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Territories that have been, at one time or another, part of the British Empire

Imperialism, defined by The Dictionary of Human Geography, is "the creation and maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural and territorial relationship, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination." Imperialism has been described as a primarily western concept that employs "expansionist – mercantilist and latterly communist – systems."[1]

Imperialism is considered the control by one state of other territories. Through political or military means (direct imperialism), the imperial power may take over the government of a particular territory, or through economic processes (indirect imperialism), in which the concerned region is officially self-governing but linked to the imperial power by (often unequal) trade relations. Furthermore, the notion of cultural imperialism is indicated by "existing or traditional ways of life and ways of thinking [that] are subordinated to the culture of the imperialists."[2]

The term imperialism commonly refers to a political or geographical domain such as the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Portuguese Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Dutch Empire, the French Empire[3] the Russian Empire,[4] the Chinese Empire, the British Empire,[5] or the American Empire, but the term can equally be applied to domains of knowledge, beliefs, values and expertise, such as the empires of Christianity (see Christendom)[6] or Islam (see Caliphate).[7] Imperialism is usually autocratic, and also sometimes monolithic[8] in character.



Imperialism is found in the ancient histories of Assyrian Empire, Chinese Empire, Roman Empire, Greece, the Persian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire (see Ottoman wars in Europe), ancient Egypt, and India and a basic component to the conquests of Genghis Khan and other warlords. Although imperialist practices have existed for thousands of years, the term "Age of Imperialism" generally refers to the activities of nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States in the late 19th through the middle 20th centuries, e.g. the "Scramble for Africa" and the "Open Door Policy" in China.

Cecil Rhodes: Cape-Cairo railway project. Founded the De Beers Mining Company and owned the British South Africa Company, which established Rhodesia for itself. He liked to "paint the map British red," and declared: "all of these stars ... these vast worlds that remain out of reach. If I could, I would annex other planets."[9]

The word itself is derived from the Latin verb imperare (to command) and the Roman concept of imperium, while the actual term 'Imperialism' was coined in the 16th century,[10] reflecting what are now seen as the imperial policies of Belgium, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Imperialism not only describes colonial, territorial policies, but also economic and/or military dominance and influence.

The ideas of imperialism put forward by historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson during 19th century European imperialism were influential. They rejected the notion that "imperialism" required formal, legal control by one government over another country. "In their view, historians have been mesmerized by formal empire and maps of the world with regions colored red. The bulk of British emigration, trade, and capital went to areas outside the formal British Empire. A key to the thought of Robinson and Gallagher is the idea of empire 'informally if possible and formally if necessary.'"[11]

The term imperialism should not be confused with ‘colonialism’ as it often is. Edward Said suggests that imperialism involved “the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory’”. He goes on to say colonialism refers to the “implanting of settlements on a distant territory”. Robert Young supports this thinking as he puts forward that imperialism operates from the centre, it is a state policy, and is developed for ideological as well as financial reasons whereas colonialism is nothing more than development for settlement or commercial intentions.[12]

Europe’s expansion into territorial imperialism had much to do with the great economic benefit from collecting resources from colonies, in combination with assuming political control often by military means. Most notably, the “British exploited the political weakness of the Mughal state, and, while military activity was important at various times, the economic and administrative incorporation of local elites was also of crucial significance”. Although a substantial number of colonies had been designed or subject to provide economic profit (mostly through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), Fieldhouse suggests that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in places such as Africa and Asia, this idea is not necessarily valid[13]:

Modern empires were not artificially constructed economic machines. The second expansion of Europe was a complex historical process in which political, social and emotional forces in Europe and on the periphery were more influential than calculated imperialism. Individual colonies might serve an economic purpose; collectively no empire had any definable function, economic or otherwise. Empires represented only a particular phase in the ever-changing relationship of Europe with the rest of the world: analogies with industrial systems or investment in real estate were simply misleading.[14]

This form of economic imperialism described above was an early form of capitalism, as European merchants had the ability to “roam the high seas and appropriate surpluses from around the world (sometimes peaceably, sometimes violently) and to concentrate them in Europe.”[15]

Although commonly used to imply forcible imposition of a government control by an outside country, especially in a new, unconnected territory, the term is sometimes also used to describe loose or indirect political or economic influence or control of weak states by more powerful ones.[16] If the dominant country's influence is felt in social and cultural circles, such as "foreign" music being popular with young people, it may be described as cultural imperialism.

