Defining imperialism and empire

“Imperialism” and “empire” are words that are thrown around all the time, especially on the radical left. Sheldon Wolin wrote in 2010 that “no major politician or party has so much as publicly remarked on the existence of an American empire.” [1] President Obama came close to remarking on the existence of such an empire, as he denied it, telling the UN General Assembly that the “notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or by public opinion,” even though earlier in the speech he had declared that the US would “ensure the free flow of energy [oil & gas] from the region [Middle East and North Africa] to the world.” In numerous articles I’ve written, since 2011, the words “imperialism,” “imperialist,” and “empire” have popped up time and time again. [2] It is time to have a solid definition of what words such as imperialism and empire mean in order to set a basis for further analysis of action by states such as the United States, China, Russia, India and Brazil.

First, it is important to define what imperialism means in this day and age. Empires have changed since the time of European colonialism and imperialism, meaning that it is necessary to formulate a new definition, while recognizing that different definitions can apply to that time. As former professor and historiographer Norman Etherington wrote, the general definition of imperialism is: “rich, powerful developed countries dominating weak, underdeveloped countries.” [3] As Etherington explains, the definition is much more complex than just simple domination. Most of this section will basically look at numerous views of what imperialism is, using Etherington’s book as a guide, serving almost as a literature review before I formulate a definition of imperialism.

Changing definitions of imperialism

In 1898, the editor of the United States Investor wrote that advocates of imperialism were those who favored a broader international policy of the United States, which he defined as the creation of a huge military establishment in order to curb individualism of ordinary Americans and to counter hostilities faced by U.S. interference in the affairs of the Western hemisphere. [4] The editor also noted that American imperialism had to prevent any nation from acquiring “commercial privileges in China withheld from us” by building a huge army and navy, stationing some of this army and navy in the Philippines. [5] This editor also believed that imperialism was a necessity and that it showed America’s military prowess. [6] Simply put, imperialism meant, in the eyes of the editor of the United States Investor: “the deliberate use of the power of the state, including its military power, in order to advance alleged national economic interests in the world at-large.” [7]

Others followed in the footsteps of the U.S. Investor by supporting the idea of investment-powered imperialism. H. Gaylord Wilshire was one of these people, a person who formed a capitalist theory of imperialism, and defined imperialism as “the political expression of organised wealth of the country…a means of diverting to foreign shores this threatening deluge of domestic ‘savings’…[and] simply political autocracy.” [8] Wilshire also believed that imperialism is, “in essence autocratic government with warlike tendencies. The trust employs autocratic methods in industry; imperialism employs autocratic methods in government,” that the acquisition of colonies is part of imperialism, and that imperialism was a “necessity for nobody by the capitalists.” [9] There also was idea of “new imperialism,” a program of “consolidating, developing, defending and subsidizing the empire” of the UK. [10]

Wilshire was not the only one who had a theory of imperialism. J.A. Hobson, who believed that imperialism was the fruit of a “false economy,” argued that there were “anti-democratic tendencies” of imperialism, and that imperialism by the British would “spread autocracy abroad, endanger liberty at home, and make the many pay for the enrichment of the few.” [11] Unfortunately for this analysis, Hobson never provides a straightforward definition of imperialism, but his ideas fall under the same definition of imperialism used by the U.S. Investor and Wilshire:

“the deliberate use of the power of the state, including its military power, in order to advance alleged economic interests in the world at large. This includes not only grabbing colonies by a great deal of other aggressive and coercive activity.” [12]

Norman Angell was another theorist of the idea of imperialism. He argued that imperialism is the idea of using “the armed power of the state to advance alleged national economic interests” and said that it had “become the major reason for international rivalries.” [13] Yet another theorist, H.N. Brailsford, believed that imperialism was the “constant acquisition of economic opportunity by political pressure” and he regarded “government support of those who invested abroad…as the real essence of imperialism.” [14] Brailsford also believed that imperialism “was not the expansion of capitalism into new areas of the world” but rather that it was the use of “state power beyond the state’s own border to acquire ‘economic opportunity.’” [14] Rudof Hilferding built on this with his belief that trust, cartels, militarism, and protectionism were the “hallmarks of imperialism” and that imperialism was the result when different developed nations came “in conflict with each other with their attempts to carve out exclusive spheres of economic development beyond their own borders.” [15] Then there was Karl Katsky who argued that the possible unification of capitalist states in order to combine their “strength and maintain a stranglehold on the backward agrarian regions of the world” until they reached the “theoretical limits of expansion” was another, different form of imperialism. [16]

