Imperialism, Colonialism, and Decolonization

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The colonial expansion of European states into the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, followed by the collapse of these empires and their replacement by sovereign nation-states, is a double movement of great historical importance. The following briefly reviews the larger contours of this history and outlines some central arguments about its causes and consequences.


The term "imperialism" was first used in the 1830s to recall Napoleonic ambitions. It gained its core contemporary meaning around the turn of the century as a description of the feverish colonial expansion of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, and Italy. But the term is not confined to formal colonial expansion; in particular, the continuing dependence of much of the Third World on Western states and multinational corporations is often understood as neocolonialism or neoimperialism (Magdoff 1969; Nkrumah 1966).

Contemporary efforts to distill these diverse usages generally define imperialism as the construction and maintenance of relationships of domination between political communities. Such relations are often seen as explicitly political, either in the narrow sense of direct administrative control or more broadly as formal or informal control over state policy. Economic conceptions of imperialism sometimes develop an analogue to these notions, where relations of economic control or exploitation replace political domination.

"Imperialism" has also been appropriated in a much narrower sense to support particular lines of argument. Lenin's statement that "imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism" ([1917] 1939, p. 88) may be understood as a move of this sort. Arrighi, among others, argues that Lenin is better understood as formulating a substantive proposition; he suggests the interpretation "imperialism, or the tendency to war between capitalist countries, is a necessary consequence of the transformation of capitalism into monopoly or finance capital" (1978, p. 14).

Even when imperialism is equated with the establishment and maintenance of political domination, an awkward relationship between imperialism and empire persists. Classically, "empire" refers to the great agrarian bureaucracies that dominated antiquity, from the Aztec to the Chinese, from ancient Sumer to Imperial Rome. It is not clear how much these structures have in common with the overseas colonial empires of Western states, much less with contemporary structures of dependence on foreign investment. Agrarian bureaucracies involved ethnic divisions that separated classes (most importantly separating warriors and peasant producers) rather than entire communities or nations (Gellner 1983).

A second historical use of "empire" is the medieval image of a temporal parallel to the Roman Church (Folz 1969; Guenee 1985). Rather than an alien and illegitimate structure, empire was seen as a political order unifying the Christian world. Revived by Charlemagne, the notion of a universal polity lived on, in an increasingly ghostly fashion, through the Holy Roman Empire. It receded into the background as a real political force with the construction of absolutist states and was lost as a compelling image with the rise of the nation-state.

In contrast to these historical understandings of empire, modern conceptions of imperialism rest on the notion that popular sovereignty forms the basis of political community. Only with the notion of popular sovereignty does domination refer to relationships between rather than within communities. If the criteria that the United Nations uses today to identify colonialism were to be applied before 1700, all territories would be parts of empires and all peoples would be dependent subjects. It is thus no accident that the notion of imperialism arose with the nation-state; it connotes the expansionary drive of a community that is internally organized around (the myth of) popular sovereignty.

European Political Expansion. European overseas expansion can be described crudely as occurring in two stages, the colonial and the imperial. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, seagoing powers constructed networks of colonial enclaves along the route to the East Indies. Less than half a century after the voyages of Columbus, the conquistadores had laid waste to the Incan and Aztec empires and were sending gold and silver back to Spain. In the following two centuries, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands colonized virtually the whole of the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the North Atlantic seaboard. The colonial period per se came to a close with the wars of national independence in the Americas between 1776 and 1830, leaving European states in control of little more than trading posts and exhausted sugar plantations.

The second period of expansion, one of imperial rather than colonial expansion, began after an interregnum marked by British naval hegemony. In the three decades after 1880, a scramble for territory partitioned Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific among Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Portugal, while the United States annexed the remains of the Spanish Empire. None of this expansion involved much metropolitan emigration; colonial officials, traders, planters, and missionaries formed a thin veneer on indigenous societies.

The sources of the political structures of imperial rule lie in both metropolitan and indigenous traditions. Colonies tended to be formally organized along metropolitan lines (Fieldhouse 1966). Settler colonies mirrored domestic political structures quite directly (Lang 1975), while nonsettler colonies recall metropolitan structures in a more abstract fashion. For example, the British tried to fashion systems of local rule (Lugard [1922] 1965), while the French strove to create a unified, centralized administration. But the superficiality of most imperial rule led to great variation in actual administrative arrangements. Even empires whose guiding rationale was assimilation (the French and the Portuguese, especially) depended heavily on indigenous authorities and traditions.

