From New World Encyclopedia

Empires in 1938. Possessions include "mandated" territories. Such empires as Britain's and France's were at their largest at this time.

Imperialism is the forceful extension of a nation's authority by territorial conquest or by establishing economic and political domination of other nations that are not its colonies. In various forms, imperialism may be as old as humanity. In the prehistorical world (before written history began), clan groups extended their territory and dominated others, competing against them for food and resources. Negatively, many cultures have suffered due to imperial domination since the dominant have often regarded themselves as superior and have neglected, or even deliberately destroyed, indigenous cultures.

Yet, an interesting aspect of imperialism is that empires, both ancient and modern, have also tended to regard themselves as spreading order, morality, the true religion and civilization, and have even claimed to occupy the high moral ground. Imperial projects ranging from that of Alexander the Great, through the Roman Empire, to the British and Napoleonic empires saw themselves as instruments for good in the world, even though their expansion was usually violent. Imperialism is often linked with totalitarian enterprises, since the colonized rarely had much say in their governance. However, democracies have also engaged in imperial acts. The United States regards the defense of democracy and of freedom as fundamental to its identity and mission in the world, yet it has also engaged in imperial pursuits. As a matter of fact, Empires have established peace and stability for vast numbers of people. The world has been shaped and molded by the creation and break-up of Empires, forming linguistic and cultural alliances that have survived the negative aspects of cultural and political domination. That the world community can speak about shared values and of universal human rights to a large degree follows from the fact that huge portions of the planet formerly lived under imperial rule. Humanity may be evolving to a stage when exploitation of others and promotion of self-interest over—and against—that of others will yield to a new way of being human, in which humanity seeks to promote the well-being of the whole, and to restore its broken relationship with the one planet on which all people live.


Imperialism is the domination of one people by another. Imperialism is found in the ancient histories of China, India, the Middle East, Egypt, Africa, and American Indian societies. West Europe was shaped by the Roman Empire, from which many of its laws and customs are derived. Small imperial projects vied for power throughout the Middle Ages within the European space but it was with the discovery of the New World and territorial conquest overseas that Spain and Portugal, followed by the British, the French, the Dutch, and others, that European powers began to encircle the globe. Although the practice dates thousands of years, the nineteenth century is the "Age of Imperialism" and refers to Europeans colonizing other countries. The term "Imperialism" was coined in the sixteenth century, reflecting the imperial policies of Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, and the Netherlands into Africa and the Americas.

What was called the Scramble for Africa saw the European powers literally divide a whole continent up among themselves, with no regard for the rights of its indigenous peoples. The Europeans were convinced that they were racially superior to the Africans and that their colonization of Africa would ultimately benefit Africans, who would be educated and “civilized.” Religious motive also featured since, for many involved in the imperial project, the task of spreading Christianity as the only true religion was part and parcel of the process. Earlier, the Pope had divided the world into two on behalf of Spain and Portugal on the condition that missionaries accompany the conquerors. Religiously inspired imperialism also characterized the expansion of Muslim power throughout the world, which classical convention divided into the House of Islam, where true faith was practiced, and the House of Rebellion, where people lived in a state of unbelief.

Imperialism without conquest

Currently, "imperialism" applies to any instance of a greater power acting or being perceived to act at the expense of a lesser power. Including "perception" in the definition makes it circular, solipsistic, and subjective. Imperialism not only describes colonial, territorial policies, but also describes economic dominance and influence. This is also referred to as neo-colonialism. Neo-colonialism, too, may involve non-state actors. Huge multi or trans-national corporations, whose resources are many times larger than those of other nations, and even of several nations themselves, act in their own interests across the globe. In the nineteenth century, the European powers—especially Britain and France—sometimes pursued an imperial policy that imposed trade-treaties and carved out commercial concessions in, for example, China, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire, without actually assuming full political authority and without asserting or acquiring territorial domination.

The United States pursued a similar policy, although it did acquire some territories as well. Economic motivations mingled within the American imperial project with the ideals expressed in the concept of Manifest Destiny, that is, of spreading freedom and democracy around the world as it had across North America. The United States role in post-World War II Japan may be cited as an example of this role. The concept of an American Empire was first spoken of following the Spanish-American War of 1898. In addition to the acquisition of certain overseas possessions, the phenomenon of military posts overseas has been associated with American imperialism. Post-World War I, the League of Nations created mandates, that is, territories that had belonged to the defeated powers but which were deemed unready for self-government and were entrusted to the victors, whose task it was to construct nation states that would eventually become independent. The way that the richer nations of the world dominate the global economic system, including international financial institutions such as the World Bank, is regarded as a form of neo-colonialism. The level of financial indebtedness of many developing nations to the West undermines their autonomy and perpetuates Western control. Inability to meet payments fuels the Western attitude that “these people cannot manage their own economies” (especially is they do have abundant resources) and that they were better off when ruled by others. Yet, the West is largely unwilling to recognize that the impoverishment of parts of the developing world and its continued reliance on aid is a direct result of past imperial exploitation. Chaotic governance, too, is rarely recognized as the result of the failure of the former imperial powers to nurture mature indigenous leadership. Often, the imperial powers imprisoned the leaders of independence movements and did nothing to nurture them as genuine democratic politicians.

