“The day of small nations has long passed away. The
day of Empires has come.”

—Joseph Chamberlain

In a rational world, the term “imperialism” might have been a carefully defined and useful tool of political and social analysis, part of the study of how empires come into being. But the story of “imperialism” is typical of the decadent intellectual history of our century. The word has hardly ever been carefully defined. That is not surprising, since the word has hardly ever been intended as a serious tool of intellectual analysis. Rather, “imperialism” has been persistently employed by a coterie of alienated intellectuals in what one might call a masquerade of analysis: various purported “explanations” of empire that are in reality mere exercises in easy moral condemnation and savage political polemic. As a result, it is only very recently that any objective attempt has actually been made to understand the true dynamics of the growth of empires.

From the beginning imperialism has been not a term of rational analysis but rather “a slogan of political combat”—what the Germans call a Schlagwort. As with any such political slogan, the meaning of the word has therefore tended to vary widely over time, depending on the political needs of its users.

Originally, “imperialism” arose as a condemnatory description of the regimes of Napoleon Bonaparte and then Napoleon III: It derived from the word “emperor,” and it meant military-dictatorial internal government (or “Caesarism”). “Imperialism” first entered English usage in the 1870’s—and again, as political polemic. The debate was over Disraeli’s foreign policy, and in particular his proposal to have Queen Victoria proclaimed Empress of India. Disraeli’s opponents correctly saw this plan as part of an attempt to whip up popular enthusiasm for British overseas expansion, and also for the monarchy. They saw this as dangerous: Britain already had enough overseas responsibilities, and the existence of a British Empress was repugnant to British democratic traditions. They called Disraeli’s ideas “imperialism”: “a new word to me,” as Lord Carnarvon wrote in 1878. The new word now assumed a double meaning. As Gladstone put it, Disraeli wanted “an internal ‘Caesarism’ joined with external territorial aggrandisement. ” In the short run, of course, Disraeli won: Victoria became Empress of India. But “imperialism” now entered the English language as a term of opprobrium, and a term connected with policies of external expansion.

We should note that the “anti-imperialists” of the 1870’s had argued that overseas territories were politically, militarily, morally, and (above all) financially unprofitable. But 30 years later, this argument was turned on its head, in a way that would have lasting (and unfortunate) intellectual impact throughout the 20th century.

The context was another furious British political debate, this time over the Boer War (1899-1902). The war inspired J.A. Hobson to write Imperialism: A Study (1902)—an absolutely seminal book. Hobson fiercely opposed the war, and from what he believed to be the circumstances of its outbreak, he came up with an entire theory of empire-building. Hobson now defined “imperialism” (a word with old bad associations) purely as the annexation of foreign territory by force. He argued that such annexation occurs when capital, unable to find sufficiently profitable investments at home, is forced to search for new areas of investment abroad. Thus Rhodes, Beit and the Rothschilds had conspired to bring on the war with the Boers because of their eagerness for safe investment in the great Rand mines, which lay in Boer (not British) territory.

Hobson may well have been correct in his analysis of this one particular war. But there are two aspects of his book to keep in mind. First, his “analysis” of “imperialism” was merely a thinly disguised condemnation, part of his polemic against the war. The point of his book was that the Boer War ought to be opposed because filthy capitalists (especially Jewish capitalists: Hobson was a ferocious anti-Semite) were spilling the blood of innocent Boer and British lads for their own purposes. Second, Hobson didn’t hesitate to generalize: All empires, he proclaimed, derived from the greed of financiers for profits overseas. Hobson thus stands at the well-spring of the modern theory of “rational (i.e., profit-seeking) imperialism.”

John Hobson may seem an obscure figure, but he deeply influenced someone only too familiar to us all—namely, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Lenin read and absorbed Hobson’s Imperialism, often praised the book, and endeavored to take its ideas even further. Lenin argued that the European “imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not the product of special circumstances (as Hobson thought), but rather represented the integral nature of capitalism in its “final stage,” a stage where (as Hobson described) the capitalists divided up the world for financial profit. And if “imperialism” was integral to the final stage of capitalism, then obviously reform was impossible; the situation could be ameliorated only by violent revolution, sweeping away the entire existing socioeconomic structure. These ideas were set forth in Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1919).

