historical era when the last violent, antagonistic social revolution is taking place, a revolution that will finally put an end to all forms of antagonistic social relations and violent conflict in human society. This revolution, the worldwide and world-historic revolution of the proletariat, is moving forward not in a straight line but through twists and turns--great leaps forward and then major setbacks...to be followed again by even greater leaps forward. This is not surprising because, as Marx and Engels pointed out, this is the most radical revolution in human history--it is a radical break with all forms of class-divided society, all forms of enslavement of one part of society by another, and all the institutions and ways of thinking that go along with that--as they put it in the "Communist Manifesto," this revolution represents the radical rupture with all traditional property relations and traditional ideas. But, again, the material basis for this revolution has been laid through thousands of years of human historical development, in all of its diversity, and through the development of capitalism itself, whose fundamental contradictions continually bring forward the necessity as well as the possibility for this revolution and bring forward the forces in society who can and will carry out this radical overthrow of capitalism and all forms of exploitation and oppression.

This points to a fundamental and pivotal point: the need for MATERIALISM--DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM AND HISTORICAL MATERIALISM--the need to grasp and apply this in an ongoing and living way.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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