Lenin's theory of imperialism

European intellectuals have contributed to formal theories of imperialism. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), V.I. Lenin said capitalism necessarily induced monopoly capitalism as imperialism to find new business and resources, representing the last and highest stage of capitalism.[1] The necessary expansion of capitalism beyond the boundaries of nation-states — a foundation of Leninism — was shared by Rosa Luxemburg (The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism[2]) and liberal philosopher Hannah Arendt.[3] Since then, Marxist scholars extended Lenin's theory to be synonymous with capitalist international trade and banking.[4]

Although Karl Marx did not publish a theory of imperialism, he identified colonialism (cf. Das Kapital) as an aspect of the prehistory of the capitalist mode of production. Lenin's definition: "the highest stage of capitalism" addressed the time when monopoly finance capital was dominant, forcing nations and private corporations to compete to control the world's natural resources and markets.

Marxist imperialism theory, and the related dependency theory, emphasise the economic relationships among countries (and within countries), rather than formal political and military relationships. Thus, imperialism is not necessarily direct formal control of one country by another, but the economic exploitation of one by another. This Marxism contrasts with the popular conception of imperialism, as directly-controlled colonial and neocolonial empires.

Per Lenin, Imperialism is Capitalism, with five simultaneous features:

(1) Concentration of production and capital led to the creation of national and multinational monopolies — not as in liberal economics, but as de facto power over their markets — while "free competition" remains the domain of local and niche markets:

Free competition is the basic feature of capitalism, and of commodity production generally; monopoly is the exact opposite of free competition, but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our eyes, creating large-scale industry and forcing out small industry, replacing large-scale by still larger-scale industry, and carrying concentration of production and capital to the point where out of it has grown and is growing monopoly: cartels, syndicates and trusts, and merging with them, the capital of a dozen or so banks, which manipulate thousands of millions. At the same time the monopolies, which have grown out of free competition, do not eliminate the latter, but exist above it and alongside it, and thereby give rise to a number of very acute, intense antagonisms, frictions and conflicts. Monopoly is the transition from capitalism to a higher system. (Ch. VII)

[Following Marx's value theory, Lenin saw monopoly capitalism limited by the law of falling profit, as the ratio of constant capital to variable capital increased. Per Marx, only living labour (variable capital) creates profit in the form of surplus-value. As the ratio of surplus value to the sum of constant and variable capital falls, so does the rate of profit on invested capital.]

(2) Finance capital replaces industrial capital (the dominant capital), (reiterating Rudolf Hilferding's point in Finance Capital), as industrial capitalists rely more upon bank-generated finance capital.

(3) Finance capital exportation replaces the exportation of goods (though they continue in production);

(4) The economic division of the world, by multi-national enterprises via international cartels; and

(5) The political division of the world by the great powers, wherein exporting finance capital to their colonies allows their exploitation for resources and continued investment. This superexploitation of poor countries allows the capitalist industrial nations to keep some of their own workers content with slightly higher living standards. (cf. labor aristocracy; globalization)

Claiming to be Leninist, the U.S.S.R. proclaimed itself foremost enemy of imperialism, supporting armed, national independence or communist movements in the Third World[5][6] while simultaneously dominating Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Marxists and Maoists to the left of Trotsky, such as Tony Cliff, claim the Soviet Union was imperialist. Maoists claim it occurred after Khrushchev's ascension in 1956; Cliff says it occurred under Stalin in the 1940s (see Soviet occupations).[7] Harry Magdoff's Age of Imperialism (1954) discusses Marxism and imperialism.

