The Communism of the Incas
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Fortnightly Review, 132 (1932:Oct.) p.492. Researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, October 2011
WITH the world focussing its attention upon Russia, and speculating upon the future of the Soviet government, it may be of interest to call attention to the fact that a very similar system of Communism was conceived, developed and carried out with complete success in America a thousand years or more ago. This was the so-called Incan Empire, or the Empire of Tihuantisuyo (literally the Four Corners of the World), the most extreme Communist government the world has ever known.
In many fundamental respects Russian Communism is almost identical with that established by the Incas. Though the two systems differ somewhat in details and minor matters, the greatest and perhaps the most important difference lies in the religious attitudes of the two. Whereas the Soviets are striving to destroy, or at least eliminate, religion and belief in God, the Incans were intensely religious, and the reverence and worship of God was of paramount importance. Possibly that was why the Incan Communist system proved so eminently successful and endured for so long.
What the future may hold in store for Communist Russia, no one can prophesy with any certainty, but a comparison of the Soviet and Incan systems may throw some new light upon the subject. It is true, the conditions under which the Incans developed and maintained their amazing empire were totally different from those under which the Soviets are governing Russia. The Incans were isolated and practically self-contained. There was little intercourse with other nations; there was no commerce, or very little, with other lands; the people under Incan rule possessed no knowledge of the outside world; they knew nothing of any other form of government of life, and hence there could be no new ideas introduced, no interference from outside sources, no dreams of a change or a striving for something better, which, as a matter of fact, would have been well nigh impossible.
As is the case in Russia to-day, the people who lived under the Incan form of Communism were of many tribes and races, with as many characteristics, temperaments, traditions and customs, and with many widely different languages and religions. To have welded all of these races into a peaceful and contented socialistic entity must have been a tremendous problem occupying many years, just as the successful welding of the Mongols, Cossacks, Tartars and other races of Russia is one of the Soviets' greatest problems. But the Incas made a success of it, and that without destroying racial and tribal characters, arts, beliefs, traditions or languages. Still, in nearly every respect, all were mere cogs in the gigantic communistic wheel composed of more than twenty million people distributed over an area of more than one million square miles, a country about one-half the size of European Russia. Although each tribe was permitted to follow its own religion, yet all were compelled to adopt that of the Incas. And although each tribe was permitted to retain its own dialect or language, all were compelled to know the official language of the confederation. This was the Quichua, a more or less composite tongue or Esperanto. This, of course, was essential in order to provide a common medium of communication. Here, too, we have a condition paralleling that of Soviet communism, where Russian is the official language, although many dialects are in use by the various linguistic groups.
Naturally, in a commonwealth composed of such a diversity of races, there were intertribal jealousies, feuds and troubles, while the less civilized and savage tribes surrounding the Incan territory were a constant menace. Hence a large standing army was required to maintain order and to protect the Empire from aggression. But little effort was made actually to conquer the tribes beyond the Incan boundaries, and such tribes as were subdued were not brought under the Incan rule as members of the communist system, but were compelled to pay annual tribute to the Empire. Also, in order to maintain order and to keep the communistic machine operating smoothly, laws governing nearly every individual act were most rigidly enforced, and there were severe penalties provided for every possible misdemeanour, crime, offence, violation of laws or regulations, and even for laziness or failure to work. Often, as judged by our standards, the punishments would appear to be far out of proportion to the offences, just as many of the punishments dealt out by the Soviet government appear extremely severe to many of us. But if results are what count, if the justice of laws and penalties are to be measured by what they accomplish, then surely the Incans' laws, and the punishments for their violations, were most admirable; for all the Spaniards who, at the time of the conquest, had an opportunity of seeing how matters had worked out were unanimous in their praise of the industry, the orderliness and the honesty of the people. Indeed, Mancio Sierra, writing from Cuzco on September 15, 1589, declared that, at the time of the conquest, the Spaniards never found a thief, a liar, or even a sluggard in the entire Empire!
The most serious crime was blasphemy directed at the Sun, the priests, or at the Inca himself, who was considered divine. Death after the most fearful tortures was the penalty for this heinous crime. To prove there was no discrimination, equally severe penalties were provided as punishment for members of the clergy or government officials who misbehaved. A Virgin of the Sun or a nun (there were seven orders of nuns) who violated her vows was buried alive, and the town where she belonged was utterly destroyed. A priest who failed in his duties or was guilty of extortion, or who took advantage of his position to impose upon the people, was put to death with torture and his body was burned—the most severe punishment possible, as the Incan people believed in the resurrection, and the destruction of the body meant the destruction of the soul also.
