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Marxist theories of imperialism

Other explanations of European expansion

The wider meanings of imperialism


The word “imperialism” is widely used as an emotive—and more rarely as a theoretical—term to denote specific forms of aggressive behavior on the part of certain states against others; the concept refers primarily to attempts to establish or retain formal sovereignty over subordinate political societies, but it is also often equated with the exercise of any form of political control or influence by one political community over another.

The word impérialiste was originally coined in France in the 1830s to denote a partisan of the one-time Napoleonic empire (Koebner & Schmidt 1964). “Imperialism” soon developed into a term of abuse employed before 1848 to castigate the Caesar-istic pretensions of Louis Napoleon. It was later used in a similar way both by French opponents of Napoleon III and by British adversaries of French rule and expansionism. In the 1870s British antagonists of Disraeli began to use the word as a domestic invective. But other British writers and politicians sought to rehabilitate the term. They applied it first to the policy of establishing a “Greater Britain” (Dilke 1869), through “the expansion of England” (Seeley 1883) into an “imperial federation” of Britain, its overseas settlements, and India. The acquisition of a large colonial empire in Asia and Africa led to the view that it was the “white man’s burden” (Kipling) to assume a “dual mandate” (Lugard 1922) for offering civilization to “backward” peoples and for opening their territories for the benefit of the world. Thus the term became increasingly identified with British colonialism.

The need for colonies was often argued in economic terms, both by British advocates of colonial expansion, who saw in an enlarged empire a means of preserving markets in an increasingly protectionist world, and by writers on the European continent who ascribed Britain’s wealth to her possession of colonies and hence demanded colonies to increase their nations’ wealth. While some identified “imperialism” with British world politics, others used the term to include the widespread desire for expansion on the part of European states generally.

Developments in China first, and later the Boer War, which was popularly regarded on the European continent as “la guerre de la Bourse contre les Boers,” initiated a powerful anti-imperialist current, eloquently articulated in J. A. Hobson’s study Imperialism (1902). Hobson (an economic heretic of radical-liberal persuasion) sought to explain European expansionism as based on the undercon-sumptionist tendencies of modern capitalism and the particular manipulations of groups of profiteering capitalists. Such views were systematized into a more elaborate theory by a number of Marxist writers in Germany and Austria (Bauer 1907; Hil-ferding 1910; Luxemburg 1913; Sternberg 1926; Grossmann 1929) and in Russia (chiefly Lenin 1917 and Bukharin 1918), by English radical writers (e.g., Brailsford 1914; Woolf 1920; Dobb 1937; and, in a much revised form, Strachey 1959), by the American economists Sweezy and Baran (see Sweezy 1942; Sweezy & Baran 1966), and by numerous historians who have increasingly influenced textbooks the world over.

In the interwar period such views achieved a massive political influence, mainly through Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (see Lenin 1917), but also through the propaganda efforts of such ill-matched groups as pacifists and isolationists, who agreed in ascribing wars to the insidious influence of armaments manufacturers, and National Socialists, who lashed out at Anglo-Saxon-cum-Jewish plutocracy.

Since World War ii, the frequent identification of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism has become rarer in the Western world; the aggressive policies of Germany, Italy, and Japan have made many observers aware of the unwarranted optimism in the theory that imperialist aggression was simply the product of a passing social system, like capitalism, or of particularly evil men, like capitalists. While after 1945 western Europe witnessed the demise of practically the whole of its colonial system, communism did not seem to lessen the expansionist policies of Russia and China.

“Imperialism” has now become part of a propaganda battle. In communist parlance the word remains restricted to the policies of the West, in particular the United States, whose Wall Street imperialism is thought to supplant that of the older European colonial powers. Western authors have, for their part, sought to identify communist policies with “the new imperialism” (Seton-Watson 1961; Kolarz 1964). Writers in the emerging countries have practically made the word interchangeable with “neocolonialism,” defined by Nkrumah (1965, p. ix) as a situation in which “the state …is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty” but where “its economic system and thus its political system is directed from outside.” Others have extended the term to refer to the economic, political, and military policies of all industrialized states, including the Soviet Union, or of the white race as such, or even of any unsympathetic foreign state. The word has thus become one of the most powerful slogans of our time, used indiscriminately against any state, or even any group, regarded as inimical to a speaker’s interest.

From this development, some have concluded with Lenin that the phenomenon of imperialism represents the most important problem of our times. Others have regarded it as a “pseudo-concept which sets out to make everything clear and ends by making everything muddled ... a word for the illiterates of social science” (Hancock 1950, p. 17). Whereas many historians reserve the term by preference for the period of European expansion after 1870, others regard this modern imperialism only as one example of an age-old phenomenon, defined by Schumpeter as “the objectless disposition on the part of a state to unlimited forcible expansion” ([1919-1927] 1951, p. 7) and specified by Langer as “simply the rule or control, political or economic, direct or indirect, of one state, nation or people over other similar groups, or …the disposition, urge or striving to establish such rule” (1935, p. 67).

Marxist theories of imperialism

The Marxist theories of imperialism still represent the most elaborate and influential attempt to explain the alleged propensity of capitalist states to engage in imperialist expansion.

Marxist authors (building on the non-Marxist Hobson) have agreed in finding the causes of European and American expansion in the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth in changes which took place within a maturing capitalist system, but they have differed about particular causes. Some theorists have regarded imperialism as a necessary condition for capitalist growth, whether because of the impossibility of continued accumulation of capital unless an effective demand is found among noncapitalist groups and societies (Luxemburg 1913), or because of the desire to acquire investment opportunities (Hobson 1902), or because of the need to offset the periodic depressions which were a characteristic of capitalist economies. Others explained imperialism mainly as a particularly profitable (though not inevitable) policy of powerful capitalist groups, like the attempt of “finance capitalists” to overcome the alleged secular tendency of profits to fall, or to find profitable uses for idle capital resulting from the increasing tendency toward monopolies, or to achieve the largest possible protected market which trusts and cartels could exploit and use as a basis for their further struggle for the world market (Bauer 1907, Hilferding 1910). While some authors have concentrated mainly on negative domestic factors which pushed capitalist economies into imperialist policies, others have given greater weight to positive colonial assets that pulled capitalists into foreign lands: cheap labor, raw materials, enforceability of favorable terms of trade, job opportunities, and new lands suitable for exploitation or settlement.

The various theories were formed mainly to account, post factum, for the scramble for Africa. But they served a more revolutionary purpose, since at least Luxemburg and Lenin used imperialism to explain the inevitability of world wars, once the world was fully brought under the control of rival capitalist states. Using his theory, Lenin explained the role of part of the working class (the “labor-aristocracy,” or social-democrat “lackeys of imperialism”) who supported their governments in 1914. Against them he called on true socialists to convert the war into a revolution at home. He also fashioned the explosive formula that the nationalist bourgeoisie in the colonial countries and the communists in the more advanced countries should combine their forces for a joint onslaught on the citadels of capitalism. Theories of imperialism still serve Marxists to explain the survival of capitalist economies, and the persistence of great inequalities in economic development levels between the onetime colonial powers and their former subject colonies. They also claim to provide a definite criterion by which to distinguish progressive from reactionary, historical from antihistorical, wars. But disputes have arisen among communist theoreticians over the question whether imperialism will inevitably lead to the holocaust of a new world war (as Chinese doctrine states) or whether the suicidal nature of modern armaments, coupled with the increased strength of the peace-loving forces in the world of the mid-1960s, may enable socialist and capitalist states to coexist more or less peacefully (as is argued with some hesitation in the Soviet Union).

Criticism of the Marxist theories

There has been a barrage of criticism of the Marxist theories which has taken three forms (in order of decreasing generality): (a) a rejection of the premise that wars are fought primarily for economic reasons; (b) a denial that capitalism is especially likely to foster imperialist tendencies; and (c) a critique of the attempt to explain late nineteenth-century colonialism as the result of capitalist forces exclusively.

Economic causation of war. Numerous authors (e.g., Robbins 1939; Wright 1942; Morgenthau 1948) have questioned the view that modern war has been waged primarily for economic motives. Norman Angell documented the unprofitability of war before World War I in The Great Illusion (1910). L. F. Richardson (1960) found that only 29 per cent of the wars from 1820 to 1929 can be directly attributed to economic factors. No serious historian would today subscribe to the prejudice, widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, that World War I was the direct result of the nefarious activities of armaments manufacturers, and few would hold that the entry of the Soviet Union into World War ii in 1941 suddenly transformed a war of capitalist economic imperialism into one of patriotic idealism.

Capitalism and imperialist tendencies. Critics of the Leninist theory have pointed to the frequency of war and imperial conquest long before capitalism, and to the expansionist record of postcapitalist Russia, to deny any special relationship between capitalism and imperialist policies. On the contrary, many theorists have held with Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, and Richard Cobden that capitalism per se is likely to foster international understanding and peaceful tendencies. Even the Marxist Karl Kautsky envisaged (1915) the possible disappearance of intercapitalist wars through the establishment of an ultraimperialism in which international finance capital would exploit the world. Criticizing Marxist theories, Schumpeter (1919-1927) held, in line with Auguste Comte and Thorstein Veblen (cf. Aron 1958), that capitalism was inherently a democratizing, individualizing, and rationalizing force which channeled potentially aggressive energies in entrepreneurial, and hence relatively peaceful, directions. He regarded imperialism as mainly the result of atavistic drives of a precapitalist era and believed popular imperialism in modern states to be a logical impossibility. He later retracted this view, subscribing to Karl Renner’s doctrine of social imperialism (Renner 1917; see also Schumpeter 1939, vol. 2, p. 696), but continued to regard the forces behind imperialism as fundamentally irrational (Winslow 1948, p. 235). Hannah Arendt (1951) has attributed imperialism to an alliance between mob and capital, which ultimately destroyed capitalism.

Capitalism and colonialism. The virtual identification of imperialism, capitalism, and colonialism has also come in for considerable criticism from historians.

First, economic historians have questioned the assumption that the new colonies acquired by European powers in the latter part of the nineteenth century played an important role in capitalist development. By far the greater part of European investments after the 1870s flowed not to the colonies but to independent states in Europe (which had absorbed more than half the French and German foreign investments by 1914), to North and South America (which accounted for more than half the British foreign investments by 1914), and to South Africa and Australasia (Staley 1935; see Hobson 1914; Feis 1930; Cairncross 1953; Imlah 1958; Segal & Simon 1961). Trade with the colonial dependencies was generally only a small fraction of all British and French foreign trade, and an infinitesimal share for Italy, Germany, and Japan. Noncolonial countries had generally easy access to markets of colonies of other states, and these colonies in turn traded more with foreign lands than with their imperial masters (Clark 1936). Raw materials were important in the case of some colonial acquisitions, but their share in the raw material market as a whole was relatively slight. Advanced states did not lack access to raw materials in peacetime, and in wartime strategic and military, rather than economic, factors were decisive. Similarly, the terms of trade were not particularly favorable to Europe during the high tide of imperialism; indeed, they were less favorable than they are in the present period of large-scale “dis-imperialism” (Strachey 1959). There was almost no emigration to the new colonies, while most emigrants even from colonial nations went to other lands.

Second, the alleged identity of imperialism with colonialism and capitalism is also proved false by the circumstance that many nonimperialist states (like Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries) found little difficulty in attaining a high level of growth, foreign trade, and foreign investments, while capital-importing states with underdeveloped economies, notably Italy and tsarist Russia, followed starkly expansionist policies.

Third, historians have disproved the universality of the correlation between monopoly capitalism and imperialism (Feis 1930; Langer 1935; Hancock 1950). This viewpoint originated mainly in Germany, where there was indeed a relatively close connection between banks, heavy industry, and militarist and colonialist circles, though even in Germany colonial conquest predated somewhat the strong cartelization drive. In England and France, on the other hand, monopolies were hardly present at the time of strong imperialist expansion, and relations existing between the ordinary banking and industrial world and the investment brokers dealing in foreign loans were far from close. In the United States the situation was again different. The growth of trusts and cartels long preceded any strong overt inclination toward imperial conquests. In some countries the money market was relatively open to all, and in others (e.g., France and Germany) political interests manipulated foreign investments, rather than the reverse. Studies of the types of foreign loans issued in the heyday of colonial expansion reveal that much the greater part were in fixed-interest government securities; that the profitability of foreign investments was only marginally higher, if not lower, than that of domestic investments; and that in the end many European investors lost their money through defaults (see Feis 1930; Cairncross 1953; Blaug 1961).

Finally, the specific attribution of colonial policies to small groups of profiteering capitalists has also been challenged. Special interests have often pressed for colonial conquest and have frequently profited from them. But actual study of the entire record (Staley 1935) reveals that traders and investors have often been used as instruments by rulers and governments set on imperialist expansion for other reasons; private interests usually proved ineffective when such other concerns were absent.

The idea of a monolithic capitalism fully bent on imperialist conquest is, therefore, a myth. Many capitalist interests have opposed imperialist policies, while others have cheered them on. But in that case the real problem is not to identify the role of particular capitalist interests in certain imperialist exploits, but to indicate other factors which explain why, in particular instances, capitalist forces pressing for imperialism could be stronger than those that did not or those that actively resisted particular imperialist policies.

