The Spanish conquest of Mexico: a Marxist perspective

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the capture of Cuauhtémoc [the last Aztec ruler] on 13 August 1521 by the Spanish invaders, an event that marked the date of the fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlán. This fall represented a very important stage in the process of the ascent of capitalism and its worldwide rise to dominance. It was one of the starting points of capitalist globalisation. And it represented a clash between two modes of production: capitalism in its early stage of development, and the mode of production of the Mesoamerican world, with its own peculiarities.

In this clash, the great civilisations of the pre-Hispanic world were sacrificed to feed the nascent capitalist system, with the majority of the population dying as a result of the destruction of their culture and imported diseases. The request by Mexican president, Lopez Obrador, that the Spanish government apologise for the genocide has opened a healthy debate on various issues including: what the conquest meant, how to bring justice for indigenous peoples, how free and independent Mexico is today, how we should fight imperialism, and how was it possible that a few hundred invaders were able to overthrow an empire that ruled over millions of people. In this article we intend to contribute a Marxist perspective on the 500 years since the fall of Tenochtitlán.

Primitive accumulation of capital and the thirst for gold

At the beginning – during the centuries of the so-called Renaissance, in the period before the dominant feudal relations had collapsed – capital was accumulated in the form of commercial capital, mainly as money and commodities. The development of trade stimulated the Portuguese to attempt to circumnavigate Africa in search of a new route to the East. But the slave trade, which in turn accelerated capitalist accumulation, was more lucrative than the old trade with the ‘East Indies’. It was only a matter of time before other powers, jealous of the success of the Portuguese, tried to find new routes across the Atlantic, reducing the Mediterranean Sea, the main stage of the ancient world, to little more than a paddling pool by comparison. These were the causes of a ‘disease’ that afflicted the European conquerors, a ‘disease’ which ancient civilisations did not suffer from, and that could only be alleviated by the capture of gold and trade routes. That ’disease’ – otherwise known as the primitive accumulation of capital, the insane need for money – would lead the Europeans to conquer Africa, America, Asia and Oceania; enslaving, plundering and destroying native cultures. The conquerors’ craving for precious metals grew in the same proportion as the early, developing capitalist economy required a means of exchange and accumulation. This frenzied need was as powerful as the craving of an incurable addict for heroin, but with far graver consequences than an overdose. The ‘First World’ was nourished by the blood, sweat and tears of the colonial world. Marx wrote:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre.”

This transitional stage that we know as the European Renaissance was expressed in its own way by such characters as Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés. The first was a merchant and navigator, a self-taught bookseller who was fascinated by travel books. After making a pilgrimage through various European courts, he won limited support from the kingdom of Castile to find a new route to the east by navigating the Atlantic. He miscalculated that the Earth’s circumference was only 25% of its actual size. It was the greatest miscalculation on record, promising a much shorter journey to the Far East. He was driven to travel into the unknown by the promise of fame, the purchase of noble titles and the allure of becoming a ‘king of islands’. It was a curious combination, mixing the eagerness of a bourgeois to accumulate wealth with the desire to spend it in the manner of a feudal lord. The Spanish empire itself did not know how to use the looted gold as capital. Large amounts were used for the construction of churches and temples. However, the influx of these huge sums of precious metals were well suited to the needs of other European powers in their drive towards capitalism.

columbus Image Public DomainCristopher Columbus was a merchant and an adventurer driven to travel into the unknown by the promise of fame, noble titles and the allure of becoming a ‘king of islands’ / Image: Public Domain

When the promise of items from the East and gold in large quantities was frustrated, Columbus did not hesitate to enslave the indigenous populations, massacring them where they resisted. His refusal to accept that the lands he had reached were not the coasts of China, Japan or India was owed simply to the fact that he needed to present the terms of the contract with the Spanish crown as having been fulfilled. The latter stipulated that only should he find a new route to Asia would the promised benefits and privileges be granted: “on the one hand pecuniary concessions and on the other political privileges of undoubted feudal flavour.”[1] His hodge-bodge understanding of the world and navigation, of which he was self-taught, was combined with foolish beliefs in prophecies, the end of the world and in heavenly predestination. Such beliefs were typical of the darkest days of the feudal epoch – beliefs that were reinforced as his luck worsened.

Cortés, for his part, was a cruel and cunning adventurer who, like Columbus, sought fortune, fame, and power. He did not pause before deceiving not only strangers, but his own people as well. His expedition to Mexico-Tenochtitlán, for example, was at first illegal as it did not enjoy the permission of the Cuban government. He literally burned his ships after landing to prevent his army from retreating, and he did not hesitate in carrying out the worst slaughters in pursuit of his dream of being Viceroy of the lands he had conquered with blood and fire. The Spanish soldiers who invaded America had little to lose: some of Columbus’ sailors were convicts who were granted a royal pardon to make the trip to America. Most of Cortés’ troops, meanwhile, consisted of poor peasants – some of whom were war veterans – whose only payment was the promise of plunder and booty. The most lumpenised and adventurist strata of Spanish society formed the spearhead of capitalism’s penetration into the New World.