Death was the penalty for murder, for adultery, for incorrigibles or habitual offenders, as well as for cowardice on the part of soldiers, officials or members of the nobility, all of whom were supposed to be above fear of any sort. Theft or dishonesty resulted in the offender being branded for life. Scandalmongers and liars were flogged for the first offence, beaten with a club for the second, and for the third had their tongues nailed to a board. Most petty crimes and violations of the law were punished by flogging, while in some cases the culprit was forced to carry a heavy stone wherever he went, the duration of the period varying with the seriousness of the offence. Oddly enough, imprisonment did not exist as a punishment among the Incans. They were far wiser in that respect than ourselves. They realized that the upkeep of prisons was expensive, that in order to maintain them and guard prisoners many men would be needed, and that these men were of far more importance and value if engaged in productive work; to incarcerate men and women meant for them merely the loss of so much man-power. Their penal code was: if a person is a dangerous or habitual criminal, or if he endangers the church or state, put him out of the way once and for all; but if he merely slips or creates a local disturbance, teach him a lesson, but keep him at work. Even prisoners of war were not confined or executed. They were made members of some community far from their native land or tribe, where they would become diligent and useful members of the commonwealth.
Man-power and efficiency were all-important to the Incans. It required hard work and constant application for twenty million people to subsist in a territory of one million square miles, most of which was desert and barren mountain. Probably they never experimented in Five-Year Plans, but they were most intensive agriculturists, and practically every square foot of arable land in the entire Empire was under cultivation. Fields and gardens were carried up mountain sides in terraces for thousands of feet. Deserts were transformed to luxuriant farms by irrigation, the canals and ditches often extending for hundreds of miles into the hills and mountains, for agriculture was—as it must be everywhere— the basis and backbone of the whole organization.
But other industries and arts were by no means neglected. Spinning and weaving were most important industries, and were developed to such a high state of perfection that even with our modern machinery we never have been able to equal the textiles produced on hand-looms by the Incan weavers. The ceramic arts also were important, as were wood-working and metal-working, stone-cutting, building, engineering, and in fact, every art, trade and industry necessary to the support and well-being of such a vast community. But there was no unemployment, no possibility of over-production or of a shortage of any commodity. Every man and woman was compelled to work, every one was forced to produce something, and in order to assure an adequate supply of everything and to prevent an excess of anything, every community, every individual was restricted as to products, professions and other economic matters. Every community, every industry and trade was planned, mapped out in advance. If spinners were needed girls were trained to spin. If an agricultural centre required additional members, the quota of men and women needed was taken from some locality where there was an excess of farmers. And while the Incans naturally knew nothing about the export of goods in order to create foreign credits, their ceaseless industry resulted in an annual surplus in excess of present needs.
This, however, was essential and was provided for like everything else. Vast stores of grain and other foodstuffs were always kept in reserve throughout the land, to be used in case of famine, drought or war, when they were distributed pro rata free of charge among the people. Vast stores of food, supplies, clothing, arms and everything else required were also maintained for the use of the army in time of war, and as, even with the best care, supplies will deteriorate in time, fresh supplies were constantly used to replace the old.
The industries of each village, town or settlement were regulated by law, and no other trades or occupations could legally be carried on. One village might be devoted entirely to carding wool, another to weaving, another to making sandals. One locality might raise potatoes exclusively, another might cultivate peanuts, another maize. As a result, every community was compelled to trade with others in order to secure all the articles required for maintenance and subsistence. This was done by means of fairs, or markets, established at certain centres, where at stated intervals the people for miles round might gather for barter and trade.
Socially there were no distinctions, apart from the privileged classes—the nobles, princes, priests and officials; for, despite the fact that it was the most communistic of government systems the Incan Empire was an empire in fact, though, at the same time, a republic. Apart from these privileged members of the community, the people all shared equally, all contributed equally to the support of the government, the army, the state, the church, and the community. At maturity every male was allotted a certain amount of land or a definite number of llamas, from which he was required to produce certain estimated results. If he failed, without due reason or cause beyond his control, he was penalized. Neither were his flocks nor his land his own to dispose of as he saw fit. All real estate and all llamas were the property of the State, and, at a man's death, these reverted to the Inca, who saw to it that they were divided among the children, or, if he died without heirs, they were re-allotted. Even the aged and infirm were given their share, but in such cases able-bodied members of the community were compelled to cultivate the lands or to tend the flocks of incapacitated members before they looked after their own. On the other hand, as a man's family increased he was given more and more land and flocks, the amount required and capable of being properly handled being adjusted to a nicety.