Other explanations of European expansion

If neither monopoly capital, nor domestic underconsumption, nor the need of markets for goods, or capital, or sources of raw materials was the special factor accounting for changes in European expansionist policies, what were the relevant factors?

Some Marxist writers have attempted to save economic determinism by insisting that annexations of areas of little economic importance were really “strategic,” “protective,” or “anticipatory” (Sweezy 1942). But this goes far to destroy the causal link between economics and politics on which the Marxist theory really rests.

A review of modern historical writing on European expansionism (see Langer 1935; Hallgarten 1951; Brunschwig 1960; Fieldhouse 1966) shows three predominant trends: (a) greater stress on noneconomic, and especially on purely political, determinants; (b) more attention to the considerable differences in the causes of particular imperialist incidents; and (c) increasing emphasis on the need to regard events after 1870 in a much longer time perspective than that usually called the period of “modern imperialism.”

Newer historians have thus found the mainspring of the movement of European expansion less in the expanding industrial economy and more in the political area of world strategies and ideologies of competing expansive nations. They have strongly emphasized (a) the unification of Germany and Italy, which fanned a new assertive nationalism in these countries; (b) the effects of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which tempted France into colonial adventures in order to regain a sense of glory and grandeur, to give employment and experience to the country’s military cadres, and to expand its potential manpower reservoir for possible revanche; (c) the continued expansion of Russia toward Constantinople, Persia, India, and the Far East, which increasingly threatened long-established British imperial interests; (d) the fact that Britain could not remain aloof from formal annexations when others threatened to move in, thus threatening the foundations of splendid isolation and of traditional balancing policies; or, more generally, (e) the search for compensation and for diplomatic advantage outside Europe, since the powers were deadlocked on the Continent itself. But the spread of European rivalries changed the pattern of international politics. As extra-European powers such as Japan, the United States, and China became increasingly involved, European dominance gave way to world politics in the true sense of the term.

Others have explained European imperialism less in terms of intra-European conflict than as a culmination of a great number of local conflicts. Detailed historical research of particular imperialist adventures has revealed the operation of a great variety of forces in each instance. Sheer power play, diplomatic maneuvering, strategic and geopolitical concerns, humanitarian interests and racial ideologies, economic drives and cultural expansionism have often intermingled without a priori dominance of any single factor. Frequently, particular conflicts resulted merely from the exploits of “private imperialists,” whether traders, explorers, concession hunters, or missionaries. Outside powers got entangled in indigenous warfare and disputes, while the inevitable instability of unsettled borders and the feared action by rival groups and governments often led to improvised interventions. Hence, new imperialist actions often resulted from past imperial commitments (India being a prime example). In this view, local rivalries slowly developed into imperialist policies on a world scale, to be interpreted only afterward and anachronistically as deliberate and planned expansion on the part of particular “imperial powers.”

At the same time, other writers have continued searching for more determinist explanations than either intra-European rivalry or localized imperial exploits provide. They have focused on longer-term technological, political, and social developments. Some have thus singled out the effects of the great changes in world communications which started when improved weaponry and navigation technology basically altered the relations of power between Europe and the rest of the world. To explain the upsurge of imperial expansion in the nineteenth century, they have stressed the impact of the change from wooden ships to steamers, which revolutionized the entire scale of international trade, affected the traditional dominance of the British navy, and led to a demand for coaling stations and for safeguards and control over international arteries like the Bosporus, the Suez Canal, and the Panama Canal. This view logically extends to the later strategic concern with oil supplies. Railways posed similar strategic issues and facilitated the penetration of hitherto practically untouched inland areas. The advent of the telegraph immeasurably speeded the flow of information and held out the tempting prospect of direct rule over outlying lands, but again demanded safeguards for cables and cable stations. Of even greater influence was the simultaneous growth of a world press, which, coupled with the growing literacy rate in Europe and the United States, created mass publics that were often violently jingoistic.

Certain authors (e.g., Gallagher & Robinson 1953; Robinson & Gallagher 1961; 1962) have underscored this trend by emphasizing in particular the sociological effect of European expansionist policies on political regimes outside Europe. Rejecting the conventional view that there was a sharp break between the older mercantilist imperialism of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries and the new high tide of imperial expansion in the late nineteenth century, they have spoken of the intervening period as one of “the imperialism of free trade.” In this period European power and commerce were extended mainly through diplomatic and economic leverage, not by direct colonial rule. But while this was to a large extent feasible and successful in the Americas, in the Ottoman Empire, in north Africa, and in China—and could even be accompanied by a withdrawal of imperial controls in Canada, Australasia, and South Africa—it broke down increasingly in Afro-Asia after 1870 through the corrosive political and commercial effects that European policies had upon key African and Asian governments. The political and financial collapse of these governments brought European interests into play and led to a process of direct competitive annexations. European imperialism, in this view, is therefore a long-standing process in which, in Afro—Asia at least, extending imperialist activity was the result of the preceding activities of informal penetration and the protonational reactions that they eventually provoked.

Thus, on the one hand European expansion after 1870 is regarded as part of an almost self-evident process through which European power, enterprise, and culture spread over land and sea by formal as well as informal methods. On the other hand, exact study of this process leads to increasingly complex interpretations of the forces behind actual events and incidents.

The wider meanings of imperialism

The view of imperialism as a general and age-old phenomenon which predates and postdates the period of European overseas expansion (whether dated from the fifteenth or from the nineteenth century) poses new theoretical complications.

On the one hand, there is a tendency to regard as imperialism any form of more or less sustained aggressive action of one political system toward another. Thus defined, the term gets easily lost in vague generalities. Theoretical interpretation loses contact with concrete social and historical situations and is inevitably reduced to overgeneral explanations, attributing the phenomenon to postulated universal behavior traits of man (i.e., to psychological mechanisms) or of men (i.e., to group interaction). Imperialism has thus been explained by such presumably universal human emotions as fear, the will to power, pride, prestige, pugnacity, predacity, etc.

On the other hand, the attempt to narrow the definition of imperialism so as to make it suitable for more specific analyses has led other theorists into a tautological trap. They have found only those factors significant in the explanation of imperialism which their own definition has already singled out as determining or important. Thus some authors have spoken of imperialism only in the case of expansion by certain countries, or by states with a specific social system, or by particular groups within states. Some have restricted the word to specific types of aggressive policies, reserving the term for cases of overseas expansion but not for extension of power over contiguous land areas, or regarding as imperialism only the annexation of tropical or agrarian countries or territories with particular raw materials. Others have restricted the word to certain expansionist goals, e.g., economic exploitation, racial domination, cultural messi-anism. Still others have thought of imperialism only when certain conditions are fulfilled as to methods and duration of control, demanding as a criterion direct occupation but not indirect mechanisms like bribery, economic intervention, or military threats. Finally, certain authors have limited imperialism to attempts by states to reverse an existing status quo; imperialist policies are those which aim at acquiring new power (dynamic imperialism to others), but not those which seek to maintain an existing empire (which others call static imperialism). Such restrictive definitions often prejudge explanations of actual power relations and may be motivated by the political desire to defend or attack the policies of particular states.

These complications, which are the immediate result of the complexity of the numerous phenomena that have been subsumed under the term “imperialism,” make it doubtful whether a satisfactory theory of imperialism can ever be evolved. Many theorists of international relations have therefore dropped the term, as useless for theoretical analysis. Other authors have preferred to speak of imperialisms (in the plural) following Schumpeter (1919-1927). This suggests the phenomenon of “imperialism” must at least be broken down into a number of subtypes, which could be classified according to (a) goals pursued, (b) methods used, and (c) activating forces.

Imperialist goals

Expansionist political systems have historically pursued one or more of the following goals.

Economic gain. Throughout history forceful appropriation of material benefits has been a powerful factor in imperialist policies. Gains have consisted both of booty (e.g., precious objects, crops) acquired in single raids and of labor and products of populations subjected to enduring servitude and often forced to suffer a drastic overhaul of property relations and production systems.

Political power. Conquest of foreign lands was often motivated by the desire to augment political power. This could be in a direct sense, for instance, when foreign manpower was used to reinforce the armed strength of the imperialist nations, or when strategic raw materials were monopolized, or when areas of a strategic nature were occupied. It could also be indirect, as when foreign dominion brought added prestige and increased bargaining power for the imperialist state or for leading persons and groups within it.

Ideology. Frequently imperialist ideologies have been merely convenient cloaks to cover other drives. But throughout human history certain political, religious, or cultural beliefs have sometimes waxed so strong as to force states independently into “missionary” activities, to spread “civilization,” or the “true” gospel, or a particular national culture or dominant political creed.

Diversion of domestic unrest. Aggressive action abroad has often been believed capable of deflecting domestic tension. Once set in motion, however, this mechanism has frequently gone beyond its original purpose. In Schumpeter’s words, “…created by wars that required it, the machine now created the wars it required” ([1919-1927] 1951, p. 33). Other writers have suggested that totalitarian regimes are particularly prone to expansionist policies. Since internal rule cannot be maintained unless the system is insulated from foreign influences, totalitarian countries tend to show the twin reactions of isolation and expansion in order to avoid or destroy threatening foreign forces (Feier-abend 1962).

Methods of control

Imperial relationships may be further classified according to the way control is exercised over subject peoples.

Types of pressure exerted. Pressure can range from relatively peaceful practices (normal financial and economic transactions, cultural activities, diplomatic argument) through more forceful measures (bribery, economic sanctions, military intimidation) to outright violence (varying from a temporary show of arms to actual conquest and permanent repression).

Legal instruments. International law contains a great variety of instruments that can be used to exercise control: leases, concessions, capitulations, suzerainty, protectorates, mandates, trusteeships, forced alliances, temporary occupations, permanent annexations, etc.

Actual political relations. Following Hans Kohn (1958, p. 4), one may distinguish five types of imperial relationships, according to whether (1) a subject people has full autonomy within an imperial framework; (2) individual subjects enjoy full citizenship in the imperial state but are denied the expression of separate nationhood; (3) subject peoples are reduced to permanently inferior status; (4) subject peoples are physically exterminated; or (5) one nation establishes and maintains political domination over a geographically external political unit inhabited by people of any race and at any state of cultural development. Kohn reserves the term “colonialism” for the last of these categories.

Activating forces

Different kinds of imperialism, as well as theories about imperialism, may be distinguished according to whether particular individuals, special social groups, a particular condition of nations, or the general characteristics of the international system are thought to constitute the core of imperialist action.

Individuals as the main agents of imperialism. Imperialist policies can stem mainly from the special ambitions of, or the particular psychological pressures working on, people in positions of effective political influence. This influence can result either from their formal or informal political roles at home or from their strategic importance in connection with particular diplomatic constellations abroad (e.g., Cecil Rhodes and other “private imperialists”). This category would also include those theories which attribute imperialism to the parallel but individual psychological reactions of people which sustain group aggression. Usually, however, both the role and the reactions of individuals can be explained satisfactorily only on the basis of particular social conditions and relationships.

Social groups as the carriers of imperialism. Nearly every kind of social group has been held responsible for imperialist actions: ruling dynasties, out for glory, wealth, and dominion; aristocratic warrior castes, depending on wars for status and income; military officers and civilian officials, whose loyalties are swayed by their exclusive identification with the interests of the state they serve; the middle classes as the natural supporters of national states; religious and intellectual ideolo-gizers who extol a particular political system or culture; the peasantry, sensitive to traditional love for the fatherland and easily persuaded of the value of gaining new land through foreign conquest; the urban proletariat, likely to cheer foreign adventures in compensation for their own downtrodden existence, etc. But closer analysis usually reveals the inadequacy of single-group explanations, partly because their postulated unity is proved false by detailed historical inquiry and partly because the special importance of certain groups can itself be accounted for only by other factors.

Imperialism as an extension of nationalism. Whereas older sociologists saw the roots of imperialism in racial struggle, more modern thinkers have pointed particularly to the forces behind assertive nationalism. These, in turn, they have explained as the inevitable outcome of particular communication processes which constantly reinforce nationalist cohesion at the expense of international interaction; as a deflection of widespread insecurity (itself a product of manifold social changes) toward alleged enemies at home and abroad; as the inevitable result of the distortions or stereotypes in the perception of other groups and nations; or as the product of new ideologies that ascribe to particular nations special rights in the assumed international struggle for survival. Such theories have the merit of wide applicability, but they fail to account for the lack of expansionist policies on the part of some nations, as well as for the occurrence of imperialism long before nationalism developed as a dominant factor in world politics.

Imperialism as the natural consequence of international power relations. Many observers have held imperialism to be the inevitable result of the simultaneous existence of independent sovereign states. Some have started from the assumption that a balance of power situation leads automatically to attempts by rivals on either side to strengthen their positions at the expense of weaker states and territories; this then initiates a vicious circle of fear, distrust, and armaments which strengthens aggressive tendencies. Others have laid more stress on the objective instability of power relations, as each war sows the seeds of a new one through the continued expansionist spirit of the victor or revanchist desires on the part of the loser. Seemingly stable power relations can, moreover, become unstable through changes of will or modifications in power variables which stir up new fears and new hopes for conquest. Others have regarded the relations between stronger and weaker states as unstable by definition.