Rosa Luxembourg was a major theorist of imperialism, bringing new ideas to the table that others did not. She argued, similar to Brailsford, that imperialism was not a “synonym for the expansion of capitalism,” and that such expansion can’t be equated with acquisition or founding of colonies. [17] Luxembourg also believed that imperialism arose as individual capitalist states armed themselves and used “economic monopolization” so they could exploit the remaining open “non-capitalist environment,” and that imperialism was the final stage of capitalist development. [18] Later in her life she clarified her definition of imperialism as more than just acquiring colonies, but she listed several external phenomena of imperialism:

“competition among capitalist countries to win colonies and spheres of interest, opportunities for investment, the international loan system, militarism, trade barriers, [and] the dominant role of finance capital and trusts in world politics.” [19]

Nikolai Bukharin was a bit more pessimistic about imperialism. He argued that imperialism was mainly about the “constant struggle to obtain economic advantage through the use of armed force” and that it was a necessity because “the relative positions of the players in the murderous game would never stabilise enough for such a mutual agreement to be changed.” [20] Vladmir Lenin, who is reviled by the Right and Left in the United States, believed that imperialism was the “latest state of capitalism,” that there had been many eras of imperialism in past world history, that in the 20th century “imperialism was capitalism” and he defined imperialism as “the deliberate use of state power to seek economic advantages in the world at large.” [21] Along similar lines, Joesph Schumpeter argued that imperialism was the “final sickness of capitalism.” [22] He also made an important point about imperialism:

“No one calls it imperialism when a state, no matter how brutally and vigorously, pursues concrete interests of its own; and when it can be expected to abandon its aggressive attitude as soon as it has attained what is after.” [23]

Etherington wrote that implicit in every theory of imperialism is this idea: “the use of state power, especially military power to pursue alleged economic advantages in the world at-large.” [24] He also wrote that the theory of “investment powered-imperialism” has become an anachronism. [25] It is important to note that there is another type of imperialism that has been theorized: economic imperialism. While it has remained ambiguous and ill-defined, it some, such as William Langer, have attempted to define it, saying that this form of imperialism means the “rule or control, political or economic, direct or indirect, of one state, nation or people over similar groups.” [26] Leonard Wolffhad his own definition, saying economic imperialism, which in his view only applied to European states, implied the “extension of a state’s territory by conquest or occupation, or the application of its dominion or some form of political control to peoples who are not its citizens.” [27] Such a loose definition was similar to the definition of imperialism by communist states, who used it as a “synonym for capitalist domination of the undeveloped regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America.” [28]

Paul M. Sweezy and Henry Magoff had their own, more open and loose definitions of imperialism. Sweezy argued that the aim of modern imperialism was not merely to “ensure economic outlets” but that it aimed to turn

“backward countries into economic appendages of advanced countries, favouring the growth of those kinds of economic activity which complemented the advanced economics and blocking the growth of those kinds of activity which might compete with the advanced economies.” [29]

Magoff had a diffident definition, believing that imperialism was the effort by U.S.-led Western bloc pushing to reconquer the part of the world that wasn’t in the “imperialist system,” an effort that was accomplished thanks to multinational companies and military force of U.S. troops. [30]

Out of these definitions comes the idea of neocolonialism. This concept simply describes the “dominating political and economic pressures brought to bear on decolonised countries which force them to serve the interests of foreigners.” [31]

Finally, there is Stephen Howe, an “expert” in the field of empire and imperialism. He writes that some use the word imperialist to mean “all kinds of domination and control by one set of people over another, but especially by one state (or a group of them) over others.” [32] He also writes that imperialism is used to mean the “actions and attitudes which create and uphold [empires]…[including] less obvious and direct kinds of control and domination by one people or country over others.” [33]

Defining imperialism

In this day and age, it important to have a solid definition of imperialism. I realize that the concept is controversial and that its definition is still debated. Still, it seems right to come up with a definition here. In my view, it is wrong to say that imperialism is the “last stage of capitalism” or its “final sickness” because war by states has been going on for thousands of years, even before the development of capitalism itself. Secondly, I feel that imperialism is fundamentally about the use of force by a state and is not about the imposition of autocracy, as some theorists have argued. At the same time, I agree with Etherington, when he argues that a foreign company gaining advantages in a country or dominating a country is not imperialism unless such corporate pressure is “accompanied by the pressure of a foreign state.” [34] The definition of imperialism I have formulated is as follows:

The use of force by a state, possibly in conjunction with multinational corporations, capitalists, and other states, through covert or overt means, to advance purported “national” economic, military, or political interests in another state, territory, or country without the consent of those living in the said state, territory, or country.

