Imperialism was a policy actively practiced by many Western powers over much of the past 500 years. It is the aggressive expansion of an empire by annexation or military subjugation, and the following economic leeching of those colonial economies for the benefit of the "mother nation".

Often done under the guise of taming the godless heathen populations the "pagan" barbarian cultures, the perpetrators of this policy act like Christian heroes, claiming to liberate the savages from their miserable lives and enlighten them with the knowledge of the "one true God", while themselves committing one of the seven deadly sins, greed. Hypocrisy seems to be easily ignored when profits are being made.

Imperialism pretty much died out after World War II when the balance of power shifted from the traditional Western nations to America and the USSR. Instead of sucking their subjugates dry, they used them as satellite nations instead, helping them in the Cold War.

Marxist theory often dictates imperialism as a natural development of capitalism, and this line of thought was picked up by modern Marxists and socialists, who now accuse globalization of the economy as "imperialist". The broadened generalizations these people make often serve to confuse the issue and is mostly just slander against business.

Here's a bit more detailed description of Marxist and late-Marxist theory or analysis of imperialism, since earlier wus have already scratched its surface. As a disclaimer let's mention that this is not necessarily something I agree with but I just wrote it because I think I know it well enough. The majority of the wu is just quotes and my interpretations of what Finnish researcher Jyrki Käkönen has written.

I won't go into forms of imperialism before WWII because the analyses doesn't differ that much. I just want to mention that sferics put it well down saying imperialism consists of both economic and military powers.

Vladimir Ilyitsh Uljanov, better known as Lenin, was the one who contributed a lot for marxist theory of imperialism. It should be mention that his theory is not printed only in his pamflet "Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism" but the core ideas are examined in detail in "Notebooks on Imperialism". Imperialism is the natural consequence of capitalism because its inherent nature of expansion. Military presence and invasions are just certain means for capitalism to expand.

Lenin said that financial capital takes over the capital tied in production. George Soros triumphes but Henry Ford plays only a minor role compared to him. At the moment we can see how the finance capital reorganizes both production and markets. The importance of State diminishes as the capital expanses under the abbreviations of NAFTA, EMU, GATT and others. We may note that the "lead time" of financial capital converges to zero whereas capital bound in material products has certain physical limits. Therefore financial capital is the one to conquer markets first. It happened in Eastern Block after the Soviet collapse too: There wasn't that much material investments but western capital bought existing production and first and foremost it took control over the natural resources of Russia.

Late-marxists interested in the concept of imperialism cannot ever pass the foreign policy of USA. The expansion of NATO was dictated by Clinton without asking their allies beforehand. Somalia goes for the example of US control over United Nations - UN is handcuffed if it tries to do something against US interests. NATO involved in Bosnia mainly because presidential elections were coming closer in USA and Clinton needed to prove his ability as the leader of the world. Kosovo and Serbia were bombed later without asking UN opinion. The blockade of Iraq continues regardless of uneffectiveness - let alone million dead children! "If that was the price it was worth of paying", said Madeleine Albright. 80 small native cultures of Amazonas were crushed to extinction due to overharvesting. A genocide driven by the profit.

Now, Toni Negri and Michael Hardt recently wrote a book "Empire" with the underlying theme that we shouldn't speak about imperialism anymore because there's no room to expand geographically. It was already Rosa Luxemburg who said that capitalism will decay when it cannot expand anymore. But socialists, please, don't you hooray for victory yet! We are living in the phase of capitalism where expansion is qualitative. The privatisation of water resources was striked back in Bolivia by the people but the trend is clear. Quotas for fishing are already sold in some areas of world and libertarists dream about privatisation of oxygene, etc, etc.

But it's not only capital and production that is moving from a country to another. It's also labour. Now, there has been "ethnic" conflicts around the world. Recently they had big ones in UK. Some late-marxist theorists claim that ethnicity is only the surface of the problem. The real problem lies in McJobs and unemployment. Slums and ghettos heaves around megapolis like New York and Mexico City. People construct their identities based on the features that are clearly visible like the color of skin. However, according to theory, removing the certain ethnic groups doesn't remove the problems because they are built in the system. National economies cannot provide the resources to solve the real problems and thus they're "ethniced" and all we have to do is to make up the next excuse for the same problems.

The Origin of the term

The word Imperialism was first used in the international scene around 1880 to describe the effort of a state or a people to impose rule (Imperium) on others. It is a hybrid term that can mean many things e.g. cultural or economic Imperialism. If one narrowly links the meaning of the word to its etymology it relates to the formation of an Empire and can be applied throughout history. But when it gained popularity in the second half of the 19th century it was a descriptive of the policies of Napoleon III. It then began to take on many more meanings.

A General Definition
“the tendency of one society or state to dominate another, by whatever means and for whatever purpose”.

This definition is the most commonly accepted. It is applicable throughout time and so relates to the Romans expanding into modern France, the Ottoman Empire expanding into Eastern Europe as well as more controversially American economic expansion in the 20th Century. It is perhaps useful to consider the difference between the more vague and general use of the term Imperialism and the more specific definitions that are outlined below. Its connotations very broad and flexible and hence one needs to be very careful in considering what oneself or an author means when using it.