There was not, however, any intention of keeping the people in a state of servility or poverty, or of limiting them to the bare necessities of life. All men and women were free to produce as much as they could, although the fruits of their labours were not wholly their own. Everything made or produced was equally divided into three portions: the first for the Inca or government, the second for the "Sun" or church, and the third for the people. In the case of agriculture one-third of the land was allotted to the Inca, one-third to the church and one-third to the members of the community. The Inca's and the "Sun's" portions had to be cultivated first, then those belonging to incapacitated members of the community, and finally those belonging to individuals. This was a wise and important rule. As the system of the Empire was a communist one everyone was supposed to work and live primarily for the benefit of the whole, and it was of paramount importance that there should always be an adequate government-owned supply on hand, to be used in case of emergency. Moreover, once the two-thirds destined for the Inca and the church were deducted, there were no other taxes, imposts, levies or demands possible. The remainder belonged to the individual, to be used as he or she desired. And as the share allotted to the Inca or State was indirectly for the use of the people, to be freely distributed in time of need, no one could complain. There was no graft, no misuse of funds possible—for that matter there were no funds to be misused.
From the Inca's share all public works were carried on; from it all the enormous expenses of the vast standing army and of the innumerable officials, of wars and conquests, and of the administration of the government were defrayed. From the share allotted to the church or "Sun" all the costs of maintaining a complex, expensive and ceremonial religion were paid—the expenses of priests and nuns, the upkeep of countless temples and all the other incidentals of the church. In addition to these shares, the Inca and the church were entitled to all the tribute paid in by races and tribes brought under Incan subjection, but not strictly members of the communist system. And it was mainly from these outside sources that the Incans obtained their immense accumulations of gold, silver and precious stones, which had no intrinsic value; they were prized only because of their durability, the ductility of the gold, and its colour, which was symbolic of the sun, and they were used solely for ceremonial and ornamental purposes.
Hence, while the Incans did not export their products and obtain gold in return, as do the Soviets, they secured incredible amounts of the precious metal. But as they did not regard it as riches they were not faced with the tremendous problem which faces the Soviets—the inherent desire for wealth, the love of gold, and the envy of more wealthy persons, which is beyond any human power to eradicate. In fact, it was the lure of gold in others that led to the destruction of the Incan civilisation.
Obviously, to maintain and administer such a large and multi-racial community and to keep the socialistic wheel rotating smoothly and without friction, a perfectly organized and highly efficient government was needed. The Incas, however, appear to have possessed an astonishing capacity for organization. The very fact that for a thousand years or more they maintained their most successful communistic government speaks highly for their efficiency, their intelligence, and their justice. In one most important respect the Incans possessed an advantage which no other race or nation can claim. They believed that the Incas—the emperors and nobility—were divine. Men might grumble and revolt under a ruler who was a mere mortal, no matter how exalted he might be; they might refuse to bow absolutely to a government composed of their fellow men, even if elected by themselves; but it was another matter to raise a protest or to question the rule of one who was the Son-of-the-Sun, and hence a divinity in human form. Whether or not the Incas themselves believed literally in their own alleged descent from the sun is problematical. More probably they accepted it allegorically. But, whatever their own beliefs, there is no question that the people as a whole regarded their Incas as the offspring of their deity, and revered them as such, and accepted everything as their destiny under divine rule.
It must be admitted that the Incas lived up to their reputation and were paternally benign, and rarely, if ever took advantage of their position and power to oppress the people. Though they maintained a luxurious court, they were intensely religious, and they were not by any means exempt from restrictions, rules, and laws, which must have been onerous. Both the Inca and his queen were compelled to bathe and change their costumes four times daily, and never could they wear the same garments twice, for the Incans believed most implicitly that cleanliness was next to godliness. At certain periods, too, the Inca was compelled to visit the various sections of his empire and to listen to every complaint of his people. In time of war he must assume personal command of his armies and risk his life in the front ranks like any ordinary soldier. Moreover, the Inca, although nominally an emperor, was by no means supreme. In most respects the so-called Empire was definitely republican, the Inca being more like a president. Under him was a tribunal of princes composed of men of royal blood and analogous to the House of Lords, and a cabinet of four "Wise Men" presided over by a president or chairman. In Cuzco, the Incan capital, these men were appointed by the Inca; but in the outlying districts they were elected annually by votes of the inhabitants, the nominees being men who already had served under the Inca. Any unanimous decision by the cabinet was absolute, and could be revoked or altered only by the tribunal of princes. In addition to this federal government, each district had its own governor, and each town or village had its mayor or prefect, as well as a town council or bench of aldermen who served as a sort of grand jury, court, and governing body combined.
That a vast commonwealth, with an exalted, divine member of the royal family as its temporal and religious head, with an elaborate and expensive court full of pomp and ceremony, could at the same time be the most socialistic of communisms is, perhaps, its most amazing feature. Under the Inca regime all individuality and freedom of life, thought, and action were, of course, completely subservient to the community, as must invariably be the case if communistic principles are literally followed out. From birth until death the lives, actions, homes, dress, and even the destinies of the offspring were planned, regulated, ordered, and carried out according to inexorable laws, rules, and decrees. Every man, woman, and child was tagged, tabulated, and filed as efficiently as cards in a cabinet. The members of each village and tribe were forced by law to wear certain distinctive features of dress.