This definition means that actions such as CIA coups, covert actions to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, the new Iraq war, the 2011 war in Libya, and numerous other actions would be considered a manifestation of imperialism. At the same time, one could argue that the Russian annexation of Crimea is a manifestation of imperialism, except one would have to determine how the Russian state used force in the annexation itself. Importantly, this definition makes the “consent of the governed” a key part, meaning that even if the government of Iraq approved recent bombing in Iraq, that does not mean that the people at-large agreed with them. If this consent was tampered with in any way, and “manufactured,” before an attack, then the state that engaged in the attack would still be engaging in imperialism. It is important to remember that imperialism also has effects on the domestic political arena of the state engaging in the use of force, and those living in the state itself, with the possibility of blowback. What this definition does not include is things like: a corporation coming to better terms with a foreign government (i.e. better oil royalties) without interference by another state. While there can be corporate domination on a foreign state, it cannot be considered imperialism unless there is interference of another state which assists the said corporation.

From this talk about imperialism, it brings up a question: can you be imperialist and not have an empire? Some would say yes, others no. This next section looks at some of the definitions of an empire among those who have argued that it exists, mainly by looking at the United States.

Differing definitions of empire

William Blum has written about the American empire for years. In his book, Rogue State, he wrote something about this that is very true:

“The American empire? An oxymoron [for Americans]. A compelling lust for political, economic, and military hegemony over the rest of the world, divorced from moral considerations? Suggesting that to Americans is akin to telling them of one’s UFO abduction, except that they’re more likely to believe that abduction story.” [35]

Cornel West writes about empire throughout his book, Democracy Matters. He writes that empire and the powerful forces of American society “promote a suffocation of democratic energies,” that the empire is “market-driven,” and that the pursuit of empire and “racist oppressions and exclusions have been intimately interlinked.” [36] West also writes that America entered the 20th century as a “full-fledged empire with overseas possessions…and with racist systems of terror over black, brown, Asian, and red peoples.” [37] At one point, he almost seems to define what he means by empire, saying that Americans “must realize that American truly has become an empire—a military giant, a financial haven and cultural colossus in the world.” [38] Earlier in his book, West gives a more specific definition:

“…the American empire struts across the globe like a behemoth. We [the US] have built up uncontested military might, undeniable cultural power, and transnational corporate and financial hegemony…the old-style imperialism of the…hawks of the Bush Administration made manifest…[led to a] newly aggressive American empire [that] would not only police the world in light of its interests but also impose its imperial vision and policy…on a sleepwalking American citizenry.” [39]

Chalmers Johnson has a very different definition of an empire. He writes that the modern empires he has in mind “lie concealed beneath some ideological or juridical concept…that disguises the actual relationships among its members” and he argues that imposing “one’s social system” on another state, territory, or area is the definition of an empire. [40] Stephen Howe has a bit of a different view. He writes that an empire is a “large composite, multi-ethnic, or multinational political unit, usually created by conquest, and divided between a dominant centre and subordinate, sometimes far distant, peripheries.” [41] He also writes that, in his view, the most obvious kind of informal imperium is that “exercised by a country seeking to protect its interests and those of its friends through a policing role, which he argues the US and USSR did during the Cold War. [42] Howe later argues that to say that the US is a sort of “universal empire” is to go too far, and that there is no “ancient Roman equivalent” of an empire today. [43] There is no doubt that people would disagree with Howe’s view, saying that the US power today is a bit like Rome and even more so.

Then, there is Sheldon Wolin, who writes about this a good amount in his book, Democracy Incorporated. Wolin writes that “empire building is likely to have other causes than, or in addition to, the conscious intentions of imperialists. Those causes could include the actions of non- or even anti-imperialists.” [44] Empires, in his view, are “premised upon domination” which leads to “imperial ruthlessness at home,” and that there is the “joint imperium of state and corporation” in the United States. [45] At another point, he writes about the connection between empire and superpower:

“to describe the United States as an imperial superpower is to say that elements of domination are inescapably present in the power relations between the United States and the rest of the world, and that empire’s superior-inferior relationship means a politics among unequals.” [46]

Around the same part of his book, he defines the United States as an empire, writing that:

“While all empires aims at the exploitation of peoples and territories they control, the United States is an empire of a novel kind. Unlike other empires it rarely rules or occupies foreign territory for long, [and] it may retain bases or “lily pads.” Its power is “projected” at irregular intervals over other societies rather than institutionalized in them. Its rule tends to be indirect, to take the form of “influence,” bribes, or “pressure.” Its principal concerns are military and economic (i.e. access to bases, markets, and oil). When policy-makers deem it necessary or expedient, domestic needs are subordinated to the requirements of global strategies and to the economic needs of superpower’s corporate partners. The U.S. empire is the superpower, unrivaled.” [47]

