What do you understand by Theory of Imperialism ?

Broadly understood as policy of extending the power of rule of a state beyond its boundaries, imperialism in its earliest usage served as an ideology that supported military expansion and imperial acquisition by drawing on nationalist and racialist doctrines. It was in this sense that the term was originally used as an invective against the expansionist policy of Napoleon I and a little later against the expansionist policy of Britain. Even through imperialism in its classical form has become a thing of the past, it continues to remain a useful analytic category in explaining various phenomena in contemporary society. It is now more commonly used to describe the system of political domination or economic exploitation that the pursuit of such goals helped to establish.

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Since the Second World War, the world imperialism has virtually become synonymous with the oppression and exploitation of the weak and impoverished countries by the powerful ones. In the Marxist tradition, imperialism is seen as an economic phenomenon that typically results from the pressure to export capital. Several contemporary Marxists are of the view, as would become evident later on in the Unit that far from being over the phenomenon of imperialism continues to thrive under the new form of imperialism termed as neo-colonialism, through which industrialized powers control foreign territory by economic domination while respecting the territory’s formal political independence.

However, the frequent use of the two terms-colonialism and imperialism-interchangeably adds to a general confusion over their precise meanings. While ‘colony’ is a people detached from a larger entity and settled in a distance place implying emigration, imperialism derived from the term “ imperium ” connotes exercise of command or domination of one people by a stronger people without implying emigration. In other words, imperialism describes the relations between a dominant and subservient society without the latter being necessary reduced to a formal colony.


J. A .Hobson, an English economist, is universally accredited with the task of formulating the scientific concept of imperialism in his seminal work Imperialism: A study in 1902.Hobson’s study focused on late-19th century imperialism which could be distinguished from previous from of imperialism in two ways: the existence of several empires in competition with one another, and the predominance of finance capital over mercantile capital. The central argument of Hobson was that the accumulation of capital and saturation of internal market led to a situation whereby it became urgent to seek outlets for investment abroad. The process excessive accumulation of capital leading to a search for investment abroad is termed by Hobson as the ‘economic taproot of imperialism’. Hobson believed that successive accumulation of capital took place primarily because of over saving which in turn got a fillip from the unequal distribution of wealth. Following from this, Hobson prescribed the need for social reforms. He believed that equitable distribution of wealth in society would increase the purchasing power of the people, which in turn would expand the markets. Expansion of markets thus would not only provide for increased internal capital investments but would also greatly ease the pressure for investment abroad. Several Marxist theorists, however, have expressed strong reservations to Hobson’s prognosis.

Different theories of imperialism as articulated by several Marxist theorists like Rudolf Hilferding (1877-1941), Rosa Luxembourg (1871-1919), and V. I. Lenin (1870-1924) question and challenge the Hobsonian assumption that social reforms can resolve the contradictions created by imperialist expansion. For example, although Hilferding in his Finance Capital: A Study of the Latest Phase in Capitalist Development(1910) agreed with Hobson that imperialist competition led inevitably to violence, he vehemently rejected the possibility of expanding internal markets through wage increases. He was of the view that such an alternative would necessarily reduce profits. Nothing the dominant role of finance capital and the concentration of capital under monopoly ownership of an oligarchy, Hilferding concluded that this extreme colorization of wealth under imperialism presaged the “last stage” of the fight between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Once most of the means of production were concentrated in few hands, the expropriation of the “capitalist oligarchy” would give rise to socialism, and the fight for political power to the fight for economic power. The relationship between imperialism and national oppression was acknowledged, but subordinated to a class analysis and the class struggle.

Rosa Luxemburg also viewed imperialism as “the last stage in the historical race of capitalism”. Proceeding from a Marxist class analysis, she described the crucial role played by the unequal exchange between imperialist (capitalist) countries in the accumulation of capital. In The Accumulation of Capital, she also emphasized the historical role played by militarism in capital accumulation, and pioneered the study of the relationship among political domination, military occupation, and external debt. Moreover, in addition to describing how militarism is used to ensure the conditions of accumulation (through the subjection of colonies, as a weapon in the competitive struggle between capitalist countries, etc.), Luxemburg argued that militarism “is a pre-eminent means for the realization of surplus value; it is in itself a province of accumulation”, which would later form the basis of the “military-industrial complex” of the great empires.

Lenin is perhaps the first Marxist to offer a systematic analysis of modern imperialism. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin began his discussion of imperialism by asking what he called “the main question”: “ whether it is possible to reform the basis of imperialism, whether to go forward to the accentuation and deepening of the antagonisms which it endangers, or backwards towards allaying these antagonism”, Pessimistic of the possibility of reforming capitalism of its imperialist tendencies, he rejected such notions by insisting that imperialism was the inevitable “highest stage” of capitalism in that stage of development in which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital has established itself; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of all territories of the globe has been completed”.


Lenin thus distinguished modern imperialism from the old by pointing out that the special feature of modern imperialism was the export of capital rather than export of ordinary commodities and/or a desire for new investment rather than new markets for goods as naively believed by Hobson. As he observed:”Imperialism is the direct continuation of fundamental properties of capitalism in general”. He viewed it as a special stage of capitalism that developed by about 1900.

Lenin was highly critical of Kautsky for his theory of “ultra imperialism” on the ground that it was nothing more than a restatement of Hobson’s theory of “inter-imperialism”. He attacked Kautsky for masking the true nature of imperialism by way of insisting that “a union of world imperialism, and not struggle amongst imperialisms”, was possible, and that “a phase when war shall cease under capitalism” would come. Contrary to Kautsky’s assertion that “the rule of finance capital lessens the unevenness and contradictions in world economy”. Lenin was of the view that “in reality, it increases them”. Lenin further added: ”Monopolies, oligarchy, the striving for domination instead of the striving for liberty, the exploitation of an increasing number of small or weak nations by an extremely small group of the richest or most powerful nations-all these have given birth to these distinctive characteristics of imperialism which compel us to define it as a parasitic or decaying capitalism”.

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