As is clear from these and similar models, the explanation of imperialism shades into a general theory of international relations. The term loses its historical connotation and becomes a purely theoretical concept, differently defined in the context of specific theoretical systems.

The word “imperialism” is, therefore, entirely at the mercy of its user. It has been corroded by over-frequent, emotional usage, but if overuse has blunted it as an intellectual tool, the resulting vagueness has certainly not diminished its potency as a political slogan.

Hans Daalder

[See alsoColonialism; Foreign aid; Modernization; Nationalism;Pan movements; Trusteeship. Other relevant material may be found inEconomic growth; Empires;International relations; Social movements; and in the biographies of Fanon; Hobson; Kautsky; Lenin; Luxemburg; Schumpeter.]


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"Imperialism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 1968. 25 May. 2016 <>.

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David Healy

Imperialism, in its most precise traditional usage, means the forcible extension of governmental control over foreign areas not designated for incorporation as integral parts of the nation. The term is commonly used to mean any significant degree of national influence, public or private, over other societies; but to some it refers principally to foreign economic exploitation with or without other actions. In all usages, however, the essential element is that one society must in some way impose itself upon another in a continuing unequal relationship. Thus, American expansionism dated from the beginning of the national experience, while its evolution into true imperialism occurred only in the later nineteenth century.


The expansion of the United States from 1803 to 1853 into contiguous areas such as Louisiana, Florida, Texas, the Oregon territories, and the Mexican cession is not best described as imperialism, although it contained related elements. This expansion involved lightly populated areas in which the influx of settlement from the older portions of the nation soon constituted the great bulk of the inhabitants. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, a profoundly anti-imperialist measure, had early defined the process by which such areas could be divided into prospective states and ultimately brought into the union as equal members. The resulting expansion represented the continuous extension of a single society over vast neighboring areas, rather than the takeover of one society by another.

The North American continent was not unoccupied; indigenous Indian tribes were found in every part of it, while the areas taken from Mexico contained many scattered settlements, particularly in California and around Santa Fe. Neither the people nor the government of the United States showed much interest in such preexisting societies; the aim of the United States was to brush them aside and replace them with the society and culture of the incoming majority. This was particularly true in regard to the Indians; rather than take over Indian society, the whites virtually destroyed it. The process was tragic for its victims, and Americans' constant assertions that they were peopling an empty continent contained the seeds of hypocrisy. There were nevertheless important differences between the movement of such a settlement frontier and the establishment of a true empire. For example, while the United States acquired half of Mexico's national territory between 1845 and 1848, the transfer entailed less than 2 percent of the Mexican population. Broadly speaking, the Mexican War was fought to gain territory, not a captive people, and the land thus gained would be populated largely from the existing United States. For purposes of comparison, the activities of the British in India, where they ruled a teeming alien society, and the British in Australia, where they settled a continent and built a self-governing nation, were so dissimilar that the use of a single term to describe both cases does more to obscure than enlighten. Prior to the Civil War, American expansion came closer to the Australian example, though dispossessing a more numerous indigenous people, and the end result cannot be accurately classified as imperialism.

There were, of course, common features in the earlier expansion and later imperialism of the United States. Chief among these were a strong sense of national mission and special destiny, a general confidence in the unique superiority of American institutions, a belief in the inequality of races and peoples, and the very habit of expansion itself. The expansionism of "manifest destiny" could lead toward true imperialism, as in the abortive movement to annex all of Mexico during the Mexican War. If westward expansion was not the same as imperialism, it furnished some of the materials out of which the latter could grow.


The purchase of Alaska in 1867 ended the period when new territory was assumed to be on the path to eventual statehood. By that time the nation's policymakers were already debating a new and more truly imperialist form of expansion. Schemes to acquire Cuba, by purchase or otherwise, had been current from 1848 onward, while in 1870 the Ulysses S. Grant administration negotiated the annexation of the Dominican Republic, only to see the Senate reject the instrumental treaty. Critics of this latter scheme were quick to point out the break with tradition implicit in the quest for territory already compactly settled by an alien society. Such a society could be assimilated into the nation proper only with great difficulty and over a long period, or more probably it could not be assimilated at all. Thus, the United States had to choose between incorporating an unassimilated people into its federal system, thereby endangering its integrity, or ruling them as colonial subjects in violation of the right to self-government supposedly inherent in the American political system. Foreshadowed by the earlier opposition to the all-Mexico movement of the late 1840s, the Senate debate over the annexation of the Dominican Republic developed the main lines of the controversy over imperialist expansion and marked the maturing of an active anti-imperialism in the United States.

For a generation after 1870, projects for further expansion attracted little support in the United States, and most people assumed that imperialism had become a dead issue. A number of developments, however, prepared the nation for imperial ventures at the end of the century. Chief were the rapid industrialization and soaring productivity of the national economy, which made the United States the leading industrial power by 1900. Increasingly conscious of their numbers, wealth, and strength, and proud of their unique institutions and sprawling territory, Americans began to aspire to a place for their country among the world's great powers. The severe economic depression of the 1890s added material aims to the drive for prestige, as the nation's business leaders and political spokesmen hoped for economic salvation in increased exports of American manufactures. By the mid-1890s, a new mood had brought a reappraisal of America's world position.

While largely internal forces first prompted the nation's leaders to look outward, the global sweep of European imperialism was reaching its high point, providing both the model and the final impetus for the new activism. Initially, Americans reacted to European imperialism as a threat to be repelled, fearing its penetration into the Western Hemisphere. Still mindful of France's incursion into Mexico in the 1860s, Americans were startled by a French project in 1879 to build a ship canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Later they also came to see Great Britain as a potential interloper, inspiring Secretary of State Richard Olney to a famous warning against such penetration during the Venezuelan crisis of 1895. Fears of European encroachment undoubtedly added urgency to the drive for Hawaiian annexation after 1894 and figured in discussions of Caribbean expansion later in the decade. One result of such fears was advocacy of a sort of preemptive imperialism, a conviction that the United States should seize desirable areas before a rival power got them.

In addition, the constant example of the European powers in time led many in the United States to take a more positive view of imperialism. Thirsting for national prestige, they saw that colonies were highly valued status symbols in Europe and that colonial empires had already swallowed up most of the non-Western world. Furthermore, if Europeans claimed to spread civilization to unenlightened peoples, did not the United States have a more compelling mission to implant its own superior institutions? Finally, the theorists of the Old World had proclaimed that colonial empires could provide strategic bases, captive markets, raw materials, and investment opportunitiesin short, could alleviate the persistent distresses from which the American economy suffered.

By 1895 a small but growing number of American politicians, publicists, naval officers, and businessmen supported a modest expansionist program. This generally included the annexation of Hawaii, the acquisition of one or more base areas in the West Indies, and the construction of an isthmian canal across Central America to facilitate naval and mercantile movement between the eastern United States and the Pacific Ocean. Some also aspired to the peaceable annexation of Canada, while others wished to challenge British political and economic leadership in South America. But virtually all limited their ambitions to the Western Hemisphere, and most to areas traditionally within the sphere of American interests. While this program fell short of a full-fledged scheme of empire, it gave a specific direction to expansionist currents and reinforced the appeal of the imperialist idea.

Many Americans continued to be suspicious of imperialism, but others found that it was increasingly easy to identify imperialism with many aspects of the American tradition. Territorial expansion, a strong sense of national mission, and a dynamic economic growth had been dominant themes in American history. The belief in the inequality of man, which imperialism demanded, offered few problems at a time when the South was even then perfecting a system of segregation and disfranchisement of blacks, the West was in the final stages of suppressing the Indians, and the East fulminated against the inferiority of the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Currently popular theories of social Darwinism held that the various races of man progressed at differing rates according to their place on the evolutionary scale, or failed to progress and fell victim to "natural selection." No one believed more devoutly in progress than Americans, and the presumed duty of carrying progress to backward lands was popularly called "the white man's burden." This combined belief in progress and human inequality, along with boundless self-confidence and a hope of gain, constituted the principal attitudes that underlay imperialism.

Whether the imperialist appeal was chiefly economic, psychological, nationalist, or idealistic has long been the subject of contention. In fact, it was all of these, and perhaps more. The most fundamental explanation of the global imperialism of the nineteenth century was that the Western world, containing a relatively small minority of the world's people, had achieved a virtual monopoly of effective power. The development of the nation-state enabled the effective mobilization of a society's resources, and coincided with the growth of modern science and industrialization. The latter developments created societies of unprecedented wealth and armed them with weapons of unparalleled destructiveness, while the steamship, the railroad, the telegraph, and the oceanic cable greatly diminished the distances that separated the Western peoples from the rest of the world.

The disparity of power between "modern" and preindustrial societies reached its maximum in the nineteenth century, and it was this disparity that was, quite directly, the driving force behind the breakneck colonialism of the period. Conscious of their strength and brought into close contact with weaker peoples, Europeans quickly developed a sense of superiority and discovered desirable goals to seek in vulnerable foreign places. The process soon created its own mystique, which could be shared by almost any member-state in the Western world. While American imperialism had special national characteristicsas did that of England, France, Germany, and other nationsduring the 1890s, American imperialism was not essentially different from the parent European variety. Its American disciples believed otherwise, having as firm a faith in their own uniqueness as their European rivals.


Although this new thinking rapidly gained ground during the 1890s, it took the shock of tangible events to bridge the gap between ideas and action. After a revolution in Hawaii, which American officials actively abetted, the proposed annexation of Hawaii in 1893 reawakened the debate over colonial expansion but was blocked by the transfer of the presidency from Benjamin Harrison to Grover Cleveland. It was rather the revolt that began in Cuba in 1895 that ultimately mobilized the emotions and ideas of the new expansionism. In 1898 the United States was drawn into a struggle between Cuba and Spain that had brought mass suffering and wholesale destruction to its very borders. An aggressive national pride, emotional partisanship in favor of the Cubans, and tangible damage to American trade and propertyall worked to arouse the public and the press, while the dramatic destruction of the battleship Maine acted as a spark to these combustibles. Originally regarded by most Americans as a crusade to free Cuba, the Spanish-American War quickly took on an expansionist thrust. The retention of Puerto Rico, Spain's other Caribbean colony, was soon regarded as a necessary war reparation. Strategically the key to the Pacific, Hawaii was annexed during the war by a joint resolution of Congress. Even the cries to free Cuba gave way to protests that the Cubans needed a period of tutelage before essaying complete self-government.

It was the Philippine Islands, however, that most forcefully brought the imperialist issue to a head. Large, populous, alien, and distant, they neither fell within the traditional geographical scope of American expansionism nor seemed even remotely assimilable to the American federal system. In the United States there had been little thought of acquiring the Philippines before the Spanish-American War, but once war came, the U.S. armed forces attacked them because they represented valuable enemy territory that was highly vulnerable. The initial American victories quickly led to a national conviction that the United States now controlled the islands and was responsible for determining their destiny. Expansionists were quick to argue that the nation should not turn the Filipinos back to Spanish misrule, while to let them drift would invite an Anglo-German struggle for their control. On the other hand, American rule could bring enlightenment to the islands, and their proximity to China might aid American penetration of what was assumed to be one of the great world markets of the future.

Expansionism carried the day, and the peace treaty with Spain provided for American possession of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Hawaii had already been separately annexed, and Cuba was subjected to a three-year military occupation followed by a theoretically sovereign independence in 1902. In fact, however, Cuba became a self-governing protectorate of the United States, with the latter nation retaining important governmental controls and the right of military intervention at its discretion, under the terms of the Platt Amendment of 1901. In the Philippines, meanwhile, an armed independence movement revolted against American rule in 1899, and the ensuing three-year Filipino-American War introduced the Americans to the frustrations and mutual atrocities characteristic of antiguerrilla warfare. The public had expected the Filipinos to greet the advent of American rule with cheers and were disillusioned to meet with hostility instead. Critics questioned the utility of the new colony and the morality of subduing it by force. While U.S. forces finally succeeded in crushing all resistance, anti-imperialists made the most of the contradictions inherent in spreading enlightenment at the point of a bayonet. Colonial empire quickly lost its glamour in the United States, while less formal techniques of expansion gained easier acceptance from the relative success of the Cuban protectorate program. In the twentieth century, American imperialism would be characterized by the extension of influence or control rather than by the outright annexation of territory.


After 1900 the American public lost interest in its new colonies, but the United States continued to expand its power in essentially imperialist ways. This was true principally in the Caribbean region, where the creation of formal and informal protectorates characterized American foreign policy in the period after the Spanish-American War. The war had spurred interest in the building of an isthmian canal, which was to be built as a national project; and following Panama's secession from Colombia in 1903, the project became a reality. The great strategic importance of the Panama Canal, thereafter joined with the considerable American stake in Cuba and its direct sovereignty over Puerto Rico, drew the nation further into Caribbean affairs.

Still fearful of European intervention and solicitous of the growing American economic interest in the area, policymakers in Washington viewed the chronic political instability of the Caribbean and Central American nations as an invitation to foreign penetration and an obstacle to local development. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, enunciated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, claimed for the United States an "international police power," which entailed a general right to intervene and keep order in the Western Hemisphere. Not only Roosevelt but his successors, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, steadily expanded American hegemony in the Caribbean. By World War I, Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua were in some kind of protectorate status, while Puerto Rico remained an outright colony. Actual military interventions occurred in Cuba (19061909), Haiti (19151934), the Dominican Republic (19161924), Nicaragua (1912, 19271933), and Panama (intermittently and on a lesser scale).