Defining empire

Just like with the idea of imperialism, the conception of empire also needs a modern definition that can apply to the current day and age. It seems that the form of empire that includes colonies in the way of European capitalist states, from the 16th to the 20th century, is not what exists today. Hence, a new definition is needed. The definition I came up with is follows:

A powerful state, or hegemon, which has overwhelming military and/or financial might, that extends beyond its domestic borders to rule, indirectly (projected power, influence, bribes, or pressure) or directly (through colonies), peoples living in another state, creating a superior-inferior relationship between the hegemons and the people living in the said state with the imposing of powerful state’s social system on state being dominated. Whether a state exists in a unipolar world (one powerful hegemon unrivaled), a multipolar world (numerous competing hegemons), or a bipolar world (two competing hegemons), it is a superpower which has principal concerns that are primarily military and economic (i.e. access to military bases, new markets, energy resources).

This definition draws heavily from what Sheldon Wolin wrote, but is revised a bit, to contain what others such as Cornel West and William Blum believe. It is important to note that empire also connects to what is happening domestically. As Martin Luther King once put it,

“the security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.”

With the definition I formulated, it means that the United States is an empire for two reasons: for one, it has overwhelming military and financial might which extends beyond its domestic borders, and secondly, in a more narrow sense, since the United States government controls territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, one could argue that this is an empire. At the same time, despite the annexation of Crimea by Russia, it would be stretching a too far to say that Russia is now an empire, since it does not have overwhelming military or economic might and it not necessarily imposing its social system on Crimea.

Now to the big question: does a state have to be an empire to engage in imperialism? In my view, the answer is: not necessarily. In most cases, the answer seems to be yes. But, with states such as China and Russia, it seems that these states could engage in a use of force to protect their interests, which would be imperialist, even though they are not empires. This also means that the US, China and Russia could all be considered imperial states, even though only the US is an empire.

I am completely aware that the words “empire” and “imperialism” are controversial and still debated, but this article still seems to be necessary. In the end, I hope that this article gave good, solid definitions of these terms that can be used by those fighting imperialism and empire.

[1] Wolin, Sheldon. 2008. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. 192. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[2] See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

[3] Etherington, Norman. 1984. Theories of Imperialism: War, Conquest, and Capital. 2. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books.

[4] Ibid, 10.

[5] Ibid, 11.

[6] Ibid, 21.

[7] Ibid, 22.

[8] Ibid, 34-5.

[9] Ibid, 34, 37, 44.

[10] Ibid, 57.

[11] Ibid, 44, 60, 64.

[12] Ibid, 81-2. As said on page 87, this definition meant that imperialism was tied to the belief that “the armed force of a state must be employed to maintain the national prosperity and to protect foreign outlets for surplus investment capital.”

[13] Ibid, 93.

[14] Ibid, 102.

[15] Ibid, 111.

[16] Ibid, 121.

[17] Ibid, 117.

[18] Ibid, 117, 120.

[19] Ibid, 124.

[20] Ibid, 130.

[21] Ibid, 134, 137.

[22] Ibid, 161.

[23] Ibid, 153.

[24] Ibid, 163-4.

[25] Ibid, 176.

[26] Ibid, 190-1, 234.

[27] Ibid, 179, 182-3.

[28] Ibid, 228.

[29] Ibid, 239-40.

[30] Ibid, 245.

[31] Ibid, 277.

[32] Howe, Stephen. 2002. Empire: A Very Short Introduction. 24. New York: Oxford University Press.

[33] Ibid, 30.

[34] Etherington, 278.

[35] Blum, William. 2000. Rogue state: A guide to the world’s only superpower. 25. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.

[36] West, Cornel. 2004. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. 3, 8, 40. New York: Penguin Books.

[37] Ibid, 51.

[38] Ibid, 58.

[39] Ibid, 9.

[40] Johnson, Chalmers. 2004. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. 19-20. New York: Metropolitan Books.

[41] Howe, 30.

[42] Ibid, 114.

[43] Ibid, 117.

[44] Wolin, 209.

[45] Ibid, 193.

[46] Ibid, 192.

[47] Ibid, 191.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Nasir Khan December 9, 2014 12:13 pm 

    A good article on imperialism in which the author has briefly described the cardinal points offered by a number of old and new writers on the question of imperialism. It may not be that easy to put a defining tag on a political concept like imperialism that deals with many factors in power politics, domination and militarism, etc. But to explain what this concept implies and how it helps us understand the political realities of the present age can be greatly useful.

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