Alberto Mingardi  

The socialism of the Incas

I'm a Full Professor!... Is Larry Summers reasoning fro...

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."

That is:

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.

Comments and Sharing


COMMENTS (14 to date)
KPres writes:

If they were so happy and successful, then why were all the surrounding tribesman so desperate to wipe them out that they'd join up with 164 Spaniards to conquer them, rather than just joining up with the Incas to repel the tiny band of invaders?

Pajser writes:

I do not think it is important that I own the book or clothes - it is important to be able to read the book and wear the clothes. Choice is important, but one can chose without private property - if you use public library, you have the choice. Local public library will found and borrow any book that exists in any EU public library.

I wouldn't call described Inca society "socialism." The definition of the term usually contains something like "... the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole." That part "as a whole" is important.

Gorgasal writes:

@Pajser: my local public library, the official "city library" of a fair-sized city in Germany, stopped doing interlibrary loans a few years back. They cited too high costs. Instead of offering this service at a higher price to those who really require a book, they stopped it altogether.

Thank goodness I can at least still order my books through the local bookstore... or via Amazon. Because in this case, private property still allows me to be able to actually read that book.

Shane L writes:

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson's Why Nations Fail blog also explored Incan central planning.

"In the Inca Empire, all the land was the Inca’s and large parts were allocated to the Temple of the Sun and other religious cults, others to the army, and yet others to the Crown. The rest which the state did not claim was granted to local communities for their subsistence production. The state lands, distributed throughout the empire, were then worked for free by the local people using various forms of corvée labor. Local people also had to weave llama wool given to them for this purpose by the state.

"There seems to have been little or no market exchange but instead the state moved people into different areas where different crops could be grown, the so-called archipelago economy, and then distributed the goods by fiat. For example, Inca administrators who supervised the farming of crown lands would arrange for some of the goods to be moved to Cuzco or other regional capitals, while another part would be stored locally in warehouses. This system, vividly described by the anthropologist John Murra in his book The Economic Organization of the Inka State was a vast system of central planning developed without the aid of Das Kapital or indeed Eurasian role models."

JK Brown writes:


Your definition of socialism is one that came about in the early 20th century. I would speculate to provide differentiate from fascism, which retained private ownership of the means of production will still having it directed by the ruling cabal.

I subscribe to an early definition of Socialism (1886) before the need to differentiate arose or the later to confuse the socialist atrocities with of the Communists with communism.

That Communism is essentially negative, confined to the prohibition that one shall not have more than another. Socialism is positive and aggressive, declaring that each man shall have enough.

It purposes to introduce new forces into society and industry; to put a stop to the idleness, the waste of resources, the misdirection of force, inseparable, in some large proportion of instances, from individual initiative; and to drive the whole mass forward in the direction determined by the intelligence of its better half.


The Socialist, under this definition, would be the man who, in general, distrusts the effects of individual initiative and individual enterprise ; who is easily convinced of the utility of an assumption, by the State, of functions which have hitherto been left to personal choices and personal aims ; and who, in fact, supports and advocates many and large schemes of this character.

A man of whom all this could be said might, in strict justice, be termed a Socialist. The extreme Socialist is he who would make the State all in all, individual initiative and enterprise disappearing in that engrossing democracy of labor to which he aspires. In his view, the powers and rights of the State represent the sum of all the powers and all the rights of the individuals who compose it ; and government becomes the organ of society in respect to all its interests and all its acts. So much for the Socialist.

I find, with the above definition, it is easier to see through the fog of labels and the need over the last century to devise a new version of Socialism or Marxism when to many bodies pile up under the old version.

Psychic Octopus writes:

Yes, the Russian Marxist Geogi Plekhanov referred to "the Peruvian tutelage." In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann notes that "the Inka did not even have markets."

_NL writes:

This description of society sounds more like feudalism in Europe (presumably without the vassalage) than socialism.

Not having the legal right to the books, clothes and personal items of your choice is normally seen as a mark of cruelty (e.g. chattel slavery) or punishment (e.g. prison) or privation (e.g. depression or embargo).

mike shupp writes:

I suspect the attractiveness of the vanished Incan empire in folk memory tells us much about local perceptions of Spanish rule.

Pajser writes:

JK Brown, I understand why libertarians want to equate "statism" with "socialism", but it is not the same thing. Statism is not even common for socialists; very important socialist traditions reject state completely (anarchists) or partially (orthodox Marxists).

TSB writes:

Do we know how successful the Incan system was? How common and severe were shortages?

I also wonder how gold production fit into the system. It must have absorbed a significant amount of labour without obvious material benefit to the community.

Peter writes:

@TSB: Depends on your definition of success. The Incas perfected the art of human sacrifice. For example, they sacrificed children in exchange for a bountiful harvest.

I guess you could say "sacrifice and harvest" was like their "profit and loss" mechanism! Very progressive.

Dan writes:

My first paper in college was on this book for a Latin American history class, Swarthmore, fall of 1985. I got a B, I think, and the professor didn't really buy the thesis of the book.

Roger McKinney writes:

Many societies have been organized like the Inca's through histor. Schoeck details many of them in his book "Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior." A caste system satisfies envy because we only envy those of our own class who are different. If moving to a higher class is impossible, then we don't envy those in higher classes.

The Incas also fit in well with the type of society the New Institutionalists identify as the most robust form of society in history as well as today. They call it the closed society in which a monarch and a small group of elites rule over the masses. The monarch retains power because he give the elites the freedom to plunder the masses with impunity in exchange for their loyalty. The masses embrace the structure because the elites keep the masses equally poor and crush any peasant who tries to improve his lot in life. That's why it is so robust.

Also, it's a lie that the Inca masses were happy. Schoeck demonstrates with anthropological research that people in such societies fear the envy of others and envy others for even small differences in fortune. That's why family is so important. They consider it evil to envy family members, but necessary to envy outsiders. Envy consumes them. The true story of how people live miserable envious lives in such cultures is very sad.

When we say that people like the Incas were happy in their poverty, we project our socialist biases on them. The were not happy. Schoeck proves it.

Paul Kochis writes:

The posting and the comments are fascinating. I will not try to parse the attempts to describe the Inca system as "socialism". Two wonderful aspects of the Inca system are missing. First, the Inca system provided security from marauders, which was lacking before Pachecutec perfected the Inca system. Second, the the Incas vastly improved the supply of food and clean water through the thousands of storage buildings and intricate water irrigation systems. While they did not invent these items, they expended vast amount's of mita' service on an unprecedented scale to build them. Finally, the general population was not literate, so talk of "books" is not relevant. How does one define "happy" in the 14th-16th Century? Certainly not under our standards. But, I think the evidence is that the Inca general population from the times of Pachecutec to Huayna Capac lived a better life that their feudal serf counterparts.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top