Besides the use of special treaty relationships and military force, the United States attempted to maintain a "monopoly of lending," under which Caribbean governments would borrow money only in the United States; it also established customs receiverships in several countries, which effectively placed their government revenues under control of the United States. Meanwhile, private enterprise had permeated the region with American investment and business activity, while the one-crop economies of the Caribbean nations made them heavily dependent upon the American market. Thus, the nominally sovereign states of the Caribbean area were subject to American controls, both formal and informal, which made their real status essentially colonial.

After 1898, the United States was also active in the Far East, but its impact was weaker there than in the Caribbean. Faced with a huge and populous China, and competing with most of the other major world powers, American policymakers could not aspire to regional dominance or military solutions. The "dollar diplomacy" of the William Howard Taft administration (19091913) attempted to foster American investment in China and to create international financial arrangements, which would impose a Caribbean-style "monopoly of lending" upon the government of China. This attempt to mobilize American economic strength as a diplomatic tool accomplished little in the Far East, however, on account of both the difficulties of the situation itself and the limited interest of the nation's business and financial leaders. The earlier Open Door policy of 18991900, therefore, remained the principal basis of policy. It represented little more than an attempt to obtain a general agreement to preserve the existing treaty system of shared control in China, and thus equality of economic opportunity in China for the United States. The policy was not very effective, and the Chinese market never came near to meeting the inflated expectations of the West. In general, the limited objectives and relative ineffectiveness of American activities in the Far East fell well short of real imperialism in this period, although the United States was long a party to the treaty system by which the Western powers jointly had imposed a limited protectorate upon China.


American participation in World War I led to a revulsion against overseas commitments, which reached its peak in the Senate rejection of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and the new League of Nations. Rising domestic criticism in the 1920s brought about the liquidation of the military government in the Dominican Republic and moderate relaxation of American political controls elsewhere in the Caribbean. At the same time, however, the U.S. government and business community cooperated in pushing American exports and foreign loans, leading some later historians to envision an "open door imperialism" based on American economic influence abroad. An alternate view was that the United States did indeed seek such economic influence, but that most Americans then thought it possible to separate the political and economic aspects of international relations in a manner considered unrealistic by later generations.

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought an even greater emphasis on the economic side of foreign policy and a corresponding decline in interest in other aspects. The Good Neighbor policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt brought the dismantling of Caribbean military interventions and political protectorates, at the same time that Latin America was tied more closely to the American economy by means of reciprocal trade agreements. The Philippine Islands were set on the path to independence in 1934, while the Neutrality Acts of 19351938 were designed to minimize economic ties to belligerents in foreign wars. The Monroe Doctrine took on a new theoretical formulation as an association of hemispheric equals for collective security, and the isolationist majority in the United States eschewed any national interest in the world's affairs outside the Western Hemisphere. American imperialism was declared to be dead, never to arise again.

At the end of the 1930s there was a rapid reversal of thinking largely caused by the early victories of Nazi Germany during the new European war, and particularly by the shock created by the fall of France in 1940. Americans quickly became internationalists, the new consensus being that the world's democracies must stand together to check the crimes of "gangster nations" like Germany, Italy, and Japan. It now appeared that peace was indivisible and that the United States must be concerned with events in every corner of the globe. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor late in 1941, the United States went to war in both Europe and Asia. During World War II, the United States fought as a member of a coalition that included Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Nationalist China, and many lesser membersa circumstance that drew the United States even further into global affairs. Mobilizing enormous fighting power and productivity, Americans found themselves at the close of the struggle with their armed forces deployed in Europe, Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, Australasia, and Latin America.


World War II humbled or drastically weakened every great power except the United States and the Soviet Union, both of which emerged with greatly enhanced power and prestige. In a world full of power vacuums, this dangerously simplified bipolar balance contributed to a growing rivalry between the two superpowers, as did the strong but mutually contradictory ideas of mission that each possessed. Initially competing for hegemony in Europe, this postwar rivalry soon became global in scope, and American military and political commitments proliferated. At the same time, the preeminent economic position of the United States at the end of World War II much enhanced its influence abroad and gave it great weight in shaping the economic structure of the noncommunist world. Thus, American influence over other societies reached a new high and took many different forms. In the Caribbean, the United States supported anticommunist military ventures in Guatemala (1954) and Cuba (1961), and in 1965, out of fear that a leftist government would come to power, intervened in the Dominican Republic. In East Asia, South Korea, Taiwan, and, later, South Vietnam and Cambodia became heavily dependent upon U.S. military aid. Japan grew into an economic giant but retained close ties to the United States. Other initiatives in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere made American activities truly global.

In the economic sphere, the United States overwhelmingly became the chief investor, source of credit, and supplier of new technologies. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the American dollar was the yardstick of international currency exchanges, while an American-sponsored drive toward freer world trade facilitated American exports of goods and money. The purchase of foreign subsidiaries and the development of multinational corporations gave American business enterprise increased influence abroad, while many foreign nations found their principal export markets in the United States.

The political and economic impact of the United States was accompanied by significant social effects. American-style mass consumption spread its appeal everywhere, as the elite of half the globe rushed to emulate the lifestyles of New York and California. American tourists, motion pictures, and television programs went everywhere, while students flocked to American universities from all over the world. Even an economically advanced country like Japan assimilated American models of dress and amusement, and readily accepted bondage to the automobile.

Some viewed the international vogue of American lifestyles and consumer products as cultural imperialism, or a thinly veiled form of economic exploitation. Others deplored the subversion of native cultures and the consequent destabilization of traditional societies by the tide of westernization. Many twenty-first-century scholars, however, are skeptical of the idea of a one-sided cultural aggression, citing the eagerness with which Eastern Europeans and others sought Western fashions, films, and popular music even when their governments attempted to shut these things out. In this view, developments in the Western world have set off an irresistible global cultural change, in which cross-fertilization complicates any notion of a simple one-way influence. Terms such as "modernization" and "globalization" are used to suggest a generalized force beyond the control of any one society. It was nevertheless the United States that led the way in the process.

In any case, the worldwide distribution of U.S. military bases, security agreements, investments, multinational corporations, foreign-aid programs, and open and undercover political activities gave rise to the charge that American imperialism had not only revived but had expanded over enormous areas. Some critics described an "open door empire" in which American foreign policy sought to impose everywhere the conditions necessary for the penetration of American exports and enterprise, while keeping underdeveloped nations in a state of perpetual economic colonialism. From this point of view, the term "imperialism" applied to virtually every overseas activity of the United States.

Given the undeniably great impact of the United States in the postwar world, the issue was not whether there had been an American influence on other societies but whether that influence was best described as imperialism. Since the United States annexed no territory during the period in question, the most obvious form of imperialism does not apply; there was no formal empire. There were, however, attempts at neo-imperial control of other states. In 1965 the Dominican Republic experienced a U.S. military intervention that imposed a new president, who was retained in power for many years by the active use of American influence and machinations of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Ronald Reagan administration (19811989) supported civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in an attempt to bolster right-wing regimes against leftist opponents. Other cases could be cited, but blanket assertions of imperialism went too far. It was doubtful terminology to apply that label to the postwar American record in Europe. It is true that the United States threw its influence into an effort to erect a liberal-capitalist system in Western Europe, just as the Soviet Union worked for Marxist-Leninist states in Eastern Europe. Given a virtual power vacuum in one of the world's vital centers, no less was to be expected of either superpower. It is also true that the Marshall Plan and companion policies were designed not only to aid European economic recovery but to boost European purchases of American exports. Yet the end result was not merely exploitive, for it helped to recreate in Western Europe one of the great industrial centers of the world, which soon offered stiff competition to the United States itself. Like Japan, West Germany pressed American manufacturers hard in their own markets and often bested them in markets abroad. In time, many European states became effective competitors. To call this performance economic imperialism is both misleading and intellectually counterproductive.

The U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia during the 1960s ended in the following decade in humiliating failure and a national reappraisal of the American role abroad. For a time, the shadow of Vietnam inhibited further overseas adventures, but the global network of American commitments and interests continued largely intact. Foreign involvements reappeared with the previously mentioned Reagan administration's activities in Central America, as well as its military deployments in Grenada (1983) and Lebanon (1984), but on a limited scale.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 and the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union changed the global situation fundamentally, leaving the United States as the only superpower. The Cold War justification for foreign military interventions thereby disappeared, but new reasons for such ventures multiplied. In varying scales of magnitude, U.S. armed forces were deployed in Panama (1989), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), and Kosovo (1999), the latter including a bombing campaign against Serbia. By far the largest overseas operation was the Gulf War of 1991 against Iraq, which involved more than 500,000 U.S. troops to protect the industrial world's oil supply, but motives for the other interventions varied widely. In Somalia, for example, where no visible U.S. interests were at stake, the goal was to remove the obstacles to feeding a starving population, and in Bosnia and Kosovo it was to prevent the out-break of regional war and prevent mass genocide. Some saw the United States as world policeman, others as global bully, but none could deny the reality of the nation's power and influence virtually everywhere on the globe.

As the world's strongest and wealthiest nation for the last half century, the United States was responsible for its full share of neo-imperialist hegemony. At times, however, it acted abroad in conjunction with less powerful nations that lacked the American capacity to project force quickly to crisis areas. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Gulf War both saw U.S. military power enlisted in the service of a broad coalition of nations and interests. Operating within a highly competitive global economy, U.S. economic power was great but hardly hegemonic, while its cultural influences were eagerly received in large parts of the world even if deeply resented in others. No single definition can contain the enormous variety of American activities, motives, and effects on the world; certainly the term "imperialism" cannot.


Gienow-Hecht, Jessica C. E. "Shame on US? Academics, Cultural Transfer, and the Cold WarA Critical Review." Diplomatic History 24 (summer 2000). Traces the evolving debate about U.S. cultural expansion since 1945.

Healy, David. U.S. Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s. Madison, Wis., 1970. A multi-causal approach that shows the convergence of numerous and dissimilar forces in the movement for overseas empire.

Hollander, Paul. Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad, 19651990. New York, 1992. A stimulating look at the views of the naysayers, domestic and foreign.

LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 18601898. Ithaca, N.Y., 1963. Depicts American overseas expansion as creating a commercial empire in order to serve a drive for export markets.

Lundestad, Geir. The American "Empire" and Other Studies of U.S. Foreign Policy in a Comparative Prospect. New York, 1990. Explores the ambiguities of American power abroad.

May, Ernest R. Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power. New York, 1961. Sees the expansionism of 1898 in terms of an eruption of public opinion that swept the nation's leaders before it.

Rosenberg, Emily S. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 18901945. New York, 1982. A useful broad-gauge approach.

Thornton, A. P. Doctrines of Imperialism. New York, 1965. A short but good conceptual study of imperialism.

Trask, David. The War with Spain in 1898. New York and London, 1981. The best work on that conflict.

Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Baltimore, 1935. Still a standard work on the ideology of continental expansion.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Cleveland, Ohio, 1959. An influential book that helped launch a revisionist movement in American diplomatic history and popularize an "Open Door School," which held that the economic goals of capitalism were central to the formation of U.S. foreign policy.

See also Anti-Imperialism; Colonialism and Neocolonialism; Continental Expansion; Dollar Diplomacy; Economic Policy and Theory; Intervention and Nonintervention; Isolationism; Mandates and Trusteeships; Open Door Policy; Protectorates and Spheres of Influence .


"It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere save as are for their welfare. All this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.

"Our interests and those of our southern neighbors are in reality identical. They have great natural riches, and if within their borders the reign of law and justice obtains, prosperity is sure to come to them."

From President Theodore Roosevelt's annual message to Congress, 6 December 1904

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IMPERIALISM. Americans have long thought of themselves as an "anti-imperial" people. The nation was, after all, founded in revolt against the British Empire. In the twentieth century, the rhetoric of national "selfdetermination" pervaded American discussions of foreign affairs. From Thomas Jefferson to Woodrow Wilson, the United States defined itself in opposition to the imperialism of other empires.

Imperialism, in this American usage, refers to the domination of another society against the expressed will of its people. Imperialism can be both formal and informal. In the case of formal empire—as in the British rule over the thirteen American colonies during the eighteenth century—a powerful foreign state manages the day-to-day political, social, and economic affairs in another land. Informal empire, in contrast, refers to a more indirect arrangement, whereby a foreign state works through local intermediaries to manage a distant society. In early nineteenth-century India, for example, British authorities negotiated favorable trade arrangements with native monarchs rather than bear the heavy costs of direct imperial control.

Close attention to these two kinds of imperialism has led many scholars to conclude that, despite popular assumptions, imperialism as a general term applies to American history. In particular, the years after the Civil War show abundant evidence of Americans expanding their economic, political, military, and cultural control over foreign societies. The post-1865 period is distinguished from previous decades, when the young Republic was both struggling for its survival and expanding over contiguous territory that it rapidly incorporated into the constitutional structures of the United States. Imperialism implies something different from continental expansion. It refers to the permanent subordination of distant societies, rather than their reorganization as states of equal standing in a single nation. America extended its federalist structure of governance across the North American continent before the Civil War. After that watershed, a powerful United States established areas of domination in distant lands, whose people were not allowed equal representation in governance. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the United States had a large informal empire and a smaller but still significant formal empire as well.