Overseas colonies also varied in the strength and character of their economic relationship to the metropolis. Only a few colonies were the source of great riches for the metropolitan economy: most prominently, the American settler and plantation colonies, British India, and the Dutch East Indies. Others had a largely strategic value; much of the British Empire, for instance, was acquired in the effort to maintain lines of communication to India. The great majority of colonies acquired after 1880 had rather little importance for the metropolis, either as markets for imperial products or as sources of raw materials (Fieldhouse 1973).

Theories of Imperialism. The starting point for modern theories of imperialism is John Hobson's Imperialism: A Study ([1902] 1965). A liberal critic of the Boer War, Hobson saw imperial expansion as a search for new outlets for investment. He found the source of this search in the surplus capital amassed by increasingly monopolistic corporate trusts. Hobson viewed imperial expansion as costly for the nation as a whole and sought to expose the special interests promoting imperialism. He also contended that capital surpluses could be consumed domestically by equalizing the distribution of income.

Lenin's Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism ([1917] 1939) provides the most influential statement of an economic analysis of imperialism. Lenin agreed with Hobson that imperialism flowed from the need to invest outside the domestic economy, drawing explicitly on Hilferding's ([1910] 1981) analysis of finance capital as a stage of capitalism. He was concerned to show that imperialism was a necessary consequence of the dynamics of capitalism (in contrast to Hobson's anticipation of Keynes) and that the expansionary impulse could not be globally coordinated (versus Kautsky's notion of an ultra-imperialism). Lenin argued that the unevenness of development makes imperialist war inevitable, as "late starters" demand their own place in the sun.

More contemporary writers like Baran and Sweezy (1966), Frank (1967), and Wallerstein (1974) drew upon both the Marxist tradition and Latin American theories of dependencia to suggest an alternative economic analysis of imperialism. They argued that international economic relations involve a net transfer of capital from the "periphery" to the "core" of the economic system and point to the continuities in this process from early colonial expansion to contemporary neoimperialism. This is in sharp contrast with the Leninist tradition, which argues that colonial forays bring noncapitalist societies into the world economy.

Other writers consider political ambitions or relationships to be the taproot of imperialism. In perhaps the most interesting account of this sort, Schumpeter (1951) turned the Marxist perspective on its head. He noted that the characteristic motif of the ancient empires is military expansion for its own sake. Schumpeter argued that imperialism appears as an atavistic trait in the landed aristocracy of modern societies, stressing the mismatch between the social psychology of the warrior and the industrious, calculating spirit of the entrepreneur. A more political perspective treats imperial activity as flowing from the anarchical structure of the Western state system (Cohen 1973; Waltz 1979). In the absence of an enforceable legal order, states are motivated to expand when possible or endure decline relative to more aggressive states. This perspective explains European imperialism in the nineteenth century as the product of increasing levels of international competition and conflict.

Whether economic or political, most analyses of imperialism find its sources in the logic of the West, ignoring indigenous peoples in the process. John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson led a historiographic revision aiming to redress this imbalance. Their seminal essay "The Imperialism of Free Trade" (1953) emphasized the continuity in British policy between the informal imperialism of the mid-eighteenth century and the rush for colonies after 1880. In Africa and the Victorians, Robinson and colleagues (1961) argued that it was increasing indigenous resistance to European influence that led Britain to replace informal domination with formal empire. In later work, Robinson (1972) emphasized the other side of the coin—the extent to which Western empires as political systems were dependent on local collaboration.


"Decolonization" refers to a polity's movement from a status of political dependence or subordination to a status of formal autonomy or sovereignty. In modern usage, it is generally assumed that the imperial or metropolitan center is physically separated from the dependency and that the two societies are ethnically distinct. The term refers specifically to the disintegration of Western overseas empires and their replacement by sovereign states in the Americas, Asia, and Africa.

There are several routes by which decolonization can take place. Most frequently, the dependency becomes a new sovereign state, a political entity recognized in the international arena as independent of other states and as possessing final jurisdiction over a defined territory and population. Less often, decolonization may occur through the dependency's full incorporation into an existing polity, such that it is no longer separate and subordinate.

It is often unclear when (or whether) decolonization has occurred. Puerto Rico's relation to the United States can be described as one of colonial dependency or as free association. In the 1960s, Portugal claimed to have no colonies, only overseas territories formally incorporated into a unitary Portuguese state (Nogueira 1963). And where political relations are not contested, the absence of overt conflict makes it difficult to know when sovereignty has been achieved. For example, arguments can be made for dating Canadian independence at 1867, 1919, 1926, or 1931.