A few more ways of addressing the idea

But there are more detailed definitions that are quite common and often discussed. There are three that are most influential:

  • Since Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), Marxists have used it denote a specific stage in the evolution of capitalism. In particular the creation of monopoly capitalism. The finance capitalists who controlled the capital first split the world into Commercial Empires and then into political Empires in order to safeguard their monopoly of markets and sources of raw material. Colonialism was therefore a feature of Imperialist Capitalism and would continue until Socialism replaced it! A slight problem came in the 30 years after 1945 when these Empires in fact disappeared! Later Marxists adapted Lenin’s view arguing finance capitalism had merely changed its techniques of control: ex colonies were still economically subservient. This new condition was called: Neo-Colonialism.The key feature of Lenin and Marxists definitions was the inevitability of Colonialism: it was not just an option!
  • Reflects a belief that Imperialism was an inevitable consequence of the disproportionate industrial and political power established by Europe and North American in the 19thand 20th century. This was not specifically as result of monopoly capitalism though. It denies that a significant number of Europeans ever wanted to govern Africa: they were not positive Imperialists. Two consequences occurred was that as Europeans activities in these regions intensified. The first was the conflict between conflicting European groups in these areas. The second was that few indigenous governments or social structures managed to operate for long as alien interference grew greater. Hence Colonialism was the consequence of these two difficulties. So in this view decolonization came when these non-European societies had reached or were reaching a level of efficiency that would enable them to survive alone (I know this sounds a little strained!).
  • Argues that Imperialism was an act of will and constituted a deliberate choice on the part of the Imperialists. Hence the definition that Imperialism is:
    “the deliberate act or advocacy of extending or maintaining a state’s direct or indirect political control over any other inhabited territory.”
    This places the focus on the decision to extend an Empire. This would therefore incorporate various reason for the extension of such an Empire e.g. to defend shipping lines, to have bases overseas and supporting European colonists. What these have in common is the potential for the state to decide not to extend its territories. Therefore the end of Imperialism and formal Empire would occur when the Imperialists decided that it was no longer possible or in their interests to try and maintain an Empire.
Most of the imperialist expansions that european nations were endeavoring were not necessarily profitable. “Historians…point out that most of the areas claimed by Europeans and Americans were not profitable sources of raw materials or wealthy enough to be good markets” (Western Civilization). However, some of these lands could be put to good use as markets if they were educated to want the materials that Europe had to offer. Lord Macauley notes that if India could be educated to govern itself (thereby ridding Great Britain the financial burden of governing a backward people) but at the same time be educated to admire and need materials that only European manufacturers could offer, the advantages could be enormous. “To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages (Macauly).

Once the larger and older powers got a stronghold in Asia and Africa, Italy and Germany got into the game late in order to establish themselves as world powers. As childish as it seems, much of the reason for this expansion was based on competition with other European nations as well as national pride. Which explorer from which nation could climb the highest moutain in the portion of Africa that they controlled? The mystique of the “undiscovered country” brought a frenzy of interest to imperialist thrill-seekers. Almost as a precursor to a modern-day “It’s a Small WorldDisney tune, composers were writing music with themes pertaining to imperialism, such as Schumann’s Kinderszenen which included pieces like “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples” and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Kipling, who wrote both The Jungle Book and the poem White Man’s Burden is still debated as to his stance on Imperialism.

Many others in Europe felt that it was the duty of a more highly civilized society to educate and civilize the “savages” in foreign lands. “The superior races have a right because they have a duty…to civilize the inferior races” (Ferry). Missionaries and laypersons alike took up the belief that as Christians it was their god-given duty to spread the message and faith of Christianity.

Perhaps most important was the original need for foreign ports for fleets. “A navy…cannot do without safe harbours, defenses, supply centers on the high seas….” (Ferry). For practical reasons, “A warship cannot carry more than two weeks’ supply of coal” (ibid), and for matters of tactical advantage. The tactical reason also extended to actual holdings. Many European nations got involved in the mad scramble for land in Africa and Asia merely to keep the balance of power or to keep the path to their current holdings clear. When the Suez canal was completed, Britain vied for the surrounding land in order to have an unfettered route to India.

Ultimately, imperialism had many motivating factors as to its beginning, the least of all being profit. However, once it began, it was almost impossible to stem the tide of European expansion that held sway over Asia and Africa.

Sources: Jules Ferry on French Colonial Expansion
Lord Macauly on Indian Education
"Western Civilization from the 1400's to the present" -Brooklyn College Press

Im*pe"ri*al*ism (?), n.

The power or character of an emperor; imperial authority; the spirit of empire.

Roman imperialism had divided the world.
C. H. Pearson.


© Webster 1913

Im*pe"ri*al*ism, n.

The policy, practice, or advocacy of seeking, or acquiescing in, the extension of the control, dominion, or empire of a nation, as by the acquirement of new, esp. distant, territory or dependencies, or by the closer union of parts more or less independent of each other for operations of war, copyright, internal commerce, etc.

The tide of English opinion began to turn about 1870, and since then it has run with increasing force in the direction of what is called imperialism.
James Bryce.


© Webster 1913

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