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A cartoon portraying the British Empire as an octopus, reaching into foreign lands
A cartoon portraying the British Empire as an octopus, reaching into foreign lands
A cartoon showing the U.S. growing up and growing girth. Illustration from "The Forbidden Book" by T'boli Publishing, San Francisco.
A cartoon showing the U.S. growing up and growing girth. Illustration from "The Forbidden Book" by T'boli Publishing, San Francisco.
A cartoon illustrating the U.S. and British empires.
A cartoon illustrating the U.S. and British empires.

Imperialism is a policy of extending control or authority over foreign entities as a means of acquisition and/or maintenance of empires, either through direct territorial conquest or through indirect methods of exerting control on the politics and/or economy of other countries. The term is often used 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.

Imperialism draws heavy criticism on the grounds that it is a form of economic exploitation in which the imperialist power makes use of other countries as sources of raw materials and cheap labor, shaping their economies to suit its own interests and keeping their people in poverty. When imperialism is accompanied by overt military conquest, it is also seen as a violation of freedom and human rights.

In recent years, there has also 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. Some dispute this extension, however, on the grounds that it is highly subjective (to differentiate between mutual interaction and undue influence) and also applied selectively (hamburgers being imperialist and black tea not). The debate continues.



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. The Latin root is imperium (command or supreme power).

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, it was soon also used in retrospect to describe the policies of the Roman Empire. The adjectival form "imperialist" dates back to the 17th century, but until the late 19th century it meant an adherent of an emperor or of an imperial form of government. The adjective "imperial" was used in English from the 14th century.

In the 20th century, the term has often been used to refer to the actions of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan during the 1930s and World War II. Later, during the Cold War, it was also used in reference to the policies of both the United States and the Soviet Union, 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.

Marxist theory of Imperialism

Karl Marx never published a theory of imperialism, although he referred to colonialism in Das Kapital as an aspect of the prehistory of the capitalist mode of production. In various articles he also analysed British colonial rule in Ireland and India.

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 nations and corporations to compete amongst themselves increasingly for control over resources and markets all over the world. Such control may take the form of geopolitical machinations, military adventures, or financial maneuvers. This usage of the term "imperialism" is in some ways inaccurate, since imperialism is historically implicated in the very origins of capitalism - although historians differ in their assessment of its economic importance.

The essential feature of the Marxist theories of imperialism, or related theories such as dependency theory, is their focus on the economic relation between countries, rather than the formal political relationship. Imperialism thus consists not necessarily in the direct control of one country by another, but in the economic exploitation of one region by another, or of a group by 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 popular view is a conflation of imperialism with colonialism, the establishment of overseas colonies.

As noted above, the Marxist theory of imperialism is not founded on the works of Karl Marx, but on those of Vladimir Lenin. Nevertheless, the theory is accepted today by the majority of Marxists, even those who are not Leninists. It states that imperialism allows the capitalists from developed (rich) countries to extract a superprofit from the working class of undeveloped (poor) countries. The majority of this superprofit is kept by the capitalists themselves, but some of it is shared with the working class of the developed countries (in the form of higher standards of living, cheaper consumer goods, etc.), in order to placate that working class and avoid revolution at home.

The Soviet Union, which claimed to follow Leninism, proclaimed itself the foremost enemy of imperialism and supported many independence movements throughout the Third World. However, at the same time, it asserted its dominance over the countries of Eastern Europe. This has led many to accuse the Soviet Union of hypocrisy, and it is often used as an argument for the idea that the Soviet Union did not, in fact, follow Leninist principles.

New developments in the Marxist study of imperialism stem from the ground-breaking study The Age of Imperialism, written by Harry Magdoff in 1969. Globalization is generally viewed as the latest incarnation of imperialism among Marxists.

Modern imperialism

There is a contemporary debate surrounding the United States and whether or not the power it exerts upon much of the world and its policy amounts to imperialism — hence sometimes the U.S. is referred to as the "American Empire."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States is now the dominant power in the world. That argument seems difficult to refute, as the U.S. has many times over the past century used both military intervention and economic or political influence to shape the countries within its domain in the Western Hemisphere. Though opinions vary greatly between hawkish and dovish political powers in the U.S., the more hawkish may regard imperialist-style expansionism as simply part of the nation's "responsibility," "interest" or "Manifest Destiny."

The term is naturally controversial — the term "empire" is largely limited to descriptions of history (rather than contemporary events) and likewise the historical examples of empire tend to be more familiar and evocative of the concept. As such, modern examples of coercion and militarism may be viewed differently.

The United States has also only had very few years of status as "sole superpower," without the Soviet Union to be its dominant political, military, and ideological foe. The Cold War battle for geopolitical supremacy tends to be cast in terms of 'freedom versus repression,' thereby diminishing the imperial aspects of both powers. Further, as "imperialism" tends to have negative connotations of tyranny and repression, such a claimed empire's "subjects" may be naturally disinclined to use it in any reference to themselves.

In the early 21st Century, the U.S. has turned its military, political, and economic ambitions towards oil-rich countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. Beginning with the end of World War II, the U.S. largely took over from the UK certain roles by which it controlled the Middle East. Through United States-instigated and assisted assasinations and coups, several Middle Eastern nations have felt the strong influence of Western societies: Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel have been directly or otherwise substantially influenced by U.S. policy. (This does not include prior or continuing British Empire holdings of the time — notably in India and Pakistan.)

As there are few other countries with such a capability, it has been said by some that U.S. military actions are partly or mostly acts of militarist imperialism. Others simply believe that such allegations are used as groundless criticism against the U.S. whenever it takes a military action. Two uncontroversial facts are that the U.S. currently has a much larger and more sophisticated military than any other country — operating over 100 bases in every part of the world. The U.S. has also used its military to control its interests. It is debatable whether these things alone constitute imperialism, or whether such "imperialism" adequately resembles past incarnations — Roman, British, German or otherwise.

Name dualism

One thing to note in some allegedly imperialistic countries is the "melting" between the name -- and in many times, the sense of national identity -- of the titular nation and the other territories controlled by this nation including the titular nation itself. Some examples are:

See also


  • Anthony Brewer, Marxist Theories of Imperialism.
  • Harry Magdoff, Imperialism without colonies.

External links

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