Cultural Nationalism

On Cultural Nationalism

Portrait of Hernan Cortes

Portrait of Hernan Cortes

Science is a never ending quest for knowledge it is knowledge gained by systematic study.  In Marxism the central case of study is made between the oppressor and oppressed, that is the dialectic of the class struggle. In the context of the United States the revolutionaries are correct to view the proletariat of the oppressed nationalities as the vanguard or at least an indispensable component of a future revolutionary movement in any future challenge to bourgeois power. Within these oppressed nations there lies antagonistic contradictions between the oppressor Anglo-American bourgeoisie that manifest themselves at times through spontaneous uprisings(The Harlem Rebellion, The Watts Rebellion, and recently the uprising in Brooklyn). However, there are also contradictions between the different classes within the oppressed nations themselves.

Certain cultural nationalists be they Chicano(or Nican Tlaca as some refer to themselves), Indigenous or Black tend to refute the dialectic of the class struggle as “eurocentric” and “incapable” of being applied to the conditions of the Black, Chicano/Nican Tlaca or Indigenous peoples in the United States. The reasoning being that Marx, Engels and Lenin were born in Europe and were speaking of European conditions not the conditions of the “Third World” so to say, that is the non-white peoples of the rest of the planet, that they did not sufficiently consider the conditions or study societies that existed in other parts of the world. However, if one were to buy this argument how is it then that these “eurocentric” theories first found themselves in nations that were on the periphery of the “advanced nations”? That is to say Russia, China, Vietnam, Albania as well as being practiced in the Philippines, India, Peru etc. would not logic deduce that such a theory that is steeped in European prejudices have most of it’s followers be from Europe? Since this is where it is only applicable? Even the imperialist American Army believes that Mao’s theory on People’s War is invaluable and it is studied at West Point to this day.  In dealing with the dismissal of Lenin as white by certain cultural nationalists, James and Grace Lee Boggs  wrote that:

“In the United States, as the black movement struggles to define its goals and true means to achieve them, the question of what constitutes a black revolutionary party is going to become increasingly the center discussion and controversy. In order for this discussion and controversy to be meaningful, the Black movement will have to make a serious study of the concept of the vanguard party as developed and practiced by its originator. To believe that the Black revolutionary movement can evade such a study because Lenin was white and a European would be just as ridiculous as for an African freedom fighter to forego to fly in airplane because the Wright brothers were white Americans. Blacks don’t refuse to drive Cadillacs because they are made by General Motors or to watch television because Philco (Ford) manufactures TV sets. What has been achieved in human history, whether technological or political, Blacks have a right to inherit. The very high development of the theory and practice of the vanguard Party as originated by Lenin in Russia, and subsequently developed by Mao and Ho in Asia and Amilcar Cabral in Africa, belongs to all oppressed people of the world, providing those who seek to end the domination of man by man with guidelines which they ignore at their peril. It must be borne in mind at the same time that these guidelines can be applied only in relation to the specific conditions of a particular country and only by an organization that has developed out of indigenous forces and is not totally dependent upon external or foreign aid for is existence…until the Black revolutionary movement is ready to take seriously the scientific approach to revolution developed by Marx, Lenin, Ho and Giap, it will still be depending upon mystical or external guidance to achieve the power which can only be achieved by the most rigorous scientific appraisal of social forces. Mao, Ho and Cabral did not reject the necessity for a scientific approach to revolution because the founders of the approach were white. They used the method of Marx and Lenin, being careful at the same time to distinguish between the specific conditions of their own countries and those of Europe and Russia.” (James and Grace Lee Boggs, “the role of the vanguard party,” Monthly Review, April 1970. pp. 10-11)

So what is a Chican@? I think the Comedian Cheech Marin explains it best in his piece “What is a Chicano?” or perhaps Edward James Olmos as Abraham Quintanilla in the movie Selena:

“Being Mexican American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly, Mexicans jump all over you if you dont speak Spanish perfectly…Our family has been here for centuries…Japanese Americans, Italian Americans, German Americans, their homelands are on the other side of the ocean, ours is right next door, right over there. And we gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. We gotta be MORE Mexican than the Mexicans, and more American than the Americans; both at the same time! It’s exhausting! Man, nobody knows how tough it is to be Mexican American.”