From the Civil War to the Twentieth Century

William Henry Seward, secretary of state during and immediately after the Civil War, recognized that the United States needed an overseas empire for its future peace and prosperity. The wounds of the bloody North-South conflict would heal, he believed, only with the promise of overseas benefits for all sections of the country. Informal U.S. expansion into foreign markets—especially in Asia and the Caribbean—provided farmers and industrialists with access to consumers and resources. At a time when the U.S. economy had begun to employ factory manufacturing, mechanized agriculture, and railroad transportation, large overseas outlets became necessary for prosperity. Americans were dependent on assured access to international markets, Seward believed, and this required expansion across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Seward began by building a "highway" to Asia. This included annexation of the Brooks Islands in 1867 (renamed the Midway Islands in 1903). The secretary of state also negotiated a treaty guaranteeing American businesses access to the island kingdom of Hawaii. The U.S. Senate eventually approved this treaty in 1875. Seward expected that the Brooks Islands and Hawaii would serve as important stepping-stones for American influence in the lucrative markets of China and Japan.

When the United States encountered resistance to its post–Civil War expansion in Asia, the government employed diplomatic and military pressures. In 1866, after the Japanese government closed itself to foreign trade, the United States joined other imperial powers—the British, the French, and the Dutch—in forcing Western access to the island nation over the objections of native interests. Seward dispatched a warship, the U.S.S. Wyoming, to join in naval exercises off the Japanese coast.

In China, the largest and most promising market, Seward used diplomacy instead of explicit force. According to the Burlingame Treaty, signed in September 1868, the Chinese government gave the United States trading access to designated coastal areas, with the additional right to build railroads and telegraphs facilitating penetration of the hinterland. In return, the United States allowed thousands of Chinese laborers to migrate across the Pacific. This arrangement helped to relieve China's overpopulation difficulties, and it provided American companies—particularly on the West Coast—with a large pool of low-wage workers. The U.S. government worked with the Chinese emperor to guarantee a market for the export of American products and the import of cheap labor.

Seward's imperialism set the stage for succeeding secretaries of state, but his policies inspired strong domestic resistance. By the time he left office in 1869, Seward had built an American overseas empire that included formal possessions, including the Brooks Islands and Alaska (1867), as well as larger informal areas of influence, which included Hawaii, Japan, and, most important of all, China. Many Americans expressed discomfort with this evidence of imperialism, including Republican Senator Charles Sumner and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. Seward's other ambitious plans—including acquisition of the Danish West Indies (the U.S. Virgin Islands) and the construction of an isthmian canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through a sliver of Colombia—died at the hands of anti-imperialists on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Despite these setbacks, Seward and his successors recognized the overriding imperialist trend in American foreign policy at the time. In addition to the economic advantages derived from overseas expansion, a series of internal social and cultural pressures pushed the United States to become more involved in managing distant societies. Religious belief—in particular a desire to spread Christian "civilization"—had motivated Western settlement across the North American continent during the period of manifest destiny, before the Civil War. Now these same urges inspired overseas proselytism. Ministers like Josiah Strong of the Home Missionary Society called upon thousands of their followers to establish churches and schools throughout China and other foreign countries. Christian missionaries would not only save less privileged souls, they would also display the profound righteousness of American society. As was the case with Britain and many other imperial powers in the nineteenth century, the United States defined its national identity by asserting superiority over—and a duty to convert—"Oriental" heathens.

American imperialism, in this sense, was part of a much larger international competition. Britain, France, and Russia—and by the last decades of the nineteenth century, Germany and Japan—were all competing for in-fluence in Asia, Africa, and other "open" spaces for expansion. American leaders felt they had to adopt imperialistic policies of their own. Otherwise, the United States risked permanent exclusion from future opportunities abroad. Secretary of State John Hay's Open Door Notes of 1899 and 1900 codified this argument, proclaiming that the United States would assert its presence in China and other countries to make sure that other imperialist powers did not close off American access. As a self-conscious great power with a civilizing mission and a growing dependence on foreign markets, the United States needed its own empire—preferably informal. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner's influential 1893 essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," captured this sense that the proving ground for American society was no longer on the North American continent, but now overseas.

One could not build an empire—even an informal one—without an adequate military. After an initial decade of demobilization after the Civil War, the United States embarked upon a period of extensive naval construction in the late nineteenth century. Alfred Thayer Mahan, president of the newly created Naval War College, outlined a new military doctrine for American imperialism in his widely read lectures, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783. First published in 1890, Mahan's text mined the history of the Roman and British empires to show that a large trading state could ensure its wealth and security by asserting dominance of the sea. A large battleship navy, in control of important strategic waterways and coaling stations across the globe, would guarantee the flow of commerce. It would also allow for the United States to influence foreign societies, transporting concentrated forces across great distances.

Largely as a consequence of Mahan's influence, the U.S. naval fleet grew consistently between 1890 and 1914. More ships created new opportunities for force projection. New overseas naval interests, in turn, justified ever larger estimates of strategic necessities. By 1898, the U.S. Navy had become both an advocate and a tool of American imperialism.

The United States used its growing naval power to force the declining Spanish empire out of Cuba and the Philippines. In both areas, America became the new imperial power. In 1901, the United States—now in formal control of Cuba—forced the native government of the island to include in its constitution a series of stipulations known as the Platt Amendment (named for Senator Orville Platt, a Republican from Connecticut). These included assurances of American political and economic domination. The U.S. Navy acquired possession of a major facility on the island, Guantánamo Naval Base. Washington also asserted the future right to intervene militarily in Cuba if U.S. interests were jeopardized. After granting the island nominal independence in 1902, the United States did indeed send an "army of pacification" to the island in 1906 for the purpose of repressing anti-American groups. The United States practiced a combination of informal and formal imperialism in Cuba.

In the case of the Philippines, the United States initially went to war with Spain in 1898 for the purpose of acquiring an informal naval coaling station. Native resistance to U.S. interests and a growing recognition in Washington that the archipelago would serve as an ideal point of embarkation for trade with the Chinese mainland led President William McKinley to declare the Philippines a permanent U.S. colony on 21 December 1898. America fought a bloody forty-one-month war to secure possession of the entire archipelago. During this Philippine Insurrection, the United States created an occupation army that waged total war on local resistance. Forty-two hundred Americans died in battle for possession of this colony. As many as twenty thousand Filipino insurgents also died. As never before, the United States had established direct control over a foreign society—seven thousand miles from North America—through brute force. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the evidence of American imperialism was unmistakable.

Liberal Imperialism

During the first half of the twentieth century, the United States was both an advocate of democracy and a practitioner of imperialism. The two are not necessarily contradictory. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson both believed they had an obligation to spread American ideas and interests across the globe. As a new world power, the United States had an apparent opportunity to remake the international system in a way that would eliminate the old ravages of war and corrupt alliances. Roosevelt and Wilson sought to replace militaristic aristocracies with governments that promised economic development and, eventually, democracy. International change of this variety would, they assumed, best serve America's long-term interests.

In the short run, however, the "new diplomacy" of Roosevelt and Wilson required more extensive American imperialism. When societies refused to follow the alleged tide of "modern" economic development and democracy symbolized by the United States, Washington felt an urge to intervene. On a number of occasions, U.S. leaders went so far as to force societies to be "free" on American terms. This was the rationale behind a series of early twentieth-century U.S. interventions in the Western Hemisphere that included, among others, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Mexico. In each case, the United States asserted strategic and economic interests, and a long-term commitment to the betterment of the society under Washington's control. When U.S. military forces left their foreign areas of occupation, the threat of their redeployment served to intimidate those who wished to challenge U.S. influence.

In Europe and Asia, the United States pursued a consistent policy of informal imperialism during the first decades of the twentieth century. Contrary to the image of American diplomatic isolation before and after World War I, U.S. businesses worked with Washington's explicit—though often "unofficial"—support to build new overseas markets during this period. Investment firms like J. P. Morgan and Company lent large sums to countries such as Great Britain and France, forcing them to allow more American influence in the daily workings of their economies. Industrial concerns like Standard Oil, Singer Sewing Company, and International Harvester became more active in controlling natural resources overseas and marketing their products to foreign consumers. Perhaps most significant of all, intellectual and charitable groups like the Carnegie Council and the Rockefeller Foundation began to advise leaders in Europe, Asia, and Latin America on how they could make their societies and economies look more like that of the United States. Their seemingly "objective" counsels encouraged private property concentration, natural resource extraction, and increased trade—all factors that served to increase the influence of American firms.

The worldwide economic depression of the 1930s and the rise of fascism restricted much of the international commerce and communication that had flourished in the first decades of the century. These conditions, however, only heightened the pressures for informal American imperialism. Fearful that economic and political forces—especially in Germany—were moving against trade, economic development, and democracy, the U.S. government continued to encourage the activities of American companies and advisory groups abroad.

The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in particular, sponsored the overseas marketing of Hollywood-produced films. Movies helped to proselytize the individual freedoms and personal prosperity that Americans believed were essential for a peaceful, liberal world. Hollywood helped nurture foreign consumers who would soon want to purchase the American-made automobiles and other products glorified on the silver screen. Most significant of all, policymakers like Roosevelt believed that movie exports would help inspire positive views of the United States in foreign societies. The president even thought this might work with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—an avid consumer of American movies. Roosevelt hoped that Hollywood depictions of Soviet-American friend-ship would help solidify the two nations in their fight against Nazi fascism.

World War II and the Cold War

U.S. participation in World War II formalized America's liberal imperialism of the prior decades. As part of the Atlantic Charter—negotiated when Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in secret between 9 and 12 August 1941—the United States proclaimed that the war against fascism would end with a "permanent system of general security" that would embrace national self-determination, free trade, and disarmament. Citizens of foreign countries would benefit from "improved labor standards, economic advancement, and social security" when they restructured their societies to look like the United States. The Atlantic Charter laid out an agenda for total war against the large standing armies, state-run economies, and dictatorial governments that characterized fascist regimes. This is what one scholar calls the "American way of war." Between 1941 and 1945, the United States deployed unprecedented military force—including two atomic bombs—to annihilate its most direct challengers in Asia and Europe. American commitments to free trade, economic development, and democracy required the unconditional surrender of Japanese, German, and Italian fascists. U.S. leaders and citizens not only asserted that their nation was the necessary "arsenal of democracy," they also proclaimed that they would remake the world after the horrors of war and genocide. The defeat of fascism would christen the "American Century," when the United States would play the unabashed role of liberal imperialist, planting the seeds of American-style economic growth and democracy across the globe.

The United States undertook this task with extraordinary resolve as soon as World War II came to a close in 1945. In the western half of Germany and the European continent, American policymakers rebuilt wardevastated societies. The Economic Recovery Program of 1947 (also known as the Marshall Plan, after Secretary of State George Marshall) provided a staggering $13 billion of U.S. aid to feed starving people, reorganize industry, and jump-start economic production. Instead of the reparations and loans that weighed down European economies after World War I, the United States used the Marshall Plan to foster postwar stability, prosperity, and integration in Europe. With their economies organized along liberal capitalist lines, the west European countries developed favorable markets for American exports only a few years after the end of World War II.

In Japan and the western half of Germany, America's liberal imperialism was formal and incredibly successful. In both societies, U.S. officials helped to write new constitutions. The Japanese national charter of 1946 prohibited militarism and state control over the economy. It gave Japanese women the right to vote for the first time, promoted noncommunist labor unions, encouraged free public expression, and created new opportunities for American-style schooling. The new German "Basic Law," promulgated in 1949, similarly outlawed fascism and ensured individual rights, personal property ownership, and free elections. In both societies, the United States worked with a series of local politicians to uproot authoritarian traditions and impose liberal democracy. American officials sought to prevent future war, improve the lives of foreign citizens, and ensure U.S. strategic and economic interests. These goals were not incompatible; in fact, they reflected a formalization of American assumptions dating back to 1865.

The Soviet Union objected to America's liberal imperialism for obvious reasons. Joseph Stalin and his successors recognized that U.S. expansion in Europe and Asia prohibited the spread of communist ideals. Instead of the worker rights and economic equality championed by the Soviet Union—in words, if not in practice—American influence privileged personal liberties and individual wealth accumulation. The conflict between America's liberal democratic vision and the Soviet Union's communist alternative created an environment of competing imperialisms, which contemporaries called the "Cold War."

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet criticisms of U.S. imperialism gained some popular support in Asian, African, and Latin American societies struggling for independence against inherited European and American domination. This was most evident in Indochina. Despite its anticolonial inclinations, U.S. leaders supported French colonialism in this region of Southeast Asia after World War II. In the eyes of U.S. policymakers, national independence for Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian citizens threatened to undermine the stability and security of the region. Nationalist governments would allegedly threaten trade and economic development. Most significantly, American leaders feared that newly independent governments would fall under the influence of Soviet and, after 1949, Chinese communism. Liberal imperialism appeared necessary to contain communist expansion and prepare "underdeveloped" societies for eventual independence.