Thus the ever-growing power of the USSR was put behind the ideas of Hobson and Lenin—as part, of course, of the political struggle of the Soviet Union against the West. Several results followed. First, since “imperialism” was defined as the final stage of capitalism, this meant that a “socialist” state such as the USSR could never be guilty of imperialism—no matter how far it expanded or how violent its methods. That is, the reality of Soviet imperial expansion was denied by definition. Second, since “imperialism” was the final stage of capitalism, as long as capitalist states and societies continued to exist they were “imperialist.” Thus, the reality of the end of European overseas empires by 1970 could be denied—by definition. From this last intellectual sleight of hand derive such current theories as “neocolonialism,” in which “imperialism” has ceased to be identified with territorial annexation and in which it is no longer clear what exactly the word means, other than a sinister European plot. Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, the Soviet imprimatur made Hobson’s basic ideas attractive to very many thinkers on the left, who gave his theory of empire an extraordinary lease on life.

It is to this element of the intellectual tradition on “imperialism” that Ali Mazrui’s The Africans owes its allegiance: The book is pure Hobson. To Mazrui, Africa is poor because the Europeans are rich, for the Europeans got rich by extracting surplus profit out of their possessions, out of their empires, as they had all along intended. And even after the end of empire, the “imperialist” exploitation continues, via the sinister machinations (i.e., investments) of the multinational corporations. For Mazrui, the consequences of this predatory, profit-driven imperialism can be ameliorated only by a vast transfer of capital “back” to the victims. And that is precisely the political agenda of the book: to create an atmosphere of guilt in the West conducive to the payment of such “reparations.”

Astonishingly, Mazrui was allowed to propagate these views for weeks on nationwide television without rebuttal, via a presentation of The Africans on PBS (“Your Tax Dollars at Work!”). The reason this is astounding is that when one says The Africans is pure Hobson, one means that the book is decades out of date on the facts. That is, the intellectual tradition on “imperialism” is poisoned here not only because of the hidden agenda of the “analysts” of empire-for-profit, but also because their facts are just plain wrong. In fact, the British flag had simply not followed the flow of British monetary investment overseas.

The major British overseas investments in the 19th century had not been in Africa, nor in any of the areas that eventually wore British red, but rather in the U.S. and Argentina—areas where no annexation ever occurred. Similarly, German capitalists were notoriously reluctant to invest in the German colonies overseas. And some of the most prosperous European countries (for instance, Switzerland) never acquired empires at all.

Conversely, it cannot be shown that imperial control had impoverished the subject areas. If that were the case, then those areas least penetrated by European investors ought now to be the wealthiest; instead, they have remained the poorest (for instance, Ethiopia and Afghanistan). Moreover, those areas most exposed to European investment became not the poorest but the wealthiest. In a few spectacular cases in southern Africa, this was because of the exploitation of great natural resources. But more typical are the cases of Ghana or Sumatra. Both were primitive fever swamps in 1800; the Europeans introduced new cash crops (cocoa, rubber) and an entire economic and educational infrastructure; by 1930 both areas had been transformed unrecognizably for the better, especially in terms of the standard of living and life expectancy of the indigenous population. Finally, Hobson-Lenin could not explain the existence of the great empires of antiquity, none of which had anything to do with capital investment overseas, since capitalism hadn’t been invented yet; they were run by land-owning warrior aristocracies.

It is obvious, in fact, that Hobson, eagerly followed by Lenin, made a mistake in attempting to generalize from the particular circumstances of one war, the Boer War: Their theories of the growth of empire did not work except in this one particular case, either as an explanation of causes or of effects. Yet the concept of “imperialism” as rational empire-for-profit has been such a useful stick with which to beat the West that it continues to be employed by hostile intellectuals such as Mazrui right up to this day.