European Political Contraction. Virtually all of the decolonization of Western overseas empires occurred in two historical eras (Bergesen and Schoenberg 1980). The major American colonies became independent during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The mid-twentieth century witnessed a more rapid and complete wave of decolonization worldwide. The types of colonies in existence in each period and the nature of the decolonization process varied greatly across the two periods (Fieldhouse 1966; Strang 1991a).

The first wave of decolonization began with the independence of Britain's thirteen continental colonies as the United States of America. The French Revolution touched off a slave uprising that led ultimately to the independence of the French colony of Saint Domingue as Haiti. Portuguese Brazil and Spanish Central and South America became independent after the Napoleonic Wars, which had cut Latin America off from the Iberian peninsula.

While the first period of decolonization was limited to the Americas, twentieth-century decolonization was global in scope. It included the independence of most of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and Australasia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean. Between the world wars, some of Britain's settler colonies and a number of loosely held protectorates became fully sovereign. Soon after World War II, the major Asian colonies—India, Indonesia, Indochina, and the Philippines—achieved independence. The pace of change rapidly accelerated during the 1960s, which saw the decolonization of nearly all of Africa. By the 1980s, nearly all Western colonies had become independent or had been fully incorporated into sovereign states.

One fundamental difference between the two eras of decolonization has to do with who sought independence. Early American decolonizations were creole revolutions, as the descendants of European settlers sought political autonomy from the "mother country." The American Revolution and the Spanish Wars for Independence were political rather than social revolutions. Slave revolt in Haiti provided the sole exception, to the horror of creole nationalists as well as loyalists elsewhere.

By contrast, twentieth-century decolonization was rooted in indigenous rather than creole movements for independence, as decolonization came to mean freedom from racially alien rule. After World War II, settler minorities opposed decolonization, since national independence spelled an end to their privileged political, economic, and social position. Only in South Africa did a racialist minority regime survive decolonization.

The first and second waves of decolonization also differed importantly in the amount of violence involved. Early decolonization in the Americas was won through military combat between settler and imperial forces. Wars for independence raged in Britain's thirteen continental colonies, in Spanish Central and South America, and in Haiti. Only in Portuguese Brazil was independence achieved without a fight, largely because Brazil was several times richer and more populous than Portugal.

During the twentieth century, protracted wars for independence were fought in Indochina, Indonesia, Algeria, and Angola. But these were the exceptions to the rule. Most colonies became independent with little or no organized violence between the imperial state and colonial nationalists. In much of Africa, imperial powers virtually abandoned colonies at the first sign of popular opposition to the colonial regime. By the mid-1960s, decolonization had become a rather routine activity for many imperial powers, often achieved through institutionalized expressions of popular will such as plebiscites.

Causes of Decolonization. A variety of arguments have been developed about factors contributing to decolonization. While most treatments have dealt with a single dependency or empire, there have been a number of efforts to develop explicitly comparative analyses (see Albertini 1982; Anderson 1983; Bergesen and Schoenberg 1980; Boswell 1989; Emerson 1960; Grimal 1978; Lang 1975; Smith 1978; Strang 1990).

Decolonization is often seen as the result of structural change in the dependency itself. Settler colonies are thought to undergo a natural process of maturation, well expressed in the physiocratic maxim that colonies are like fruit that fall from the tree when they are ripe. Indigenous populations are also importantly affected by contact with Western economic and political structures.

In both kinds of colonies, the specific condition that seems to precipitate decolonization is the emergence of peripheral nationalism. Settler colonies generally began as economic corporations chartered by European states. Non-Western peoples were generally tribal or segmental societies prior to colonization, and imperial structures were fundamentally dependent on the collaboration of indigenous elites (Robinson 1972). Decolonization required a new vision of the colonial dependency as a national society (Anderson 1983; Diamond 1958).

Colonial powers contributed unintentionally to the formulation of a national vision. They did so partly by spurring the rise of new social groups—indigenous bourgeois, landless workers, civil servants, teachers—who proved to be the carriers of colonial nationalism and independence. Contact with the colonial power exposed these groups to the notions and institutions of the Western nation-state while simultaneously denying them participation rights. Settlers, of course, carried notions of these rights with them (see Bailyn 1967 and Greene 1986 on the ideological origins of the American Revolution). Under these conditions, nationalism was a weapon easily turned on its creators (Emerson 1960; Strang 1992).

