The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Imperialism is a policy of extending the control or authority over foreign entities as a means of acquisition and/or maintenance of empires, either through direct territorial or through indirect methods of exerting control on the politics and/or economy of other countries. The term is used by some to describe the policy of a country in maintaining colonies and dominance over distant lands, regardless of whether the country calls itself an empire.

Insofar as 'imperialism' might be used to refer to an intellectual position, it would imply the belief that the acquisition and maintenance of empires is a positive good, probably combined with an assumption of cultural or other such superiority inherent to imperial power. See The White Man's Burden.

In recent years, there has been a trend to criticise imperialism not at an economic or political level, but at a simply cultural level, particularly the widespread global influence of American culture - see cultural imperialism.


Marxist Theory of Imperialism

Marxists use the term imperialism as Lenin defined it: "the highest stage of capitalism", specifically the era in which monopoly finance capital becomes dominant, forcing the empires to compete amongst themselves increasingly for control over resources and markets all over the world. This control may take the form of geopolitical machinations, military adventures, or financial maneuvers.

Contemporary Critique is found from literature by Immanuel Wallerstein, Samuel Hopkins, Johan Galtung, Robert Cox , Noam Chomsky and others. Globalisation and the practices of the World Bank, for example, frequently are said to serve imperialist interests.

The essential feature of the Marxist theories of imperialism, or related theories such as dependency theory, is their exclusive focus on the economic relation between countries, rather than the explicit political relationship. Imperialism thus consists not in the direct control of one country by another, but in the economic exploitation of one region by another, or by a group from another. This Marxist usage contrasts with many people's understanding of the connotation of the word 'imperialism', which they think of as relating to the era when countries directly controlled vast empires, rather than the economic domination that some parts of the world have over others today - this is a conflation of imperialism with colonialism, the establishment of overseas colonies.

Although Marxists generally consider imperialist powers to be the richest capitalist countries of the First World, some Marxists (primarily Maoists) and others believe that the Soviet Union eventually became social-imperialist—socialist in words but imperialist in deeds— using its power and influence to dominate the East Bloc and various other countries. China, India, and other large countries with regional influence are sometimes charged with imperialism as well.

It is worth noting that Marx himself did not propound a theory of imperialism, and in contrast with later Marxist thinkers generally saw the colonialism of European powers as being essentially about extending capitalism worldwide, rather than seeing it as the pillage of those countries in favour of the European centre countries.

Criticism and liberal opposition to imperialism

Capitalism is often associated to private ownership, economic freedom, low taxes and low regulation—to people being able to make the decisions on their own property without being dictated by to something else by the rulers. In, e.g., British colonialism and imperialism, the rulers often dictated, what crops to plant, to whom to sell them, what industries were allowed etc. According to professor Daniel Klein, also the taxes were oppressive. In that sense, colonialism and imperialism were close to socialism or planning economy and almost the opposite of capitalism or market economy.

Classical liberals—Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, Richard Cobden and others—strongly opposed colonialism, imperialism and empires, but capitalism is often associated to them. Critics say that Lenin just wanted to lure some opponents of imperialism to his fight against capitalism and that the capitalism he speaks of refers sometimes to capitalism or market economy, sometimes to conservative imperialism, and therefore one should always use either of the latter terms to avoid ambiguities.


The term imperialism was a new word in the mid-19th century. According to the OED, it dates back to 1858, to describe Pax Britannica. However its intellectual roots can certainly be traced as far back as Dante, who in his Monarchia depicted a world with a single political focus and governed by rationalism. Dante was very influential on John Dee, who coined the term British Empire in the late 16th century. Dee was instrumental in creating the intellectual and scientific environment whereby English seafarers such as Humphrey Gilbert, Martin Frobisher and Walter Raleigh could set the groundwork for a maritime empire.

According to the OED, in 19th century England, imperialism, was generally used only to describe English policies. However, soon after the invention of the term, imperÍalism was used in retrospect about the policies of the Roman Empire.

In the 20th century, the term has been used to describe the policies of both the Soviet Union and the United States, although these differed greatly from each other and from 19th-century imperialism. Furthermore, the term has been expanded to apply, in general, to any historical instance of the aggrandizement of a greater power at the expense of a lesser power.

Since the end of World War II and particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, accusations of imperialism have almost exclusively been levelled at the sole-remaining superpower, the United States - see list of US actions since 1945 that have been considered imperialistic.

See also


  • Marxist Theories of Imperialism, Anthony Brewer.

External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:55:48
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