As Communists who uphold national liberation of the Chicano people led by the proletariat, we must come to reject narrow cultural nationalism as a detriment to advancing the cause of their liberation. Why? because it negates the tools the Chicano working class needs to cast aside it’s chains. Those Chicano nationalists point to the irrelevance of Marxism being applied to our societies and instead point to and mystify the societies of Pre-Columbian Mexico. In doing so they adopt a psuedohistorical and hagiographical view of history. For Chicano cultural nationalists, Aztec society is utilized as a showcase that Marxism is not applicable to our people. How can this be if the Aztec Empire was itself a very classist and socially stratified society?

The Mexica/Aztec/Tenocha were a Nahua ethnic group that came to dominate Central Mexico in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries up until the Spanish Conquest. According to legend, they originated from a place called Aztlán, “place of herons”, which is believed to be somewhere in the present-day Southwestern United States. They were a small, nomadic and Nahuatl speaking people wandering about and sometime in the 13th Century settled in Central Mexico hiring themselves out to other city states as mercenaries due to their skills in warfare. According to Aztec and Mexican folklore, the Mesoamerican god of war Huitzilopochtli told his followers to look for an eagle devouring a snake, perched on an prickly pear cactus and on this site they were to build a city. In 1325, the wandering Mexica founded the city of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City). In this short amount of time, until the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s, the Aztecs created a sophisticated and scientifically advanced society that was surpassed in size to only that of the Incas in South America, and according to recent scholarship authored more philosophical works than the Ancient Greeks.

Aztec Society, like all statist societies was a very classist one, complete with a class of hereditary nobility, a class of peasantry, slaves and merchants. There was even vocabulary in Nahuatl that could be likened to “Great nation chauvinism” (even prior to the privileged position they attained in the Spanish Viceroyalty as mercenaries) and this is shown in the use of the word “Chichimeca”(Dog people) to describe the nomadic hunter-gatherers of Northern Mexico, a term which would be comparable to how the Greeks referred to non-Greeks as “barbaros”.

An Aztec Pipiltin

Aztec Society was divided up into four great classes: The Pipiltin, Macehualtin, Pochteca and Tlacotin.

The Pipiltin(nobility) constituted at first a meritocratic upperclass who later came to take on a hereditary role so as to preserve privileges in education, government roles and ceremonial-religious roles in society, much in the same way that capitalists are not de-jure hereditary positions in society but tend to be due to privilege bestowed on members of the same class to one another. This class came into conflict with the Pochteca(merchant class) who at times became as rich as the Pipiltin but were not allowed to publicly display their wealth.

The Pochteca was a small class of traveling merchants in Aztec society whose trade was referred to as Pochtecayotl, or commerce. They organized themselves into twelve guilds in Tenochtitlan trading excess tribute for trade goods throughout the Empire or in other parts of Mesoamerica. There was also a stratum of the Pochteca comparable to the Marxist “petty-bourgeoisie” called the Tlanamacac who who came to the markets to sell their produce from their own farms.

At the bottom rung of Aztec society laid the Tlacotin(semi-proletariat) and macehualtin(peasantry).

The Macehualtin in the latter parts of the Empire made up 1/5 of the Aztec Society, which corresponds to the the growing parasitic nature of the tributary empire on the rest of Mexico, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire at the height of it’s power, in the largest city in the world at that time(at over a Quarter Million), where only 20% of the populace in Tenochtitlan was involved in agricultural production, the rest as warriors, artisans and merchants. The importance of the Chinampas system constituted the creation of military campaigns throughout the Valley of Mexico to control regions of Lake Texcoco to expand their extent. The fact should be clear given that they were present in Lakes Xochimilco and Cahalco but absent in other parts of the Mexico Basin.