When Vietnamese nationalists—aided, as Washington predicted, by China and the Soviet Union—forced the French out of Indochina in 1954, the United States took over as a formal imperialist in the region. By the end of 1965, U.S. soldiers were fighting an extensive ground, sea, and air war against Vietnamese nationalists. Before the last U.S. troops withdrew from the region in 1975, hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of peasants had died or suffered dislocation as a consequence of American military activities. In addition, 58,193 U.S. soldiers perished in this war.

The Vietnam War illustrated the extended brutality of American imperialism during the Cold War. Longstanding economic and political impulses had combined with militant anticommunism to devastate much of Southeast Asia. Observers in countries around the world—including the United States—condemned American foreign policy for undermining the liberal purposes that it claimed to serve. The global revolt witnessed in 1968 on city streets across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America was an international reaction against American imperialism.

After Vietnam and to the Twenty-First Century

American foreign policy was never the same after the Vietnam War. Aware of the resistance that the formal elements of American imperialism had inspired, policymakers returned to more informal mechanisms for asserting influence abroad. Economic globalization and human rights advocacy took center stage, along with continued anticommunism. The promise of American-style prosperity and individual rights—championed by politicians, businesspeople, and Hollywood writers—triumphed over the gray authoritarianism of communist regimes. By 1991, societies across the globe rushed to attract American investment and aid. Citizens sought out American cultural exports—including McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Michael Jordan.

America's informal imperialism in the late twentieth century was remarkably effective. It did, however, inspire serious resistance. Instead of adopting communist slogans, as they had in the 1950s and 1960s, opponents of U.S. influence after 1991 turned largely to religion. Fundamentalisms of many varieties—Christian, Jewish, and Islamic—arose to challenge the decadence and hypocrisy of American liberal democracy. They condemned the United States for undermining traditional sources of authority and morality in foreign societies. They recognized that the free trade, economic development, and popular elections advocated by the United States would destroy many local hierarchies.

International terrorism—symbolized most frighteningly by the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—emerged, in part, as a reaction to a long history of formal and informal American imperialism. This observation does not, in any way, justify the abhorrent terrorist activities. American imperialism has produced both positive and negative outcomes, as the contrast between post–World War II Japan and Vietnam makes clear. Nonetheless, the extraordinary overseas influence of the United States, dating back to 1865, has inspired violent resistance. Americans probably will not abandon their liberal imperialist assumptions in the twenty-first century, but they will surely develop new strategies for isolating and defeating foreign challengers.


Cooper, John Milton, Jr. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985. A superb comparative study that analyzes the politics and foreign policy of early twentieth-century America.

Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. The best analysis of the sources and implications of America's anticommunist containment policy during the Cold War.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1997. A provocative analysis of how American liberal imperialism contributed to the Vietnam War.

Hahn, Peter L., and Mary Ann Heiss, eds. Empire and Revolution: The United States and the Third World since 1945. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001. A useful survey of American imperialism in the "third world" during the Cold War.

Hogan, Michael J. The Marshall Plan: America, Britain, and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1947–1952. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A penetrating account of how the Marshall Plan reconstructed Western Europe on America's model.

Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. A stimulating account of how ideas about liberty, race, and revolution shaped American imperialism.

Iriye, Akira, ed. The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations: The Globalizing of America, 1913–1945. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A compelling discussion of Americanization in the first half of the twentieth century.

Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. An excellent account of Wilson's liberal approach to foreign policy.

LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. A classic history of American imperialism between the Civil War and the War of 1898.

Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. A rich account of how American values and fears of Soviet power drove foreign policy in the early Cold War.

McCormick, Thomas J. China Market: America's Quest for Informal Empire, 1893–1901. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1990. A provocative account of American imperialism in Asia at the end of the nineteenth century.

Ninkovich, Frank. The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy since 1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. A compelling account of Wilson's influence on American imperialism in the twentieth century.

Rosenberg, Emily S. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. A thoughtful account of America's cultural and economic imperialism between the two world wars.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. A provocative analysis of American liberal imperialism.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. A compelling analysis of America's imperialistic approach to war.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New York: Norton, 1988. Originally published in 1959 and one of the most important works on the history of American foreign relations—a penetrating discussion of economics, ideas, and imperialism.


See alsoAnti-Imperialists ; China, Relations with ; Cuba, Relations with ; Hawaii ; Intervention ; Japan, Relations with ; Philippines ; Spanish-American War ; Vietnam War ; andvol. 9:Anti-Imperialist League Platform .

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Imperialism as a distinct set of ideas can be traced to the second half of the nineteenth century; it refers primarily to a political system based on colonies governed from an imperial metropolitan center for direct or indirect economic benefit. Commonly associated with the policy of direct extension of sovereignty and dominion over noncontiguous and often distant overseas territories, it also denotes indirect political or economic control of powerful states over weaker peoples. Regarded also as a doctrine based on the use of deliberate force, 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.


Although the term empire (Latin: imperium ), inhering in the idea of supreme command or authority, is regarded as part of a universal human political experience since the rise of polities in antiquity, imperialism is more narrowly dated to the era of colonial empires of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this era the economic and military advantages of mercantile, industrialist, and capitalist countries were translated into a more or less systematic and formal policy of conquest, annexation, and administration of the world outside of Europe and the Americas. Between 1880 and 1914 much of this world was partitioned in territories under the direct rule of European countries, or subjected to their political influence. Led by Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States, and later followed by Russia and Japan, principal powers of the world divided Asia into informal zones of influence, and carved up the Pacific and Africa into new territorial, and mostly colonial, units. The expectation of asymmetrical and iniquitous distribution of political-economic gains was complemented by the roughly contemporaneous idea that the world was inhabited by advanced and backward races and nations, and that imperial expansion was also in part the preponderance of those who were fit and thus destined to rule. In the 1890s many contemporary observers associated imperial expansionism with a new phase in the development of international capitalism, one that succeeded the era of free competition and economic liberalism of the mid-nineteenth century. This particular use of the term imperialism has often been attributed to V. I. Lenin, the architect of the Russian Revolution. John A. Hobson (18581940) noted the heightened currency of the term in the late nineteenth century, both in political discussion and common speech. Whether they were influenced by Karl Marxs theories or not, contemporaries were aware of the economic roots of this new version of imperial expansion, which they identified with the territorial division of the world among major European powers into formal or informal colonies and spheres of influence. Such claims among European military and economic rivals were nowhere more evident than at the Berlin Conference of 1884, hosted by the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck (18151898), who had come to the conclusion that an Africa divided along colonial lines by mutual agreement among the European empires would safeguard markets and raw materials. This move led to the proclamation of a number of protectorates and colonies, known as the scramble for Africa, and the eventual partition of the entire continent.

The ties between mercantile capital, empire-building, and colonial ventures had already been secured by the late eighteenth century. Capital invested in the triangular trade between England, Africa, and the Caribbean had a profound impact on New World Iberian colonies. The African slave trade, for example, provided the labor for Brazilian and Caribbean plantations that produced sugar for much of western Europe and North America. During the early nineteenth century, settler colonies were also becoming important, both commercially and politically, best articulated perhaps in the context of Upper and Lower Canada by John Lambton, Lord Durham (17921840) in his Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839). While drawing up the report he was ably assisted by Edward Gibbon Wakefield (17961862) and Charles Buller (18061848), both of whom were well known for their progressive and radical views on social reform. The Durham Report, which effectively safeguarded British influence over a divided Canada, advocated responsible government through graduated constitutional change, while at the same time recognizing the value of commerce and investment. It also delineated imperial trade and foreign policy, and the regulation of colonial settlement through a careful distribution of public lands by the British government.

Already by the 1840s colonies had assumed heightened importance as welcome outlets, not only for criminals and outcasts, but also for increasingly large numbers of migrants who could not secure adequate employment and resources in the mother country. There were many theorists and advocates of settler colonialism, among them the radical Wakefield, who called for a systematic colonization of the Australian continent, arguing that a successful transference depended on the compatibility of capital and labor, and economic opportunity to create harmony between the different classes of settlers. The absorption of redundant people in the colonies, Wakefield pointed out in his View of the Art of Colonization (1849), would result in increased supply of food and raw materials for manufacture for the inhabitants of the empire at home. Wakefield clearly anticipated the importance of empire for the accumulation of capital and investment overseas.

It was Bruno Bauer (18091882), the German philosopher, historian, and theologian, and also onetime leader of the left-Hegelians, who advanced the idea of imperialism as a powerful and disruptive global political force. The entry of Russia as a world power, he predicted, would usher in a new era of transnational imperial rivalry. According to Bauer, this was the result of the contradictions that had arisen between the demands of modern mass society and the political absolutism of the state, a symptom of the crisis of the old European liberal order (Bauer 1882). Thus, for example, in Bismarcks model of state-based socialism in Germany, economic production was subjected to close political control, driven by the need to rein in the unruly forces of capitalism. In Benjamin Disraelis England, in contrast, political leaders sought a mass mandate for imperial policies in order to shore up and bolster a paternalist monarchy whose institutional basis had been eroded by the force of economic change. Bauers verged on an apocalyptic vision, portending heightened imperial rivalry across the world, resulting in a war among the leading nations.

Imperialism and nationalism had long been regarded as kindred forces. At the turn of the century, among theorists who challenged this commonly accepted idea was the British liberal economist John A. Hobson, who argued in his influential Imperialism: A Study (1902) that the drive for imperialist expansion in Europe could not be fully explained by the rise of patriotic nationalism. From the vantage point of an entire nation and its people, the policy of imperial expansion did not result in long-term and tangible economic benefits; the costs of wars of expansion far outweighed the returns, and indeed, necessary social reforms that would have benefited the economically disadvantaged sections of the population were often set aside in favor of imperial adventurism. Such policies, however, served the financial interests of capitalists and their representative political groups, who were, according to Hobson, custodians of the imperial engine. Periodic congestion of capital in manufacturing, resulting from uneven distribution of income, falling demand, and excess goods and capital inside a given nation-state, urged the search for investment outlets overseas, thus driving the search for new markets and opportunities for investment in foreign markets, including distant colonies and dependencies. This process was further propelled through the practices of larger firms and financial groups operating in trusts and combines that sought restrictions on output in order to avert loss through overproduction. Hobsons study, which focused on business cycles, behavior of financial groups, and patterns of overseas investment, directly influenced Marxist thinkers in their analysis of imperialism.


During the early decades of the twentieth century there were many radical critics on the Left who saw the rise of imperialism as a historical force intimately tied to the worldwide expansion and consolidation of finance capital. As Lenin in his introduction to Nikolai Bukharins tract Imperialism and World Economy (1917 [1972]) noted succinctly: The typical ruler of the world became finance capital, a power that is peculiarly mobile and flexible, particularly intertwined at home and internationally, peculiarly devoid of individuality and divorced from the immediate process of production, peculiarly easy to concentrate (p. 11). Much of the debate centered on Marxs prediction about the concentration of capital. Rudolf Hilferding in Finance Capital (1910 [1981]) and Otto Bauer in Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (The Nationalities Question and the Social Democracy, 1907), extending Marxian ideas of capital accumulation, argued that the sectors of banking and finance had increasingly started to exert pressure on industrial production, leading to the formation of monopolies and cartels, the quest for protection of markets, and ultimately to economic imperialism, international rivalry, and war. Similarly, Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-born German revolutionary and founder of the Polish Social Democratic Party and the Spartacus League (which later became the German Communist Party), forcefully argued in her 1913 tract Die Akkumulation des Kapitals (The Accumulation of Capital) that imperialism was the direct result of the dynamic and aggressive inroad of capitalism into the less economically advanced parts of the world.

Bukharin and Lenin, stalwarts of Bolshevism and veterans of the October Revolution, took these ideas further, advancing that imperialism was not a contest for world domination among rival races such as Slavs and Teutons, but the direct result of a particular form of capitalism marked by the changing structure of financial investment and relations of production. Colonial expansion and imperial wars were indeed signs of a developing global economy. Bukharin saw the global expansion of finance capital as a historic phenomenon tied to new national rivalries, fiscal competition, and imperial conquest.

Lenin penned a small tract, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917 [1970]), which soon became one of the most influential of all Marxist studies on the subject. Lenin saw imperialism as closely tied to the normal functions of an advanced capitalism that had already undergone profound changes along with the development of modern European nation-states. More importantly, monopoly capitalism had already edged out an earlier form of competitive capitalism marked by the free entry and exit of small and large-scale industries and businesses. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, an advanced stage of capital was already in progress where open economic competition and production of commodities were replaced by predatory monopolies and cartels. For Lenin, a good example of this process was the changed role of banks as financial intermediaries to monopolistic interest groups, merging readily with industry and leading to the domination of finance capital and the unprecedented concentration of production. As a result, a fundamental and historic feature of capitalism had been altered: What was once characterized by the separation of ownership of capital from the process of production was now marked by a separation of finance capital from industrial capital. Lenin held that new finance capital had outpaced commodities in reaching far corners of the world, heightening actual divisions and rivalry between trading groups and nations. New segments of the world market were thus being appropriated by monopoly capital, with the merging of corporationssuch as conglomerates in the oil industryto weed out competition.