Lenin's theory of imperialism has been critiqued by many scholars. One problem with Lenin's theory concerns the measured volumes of trade and capital flow among European capitalist societies and between European capitalist societies and poor Third World societies. European capitalist systems since the nineteenth century have always done the vast bulk of their trading among themselves, with a relative sliver of trade and capital flow going out to non-developed societies in comparison with trade and capital flow within the great European systems.

Lenin's theory also contradicts Marx's doctrine of the reserved army of the unemployed (i.e. the lumpen proletariat), which holds that capitalism, for systemic reasons, cannot generate enough capital to employ all those who want to work. Lenin failed to see the contradiction, between the claim that capitalism builds up so much capital that it must send the excess overseas to "exploit" less developed societies, and the claim that capitalism cannot generate enough capital to sustain full employment.

The aforementioned contradiction can be seen as a distortion of Marxist-Leninist Theory. It is true that Marx uncovered systematic failures inherent to capitalism such as the inability of capitalism to provide work for all people. For instance, many modern Nations have an unemployment rate significantly greater than zero. However, Marx attributed such a failure to the dynamics of capitalist production. Capitalists, in general, own the means of production (e.g. factories) and make profit. What is important here is how the profit is re-invested into the capitalist system. Rather than pay their workers higher wages or hire a larger work force, capitalists spend a significant portion of their profits on technological development. For example, the modern assembly line relies heavily on machinery. These machines take away the jobs of human workers. At the same time, capitalists are able to churn out more products using such machinery. Capital, then, can be increased (at least for a short time). In terms of imperialism, Lenin's theory does not contradict Marx's analysis of capitalism. Both men believed in and witnessed the formation of monopolies. Both men also stressed the insatiable appetite of capitalism to search for new markets that can increase profit. Since the bottom line for monopolies is to increase profit, Lenin was right insofar as imperialism is caused by the search for new markets.

Currently, Marxists view globalization as imperialism's latest incarnation.[citation needed]


A controversial aspect of imperialism is the imperial power’s defence and justification of such actions. Most controversial of all is the justification of imperialism done on scientific grounds. J. A. Hobson identifies this justification: “It is desirable that the earth should be peopled, governed, and developed, as far as possible, by the races which can do this work best, i.e. by the races of highest 'social efficiency'.”[17] This is clearly the racial argument, which pays heed to other ideas such as the “White Man’s Burden” prevalent at the turn of the nineteenth century.

The principles of imperialism are often deeply connected to the policies and practices of British Imperialism "during the last generation, and proceeds rather by diagnosis than by historical description."[18] British Imperialist strategy centred on the fundamental concept of terra nullius (Latin expression which stems from Roman law meaning ‘empty land’). The country of Australia serves as a case study in relation to British imperialism. British settlement and colonial rule of the island of Australia in the eighteenth century was premised on terra nullius, for it was seen as a land that was not ‘empty’ of inhabitants. Despite British claims, an estimated 350,000 indigenous peoples were already living in Australia in the era of British conquest. The indigenous population suffered through years of political, social, and territorial oppression, however Aborigines were granted the right to vote comparatively early in Commonwealth elections, depending on whether their state allowed it. An example is in 1856, in NSW, where Aborigines were granted equal voting rights. It should be noted that the 1968 referendum only allowed the Commonwealth to count and administer Aborigines.

This form of imperialism can also be seen in British Columbia, Canada. In the 1840’s, the territory of British Columbia was divided into two regions, one space for the native population, and the other for non-natives. The indigenous peoples were often forcibly removed from their homes onto reserves. These actions were “justified by a dominant belief among British colonial officials that land occupied by Native people was not being used efficiently and productively.”[12] The abovementioned examples of imperialism are consistently racially motivated, and it is, undoubtedly, a driving force behind the concept of imperialism in this era.