The hard economic facts about 19th-century imperialism were carefully established by work done in the 1960’s. But already 40 years previously the outline of economic reality was obvious enough to those who cared; this led to dissatisfaction with the Hobson model and a search for an alternative one. Here the lead was taken by Joseph Schumpeter in his crucial essay “The Sociology of Imperialisms” (1919). Schumpeter outlined the basic argument against Hobson and then went on to argue that one should instead see imperial expansion as an essentially irrational process and a throwback to a more primitive time. He defined “imperialism” as “the objectless disposition of a state to expand, a warlike disposition, an instinctual element of bloody primitivism.” It was an unfortunate survival from earlier ages—”an atavism in the social structure and in individual habits of emotional reaction.” Schumpeter held that capitalism and imperialism were unrelated, for imperialism derived precisely from the precapitalist elements in society and psyche. Indeed, Schumpeter argued that capitalism and “imperialism” (as he defined it) were antithetical, for merchants want peace and free trade, not war, expansion, and protectionism. The dynamo behind imperial expansion was not the capitalist class but the old “warrior aristocracies” of Europe and their ideologies of militarist achievement.

As with Hobson, Lenin, and Mazrui, so too with Schumpeter the theorizing about empire was actually in the service of a particular political goal. Schumpeter was from Mittel-Europa; having seen the vast destruction wrought during World War I by the aristocratic “warrior classes” (generals and diplomats), he was calling in his “Imperialisms” for control of these precapitalist, primitive, and warlike elements within society.

But if Hobson stands at the source of “rational imperialism” (empire-for-profit), so Schumpeter stands at the wellspring of the theory of “irrational imperialism” (empire-as-neurosis). And this basic Schumpeterian thesis has had a long intellectual life. The reason: As it became increasingly impossible to ascribe imperialism to profit-seeking (of course, some people—the Ali Mazruis of this world—simply remained impervious to the data), a way had to be found both to “explain” and simultaneously devalue European empire. “Empire-as-neurosis” suited this need perfectly. If anything, the idea is more prominent now in the 80’s than at any time since Schumpeter came up with it, fitting as it does the current fads for pop psychoanalysis and smug literary “deconstruction.”

A typical product of this tradition—mentioned here because of its enormous influence as well—is Dominique O. Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban (1963), which was based on what we would now call a “deconstruction” of Conrad’s Lord Jim. Mannoni agreed that the 19th-century imperialists clearly “rejected the morality of the account book”: the reaping of profits didn’t explain empire. He argued instead that the origins of “imperialism” were psychological. The imperialist, typically, was motivated by a disturbed sexuality and projected his repressed desires onto his colonial subjects, whom he transformed into external embodiments of his forbidden wishes. Thus in Africa, white men, fearing “the Negro in their id” (Mannoni’s phrase), moved to control Africans, in reality, in order to control their fear of themselves. These “emotional satisfactions” constituted the real attraction of empire. Generally, this idea has gone hand in hand with an idealized picture of the Edens the imperialists found upon arrival in Africa or Asia—basically innocent and inoffensive societies that became, in turn, “projective surfaces” for twisted European fantasies. In other words: imperialism as European psychological sadism.

It is to this element of the intellectual tradition on “imperialism” that Raina Kabbani owes her allegiance: Europe’s Myths of Orient is pure Schumpeter-Mannoni. The book is mostly a study of European travel literature about the Moslem Middle East. Its thesis is that the European travelers were incapable of seeing the real Islamic culture in all its virtue and perceived instead only what they wanted (or in some cases psychologically needed) to perceive: bizarre violence and steamy sexuality. Such perceptions, brought back to Europe, devalued the culture of the Orient—which, in turn, made the European military subjugation of the Orient all the easier to justify.

There is a grain of truth: the European travelers’ picture of the East tended to be superficial, and—as with all travel literature—their focus tended to be on themselves rather than on the landscape. But Kabbani is unwilling to give her Victorians the slightest credit for at least trying to understand a society that was both complex and alien: How many Moslems in the 19th century were engaged in similar study of Europe?