This painting (circa 1872) by John Gast called American Progress is an allegorical representation of Manifest Destiny. In the scene, an angelic woman (sometimes identified as Columbia, a nineteenth century personification of the United States) carries the light of "civilization" westward with American settlers, stringing telegraph wire as she travels. American Indians, buffaloes and wild animals are driven into the darkness before them. From the days of Alexander the Great through to the more recent imperial projects such as that of the British and Americans, imperialism has been depicted as bringing order and stability to chaotic, unstable lands and peoples.

Lenin's theory of Imperialism

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

Although Karl Marx did not publish a theory of imperialism, he identified colonialism (cf. Das Kapital) as an aspect of the prehistory of the capitalist mode of production. He analyzed British colonial rule in Ireland and India; it was good for India, being the progressive influence that shook it out from centuries-long stagnation and lethargy, thus ending some of the most brutal cultural practices in world history. Lenin's definition: "The highest stage of capitalism" addressed the time when monopoly finance capital was dominant, forcing nations and private corporations to compete to control the world's natural resources and markets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claiming to be Leninist, the U.S.S.R. proclaimed itself foremost an enemy of imperialism, supporting armed, national independence movements in the Third World while simultaneously dominating Eastern Europe. Marxists and Maoists to the left of Trotsky, such as Tony Cliff, claim the Soviet Union was imperialist. Maoists claim it occurred after Khrushchev's ascension in 1956; Cliff says it occurred under Stalin in the 1940s. Harry Magdoff's Age of Imperialism (1954) discusses Marxism and imperialism. Currently, Marxists view globalization as imperialism's latest incarnation.


Negative legacy

Imperial powers have often regarded themselves as superior to others, especially to those people who live in conquered territory. The Greeks, the Romans, the nineteenth century European powers, the German and Japanese imperial projects, all saw themselves as culturally, if not as racially, superior. (It can be argued that Japan's imperial project was copied from the Western powers that tried to interfere in her own affairs and from Germany. From the latter, it borrowed the notion of that a great nation and civilization had the right to a breathing space. Like China, Japan had historically focused on internal unity. On the other hand, imperialism cannot be reduced to a Western phenomena copied by others. There were huge empires in Africa, the Americas, and the largest contiguous land empire in history was that of the Mongols. Imperialism appears to have been universally practiced, even though some nations have never had empires. Even smaller European countries, such as Denmark and Lithuania and the various Balkan states have had imperial episodes.)

Often, the “enemy” or the “vanquished” were depicted as inferior. What people know about, for example, the Persians has often been filtered through Greek eyes, which saw them as barbarians. In the European context, the idea of the East as less moral, more chaotic than the West dates from ancient Greek attitudes. This bifurcation of the world into an ordered, moral, civilized West and a chaotic, immoral East (even if the value of non-Western civilization has often been appreciated) has had a huge impact in politics, in the academy and on the popular mind. It feeds the notion of some sort of inevitable clash between the Muslim and Western worlds, with the former aided (according to one commentator, Samuel P Huntington) by "neo-Confucian states."[4] Huntington argues that the clash of ideology that had resulted in the Cold War would in the future be replaced by clashes based on differences between civilizations.

Cecil Rhodes: Cape-Cairo railway project. Founded the De Beers Mining Company and owned the British South Africa Company, which established Rhodesia for itself. He wanted to "paint the map British red," and declared: "all of these stars … these vast worlds that remain out of reach. If I could, I would annex other planets."[5]

Edward Said has explored how the imperial project resulted in a polarized view of the world in his Culture and Imperialism (1993) and other writings. This depiction of the East and of Africa as lacking order served as a moral justification for imperial projects. The non-Western world was territory that could be mapped, explored, exploited, evangelized, studied, conquered and governed, all for its own benefit! Careers, as well as wealth, could be made there. The European scholars and politicians and colonial administrators claimed to “know” the people they studied or ruled better than they knew themselves. Said argues that this produced a picture of the racial, religious, and cultural "Other" that rarely corresponded closely to the reality and that served the economic, political, and even academic interests of Europe. A sense of personal destiny sometimes motivated the imperial enterprise. Cecil Rhodes thought that the British Empire was willed by God. Alexander the Great and Napoleon appear to have believed in their own destiny to conquer the world. The European powers saw themselves as effortlessly superior, morally, to the Ottoman Empire, of which they were also very jealous; yet, a comparison of the realities of the Ottoman empire with European empires might suggest that this claim of moral superiority stood on very thin ground.