Lenin saw the division of the world among colonial and imperial powers as closely associated with the transformative power of finance capital. Thus the scramble among powerful nations for colonial expansion was largely fueled by the drive for raw materials and markets. Lenin famously proclaimed imperialism as the highest stage in the development of capitalism. As monopoly interest groups sought to divide the world into arenas of economic exploitation, they unleashed new rivalries over markets and raw materials among both advanced and less advanced capitalist nations. The uneven economic development of nations, including imperial and colonial powers, further intensified economic competition and political conflict.

Lenin was vehement in his opposition to other theorists of imperialism, especially his contemporary Karl Kautsky (18541938), one of the most influential voices among German Social Democrats before World War I. Kautsky in Die Internationalität und der Krieg (Imperialism and the War, 1914) argued that imperialism was indeed the logical outcome of capitalism, but was beset by its own fatal contradictions. Kautsky predicted that World War II would lead to the demise of imperialism as an international policy along with its global-industrial order, and rather than a worldwide communist revolution, it would create a new and peaceful consortium among advanced nations along with a cosmopolitan global economy free of imperialistic militarism.

This theorythat political, military, and ideological aspects of imperialism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were essentially manifestations of deep-seated economic causes, especially the rise of monopolistic finance capital fueling the drive for overseas colonies and global marketsis often referred to as the Lenin-Hobson thesis. Although some of the basic premises of the thesis have been questioned in light of subsequent historyfor instance, the relationship between militarism and economic gain and also between colonialism and the expansion of finance capitalaspects of it continue to be influential. Critics of Lenin and Hobson, and of Marxist theories of imperialism in general, question the assertion that wars of colonial expansion or imperial rivalry were fought for solely economic reasons and that capitalism was the primary engine of colonial and imperial expansion. Some have argued that imperialism was an ideology inherently antithetical to the logic of capitalism and market economy, and as such, a relic of the past; others have sought its origins in the rise of mass politics and fascism (Arendt [1951] (1973)).

More recently, historians following Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher (1961) have questioned the very premise that the high tide of imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century was a new or unprecedented phenomenon, arguing instead for an extended period of free-trade imperialism bridging the era of mercantilist empires that developed during the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries and the nineteenth-century wars of imperial annexation. In this intermediate stage, European political and commercial interests were extended through indirect means, without the administrative responsibility of direct colonial rule. Relying largely on the history of the British Empire in Asia and Africa and the expansion of British financial interests in Latin America, such critics view imperialism as a long-unfolding process in which imperial occupation and commercial exploitation are the results of long-term, informal economic relationships between European commercial agents and local regimes, which in themselves were active participants in the process of empire building. Such formulations underscore the role of political regimes that eventually succumbed to European empires, and their subjects who resisted or became unequal partners in colonial economic expansion. They also emphasize the vital role played by newly independent Latin American countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile as substantial markets, and as part of an extended informal empire (Hopkins 1994). These markets were crucial to British industrial production and finance capital in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and more generally to the global economy dominated by the United States and western Europe, without directly being part of the colonial system.

Despite such revisions, critics of imperialism still ascribe it to the direct or indirect manifestation of the march of global capitalism from the nineteenth century to the present. Sociologists such as Immanuel Wallerstein (1979, 1988) and economists such as Andre Gunder Frank (1966, 1967) consider European imperial expansion as part of a much larger history of the expansion of capitalism as a world-system, in which shifting economic cores and peripheries are mutually constituted through abiding asymmetric economic and political relationships. Others emphasize imperialism not so much as an economic but as a cultural and ideological force associated with European hegemony. In this wider and more general sense, imperialism has been related to post-Darwinian biological theories of race, theories of western industrial and technological superiority, militant nationalism, orientalism, and also modern-day environmentalism. Subject to such wide-ranging usage, imperialism is harder to define in the present context as a specific set of ideas. Rather, it is more accurately described as an all-purposive political orientation, no longer focused on the extension of the sovereignty of the European nation-states beyond their internationally recognized boundaries, but much more on the political condition of a collective present (Hardt and Negri 2000) marked by a post-European global hegemony of displaced and multilocal capitalism.

SEE ALSO Capital; Capitalism; Colonialism; Decolonization; Determinism, Biological; Empire; Frank, Andre Gunder; Hegelians; Hilferding, Rudolf; Jingoism; Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Luxemburg, Rosa; Marx, Karl; Nationalism and Nationality; Neocolonialism; Neoimperialism; Racism; Underconsumption; Wallerstein, Immanuel; World-System


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Bauer, Bruno. 1882. Disraelis Romantischer und Bismarcks Sozialistischer Imperialismus (Disraelis Romantic and Bismarcks Socialist Imperialism). Chemnitz, Germany: E. Schmeitzer.

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Bukharin, Nikolai. [1917] 1972. Imperialism and World Economy. London: Merlin.

Durham, John George Lambton, Earl. 1839. Report on the Affairs of British North America. London: Ridgways.

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Frank, Andre Gunder. 1967. Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America; Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Grove, Richard. 1996. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 16001860. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Hopkins, A. G. 1994. Informal Empire in Argentina: An Alternative View. Journal of Latin American Studies 26: 469484.

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Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1979. The Capitalist World-Economy: Essays. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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Weaver, Frederick Stirton. 2000. Latin America in the World Economy: Mercantile Colonialism to Global Capitalism. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Sudipta Sen

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Expansionism is endemic to an unfinished world of sovereign states in which some nations possess the power and will to challenge the global distribution of land, resources, or people. Centuries of mass migrations and state‐building created the modern state system without satisfying the needs and interests of all its members. The resulting instability in international life took its precise form from the existence of three worlds superimposed on one another. One consists of the economic universe of plains, valleys, rivers, harbors, and waterways—elements that determined the nature, quality, and performance of national economic activity. A second is the world of people, separated by ethnicity, language, and religion into unique cultures that seldom conform to national boundaries. The third comprises the world of nations, more artificial and malleable than the others, with boundaries created over time by natural lines of demarcation or by war.

Leaders of countries whose geographic, demographic, or political status fails to coincide with their ambition, perceived interests, and power can balance the two sets of factors in only one way: through the exertion of force. Highly dissatisfied nations may forego territorial adjustment through war by reason of prudence or morality. When states unleash force in quest of land or ethnic amalgamation, they succeed or fail according to the magnitude of the reaction. For the United States, its expansionist efforts largely preceded twentieth‐century precepts of self‐determination and peaceful change that rendered resorts to force immoral, and thus unacceptable. The United States, throughout its expansionist career, never faced an invincible coalition committed to blocking its expansion and defending the status quo.

American expansionism in the nineteenth century focused on bordering regions whose acquisition would enhance its security and broaden its economic base. Except for its conquest of Indian lands and its war with Mexico, the United States achieved its continental empire mainly through diplomacy. Europe's declining role in distant North America provided the United States sufficient leverage in its confrontations to assure highly beneficial boundary settlements. France, finding its claims to the vast Louisiana Territory relatively worthless, sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803 for $15 million. Spain revealed its weakening position in North America by ceding Florida and agreeing, in the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, to a satisfactory boundary from Louisiana to the Pacific Coast. Britain defined its Canadian boundary with the United States in its acceptance of the 49th parallel from the Great Lakes to the Rockies in 1818; the Maine boundary settlement in 1842; and, in 1846, the line of 49 between the Rockies and the continental shore, then continuing on to the Pacific through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. California and the Southwest were acquired in 1848, in the war with Mexico. Alaska, no longer desired by Russia, was, like Louisiana, largely a windfall.

Expansionists in the 1840s proclaimed the doctrine of “manifest destiny” to rationalize American expansion as the mere fulfillment of the country's destiny. The concept of destiny, in discounting the role of force in the country's expansion, rested on the presumed superiority and appeal of American institutions. Notions of destiny might assuage the doubts of those who abhorred force, but expansion itself required more than convictions of political and cultural superiority. Manifest destiny neglected totally questions of power or diplomacy. It embodied no need to define ends. The hand of destiny, in promoting the extension of freedom, culture, and institutions, recognized no bounds. Quite typically, journalist John L. O'sullivan, who is credited with coining the phrase, observed in the New York Morning News on 27 December 1845 that it had become “our manifest destiny to occupy and to possess the whole Continent which Providence has given us…”

American expansion across the continent rested not on notions of destiny but on clearly conceived national policies, based on power and diplomacy, attached to specific territorial objectives. In the 1840s, the Polk administration pursued Texas's claims to the Rio Grande and businesses' desire for seaports on the Pacific Ocean, objectives achieved through the Mexican War. In Oregon, the U.S. goal was the magnificent harbor of Puget Sound, with access to the Pacific through Juan de Fuca Strait. The American demand for a settlement along the 49th parallel assured access to the desired waterways. U.S. purposes in California were no less precise than those in Oregon: the harbors of San Francisco and San Diego. These objectives Polk embodied in his war aims and achieved in the Treaty of Guadalupe‐Hidalgo (1848).

American expansionism entered the vast world of the Pacific in the late nineteenth century. The region seemed to offer limitless opportunities for the expansion of Christianity and civil liberty, and also for the acquisition of new markets to complement the impressive growth of American industrial and agricultural production after the American Civil War. What rendered the Pacific region especially inviting was the presumption that its civilizations could not resist the power, technology, and organizational skills of the Western world. Unlike other imperial powers, the United States did not create its Pacific empire by conquering previously independent peoples. Instead, it exploited opportunities for economic and territorial expansion already created by internal instabilities and weaknesses in regions regarded as strategically and economically important. Or it overthrew Spanish colonialism. After 1860, the application of American will in the Far East appeared so effortless that it ultimately led to expanded objectives, illusions of omnipotence, and wars exorbitantly expensive.

America's expansion in the Pacific advanced in spurts. By the early 1890s, it had touched China, Japan, Midway, Hawaii, Korea, and Samoa. In February 1893, the Harrison administration negotiated an annexation treaty with Hawaiian commissioners, only to have the incoming Cleveland administration reject it and condemn the previous administration's involvement in Samoa as well. The anti‐imperialists demonstrated their dominance by defeating a second Hawaiian annexation treaty in 1897. It required the Spanish‐American War, in April 1898, to break the power of anti‐imperialism and project the United States onto the world stage.

Shortly after the outbreak of war, fought ostensibly to free Cuba from Spain, Commodore George Dewey's Pacific Squadron destroyed the Spanish Fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish Philippines. This sudden display of naval power in the remote Pacific, and the possibilities it opened for empire‐building, were not lost on a group of well‐placed expansionists in Washington. During June 1898, Congress annexed Hawaii by joint resolution against little opposition. Meanwhile, President William McKinley dispatched an army to take control of Manila. On 13 August, Spanish officials surrendered the city to American forces. The decision to destroy Spanish power in the Philippines closed every easy avenue of escape. Having liberated the islands, the United States had either to restore them to Spain, free them, transfer them to another power, or retain them. Expansionists that summer clamored for their retention. On 16 September, McKinley instructed his peace commission that U.S. forces, with no thought of acquisition, had brought duties and obligations to the Filipinos that the country could not ignore. During December, the peace commission in Paris signed a treaty that conveyed the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States in exchange for $20 million. The Senate, in February 1899, approved the treaty by a vote of 57 to 27, one more than the necessary two‐thirds. Philippine annexation set off a bitter, costly war with Emilio Aguinaldo's Filipino insurgents for possession of the islands. The American antiguerrilla campaign soon degenerated into a no‐quarter struggle of burned villages and the deaths of innocent men, women, and children. At the end, the acquisition of the Philippines demanded a heavy price.

Still, the illusion of easy success received an even more powerful demonstration in the U.S. effort to save China from dismemberment by Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Acceding to the American “open door” notes of 1899 and 1900, those countries accepted, in principle, China's economic, political, and administrative integrity. In the euphoria of “saving” China, the United States accepted a pervading unilateral commitment to China's independence and political integrity against Russia and Japan, whose interests in China were far greater than those of the United States. With its recent territorial accessions, the United States entered the twentieth century as the world's leading satiated power, with objectives—in China and elsewhere—anchored to the territorial status quo, but facing powers whose expansionist interests demanded further changes in the world's treaty structure, even at the price of war. For the United States, the coming century would hardly be peaceful, if no longer territorially expansionist.
[See also Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans; Philippine War; Philippines, Liberation of the; Philippines, U.S. Military Involvement in the.]


Albert K. Weinberg , Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History, 1935.
Ernest R. May , Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power, 1961.
Frederick Merk , Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation, 1963.
H. Wayne Morgan , America's Road to Empire: The War with Spain and Overseas Expansion, 1965.
Norman A. Graebner , Manifest Destiny, 1968.
David L. Anderson , Imperialism and Idealism: American Diplomats in China, 1861–1898, 1985.
Thomas R. Hietala , Manifest Design, 1985.

Norman A. Graebner

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imperialism, broadly, the extension of rule or influence by one government, nation, or society over another.

Early Empires

Evidence of the existence of empires dates back to the dawn of written history in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, where local rulers extended their realms by conquering other states and holding them, when possible, in a state of subjection or semisubjection. An early, highly organized empire was that of Assyria, which was succeeded by the even more integrated Persian Empire. Ancient imperialism reached its climax under the long-enduring Roman Empire, the eastern part of which lasted until late into the Middle Ages as the Byzantine Empire. In Western Europe no true empire arose to replace Rome; the Holy Roman Empire, despite the aspirations of its rulers, was little more than a confederation of princely states. However, imperialism remained an important historical force elsewhere. In the Middle East and North Africa the Arabs and later the Turks built large empires. Farther east, besides the huge, if unstable, empires of the nomadic Mongols and others arising out of Central Asia, there were long-lasting and complex imperial organizations exemplified by various Chinese dynasties.

