From Academic Kids

Missing image
A cartoon portraying the British Empire as an octopus, reaching into foreign lands

Imperialism is a policy of extending the control or authority over foreign entities as a means of acquisition and/or maintenance of empires, either through direct territorial or through indirect methods of exerting control on the politics and/or economy of other countries. The term is used by some to describe the policy of a country in maintaining colonies and dominance over distant lands, regardless of whether the country calls itself an empire.

Insofar as 'imperialism' might be used to refer to an intellectual position, it would imply the belief that the acquisition and maintenance of empires is a positive good, probably combined with an assumption of cultural or other such superiority inherent to imperial power. See The White Man's Burden.

In recent years, there has been a trend to criticise imperialism not at an economic or political level, but at a simply cultural level, particularly the widespread global influence of American culture - see cultural imperialism. Some dispute this extension, however, on the grounds that it is highly subjective (to differentiate between mutual interaction and undue influence) and also applied selectively (Coca Cola being imperialist and black tea not). The debate continues.



The term imperialism was a new word in the mid-19th century. According to the OED, it dates back to 1858, to describe Pax Britannica. However its intellectual roots can certainly be traced as far back as Dante, who in his Monarchia depicted a world with a single political focus and governed by rationalism. Dante was very influential on John Dee, who coined the term British Empire in the late 16th century. Dee was instrumental in creating the intellectual and scientific environment whereby English seafarers such as Humphrey Gilbert, Martin Frobisher and Walter Raleigh could set the groundwork for a maritime empire.

According to the OED, in 19th century England, imperialism, was generally used only to describe English policies. However, soon after the invention of the term, imperalism was used in retrospect about the policies of the Roman Empire.

In the 20th century, the term has been used to describe the policies of both the Soviet Union and the United States, although these differed greatly from each other and from 19th-century imperialism. Furthermore, the term has been expanded to apply, in general, to any historical instance of the aggrandizement of a greater power at the expense of a lesser power.

Since the end of World War II and particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, accusations of imperialism have almost exclusively been levelled at the sole-remaining superpower, the United States.

Marxist theory of Imperialism

Marxists use the term imperialism as Lenin defined it: "the highest stage of capitalism", specifically the era in which monopoly finance capital becomes dominant, forcing the empires to compete amongst themselves increasingly for control over resources and markets all over the world. This control may take the form of geopolitical machinations, military adventures, or financial maneuvers.

The essential feature of the Marxist theories of imperialism, or related theories such as dependency theory, is their exclusive focus on the economic relation between countries, rather than the explicit political relationship. Imperialism thus consists not in the direct control of one country by another, but in the economic exploitation of one region by another, or by a group from another. This Marxist usage contrasts with many people's understanding of the connotation of the word 'imperialism', which they think of as relating to the era when countries directly controlled vast empires, rather than the economic domination that some parts of the world have over others today - this is a conflation of imperialism with colonialism, the establishment of overseas colonies.

Although Marxists generally consider imperialist powers to be the capitalist countries of the First World, some Marxists (primarily Maoists) and others believe that the Soviet Union eventually became social-imperialist—socialist in words but imperialist in deeds— using its power and influence to dominate the East Bloc and various other countries. China, India, and other large countries with regional influence are sometimes charged with imperialism as well.

It is worth noting that Marx himself did not propound a theory of imperialism, and in contrast with later Marxist thinkers generally saw the colonialism of European powers as being essentially about extending capitalism worldwide, rather than seeing it as the pillage of those countries in favour of the European centre countries.

Modern imperialism

There is a contemporary debate surrounding the United States and whether or not the power it exerts upon much of the world and its policy amounts to imperialism —hence sometimes the U.S. is referred to as the "American Empire."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States is now the dominant power in the world. That argument seems difficult to refute, as the U.S. has many times over the past century used both military intervention and economic or political influence to shape the countries within its domain in the Western Hemisphere. Though opinions vary greatly between hawkish and dovish political powers in the U.S., the more hawkish may regard imperialist-style expansionism as simply part of the the nations "responsibility," "interest" or "Manifest Destiny."

The term is naturally controversial —the term "empire" is largely limited to descriptions of history (rather than contemporary events) and likewise the historical examples of empire tend to be more familiar and evokative of the concept. As such, modern examples of coersion and militarism may be viewed differently. The United States has also only had very few years of status as "sole superpower," without the Soviet Union to be its dominant political, military, and ideological foe. The Cold War battle for geopolitical supremacy tends to be cast in terms of 'freedom versus repression,' thereby diminishing the imperial aspects of both powers. Further, as "imperialism" tends to have negative connotations of tyranny and repression, such a claimed empires "subjects" may be naturally disinclined to use it in any reference to themselves.

In the early 21st Century, the U.S. has turned its military, political, and economic ambitions towards oil-rich countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. Beginning with the end of World War II, the U.S. largely took over from the UK certain roles by which it controlled the Middle East. Through United States-instigated and assisted assasinations and coups, several Middle Eastern nations have felt the strong influence of Western societies: Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel have been directly or otherwise substantially influenced by U.S. policy. (This does not include prior or continuing British Empire holdings of the time —notably in India and Pakistan.)

As there are few other countries with such a capability, it has been said that U.S. military actions are partly or mostly acts of militarist imperialism —in spite of humanitarian rhetoric, their cause is the expansion of U.S. power. Two uncontroversial facts are that the U.S. currently has a much larger and more sophisticated military than any other country —operating over 100 bases in every part of the world. The U.S. has also used its military to control its "interests." It is debatable wether these two things alone constitute imperialism, or whether such "imperialism" adequately resembles past incarnations —Roman, British, German or otherwise.

See also


  • Marxist Theories of Imperialism, Anthony Brewer.

External links

de:Imperialismus es:Imperialismo fr:Imprialisme he:אימפריאליזם ja:帝国主義 pl:Imperializm pt:Imperialismo sl:Imperializem fi:Imperialismi zh:帝国主义 nl:Imperialisme


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