Napoleon in His Study by Jacques-Louis David (1812). Napoleon wanted to unify the Italian and German states and his empire with a common legal code but he also acquired his empire out of a deep sense of personal destiny, similar to that which motivated Alexander the Great.

On the one hand, the technological and cultural achievements of those conquered might be praised but their morality or religion might be condemned. Either way, the logic was that the imperial power had some sort of moral or religious right to acquire other peoples’ land. Obviously, even when some sort of so-called civilizing mission was embarked upon it was rarely, if ever, the case that the dominant power did not benefit from its imperial enterprise. In the case of Africa, European powers benefited enormously, using Africa to fuel the Industrial Revolution, but failing to build up vibrant economies, or viable and enduring infrastructures within their colonies.[6] Colonial economies were constructed to serve the interests of the imperial powers, not to meet domestic needs. On the one hand, educational institutions were established and infrastructure such as roads and railways were constructed and these have been of some benefit to post-independent states. On the other hand, participation in governance was limited and the experience of rule by a colonial power, in its own interest, easily translated into rule by a “president for life,” in his own interest. Reconstruction of what African societies were like at the time of European colonial expansion shows that in many respects they were as technologically advanced as Europe but that Europeans had more deadly weapons. African societies were also often governed with greater participation and wider consultation than European states at the time.

Notions such as Christopher Columbus "discovering" the Americas, that the only civilization produced by Africans was Ancient Egypt (which many non-Africans think was not really African, anyway) or of Australia as not really "belonging" to anybody until the British claimed, have become deeply embedded in Western thought. Even the naming of the indigenous peoples of the "Americas" (which is a European name) is problematic—a term such as Native American imposes a European name, while the commonly used "Indian" arises from the original misconception that Europeans had reached India or islands in that vicinity, which they later termed the East Indies, having coined the term "West Indies" for the islands of the Caribbean. However named, indigenous peoples in many parts of the world where new nations arose as a result of imperialism are still invisible to the majority, or are simply despised. Their rights are often violated.

Positive legacy

On the other hand, such imperial projects as those of the Spanish, French, and British have spread language, and shared ideals, around much of the globe. Despite all the negative experiences of colonialism, communication and transportation infrastructures built during colonial times have brought more and more people into contact with each other. More and more people understand themselves as citizens of the world and realize that such challenges as the ecological crises, eradicating poverty, combating disease can only be met by global cooperation among the nations. Talk of universal human rights and the insight of many that shared values permeate the cultures and faiths of the world, despite their diversity and variety and some differences too, would be inconceivable but for the imperial enterprises that once crossed the globe.

Cultural traffic, despite the racist attitudes of many involved in the imperial project, too, was never one way. Many people in the West see deep and profound value in aspects of Chinese, Indian, indigenous peoples’ (traditional) religion, in Sufi Islam. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam have attracted many Western converts. New Age and New Religious Movements and other phenomena often fuse ideas from East and West. The non-Western world has also absorbed much from the West, keeping what it wants, adapting and adjusting technologies and ideas to suit local requirements, or to conform to local values. Imperial projects can be seen as essential to the process of creating a global consciousness of an inter-dependent world community in which the welfare of all people and the health of the planet itself is the responsibility of all. Humanity may be evolving to a stage when exploitation of others and promotion of self-interest over-and-against that of others will yield to a new way of being human in which humanity seeks to promote the well-being of the whole, and to restore its broken relationship with the one planet on which all people live, our common planetary home. on the one hand, talk of a "clash of civilizations" raises alarm bells but on the other this has been countered by the United Nations dialogue among civilizations, which includes exploration of the role that religions can play in promoting inter-civilizational harmony.


  1. V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Retrieved October 6, 2007.
  2. Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital. Retrieved October 6, 2007.
  3. V.I. Lenin, Lenin, Imperialism as a Special Stage of Capitalism. Retrieved October 6, 2007.
  4. S.P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilization," Foreign Affairs 72:3, 27-30
  5. S. Gertrude Millin, Rhodes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1933).
  6. Walter Rodney, How Africa was Underdeveloped By Europe.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bickers, Robert and Christian Henriot, eds. New Frontiers: Imperialism's New Communities in East Asia, 1842-1953. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-7190-5604-7
  • Hardt, Michael and Toni Negri. Empire. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-674-00671-2
  • Karsh, Efraim. Islamic Imperialism: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 9780300106039
  • Lichtheim, George. Imperialism. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974. ISBN 9780140217599
  • Maier, Charles S. Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. ISBN 9780674021891
  • Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knoft, 1993. ISBN 9780394587387
  • West, Cornel. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004. ISBN 9781594200298

External links

All links retrieved February 27, 2018.


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