The socialism of the Incas
By Alberto Mingardi
Before the Mont Pelerin Society’s meeting in Lima, Peru, beautifully organized by Enrique Ghersi, I took three days off and visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu. As a matter of fact, I highly recommend the trip–though I’d suggest you take more than three days, as these are phenomenal places, well worthy of a longer stay.
Before taking my trip, I didn’t know anything about the Incas. But my tour guides (I had three: one for Cuzco, one for Ollantaytambo–my favourite spot–and one for Machu Picchu) were very generous with information, including on the Incas’ political arrangements.
It is difficult not to be impressed by the Incas’ engineering successes, and one wonders how many human lives these places should have cost. Building entire cities on mountain sides is not an easy job.
All the tour guides made a point of telling the other tourists and me that the Incas’ society did not know private property, nor greed.
I ran across an interesting book by Louis Baudin, “A Socialist Empire. The Incas of Peru“, that Ludwig von Mises very much liked, so much so that he wrote the preface to the English translation published by the Volker Fund. It is indeed a remarkable book.
My tour guides maintained that everybody, in the Inca times, worked “for the community”, so class divisions didn’t matter at all: the best and brightest were chosen to lead, the others were to supply manual labour, and everybody was happy because everything was “for the good of the community”. This seems to be what impressed them the most. The guides (all Peruvians) were quite fond of the notion of the Incas being a remarkably ‘horizontal’ society, in which people contributed to the common good due to their civic spirit and not because they were coerced by an all-powerful leadership.
Baudin has an interesting explanation of the Incas’ socialism being a mixture of historically evolved communal agriculture, and top-down socialism that took over later in time (“we must envisage the Indian tribes as forming a series of communities upon which the Incas imposed the framework of a socialist organization”). For this reason, his work seems to support my tour guides’ enthusiasm, as he writes that “the empire presented the curious spectacle of a civilization that remained hostile to the division of labor.” Lower class people were encouraged to be versatile, so to say.
But Baudin emphasizes the great gulf that existed between the elites and common people. He considered the Inca empire “a socialism that would have leveled existence to a complete and suffocating uniformity had it not been for an elite (…) Equality, in Peru, existed only between individuals of the same social rank; it was the military system of equality among soldiers.”
the categories of the population were kept clearly separated, and differences in education and mode of life corresponded to differences in social rank. In all domains of existence a precisely defined hierarchy held parallel sway. Power always came from above, and the members of the ruling class were educated to exercise it for the greatest good of all. It was on these fruitful principles that the fortunes of the empire were built.
I shall say I was impressed by how all our different tour guides showed, or pretended to show, the same longing for the Inca times. They were very fond of explaining to us that when the Incas were buried in the mountains, with some small items with them, these latter need to be understood as tributes to the mountain, not companions for the after life. The lack of property rights, they say, extended to small personal belongings.
It is amazing how immortal the utopia of a property-less society seems to be. But it is rare to see it proudly pushed to personal objects and not *only* the means of production. I suppose this should produce unhappiness: which I suppose my guides would have agreed upon, if they only were to imagine themselves being forbidden to own books, or to choose their own clothes so as to dress as they like best.