Imperialism


Imperialism
   A word of polemical power, analytical imprecision, and historically variant meaning, the term imperialism is used in this volume to describe the period of rapid European expansion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Imperialism is thus not merely a policy but also a tendency, a period, and even a civilization. The shifting meanings and connotations of the term have themselves been influenced by, and been influential on, the history of imperialism. The word imperialism is a noun derived from the word imperial , itself the adjectival cognate of empire . Imperialism might, and often does, denote the policy or the belief in the desirability of the policy of conquering territories and constructing empires. Indeed, the terms empire and imperial are both derived from the Latin imperator, and that term was for the Romans purely military in significance and was adopted by the Emperor Augustus precisely because its meaning was limited. To insist, however, on the directly etymological use of imperialism to denote military conquest alone would neglect the fact that over a century of invective has indelibly tainted the term with various competing meanings. A purely nominalist understanding of language might assert the possibility of defining any sign in any way; with political language this is obviously not possible, because however one may insist on some precise and limited meaning, the affective and polemical residues of other, earlier meanings and associations linger. Imperialism has become a particularly encrusted term.
   Before the late 1870s, the term referred in English specifically to the politics of Napoleonic France, or alternatively to despotic government in general. Imperialism first entered the English language in something like its present sense in the late 1870s, when it was used to describe the ostentatious and allegedly aggressive imperial policies of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. It became a synonym for Beaconsfieldism - a reference to Disraeli’s title from 1876, the Earl of Beaconsfield - which the Earl of Derby described as a policy of “occupy, fortify, grab and brag.” The term thus named a policy of aggressive expansion, but also had clear connotations of the celebration of empire for partisan purposes. Jingoism, from a bellicose music hall song that boasted “we don’t want to fight, but, by Jingo, if we do/we got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too” - was a contemporary term for the bombastic and vainglorious spirit which critics associated with imperialism. The Liberal leader and four-time Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone in particular attacked the “theatrical displays and tricks” of Beaconsfield’s foreign and imperial policies as much as their aggressive character. The term imperialism thus denoted a policy orientation, but also had connotations of vainglory and specious or unsound partisanship. The historian of empire Sir John Seeley used the term in this sense when he referred in 1883 to Cromwell’s West Indian expedition as an attempt to establish an empire “prematurely and on the unsound basis of imperialism.” The term was shortly taken over by advocates of imperialism, be they those who wanted to expand the empire or merely to consolidate and strengthen it. In the 1890s, theorists of imperialism began to find social Darwinist and philanthropic reasons for the programmatic expansion of European, British or Anglo-Saxon empires. The acquisition by the United States of overseas colonies as a consequence of the Spanish American War of 1898 provoked a particular flood of advocacy, including most famously Rudyard Kipling ’s poetic injunction to “take up the white man’s burden . . . to seek another’s profit, to work another’s gain.” The idea that imperialism was good for humanity rather than merely for a particular nation was a relative innovation, as was the air of moral sanctimony that surrounded imperialism in many minds. But that air of morality ensured that imperialism as a policy commanded wide support in this period, as was indicated by the fact that mainstream Liberal leaders such as H. H. Asquith and the Earl of Rosebery - both prime ministers at different points and leaders of the so-called Liberal Imperialists - felt it necessary to distance themselves from their anti-imperialist “little Englander” cohorts. The positive moral valence of imperialism was not uncontested. Many of those “little Englanders” argued that it was little more than theft on a grand scale, and the revival in the 1880s of the institution of the Chartered Company - a private company given sovereign or legal powers over a territory - increased suspicion of the philanthropic claims made for imperialism. The most (in)famous such company, Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, known for its stock-exchange manipulations and its African wars, fed the charges of those like J. A. Hobson who denounced, “the moneylending classes dressed as Imperialists and patriots.” Hobson made that charge in the context of the South African War of 1899-1902, which saw the deployment of a quarter of a million British troops against two small agricultural republics, and which, after some initial victories, degenerated into an ugly and expensive counterinsurgent campaign. This took the shine off the policy of imperialism, and by the 1905 edition of his Imperialism: A Study, Hobson - the canonical radical theorist of economic imperialism - was speaking of imperialism in the past tense. The British Empire of course still existed, covering its famous quarter of the globe, but the policy and the period of programmatic and bombastically celebrated expansion initially designated by the term was thought, not inaccurately, to be over. Simultaneously, by insisting on the economic dynamics of capital export that he argued motivated imperialism, Hobson and his followers gave the term a specifically economic significance: imperialism came to connote not merely conquest but conquest in the interests of finance capital, or in more vulgar accounts, in those of the propertied classes.
