"Wars are the inevitable accompaniment of imperialism".

Georgi Dimitrov, Comintern Secretary-General, 1939

Vladimir Lenin saw imperialism as the highest form of capitalism. His interpretation of imperialism was the export of capital overseas. This was what Lenin called "imperialism".

There were many reasons why the imperialistic West wanted to seek overseas colonies. The example I am most familiar with is that of the French occupation of Indochina, so we shall consider this.

The three things a colony can provide its master with are -

  • Natural resources
  • Cheap labour to expoloit these resources with and to work in other industry
  • New markets for the master's goods

There is a primary economic reason why labour is so much cheaper in Asia and Africa, and it's a matter of supply and demand. In countries which are mostly based on agriculture at a subsistence level, most workers in the country are engaged in this farming. They are usually very poor1 and have no alternative to this way of life. Until foreign business arrives.

Why are Nike able to pay their workers a fraction of what an equivalent worker in the West would recieve? Because the supply of jobs is low and demand is high2. Nike know that the opportunity cost for their workers of taking the job is not being able to work in subsistence farming - if the jobs end up more profitable overall for the worker, even at such a low wage, then Nike can retain the worker at a very small cost.

France subdued Indochina by force. Western businesses opened up in the cities and the French used forced labour to improve local infrastructure and work in heavy industry. This relationship was, in general, good for the French and bad for the Indochinese3. Eventually, Vietnam declared itself independent and fought long and hard to achieve that dream.

That was imperialism. What in the name of Marx is neo-imperialism? After World War II, there was an upsurge of liberation movements throughout the World, and the West began to lose or cede control of its colonies. Those who use the term neo-imperialism are accusing the West of trying to retain shady control of their old colonies through economic or political manipulation.

Neo-imperialism can take forms such as -

  • Foreign aid. It is undeniable that foreign aid is a tool of international relations, there to serve some purpose to the country giving the aid. This purpose, it is claimed by those accusing the West of neo-imperialism, is to retain a sphere of influence over foreign countries by making them dependent on our support. What's that, North Korea, you're developing nuclear weapons? Not if you want aid you're not!
  • Cultural imperialism. When foreign aid is given, or companies set up abroad, they often take the culture of their homeland with them. This, it is claimed, destroys the heterogenous nature of the world and is in some undefinable way "evil". Accusations of cultural imperialism range from American products being on sale in the United Kingdom to other countries adopting Western legal and government practices.
  • Western companies setting up abroad. While economic to the businesses for the reasons above, many advocates of the redistribution of wealth think that the foreign businesses should pay their African and Asian workers a lot more for moral reasons. This is a moral and economic minefield, and by any measure isn't likely to happen soon.
Whatever your interpretation of neo-imperialism, most are thankful to say that the time when we travelled the globe subduing "savages" by force and making them thralls to our interests are past.


1. Confucian society actually valued farmers very highly, with a proverb saying "If you don't have farmers, you have nothing else." This meant farmers were not always poor - but they usually were.

2. It's also because the countries in which they operate lack minimum wage laws or the ability to enforce them. Alfimp rightly notes that these countries often have very restrictive laws on unionisation.

3. Not to mention the United States of America, which fought the Vietnam War because of it.