Classic Imperialism

Imperialism was reborn in the West with the emergence of the modern nation-state and the age of exploration and discovery. It is to this modern type of empire building that the term imperialism is quite often restricted. Colonies were established not only in more or less sparsely inhabited places where there were few or no highly integrated native states (e.g., North America and Africa) but also in lands where ancient civilizations and states existed (e.g., India, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Inca lands of South America). The emigration of European settlers to people the Western Hemisphere and Africa, known as colonization, was marked by the same attitude of assumed superiority on the part of the newcomers toward the native populations that prevailed where the Europeans merely took over control without large-scale settlements.

From the 15th to the 17th cent. the Portuguese and the Dutch built "trading empires" in Africa and the East for the exploitation of the resources and commerce with lands already developed. The Spanish and Portuguese established important colonies in the New World in the 16th and 17th cents., hoping to exploit the mineral wealth of the lands they conquered. The British and French imperialists became the foremost exemplars of colonial settlement in Africa and the East. Acting on mercantilist principles (see mercantilism), the European nations in the 18th cent. attempted to regulate the trade of their colonies in the interests of the mother country. Later, the increase of manufactures in the Industrial Revolution introduced a new form of imperialism, as industrial nations scrambled both for markets and for raw materials.

The eastward spread of Russia after the 16th cent. and the westward spread of the United States may also be termed imperialistic, although the United States did not actually acquire colonial possessions until the Spanish-American War. In the late 19th cent. Italy, Germany, and Japan also developed imperial ambitions; these nations, like the older colonial powers, were moved by a variety of aims, including commercial penetration, military glory, and diplomatic advantage.

At its best, European imperialism brought economic expansion and new standards of official administration and public health to subject countries; at its worst, it meant brutal exploitation and dehumanization. In every instance, however, the pressure of an alien culture, with its different values and religious beliefs, and the imposition of new forms of social organization meant the breakdown of traditional forms of life and the disruption of native civilization.

At the end of the 19th cent. there was a strong reaction against the most inhumane forms of imperialist exploitation. Efforts were made to improve the standards of colonial administration; and a new justification of the rule of non-Europeans by the European powers was found in the idea of "the white man's burden," which advanced the notion that the developed nations of Europe had a duty to rule Asians and Africans in order to lead them to a higher level of civilization and culture. Among the leading critics of imperialism at that time were the Marxists, who saw imperialism as the ultimate stage of capitalism and made much of the connection between imperialist rivalries and war.

After World War I, anti-imperialist feeling grew rapidly throughout the world, sparked by the development of movements for national liberation within subject countries. Nevertheless the major colonialist powers, Great Britain, France, and others, held on to their colonies, while Fascist governments in Italy and Germany, as well as militarist opinion in Japan, fostered even more extreme imperialist aims.

In the years since World War II, most of the countries once subject to Western control have achieved independence. Much of the contemporary debate centers on the issue of neo-imperialism. Many of the less developed countries contend that their economic development is largely controlled and seriously retarded by the developed countries, both through unfair trading practices and by a lack of controls over international business corporations.


See R. Robinson and J. Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians (1961, repr. 1965); G. Lichtheim, Imperialism (1970); K. E. Boulding and T. Mukerjee, ed., Economic Imperialism (1972); L. S. Feuer, Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialistic Mind (1989); J. N. Pieterse, Empire and Emancipation (1989).

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IMPERIALISM A term relating to empires and their institutions and trappings. Imperialism and imperialist can be used neutrally, to refer to any empire or imperial institution. In the 19c, they were often used positively, with regard especially to the achievements and interests of the European mercantile empires. Currently, the terms are generally perceived as negative, under the influence primarily of Marxist critics of empire, bourgeoisie, and capitalism, and have been used to refer not only to overt empires such as that of Britain, but also to countries seen as more covertly (but equally nefariously) imperial, such as the US.

Imperial English

The domination and exploitation that are inherent in any empire often come to be associated with the imperial language, as with Latin in the Roman and English in the British Empire. Because of the complex social and emotional relationships within an empire, there is often a love/hate relationship between subject peoples and the élite that rules them and therefore also between those peoples and the language of their servitude. This is especially so where some local people receive preference because of their usefulness and loyalty, are privileged by visits to the ‘mother country’, and provide their children with education in schools whose medium is the imperial language. As a result, even after the immediate pressures of empire have gone, post-colonial societies find that they can live neither with nor without the imperial language.

Post-imperial English

In India, the Philippines, and many other countries, decades after independence English continues to dominate politics, EDUCATION, technology, law, and business, evokes memories of colonialism, and imposes various strains on societies often divided on ethnic grounds as well as between a majority and an élite that has inherited many of the attributes and trappings of the erstwhile imperialists. Some Indians accuse Britain of ensuring that nearly 50 years after independence Indians must use English rather than an indigenous language to talk to other Indians. Philippine historians often accuse turn-of-the-century American military authorities of imposing English in order to keep Filipinos from communicating effectively in their own languages. Resentment against English-speaking political and economic élites easily translates into resentment against the language of post-imperial power. Intellectuals in post-colonial societies often see ex-imperial languages as preventing the intellectualization of VERNACULARS, much as NORMAN FRENCH in England first stunted then altered English. In a replay of the struggle of English to become a language of scholarship in a LATIN-dominated world, national languages such as Malay and Filipino are deliberately being intellectualized by nationalist linguists and writers through expansions in words, styles, and domains (often drawing on the resources of English for this purpose, as English drew on Latin). In this struggle, the major field of combat is the school: for example, in the Philippines, the medium of instruction was predominantly English until 1974, when a Bilingual Education Policy (slightly revised in 1987) mandated the use of Filipino for some subjects, as well as local vernaculars at lower levels. By the late 1980s, leading universities were successfully expanding the number of subjects taught in Filipino.

Competitors with English

In some countries, English offers an escape route from ethnic conflicts: as a ‘neutral’ language in such countries as India, Nigeria, and the Philippines, it is said to be more widely acceptable than local alternatives. Nationalists argue, however, that there are often local languages that unify populations at least as well, and often in less psychologically damaging ways. An example is Filipino (Tagalog), despite resistance from northern Ilocanos and southern Cebuanos; it is now more widely spoken than English, Ilocano, or Cebuano. The success of the national varieties of Malay in Malaysia and Indonesia is also a case in point.

Cultural hegemony

It takes time for patterns of dominance to change, and it is not easy to assess the extent of the intellectual, social, and cultural hegemony exerted by a language like English. Some non-native users of English advocate linguistic détente: watchful collaboration with a language only lately weaned, if weaned at all, from imperialism. They see the benefits of such collaboration in terms of a great good that is emerging from great ill, as English becomes the world's primary language. Other post-colonial observers, however, recall that to sup with the Devil one needs a long spoon. The Kikuyu writer NGUGI WA THIONG'O has described the predicament as follows:
The oppressed and the exploited of the earth maintain their defiance: liberty from theft. But the biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by imperialism against the collective defiance is the cultural bomb. The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate a people's belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other people's languages rather than their own (Decolonising the Mind, 1986).


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imperialism was not used in its modern sense until the later 19th cent. Before then it usually referred to the aggression of Napoleon Bonaparte. That does not mean of course that it cannot be used retrospectively, to describe the origins and growth of the British empire in Stuart and Hanoverian times, for example; but the convention is to call these ‘colonization’, and to restrict the word ‘imperialism’ to the later period. It has also taken on a wider meaning. It usually refers to territorial acquisitions, but can also cover extensions of power or influence which fell short of that. ‘Economic imperialism’, for example, means the process by which an economy extends its financial control over others. missionary endeavours have been labelled ‘cultural imperialism’. Sometimes all these different kinds of British expansion in the world are lumped together as ‘informal imperialism’.

It has been explained in various ways. Missionaries used to attribute Britain's imperial successes to the will of God. ‘Social Darwinists’ thought they proved the British race was ‘fittest’ to survive. An Austrian sociologist called Joseph Schumpeter saw imperialists as a throwback to feudal times. Dr Ronald Hyam argued that the male sex drive had a lot to do with it (Empire and Sexuality, 1991). The favourite theories, however, are economic. At the root of imperialism lay Britain's phenomenal commercial expansion following her industrial revolution. That gave her world-wide material interests, which needed to be secured. Later, according to J. A. Hobson, the Marxists, and some capitalists (like Rhodes), that need grew desperate, as capitalism began ‘over-producing’, and the industrialized countries began competing with each other for outlets. That, however, is controversial.

At its height, around 1900, imperialism also took on a domestic character. Britons forgot the old Napoleonic connotations, and took pride in their imperialism. At its crudest, this pride manifested itself in jingoism; but it also had a more responsible side. All the main political parties—even Labour—sprouted imperialist wings. Keeping up the empire, they insisted, had implications nearer home. It could not be done with a weak, stunted, fickle population, especially in the competitive world of that time. That led some of them to advocate state intervention in order to strengthen people's bodies and loyalties, known as ‘social imperialism’. That had an impact on the Liberal government's reforms of 1906–14. Later it created an unlikely bond between Tory imperialists and more conventional kinds of socialists, which kept free marketism at bay in Britain for many years.

By 1902 it was clear that the empire was stretched about as tight as it could be without bursting, and imperialists turned away from expansion to consolidation. An imperialist became someone who wished to federate the empire: economically (through imperial preference), militarily, and even politically. Many of these imperialists were highly idealistic, and even liberal in their vision of a great multiracial empire, which would bring peace and civilization to the world. Some of them hoped that the post-Second World War Commonwealth might achieve all this, only to be disappointed in the longer run.

decolonization did not bring an end to imperialism, especially in the more ‘informal’ sense of the word. British capitalism still lords it over other economies. Conversely, Britain could be said to be an economic colony of her own creditors. The 1982 Falklands War was widely taken to represent a reversion to an imperialism of a more traditional kind. For many foreigners, especially, it proved that Britain was still infected by the virus. That may have been unfair.

Bernard Porter

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JOHN CANNON. "imperialism." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. 25 May. 2016 <>.

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imperialism Literally ‘empire-ism’, a term originally used in the 1860s to denote the political and military aspirations of Napoleon III in France, and later applied to Great Power rivalry in general, involving military competition and the acquisition of colonial territories in Africa and Asia. More recently, it has been used increasingly (now almost exclusively) to refer to the domination of colonial by more developed countries, and hence as a synonym for colonialism.

Theories of imperialism seek to provide explanations for the expansion of European control after 1870. They fall into three broad categories. The sociological theory of Joseph Schumpeter, drawing on a tradition of liberal thought, sees imperial policies as unnecessary and counter-productive. It analyses imperialism as a reflection of the existence of a pre-industrial and precapitalist social stratum within the imperial countries, a landed and military aristocracy, whose atavistic ideals and social position impel them towards something that is not in the interests of modern capitalist society. Marxist and more broadly economic theories see imperialism as a necessary product of capitalist industrialization and the limits which this has reached in the more developed countries. Here, imperialism represents either the search for markets, for pre-capitalist societies to subjugate, or for low wages or higher investment returns. For Lenin, imperialism (in the sense of colonialism) was the ‘highest stage’ of capitalism, and its abolition would spell the end of capitalism as a whole. Finally, strategic or political theories of imperialism see the expansion of the 1870s as but one of many such historical phenomena, in which more powerful states, for a variety of reasons (many of them non-economic) and through different mechanisms, seek to subject weaker states to their control; that is, there is nothing specifically economic or capitalist about the phenomenon. In this sense the term would cover such ancient empires as the Persian and Roman, as well as the Soviet bloc up to 1990, and informal empires such as those constituted by the economic influence of the United States in Latin America. See also NEO-COLONIALISM.

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GORDON MARSHALL. "imperialism." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. 25 May. 2016 <>.

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imperialism Domination of one people or state by another. Imperialism can be economic, cultural, political or religious. With the age of exploration came the setting up, from the 16th century, of trading empires by major European powers such as the British, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Dutch. They penetrated Africa, Asia and North America, their colonies serving as a source of raw materials and providing a market for manufactured goods. With few exceptions, imperialism imposed alien cultures on native societies. In the 20th century, most former colonies gained independence. See also colonialism

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im·pe·ri·al·ism / imˈpi(ə)rēəˌlizəm/ • n. a policy of extending a country's power and influence through diplomacy or military force: the struggle against imperialism | fig. French ministers protested at U.S. cultural imperialism. ∎ chiefly hist. rule by an emperor. DERIVATIVES: im·pe·ri·al·is·tic / -ˌpi(ə)rēəˈlistik/ adj. im·pe·ri·al·is·ti·cal·ly adv.

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"imperialism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009. 25 May. 2016 <>.

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353. Imperialism

  1. White Mans Burden imperialists duty to educate the uncivilized. [Br. Hist.: Brewers Dictionary, 1152]

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"Imperialism." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. 1986. 25 May. 2016 <>.

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