   V. I. Lenin redefined imperialism as the “highest stage of capitalism.” Borrowing many of his figures and much of his argument from the liberal Hobson, Lenin argued that the final stage of capitalism was so inherently expansionist that it could be renamed “imperialism.” The argument had been widely anticipated by other Marxists such as the American H. G. Wilshire, the Austrian Rudolph Hilferding and - Lenin’s particular bête noir - the German Karl Kautsky. But Lenin had done something important to the meaning of the term: he applied it not to a policy but to a stage of history, and of course for a Marxist, a stage of history is a part of an inevitable process largely immune to individual agency. Imperialism definitely retained, in Leninist hands, its pejorative connotations, but it simultaneously acquired a systemic or structural denotation and came to be used as the name for a period of history and a stage of the historical process rather than for a given policy. Lenin’s polemical redefinition of the term has been both influential and confusing: those who accept Leninist theory and those who merely assimilate its ways of speaking can now show with the air of deductive rigor that Marxists once liked that any capitalist power, no matter what its foreign policy, is by definition imperialist. Simultaneously Leninist powers cannot, again as a matter of dogmatic necessity, be imperialist, even if they are expansionist by policy. They are instead described by terms such as hegemonist , a dogmatic nicety that was scrupulously observed even when Communist China and Communist Russia were at nuclear daggers drawn.
   If, by insisting that imperialism and the highest or last stage of capitalism were synonymous, Lenin made specific speech difficult, he also made an ideological move of great eristic power: he associated the increasingly discredited practice of colonial conquest with the Marxists’ class enemies and the associated Western democratic powers, and did so in a way that made it difficult to speak of the two separately. Polemical power can flow from analytical conflation. After Lenin, and influenced by the immense quantity of invective produced by Marxist parties and their camp followers, imperialism and its cognates became almost entirely pejorative terms and were often used as insults without much positive content.
   Scholars of imperialism still use the term, however, and it is of course possible to speak intelligibly of Roman, Ottoman, or eighteenth-century imperialism, using the term in its etymological or late Victorian sense. But simultaneously, other scholars have followed Lenin in applying the term to either a global economic structure or a historical period. World systems theorists see it as a structure evolving over centuries. Analysts of third world poverty can speak of “imperialism without colonies.” Leftist scholars define imperialism as any world system producing a rich north and a poor global south. The term imperialism has become completely divorced from its military and even political implications; its essence is considered to be purely economic and structural, and no demonstration of policy intent is needed to show the existence of imperialism.
   The term is not always used in a purely economic sense. It has become common to hear of “cultural imperialism,” which can describe phenomena from the use of the English language to the sale of a hamburger. Any kind of international power or influence, however indirect or even apparently consensual, can be defined as imperialist. It is also possible to speak of “ecological imperialism,” meaning the spread of one species at the expense of others. In such usages, the term retains it systemic or structural connotations, while abandoning much of the specific economic arguments used by more orthodox Marxists.
   As imperialism has acquired a structural meaning, it has simultaneously expanded temporally. Lenin, like Hobson and like the advocates of imperialism, used the term to describe a relatively brief period of post-free-trading capitalism, running from approximately 1870 forward. Recent scholars, including the editor of this volume, use the term to describe the entire period of European global preeminence, dated back to about 1800. Edward Said, possibly the most influential recent academic analyst of imperialism, defines it as the “unprecedented power” on a global scale of European civilization, which he dates to about 1800, implying that the imperialist period is not yet over. Other recent scholars have backdated imperialism to Christopher Columbus, and in some accounts to the crusades. As imperialism has shed its specific policy denotation and acquired systemic and civilizational connotations, it has also expanded in time.
   Imperialism therefore began as a largely pejorative term, but acquired and then rapidly lost positive moral and philanthropic connotations. It was initially primarily military and political in significance, but acquired economic overtones as its philanthropic and patriotic claims were questioned. It was initially used to describe a policy, but in the hands of Lenin and many since has come to denote an economic structure largely independent of the volition of any one actor. Where the term once had an air of specious braggadocio, it now more often names a deep structure, and for many scholars it is a structure inclined to hide rather than to advertise the reality of its power. Imperialism has in recent scholarship been expanded from the brief period of decades analyzed by Hobson and Lenin, and now for many denotes the entire period of Western global exploration and expansion.
   As the Euro-American civilization created by imperialism - in the long-term structural sense - has lost confidence in itself, writers within that civilization’s chief ideological establishments have decided that imperialism, by which they mean their own culture’s power, is almost wholly a bad thing; in the process they have in a period of a little more than a century changed its meaning along moral, economic, structural, intentional, and temporal axes. The historian of British imperialism, W. K. Hancock, is said to have complained that “imperialism is not a word for scholars,” but it is not going to go away. It should be used with care.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Hobson, John A. Imperialism: A Study. London: Nisbet, 1902;
    Kipling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden.” In Martin Seymour Smith, ed. Rudyard Kipling. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990;
    Koebner, Richard, and Helmut Dan Schmidt. Imperialism: The Story and Significance of a Political Word, 1840–1960, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964;
    Lenin, V. I. “Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” Collected Works, v. 22, December 1915-July 1916. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964;
    Magdoff, Harry. Imperialism without Colonies. New York: Monthly Review, 2003;
    Robert, Andrew. Salisbury: Victorian Titan. London: Phoenix, 1999;
    Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993;
    Seeley, J. R. The Expansion of England. London: Macmillan, 1911;
    Thornton, A. P. The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies. New York: St. Martin’s, 1959.
   MARK F. PROUDMAN

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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