Rivera's mural of an Aztec marketplace showcasing class struggle in Aztec society.

Rivera’s mural of an Aztec marketplace showcasing class struggle in Aztec society.

The Tlacotin in the Empire constituted a semi-proletarian class comprised of indentured servants who sold themselves or their children into slavery to pay off debts, criminals or war captives. Aztec forced bondage was peculiar in that the bondage was not hereditary and not a life-long punishment and could buy their freedom, marry, own property and whose children were born free.

The Aztecs formed a privileged caste, the same as Tlaxcalans(another Nahua ethnic group), who would go to serve as mercenaries sent into war in the Southwest and Central America for the Spanish Viceroy. The sons and daughters of Montezuma themselves even became Encomenderos. The Mexican nobility in the First and Second Mexican Empires of the 19th Century even included families from Montezuma complete with royal titles of Counts and Dukes of the House of Montezuma.
The very people that cultural nationalists hold on a pedestal for young Chicano men and women to emulate (the powerful of Aztec society) were collaborators in Spanish Colonialism and themselves Encomenderos or mercenaries.

Even Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec Emperor,  executed by Hernan Cortes, was a collaborator along with other Mexica nobles in the conquest of Honduras against the Chontal Maya. After his death, Tlacotzin, who served as Cihuacoatl (counselor) under Montezuma and Cuauhtemoc, would succeed as Tlatoani(King) where he was given European clothes, sword and horse in honor of his new position. He would later collaborate with Cortes for three more years before dying of an illness in Central America.

With these realities in place one can look back at the science, the art of the Mexica and other cultural advancements and appreciate it, but uncritically taking it up and glorifying the pre-Colombian Aztecs and diving into historical revisionism to do so is to engage in hagiography. The class struggle existed in Pre-Colombian Mexico just as it existed in Africa, Europe, Asia and elsewhere. How much more does it exist then when capitalism is a global system? Where millions of Mexican immigrants leave their country to come to America to work for low wages, doing menial, dangerous and backbreaking labor? What are the economic solutions to this from our friends who wish to establish a Mexica super-state in Cemanahuac(North and South America)?

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One thought on “On Cultural Nationalism

  1. Great analysis. This struggle is being constantly waged in African communities world-wide, and I’m sure it happens in just about all oppressed nations. I think one of the key aspects of our struggle lies in the differences in how the petty-bourgeoisie relate to the workers in oppressed communities vs. how it happens in European (including the US) nations. The pb is more than just a vacillating class, at least in the African world. It is the class that serves the interests of the white bourgeoisie and functions to consistently undercut and undermine the struggle of workers. It may side with workers temporarily during times of national upheaval, but this only happens when to do otherwise would be suicidal in the face of mass revolt. This is critical to the question of cultural nationalism, as it is normally the pb that originates these claims of scientific socialism and dialectical materialism being unfit for use by oppressed people, because the people who put these theories to paper were white men (or non-African/Latino/et. al). In my experience, these rejections come from two major places: 1) a sincere hatred of the culture and atrocities of capitalist-imperialism (white power), and/or 2) an understanding of how these ideas (dialectical materialism, et al) serve to undermine their own privileged position with the oppressed nation. That being said, it remains the task of oppressed nation revolutionaries to wage struggle simultaneously against national oppression and class exploitation. The critical thing, in my view, is that we must wage class struggle internally and externally. Taking the lead within out national communities, and in solidarity within other communities. Lastly, I think that critical to the successful negation of this pb nonsense regarding the dialectical materialism, et al, it is a must that revolutionaries resolve the question of resources within our work and mass movements. At that point when we can mobilize our own base of economic support in the interest of our political aims, is the point when the pb will be nothing more than hollow voices echoing behind the forward motion of the working classes of the oppressed nations of the world.

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