Imperialism Essay

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Imperialism corresponds closely to the concept of empire and signifies all sorts of expansion policies: economic, political, military, cultural, and so on. In The Civil War in France, Karl Marx introduced the concept of imperialism into modern social and political thought. With his classical work Imperialism: A Study, John A. Hobson initiated modern theory on imperialism. Because of the close connection between the concept of imperialism and the concept of empire, many scholars assumed a description of human history in terms of imperialism. Hobson’s theory of imperialism, on the contrary, is a historical theory of imperialism, describing it as a stage in the development of capitalism. His theory refers to a monopolist stage in the accumulation of capital that he places no later than the 1880s. He differentiates categorically between colonialism and imperialism.

In the colonialist age the driving economic force was the export and import of commodities. In the age of new imperialism, the driving force is exportation of capital, with the pursuit of an imperialist policy in the interest of a small population segment. That is, in the age of imperialism, an increase in the cosmopolitanism of capital occurs, and this should be not mixed up with internationalism. From a national viewpoint, imperialist policy is necessarily irrational. In colonial occupation of foreign countries, the mother country at least attempted to establish a colonial government and extend political and civil liberties to the occupied territories and to raise the state of civilization. Except for a few experiments in India, for example, the tendency of new imperialism goes the other way, seeking more drastic control of annexed territories and destruction of the achieved state of civilization. Politically, new imperialism is an expansion of autocracy. In terms of international relations, imperialism means a permanent rivalry between imperialist countries for the redistribution of natural resources, often a cause of new wars.

V. I. Lenin’s contribution to Hobson’s theory of imperialism is his illustration of its consistency in the tradition of Marx’s critique of political economy. Lenin acknowledged, for example, Hobson’s accuracy and deep economic/political analysis of imperialism. What Lenin criticized was what he called Hobson’s bourgeois reformism and passivism.

Contemporarily, two closely related debates on imperialism attract interest: one on cultural imperialism and another concerning empire and new imperialism theories. In the first debate the rhetoric is between a critical liberal view of the logic of cultural imperialism and its stigmatization of other cultures, or a Marxist critique of any theory of cultural imperialism. The second debate concerns the nature of imperialism in the stage of globalization, where advocates propose to replace the classical concept of imperialism for a less definable concept of empire. Marxist scholars, in contrast, want to keep the classical concept simply by acknowledging new developments.


  1. Ahmed, Aijaz. 1994. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literature. London: Verso.
  2. Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Hobson, John A. 1961. Imperialism: A Study. London: Allen & Unwin.
  4. Lenin, V. I. [1916] 1996. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Melbourne, Australia: Pluto Press.
  5. Meszaros, Istvan. 2001. Socialism or Barbarism. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  6. Said, Edward W. 1994. Culture & Imperialism. New York: Vintage.

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