While pressures for decolonization invariably stemmed from the dependency itself, the response of the metropolitan power played a crucial role in the outcome. The classic contrast in imperial policy is between British "association" and French "assimilation" (though parallel contrasts between the imperial policies of the United States and Portugal are even more striking). The British empire was administratively structured around indirect rule and local autonomy, which permitted considerable flexibility in the imperial reaction to pressures for decolonization. By contrast, the French aimed at the assimilation of their colonies into a unitary republic, which led to firmer resistance to decolonization.

Some decolonization occurred because the balance of military capacity shifted against metropolitan states. This was crucial to the decolonization of the Americas, as increasingly vigorous creole societies could not be controlled from across the Atlantic. After World War II, metropolitan weakness was a contributing factor as European colonial states found themselves reduced to the position of second-rate powers. At critical junctures after 1945, metropolitan governments were unable to project sufficient military power abroad to control events: the British in Suez, the French in Indochina and Algeria, the Dutch in Indonesia.

Finally, several systemic factors or processes may be linked to decolonization. One is the presence of a state that is economically and politically dominant on the world stage. It has been argued that "hegemonic" states seek to construct a global free-market system that provides them access to markets more cheaply than does formal control (Bergesen and Schoenberg 1980; Boswell 1989; Krasner 1976). This argument has much in common with Gallagher and Robinson's (1953) notion of an "imperialism of free trade" that metropolitan states preferred to the overhead costs of empire. Both Britain and the United States supported the collapse of rival empires and avoided empire building themselves during the periods of their global hegemony.

A second systemic factor is the contagiousness of decolonization. The American Revolution served as a model for insurrection in both Haiti and Latin America. After World War II, the independence of India, Indochina, and Indonesia had a substantial impact on colonized peoples everywhere. The contagiousness of independence is most apparent in the rapidity with which decolonization swept across Africa, where thirty-three colonies became independent between 1957 and 1966.

Finally, global political understandings and discourse play a critical role in decolonization (Strang 1990). After 1945, the two superpowers were ideologically opposed to colonialism, though each accused the other of imperialism. Even the major imperial powers (Great Britain, France, the Netherlands) found it difficult to reconcile colonial possessions with the political ideas and institutions of the evolving national polity. As a result, the rationale for colonialism crumbled under pressure, with imperialism being formally denounced by the United Nations in 1960.

The social construction of a society or administrative unit as a "colonial dependency" is thus crucially important to mobilization around national independence, particularly given contemporary political understandings. A sharp distinction is generally drawn between the overseas empires of European states and "internal colonies" such as Wales, Armenia, or Eritrea. While the empirical basis for such a distinction is sometimes shaky, it is real in its consequences. Identification as a colonial dependency greatly increases the chances of mobilizing internal and external support for indigenous nationalism; it also vastly reduces the compulsion that the metropolitan state can legitimately bring to bear.

Consequences of Decolonization. The implications of decolonization for more general notions of international domination or exploitation are strongly contested. Dependency and world systems theorists view decolonization as producing change in the mere form, but not the content, of core–periphery relations (Chase-Dunn and Rubinson 1979). The argument is that contact between more and less developed economies tends generally to reinforce the differential between them, even in the absence of explicit political controls. Dependence on foreign capital has been argued to slow long-term economic growth (Bornschier et al. 1978) and more generally to shape the political and economic structure of the dependent society (Amin 1973; Cardoso and Faletto 1979).

Despite these concerns, it is clear that decolonization involves a fundamental shift in the structures regulating international exchange, especially in the post–World War II era. Contemporary states are armed with widely accepted rights to control economic activity within their boundaries, including rights to nationalize foreign-owned industries and renegotiate contracts with multinational corporations (Krasner 1978; Lipson 1985). Third World nations mobilize around these rights (Krasner 1985), and the negative impact of economic dependency seems to decrease when the peripheral state is strong (Delacroix and Ragin 1981).

While notions of dependency and neocolonialism are the subject of vigorous debate, a straightforward consequence of decolonization is the worldwide expansion of an originally European state society. Most of the present members of the United Nations became sovereign through decolonization (McNeely 1995). And historically, the political units emerging from decolonization have been strikingly stable. Few ex-dependencies have been recolonized or annexed or have merged or dissolved (Jackson and Rosberg 1982; Strang 1991b). Against much expectation, decolonization has produced states that figure as core players in the contemporary international economic and political order.


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Imperialism, Colonialism, and Decolonization

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