In any case, just how “fictional” was the picture of the East which the travelers brought back? Kabbani commits a major tactical error here by never explicitly informing the reader what the “deep reality” was which the European travelers supposedly missed—and against which she sarcastically judges their writing. Yet if the Europeans saw only the superficial and the obvious, it was nonetheless a real and perhaps even crucial part of the culture. Despotism existed, and despotic violence occurred; secluded harems guarded by eunuchs existed, and fascinated everyone; beggars and slavery were accepted as facts of life. (Indeed, Ali Mazrui’s family were themselves major slave-traders on the east coast of Africa in this period—a fact Mazrui forgets to mention during his pages of castigation of the European slave-trade in The Africans.)

A good example of Kabbani’s technique can be found in her discussion of The Thousand-and-One Nights. She suggests that translations of this Arabic work were always popular in Europe because the Europeans needed to project onto Eastern women an image of violent and insatiable sexuality, in order to devalue both the East and women. It was essentially a sinister plot, part of the construction of an “ideology of imperialism.” But the fact is that The Thousand-and-One Nights was an immensely popular work in the Middle East itself; moreover, the European translations (except perhaps for Sir Richard Burton’s) were less pornographic than the original Arabic. In other words: The hostile image of the violent and sexually insatiable woman was not only a truly Islamic image but also a very prominent one. The Europeans didn’t make it up, or even exaggerate it, but simply reflected what they saw and were told.

Kabbani ends her book with a discussion of V.S. Naipaul’s travelogue Among the Believers and somehow manages to imply that fanatical Shiite fundamentalism is a hostile fiction invented by the twisted and deracinated Naipaul! These things were there and are there in the Middle East, waiting to be seen. Despite Kabbani, they aren’t “myths.”

What we see, then, in Europe’s Myths of Orient, is the politics of resentment masquerading as historical analysis. The same holds true, of course, for Mazrui’s The Africans. Indeed, the examples of Mazrui and Kabbani themselves show up the major flaw in the theory of imperialism-as-psychological-sadism. According to psychoanalytic theory, every individual human being has hostile and aggressive drives and finds one way or another of expressing them (as Kabbani and Mazrui certainly do). But empires occur only at specific times and in specific places. So if the first phenomenon is such a general one—species-wide, in fact—then how can it explain the second?

At this point, one might be tempted to throw up one’s hands at the condition of historical “analysis” of this whole topic of empire and “imperialism”: The whole intellectual tradition here seems, in one way or another, a poisoned well. But, especially since the 60’s, there has been a small scholarly countermovement towards objectivity (perhaps encouraged by the actual end of European empires). We may now be, in fact, at the beginning of a period in which real analysis, untainted by immediate political polemic, can once again be attempted. One sign pointing in that direction is the publication of Michael Doyle’s Empires—the best modern analysis of the topic I have yet seen (despite its excess of sociological jargon).

Doyle begins by noting that the theories of “imperialism” that have held the field since 1902 have all been “metrocentric” theories: that is, they have explained the creation of empires as the result solely of the disposition of “the metropole” (the imperial state) to expand. And such “metrocentric” theories inevitably verge into “blaming” theories (true of Hobson, Lenin, Schumpeter, Mannoni—and true, of course, of Mazrui and Kabbani as well). But, Doyle argues, imperial expansions are in reality extremely complicated and extremely varied in nature. Moreover, recent researchers have tended to underline this complexity and variety by pointing out possible important factors in imperial expansion other than the disposition of “the metropole” itself to expand: namely, the actions of “the periphery,” and the nature of “the international system” which the metropole confronts.

“Pericentric” theories of empire find the source of imperial expansion not so much in “the metropole” as in the character and behavior of the periphery that borders the metropole. Here on the periphery we often find weak and turbulent states, or weak but aggressive states (unaware, that is, of their own relative weakness). Such states may compel intervention, in order to restore order or to protect a frontier; or factions within such states may actually invite intervention, in order to retain their own threatened power. But in either case, it is not only the motives and actions of the metropole which are decisive.

The great virtue of such “pericentric” theories is that with them we are no longer confronted by evil “aggressors” and passive, innocent “victims” (moral categories), but merely by international “actors” of various sorts. But while Doyle finds the “pericentric” approach a useful corrective to the pure metrocentric theories, he also thinks (rightly, it seems to me) that it sometimes goes too far. “Pericentric” theories tend to ignore the pressure that comes from the metropole, a pressure which metropoles do often tend to impose on peripheries, even though the nature and the behavior of the peripheries may also seem to “invite” it.