The cracks in the Mexica dominion

While a frantic thirst to find and conquer new colonies gripped Europe, the Mexica [the ruling group then dominant in central Mexico] – representatives of the great Mesoamerican civilisations – were founded on the exploitation of a plethora of small agrarian communities. Private ownership of land among these communities was practically unknown. The communities were only united by the central power that demanded tribute – in kind and in the form of labour. Marx called this peculiar mode of production – which also existed in some form in ancient India, Egypt, China and South America – as the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ or as ‘oriental despotism’. In the context of this set up, there was no shortage of quarrels and rivalries among the different peoples. Political alliances were made and broken in the struggle for control of the exploited communities, generating almost irreconcilable divisions and rivalries.

When the Spanish arrived, there were about a thousand dominions in Mesoamerica, and the Mexica dominated many hundreds of them. In fact, these rivalries and changes in political alliances were the common way of doing politics in the Mesoamerican world. It was by way of war and coercion that mutual commitments were established regarding the distribution of surplus and of the work produced by the village communities.

Pre-Hispanic trade was relatively underdeveloped. It is true that there existed long-distance trade routes and impressive markets in pre-Hispanic cities since preclassic times [2,500 BCE to 200 CE], but this remained limited and state-controlled trade, subject to the tax needs of the ruling caste. The village communities were insular and produced principally for their own consumption. There existed no nation state as we understand it today, but small and large dominions that were subordinated to more powerful ones through war. Thus, the Mesoamerican political and economic system was a jigsaw puzzle that could be broken anywhere, and the mighty Mexica state was a giant with feet of clay.

These cracks between the fragments of the political jigsaw of the Mexica empire would be used in a cynical and cunning way by the invaders, who numbered only a few hundred. They would capitalise on an internal civil war in order to impose the colonial rule of Europe on America. This is the only way that we can understand how an empire whose capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlán, numbered some 300,000 people and which dominated a territory of some seven million people, could be overthrown by just 300 men led by Hernán Cortés.

Moctezuma II Image Public DomainEmperor Moctezuma mistakenly believed that the Spanish invaders could be appeased with gifts / Image: Public Domain

The Spaniards took advantage of and grouped together the opposition of such peoples as the Tlaxcalans, Cholultecas and Totonacas. The use of steel weapons, cavalry and the use of gunpowder – unknown to the pre-Hispanic people – also played an important role. The “guns, germs and steel” that the Spaniards brought with them played decisively in their favour. These latter advantages were related to the differing levels of historical development between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ worlds. This is an interesting issue linked to material factors that go beyond the control of the will and intelligence of these peoples.

This is the only way to explain the fact that invaders like Pizarro were able to apply the same strategy with the Inca civilisation and to obtain the same results. In its first century, the colonial administration was based upon the same tributary system of the Mexica, except that the invaders occupied the place of the Tlatoanis. The worst elements of the old system were combined with the humiliation of the destruction of the culture of the conquered people, and a true social catastrophe: between 1519 and 1607, population decreased by 95%. The Spanish conquest was a civil war. Although it brought hope of liberation to some of the subjugated peoples, those hopes were quickly dashed, and in their place came the worst catastrophe imaginable for the vast majority of the indigenous people. The oppression and humiliation that the conquerors brought in their train persist to this day in varying degrees.

The invaders don’t want tribute

Emperor Moctezuma mistakenly believed that the Spanish invaders could be appeased with gifts, and he received them with kindness and courtesy. He proposed diplomacy as he knew it. Tributes were, after all, one of the reasons that the Mexica themselves waged war. Couldn’t another slaughter like that of Cholula be prevented by reaching an amicable agreement of a tributary relationship with the men of Castile? But the only thing that Moctezuma’s gifts did was to stimulate the invaders’ desire to conquer. They did not want episodic tributes but to be able to plunder all the gold and wealth they could. Here we see an expression of fundamental differences between two very different modes of production and points of view: the Mexica appropriated use values and labour for state works; the Spanish invaders were blinded by the endless search for gold, as part of the primitive accumulation of capital.

Matanza templo Image Public DomainAlthough the Spaniards were hosted as distinguished guests, they did not hesitate in performing the worst atrocities. In Tozcatl they took advantage of a religious ceremony to carry out a horrific massacre / Image: Public Domain

This difference was also expressed in another way: the Spanish had no qualms about waging a war of extermination if it assisted in achieving their immediate objectives. The pre-Hispanic peoples waged war only to impose tributes and obtain captives for sacrifice. For them, the Spanish way of waging war was barbaric. These remarks are not intended to idealise the Mexica style of warmongering. Rather, we are only affirming that each different strategy in war simply expressed the logic of very different cultures that were ultimately rooted in very different material bases.

