Theories of Imperalism Essay

Mommsen says that the original meaning of ‘imperialism’ was ‘the personal sovereignty of a powerful ruler over numerous territories, whether in Europe or overseas.’ He mentions Disraeli’s famous Crystal Palace speech of 1872, regarding a plan of tremendous and unprecedented expansion of Imperialistic activities. This was further strengthened by Queen Victoria’s coronation as the ‘Empress of India’. According to him, this cannot be the real imperialist theory, as it belonged only to Great Britain and it implied territorial sovereignty. “The object of acquiring a colonial empire was usually to raise it to the status of a world power,” (Mommsen, 1977, p.5) as he quotes Chamberlain in 1897: “It seems to me that the tendency of the time is to throw all power into the hands of the greater empires, and the minor kingdoms – those which are non-progressive – seem to be destined to fall into a secondary and subordinate place,” (p. 6). This is the State Oriented theory of Imperialism and its main connection is with the territory and it is connected with the British patriotism. The whole idea of this imperialism was that British people had to acquire more and more territories in unsuspecting and underdeveloped countries to show their patriotism towards the country and Crown. The expansion of territory went on unabatedly for at least two centuries, till Britain owned one third of the world, arrogantly claiming that Sun never set in British Empire.

The original meaning of Imperialism was simply one powerful ruler ruling over many territories and regions either inside European continent, or anywhere else in the world. It meant the all-powerful British crown making policies for colonies in the distant East and West of the globe. He says this position at home strengthened the situation of Conservative party of England.


Classic Political Theories:

Classic political theory of Imperialism developed in the other half of the nineteenth century. German scholars like Heinrich Friedjung are at the helm of this theory. The colonial expansion ambitions of Napoleon III, no doubt ended in total disaster; but it gave credence to the grandeur of imperialism, the legitimate and magnificent rule of a mighty ruler over lesser mortals.

Mommsen says that Friedjung did tremendous amount of work to establish the classical theory of imperialism by combining the nationalistic ideology working for the domination of far-flung areas for the sole purpose of national gratification. The days were conducive and any victory over the natives of colonies was regarded as a national victory and such heroes were respected and their service to the crown was acknowledged. Imperialism was institutionalised in Europe and other countries were competing with each other to follow the example set by Britain in becoming a prosperous greater power through a mighty empire. “The object of acquiring a colonial empire was usually to enhance the prestige of one’s own state, and ideally to raise it to the status of a world power,” (p. 5). This was the reigning theory of state oriented imperialism that suited excellently to the prevailing European mood. “The nationalist variant of the political idea of imperialism was of extreme importance in legitimising imperialist policies in all the major European countries,” (p. 7). Walther Sulzback connected imperialism with nationalism. There are many more racial and biological versions of this theory, which look irrelevant today and this theory of imperialism belongs to the earlier centuries.

Classic Economic Theories

Theodor Barth said, ‘Imperialism consists of influencing world economic processes, more or less violently, from the standpoint of the development of national power,’ (p.10). This perhaps was the first attempt to give economic colour to Imperialism which had remained purely a political ideology before. Connection between economic advancement and imperial gains was widely known. It was taken for granted, but nobody voiced it, perhaps due to the fear that the exploitation of the colonies would reflect in such a statement.

According to Hobson, from economic point of view, ‘imperialism was not a source of profit but of loss’ (p. 13), and he argued that colonies were draining on British wealth, though commonly believed otherwise. To him, South Africa presented such ideal example, and he argued that British society itself being dominated by the nobility needed a radical change, so that the lower classes of the society too could be benefited by the economic improvement. He said the colonies, contrary to the popular belief, were burdens and imperialism ‘…. endangered the evil of modern imperialism, with its enormous military and political cost and its inhuman consequences both at home and overseas,’ (p. 12). “…in other words, modern imperialism was due to the acute competition of surplus capital which did not find profitable employment on the home market,” (p. 14).

Hobson’s opinion was that the purchasing power of the masses should be increased and the State should facilitate it. Hobson was not a radical thinker, but a radical critic of imperialism and Lenin used Hobson’ view in his Imperialism, the Highest stage of Capitalism. Hobson establishes a link between capital investment and imperialist policy. “…he deserves credit for being the first to point out the link between imperialism and social structure on the one hand and economic factors on the other,” says Mommsen (p. 18).

Mommsen says that Hobson should be regarded as a radical-liberal critic of imperialism, more like Adam Smith, who desired ‘to bring about the victory of a progressive form of radical liberalism by restoring a fully competitive economy,’ (p. 17). He feels that it is an impressive theory because it establishes the first link between capital investment and imperialist policy. But the negative points are that the economic theory was not based on statistical evidence and today banks are more interested in industry rather than in imperialism. He failed to prove that public opinion was sufficiently manipulated by capitalist interests. Professional economists rightly or wrongly, looked down on Hobson as an amateur, but his influence is evident on Schumpeter’s work The Sociology of Imperialisms. Max Weber, though did not develop a full theory on imperialism, ‘did assemble important elements of such a theory from the sociological point of view,’ (p.19) and spoke about enhancement of prestige of a nation through imperialism.