Doyle is more impressed by the “international-systems approach” as a corrective to the metrocentric theories. The advocates of this approach argue that imperial expansion can be explained simply by combining the factual disparities of power between states with the existence of a prevailing international anarchy. Each state, they suggest, has identical strivings towards growth and power, and identical fears of decline and weakness; they struggle and compete against one another in a world without rules. Those states that are (for whatever reason) “more capable” inevitably begin to exert influence and power over those states that are (for whatever reason) “less able.” And this makes sense, since the international system basically offers states only two choices: to dominate, or to be dominated. Imperial domination is therefore merely a natural and necessary result of relations between powerful and weak states, in an atmosphere of tense and ferocious international competition. In addition, imperial domination is, in the absence of any international guarantor of order, a perfectly natural and explicable exercise in self-defense.

As with the “pericentric” theories, the virtue of this approach is that once more we remove ourselves from a world of moralizing polemic (evil “aggressors” and innocent “victims”). Instead we simply see many different “actors,” all with similar impulses, but with different capabilities. And the “international systems” approach does give due weight to the power naturally exerted by metropoles.

It seems pretty obvious that the best way to approach any specific imperial expansion is to see it as a mix of “metropolitan,” “peripheral,” and “international system” elements—a mix that will probably vary widely with the empire under discussion. At least Doyle has provided us with a coherent intellectual structure within which we can begin the dispassionate analysis of any particular imperial advance. This, needless to say, represents a long conceptual step forward (as can be seen in Doyle’s own highly complex discussion of “The Scramble for Africa,” which takes up the last half of the book).

But towards the end of his discussion of theory, it comes to Doyle like a revelation that the key to understanding the growth of empires may well be that some states simply are better constituted than others, internally, to withstand the pressures of the international competition. They simply seem to be more politically stable and better organized. And this internal situation gives them a great natural advantage in the ups and downs of international struggle.

What is striking about Doyle’s insight here is that it is hardly new. On the contrary, it is (unknown to Doyle) ancient. Thus Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome’s rise to world power, broke off his narrative of the Hannibalic War after the Roman disaster at Cannae; at this point he presented (in his famous Sixth Book) the reason why Rome not only recovered from military catastrophe but went on to conquer the world: It was the stability and order provided by Rome’s constitution. This “mixed constitution,” according to Polybius, was the best political constitution of any state existing in his own time. It gave the Roman Republic an enormous natural advantage in her competition with the other Mediterranean states, generating an internal stability that enabled Rome to absorb shocks and take on tasks that might have shaken other governments. This, precisely, is Doyle’s insight—but Polybius was writing in 150 B.C. Similarly, modern “international-systems theory,” so much more sophisticated and intellectually impressive than any metrocentric theory of “imperialism,” has its origins in the work of Jacqueline de Romilly—work on the thought of Thucydides (who wrote ca. 400 B.C.). Thucydides attributed the rise and fall of Athens to differential power within an anarchic international system.

What enabled these ancient Greek political scientists to see the great complexities of international relations with such clear eyes and to write with such analytical dispassion? We can always, of course, take refuge in such ideas as “the genius of ancient Greece.” But we would be better off looking instead at ourselves. At least part of the answer here is that these ancient thinkers, when analyzing the expansion of states, were able to work unencumbered by the corrupt modern history of terms such as “imperialism.” (Doyle, incidentally, blandly and briefly defines “imperialism” as “the actual process by which empires are gained and maintained”—and then drops the term.) And it says a good deal about our century and its intellectual history that here at the end of it we are at last, and after great effort and turmoil, struggling to reach a level of sophistication concerning the analysis of empire that was originally achieved more than 2,000 years ago.


[The Africans, by Ali Mazrui (Boston: Little, Brown) $29.95]

[Europe’s Myths of Orient, by Raina Kabbani (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) $19.50]

[Empires, by Michael Doyle (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press) $23.99]