These might be colours, designs, the cut of a garment, or the form of a hat; and any one known to wear the distinguishing sartorial feature of another village or tribe than his own was subject to severe penalties. At birth a man's or a woman's place in the scheme of things was at once ordained by the authorities. Every child automatically became a ward of the government when it reached the age of five years, and thereafter was reared, trained, and fitted for the occupation, the position, or the industry to which its life would be devoted. And so accurately was the economic balance of the population watched and recorded that we do not hear of any shortage of labour in any trade or profession.
Almost the only thing which was left to the individual was liberty in love making. But even in the matter of marriage there were prescribed rules and laws. Every man was compelled to be married by the time he was twenty-four, and every woman had to find a mate before she had passed her eighteenth birthday. But though the marriage law was strict, the young people went about the preliminaries in quite as romantic a manner as those of any other race. As a rule the girl was abducted, voluntarily on her part, a sort of understood and expected elopement, and was concealed by her lover, who then visited her parents, paid for her with presents, and asked their consent to retaining her. Then followed a period of eight days of "proof"—a sort of trial marriage—within which time the groom could reject his bride if she proved not physically strong or lacked ability to cook, sew or weave, or to perform the essential duties of an Incan housewife. As a result of this most excellent plan, girls who were ugly, ill-tempered, or deficient in wifely arts and industries were soon found out and rejected; and, as there was a severe penalty for becoming an old maid, they were forced to mend their ways or suffer the consequences.
Widows always were in great demand, and were much preferred to virgins because of their greater experience. They were known as Chuquisankos or Hearts of Gold, and never remained widows for long, even though the law did not compel them to marry a second time. Widows, however, never married widowers, though whether that was because they preferred the single men or because widowers preferred the unsophisticated maidens, or whether there was some law or custom preventing the mating of widows and widowers, is uncertain. Naturally, even with the strict supervision of the officials, there were times and places where there was a superabundance of single men or unmarried women. When such conditions occurred, the prefect of the village had the unmarried boys and girls of marriageable age lined up in the plaza, and each male was forced then and there to choose his mate. In case a man desired some particular girl and another came first in the order of drawing, he was forced to console himself with the second best. Any surplus of males or females remaining unmated was then sent to some locality where there was a shortage, and the same proceeding was repeated until all had been married.
Both marriage and divorce were no less simple than under the Soviets. All that was necessary to constitute a legal marriage was for the mayor or governor to place the girl's hand in that of the boy and pronounce them man and wife. Divorce was just as easy. The Soviets boast that a divorce in Russia costs only a shilling, and can be obtained almost at a moment's notice. Under the Incas divorce cost nothing, and the interested parties had no say in the matter. On the other hand, most severe penalties were provided for infidelity and other marital offences. Adultery was punishable by death or torture or both, and misbehaviour, brutality, and immorality were severely dealt with and followed by divorce.
Just as the communistic conditions and laws did not destroy courtship or romance, so also they did not interfere with the love for and development of the finer and more spiritual things of life. The people were intensely musical; they produced dramas and tragedies; they had songs, poetry, and verse which are astonishing for their philosophy and their descriptive beauty. Though every individual was a worker, though no drones were permitted, though diligence, toil, and efficiency were as much the order of the day as in Russia under the Five-Year Plan, yet the people had their recreations, their hours and days of rest, and their amusements. They had their theatres, their ball games, their hockey games, their athletic tournaments, and their dances. And once each year they had a real festival, a great celebration, a holiday comparable to the Communists' Labour Day, though it lasted for five days. The Incan calendar year was composed of twelve months of thirty days each, or three hundred and sixty days, and to bring this year in accord with the solar year, five days were added at the end of each year with an extra day added every four years, like our leap-year. The people regarded the five days annually added to the calendar as days wholly apart from ordinary time, as so much time gained each year—a dispensation granted them by the sun-god to enable them to have a good rest and a holiday between the expiration of the old year and the beginning of the new. For the entire five days all work and labour (other than that which was absolutely essential) were stopped, and the whole population devoted the time to dancing, sports, feasting, and indulging in every form of recreation and gaiety. Even the Inca himself, with his queen and court, entered into the spirit of the occasion. Free food and chica (the favourite beverage) were distributed to the people, many of the rules and regulations ordinarily in force were suspended for the five days, and throughout the whole vast empire everyone celebrated.
It is fascinating to speculate on what the results might have been had the Incan communist system been permitted to continue; to imagine the influence it might have had upon the rest of the world had the Spaniards not destroyed it. On the other hand, the fate of the Incan empire suggests many thoughts about the future of Soviet communism. Will it fail utterly as so many, socialistic experiments have failed? Or will it, after many centuries, be functioning as smoothly, and its people be as contented and prosperous, as were the Incans at the time of Pizarro's conquest?