"Imperialism has been subject to moral censure by its critics, and thus the term is frequently used in international propaganda as a pejorative for expansionist and aggressive foreign policy."[16]

See also


  1. ^ Johnston, Ronald John (2000). The Dictionary of Human Geography (4th ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. p. 375. ISBN 0631205616.
  2. ^ Painter, J. & Jeffrey, A., 2009. Political Geography 2nd ed., Sage. pg. 170
  3. ^ Ottoman Empire, French Empire, Encyclopedia of the Orient
  4. ^ The Empire that was Russia, Library of Congress
  5. ^ The British Empire
  6. ^ John B Cobb, Christianity and Empire,
  7. ^ Islam Empire of Faith
  8. ^ John Rees, Imperialism: globalisation, the state and war, International Socialism Journal 93, Winter 2001
  9. ^ S. Gertrude Millin, Rhodes, London, 1933, p.138
  10. ^ Oxford English Dictionary online (subscription required
  11. ^ Louis, Wm. Roger. (1976) Imperialism page 4.
  12. ^ a b Gilmartin, Mary. Gallaher, C. et al., 2008. Key Concepts in Political Geography, Sage Publications Ltd. : Imperialism/Colonialism. pg.116
  13. ^ Painter, J. & Jeffrey, A., 2009. Political Geography 2nd ed., Sage. pg.183-184
  14. ^ Painter, J. & Jeffrey, A., 2009. Political Geography 2nd ed., Sage. pg.184
  15. ^ Harvey, D., 2006. Spaces of Global Capitalism: A Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, Verso. pg. 91
  16. ^ a b "Imperialism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2nd edition.
  17. ^ Hobson, J. A. "Imperialism: a study." Cosimo, Inc., 2005. pg. 154
  18. ^ Hobson, J. A. "Imperialism: a study." Cosimo, Inc., 2005. pg. V

Further reading

  • Guy Ankerl, Coexisting Contemporary Civilizations: Arabo-Muslim, Bharatai, Chinese, and Western, Geneva, INU PRESS, 2000, ISBN 2-88155-004-5.
  • Robert Bickers/Christian Henriot, New Frontiers: Imperialism's New Communities in East Asia, 1842-1953, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-7190-5604-7
  • Barbara Bush, Imperialism and Postcolonialism (History: Concepts,Theories and Practice), Longmans, 2006, ISBN 0582505836
  • John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, Penguin Books, 2008, ISBN 0141010223
  • Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Penguin Books, 2004, ISBN 0141007540
  • Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-674-00671-2
  • E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875–1914, Abacus Books, 1989, ISBN 0349105987
  • E. J. Hobsbawm, On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy, Pantheon Books, 2008, ISBN 0375425373
  • J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study, Cosimo Classics, 2005, ISBN 1596052503
  • Michael Hudson, Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance, Pluto Press, 2003, ISBN 0745319890
  • V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, International Publishers, New York, 1997, ISBN 0717800989
  • Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, Vintage Books, 1998, ISBN 0099967502
  • Simon C. Smith, British Imperialism 1750-1970, Cambridge University Press, 1998, ISBN 052159930X

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

  • "Imperialism is the growth of one self at the cost of another."
    • Jacob Davies
  • "Imperialism is Dominance"
    • Thomas Deery
  • Imperialism: The aims of your neighbor; opposite to your own aims, which is called Foreign Policy."

See also: American Imperialism

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:
Look up imperialism in Wiktionary, the free dictionary

Simple English

Imperialism is a policy (way of governing) in which large or powerful countries seek to extend their authorities by conquering or by establishing economic and political control over other countries. Some large or powerful countries control other regions to create a bigger empire.

An example of imperialism is when countries conquer or settle in such lands by setting up colonies. In the 1700s and 1800s the British Empire used the policy of imperialism to control large territories such as Australia and Canada.

Forms of imperialism

  • Colony - A country or region managed internally by a foreign power.
  • Economic - An independent but less-developed country managed by private business interests instead of other governments.
  • Influence - An outside power claims investment or trading privileges.
  • Protectorate - A region with its own government but under the control of an outside power.

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