Schumpeter too was a radical liberal and both have much in common if their theories are compared. He defined imperialism as ‘the objectless disposition on the part of a state to unlimited forcible expansion,” (p. 22). He argued that imperialism is the product of ‘psychological attitude of aristocratic rulers, and develops out of the warlike interests of the ruling class.’ He said the modern imperialism is the ‘survival of residual political structure dating from the time of absolute monarchy.’ (pp. 12-13). He thought that free trade would lead to British model of a capitalist economy ‘open to world-wide participation.’ His theory had many weaknesses. His alternative to Marxist interpretation was based ‘on the liberal pattern of a laissez-faire economy’, but then we are analysing it with the advantage of hindsight. Mommsen feels that it is a landmark theory as he offered ‘the radical contrast between a liberal capitalist regime.’ Its important achievement is drawing attention to ‘typical behaviour patterns of specific groups in society, especially its ruling circles,’ (p. 27). It has a historical perspective.

Marxist Theories:

Marxist theories of imperialism are many and were popular in the nineteenth century. Hegel connected the colonialism with a division of bourgeois society. Marx took on from Hegel and furthered this assumption. He believed that imperialism, a kind of personal rule, was on the decline. Funnily, he thought that British acquisition of India was beneficial because it put an end to oriental despotism and paved the way for modern industry. He insisted that imperialism did not affect the basic validity of his predictions about capitalism. What went on in the ‘peripheral world need not bother capitalism’ and it should happen in the centre to make any impact. He thought it was an ‘inevitable by-product of capitalism.’ It was the time when the great powers had to explain their imperialism to political analysts. Marxist theory says that imperialist expansion is primarily a reflection of the class struggle. His theory of imperialism is considered to be controversial and confusing.

Hilferdng insisted that imperialist expansion accelerates the expansion of capitalism, which was a shift from Marx and Engels. Mommsen says Hilferding gave an ideological justification to expansionism by a ‘deflection of the national idea and racial ideology in the direction of imperialism.’ He also feels that it was a powerful and coherent theory though it might not be universally valid today.

Rosa Luxemburg ridiculed Marx’s predictions that capitalism would collapse and insisted that capitalism depended on economically poor countries for its development. She calls for revolutionary action of the masses to deal a deathblow to imperialism. She thought imperialism gives further opportunity for capitalism to survive and flourish.

Lenin, on the other hand argued that imperialism has five features: By concentrating production and capital, it has created monopolies; has created financial oligarchy by merging of bank capital with industrial capital; importance of export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities; has formed international monopolist capitalist associations and created territorial division of the whole world among capitalist powers. (based on p.48). He described imperialism “as a phase of steadily increasing conflict within the capitalist camp itself.” (p. 49). Kemp pointed out that Lenin’s theory ‘put the emphasis on the structural changes in capitalism rather than upon the relations between the metropolitan countries and their colonies” (p. 120) and Mommsen agrees with it.

Mao’s theory did not agree with Marxist-Leninist theory, as usual: “When the capitalism of the era of free competition developed into imperialism, there was no change in the class nature of the two classes in fundamental contradiction, namely the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, or in the capitalist essence of society.” (p. 59).

There are many writers who agree that imperialism was an extreme form of nationalism, stemmed by the desire to see one’s own country and people dominating others. Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism says that imperialism depended heavily on racist ideologies and anti-liberal policies of fascism (p.71). David K.Fieldhouse, in his The Colonial Empires, enumerated that modern imperialism ‘was the product of a national mass hysteria, which eventually took on the still more grotesque form of fascism,’ (p. 72). Mommsen himself agrees while saying: “The theory of imperialism as a form of intensified nationalism can provide a specific basis for enquiry in terms of the politico-social functions it has exercised in particular social contests,” (p. 73). Theorists make recent interpretations from the standpoint of power politics.

Objectivist theories declare that imperialism is an objective process ‘due fundamentally to the unavoidable impact of advanced Western civilization on the comparatively backward native cultures of the third world,’ (p. 76). They think that imperialism was an attempt to spread Western culture all over the world and hence, it is not just political and economical process, but also social and cultural process. “Colonization was not a philanthropic educational institution” Herbert Luthy proclaims! There are Socio-economic theories that proclaim that it was mainly a social and cultural imperialism. These theories are forever superseding the previous theories.

Informal Imperialism recognises the many informal types of imperialist domination and it somehow comes closer to the Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, wrote The Imperialism of Free Trade, which is considered to be a pioneer work in this direction. They also developed the theory of ‘informal empire.’ Mommsen says western thinking has drawn closer to Marxist theory in modern times. “By developing the theory of ‘informal empire’ Robinson and Gallagher broke decisively with the tradition which defined imperialism exclusively in terms of formal territorial colonial rule, and instead emphasized the importance of imperialist factors of a non-governmental character,” and this was a remarkable shift in the imperialist theory, from which point, it never looked back again.

Wehler’s theory of Social imperialism is considered to be the most radical example of an ‘endogenous’ theory, according to Mommsen. It tried to look for the causes for expansion in European societies and considered all factors, social, cultural, economic and political. He thought that Social Imperialism could be the cause of ‘secular process of modernization.’ His theory was followed by many peripheral theories of imperialism explaining imperialism as product of various economic, social and socio-psychological processes and changes in various societies.

As the last of the theories, we have New-Colonialism. Hallgarten says “Imperialism and capitalism together signify war against workers at home and natives in the colonies. This is the world of monopolies, bank capital and trusts, in arms against the rest of mankind;” (p. 117) and this theory looks too far-fetched and totally unconnected with the initial classical theories of imperialism.

Theories apart, there is no doubt that Imperialism caused untold miseries to the colonies and even today, many of them are struggling hard to come out of the terrible impact.


Mommsen, Wolfgang J. (1977), Theories of Imperialism, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.