Although the Spaniards were hosted as distinguished guests, they did not hesitate in taking the Mexica emperor prisoner in his own palace. Later they would even take advantage of a solemn and important religious ceremony, the Tozcatl festival in the Main Temple, to carry out a horrific massacre in which even women and children were not spared. All this was merely a means to loot the riches of the Main Temple. They had already carried out a ‘preventative’ massacre in Cholula where, in a period of six hours, Cortés’ troops had murdered some 5,000 Cholultecas. Bartolomé de las Casas left written testimony of the horrific massacre at the Main Temple:

“At once all [the Spaniards] stab, spear people and slash them, they wound them with swords. Some were attacked from behind; immediately their entrails fell to the ground scattered. Others had their heads torn apart: their heads were sliced off, their heads were left completely in shreds”[2].

The Mexica did not use gold as currency but as a luxury item to make manufactured objects. That is, it was used to make use values for the ruling caste. Apparently, gold was not even the most valuable luxury item. Expressing the lack of development of commercial relations, cotton blankets, cocoa and even slaves were used as currency.

In order to loot the precious metal and put it to use in the traditional European manner, countless gold works of art were melted down into ugly ingots. Irreplaceable works of art were lost forever. In fact, in the defeat known as ‘La noche triste’, many of the invaders died because, weighed down by heavy armour filled will melted-down gold, they drowned in the waters of Lake Texcoco, much like the ambitious Gollum who preferred to die in the lava of Mount Doom than give up his precious ring.

After Moctezuma was killed attempting to contain the population of Tenochtitlán after the massacre of the Main Temple, and following the expulsion of the Spanish from the city, Cuauhtémoc assumed military command of a city besieged by the Spanish and their allies, and ravaged by the agonies of smallpox. After being captured, Cuauhtémoc was tortured so that he would deliver up the remaining gold – his feet were soaked in oil and set alight.

Four years later, during an expedition to Honduras, Cortés had Cuauhtémoc, whom he had taken prisoner on that expedition – hanged and buried in an unmarked grave. The indigenous people were forced to destroy their great city and their grand palaces to retrieve the stone with which the churches to which they were ideologically subjected were built. Indeed, some of the surviving Mexica priests told the twelve Franciscans who arrived in 1524, “Let us die now, let us perish now, since our gods have already died!”[3]

The emancipation of the indigenous peoples

In a letter addressed to the Spanish government and the Spanish King, President López Obrador recently requested an official apology for the genocide involved in the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlán. As a symbolic gesture by a reformist left-wing president, it contrasts starkly with the cowardly and servile stances taken by previous governments. The petition, which was rejected by the Spanish government, has exposed the hypocrisy of the Spanish ruling class, which is inherently colonialist, racist and contemptuous of the cultures of the original peoples of the Americas. In this sense, it is undoubtedly positive that the president of Mexico has opened a debate on the meaning of the conquests, and as to how justice should be restored to the indigenous peoples who continue to suffer oppression as a result of that conquest. However, as Marxists we understand that conquest and genocide were the result of the birth of capitalism, and that capitalist imperialism that inherited those colonial conquests will not cease to exist as long as the capitalist system itself exists.

Conquista de México por Cortés Tenochtitlan Painting Image Public DomainIt is true that the ‘encomienda’ (grant to demand tribute) and the ‘repartimiento’ (land distribution) with which the Spanish colony oppressed the indigenous peoples no longer exist. But capitalism dominates Mexico in a more complete and absolute way than in colonial times, through the world market / Image: Conquista de México por Cortés, Public Domain

What Marxists seek is not an apology from the governments representing capital, but their overthrow through revolutionary means. We understand that only once the rule of capital is overthrown will imperialism and the colonial system that it entails cease to exist.

It is true that the ‘encomienda’ (grant to demand tribute) and the ‘repartimiento’ (land distribution) with which the Spanish colony oppressed the indigenous peoples no longer exist. But capitalism dominates Mexico in a more complete and absolute way than in colonial times, through the world market, through the economic and military might of the great powers of which the Mexican bourgeoisie is a small offshoot. Indigenous peoples suffer this oppression as workers, as peasants and as indigenous groups on the economic and racial levels.

In a letter to the Russian revolutionary, Vera Zasulich, Marx affirmed how the collectivist traditions of the peasant communities could be harnessed to regenerate the life of Russia in a communist sense, but only on the condition that these communities were attracted by a powerful socialist revolution. Mariátegui – along the same lines – argued that the trend towards cooperation in indigenous communities was a point of support for the revolutionary movement of the working class. He was clear that neither indigenous mysticism – which idealises the indigenous or which promotes autonomy without overthrowing capitalism – nor bourgeois paternalism – which ‘benevolently’ seeks to integrate the indigenous into the capitalist system – are an alternative. Only the socialist revolution can provide the material basis for the emancipation of indigenous peoples by liberating them from the landowners, big business and commerce that destroys their communities.


[1] Fernández Armesto, Felipe; Cristobal Colón, Madrid, Editorial Crítica, 1991, p. 108.

[2] Cited in: León Portilla, Miguel; The reverse of the conquest, Mexico, Joaquín Mortiz, 1964, p. 40.

[3] Ibid. p.21.

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