Incan Life and Society - Government


pp 91-94


The myth of the great Inca socialist state springs from a merely cursory aquaintance with its institutions. The property laws par-ticularly, as well as the subject's duties to the emperor, have been interpreted in terms of European ideas, which apply only very imperfectly to a civilization still, in many respects, archaic despite its complexity and refinement.

The Inca economic and social system, as described by Garcilaso de la Vega in his Royal Commentaries, and by those writers whom he inspired, had a fine and admirable simplicity: the sovereigns of old Peru wanted justice and prosperity to spread le land, divided a through the land, and as soon as a province was conquered, it was "divided into three parts, the first for the Sun, the second for the king, and the third for the people."

The fields of the Sun God were cultivated to supply the needs of the religion and to maintain the numerous priesthood. The Inca's land was cultivated for the benefit of the government, and could also be used as an emergency fund when some calamity overtook one province or another. Finally, the last third of arable land, divided annually into equal portions, was distributed to the families of each community, in proportion to their numbers. A commoner's possessions amounted to no more than his hut, a yard, a few domestic animals, and household goods such as clothes and tools. Everything else belonged to the Inca. The inhabitants of the empire worked for the Inca, who, in exchange, left them free to dispose of the communal land as they wished, and also gave them a fair share of the fruits of their labor. If such was indeed the economic framework of the Inca state, one could truly speak of state socialism grafted onto agrarian collectivism. But was it really like this?

In fact, the Inca empire combined absolute despotism with a respect for the social and political forms of the subject peoples The Inca reigned as absolute monarch, but his will reached the common man only through the local chiefs, whose authority and privileges were maintained, if not reinforced. Centralization of power was combined, after a fashion, with the exercise of indirect rule, if such an anachronistic phrase may be allowed.

The most unusual aspects of Inca civilization-the tripartite division of land, the convents of the "Virgins of the Sun," the state storehouses, the statistics, and the road network-reflect a very special concept of the subject's obligations toward his sov-ereign, and a very ingenious organization of the country's re-sources in man and materials, secured by a ruthless imperialist policy within less than a century.

Inca society did not practice slavery, at least in the usual inter-pretation of the word. It is only very late that we find the emperor and his governors tearing people from their homes and settling them on their own estates. Tributes could not be paid in money, since its use was not known, even in the primitive form developed in Mexico and Colombia. Gold and silver were thought of only as raw materials for the purpose of making ornaments or religious objects. The Incas would certainly have been able to pre-empt part of each village's crops, but they preferred to draw on a far richer tribute, the work and energy of their people. The Incas, as local country chieftains, had had a right to the corvée and to the personal services of the peasants. Being masters of a great empire, they maintained the right to press the inhabitants into their service on a vast scale and to their own profit, as they had done in former times on a smaller scale.

The corvé'e system became so important in the economic life of the empire that, even at the height of its power, "tributes," that is taxes, were all paid in personal services, and no Indian was taxed on his goods. The notion of compulsory service was so deeply in-grained in the Indians' mentality that, as the Spaniards found with considerable surprise, an Indian would prefer forced labor, even of two weeks' duration, "rather than give the authorities so much as a bushel of potatoes." As soon as a province was conquered, the first task of the Inca's officers was to evaluate the resources of the area in men and crops. On the basis of this information, the Inca proceeded to mark out the lands that would fall to the state, and those that would go to the religion of the Sun and the principal official divinities.

In taking a part of the conquered people's land, the Incas changed the existing landowning system, but the change was not fundamental. It would be slanted to their own advantage and to the advantage of their own titular gods: the structure was not altered, the ayllus did not lose their communes, even if a part were confiscated, nor did the huacas and the curacas lose their properties. The changes introduced by the imperial officers re-sulted in the incorporation of the Inca into each conquered ter-ritory, since the Incas were content merely to claim for themselves and their gods the rights and privileges previously given from time immemorial to the ayllus and idols of the region. Looked at in this way, it was not so much a question of the community adapt-ing itself to new conditions as the dynasty of the Incas, to some extent, identifying itself with the old order and taking root in the community. The whole weight of this new distribution of land, and of the new personal services demanded, fell on the peasants who now, in addition to their obligations to their old chiefs and traditional gods, had to cultivate the fields of the Inca and those of the new gods.
Interpret the following statement:
In fact, the Inca Empire combined absolute despotism with a respect for hte social and political forms of the subject people."

Back to Guatemala Lessons