Imperialism designates the historical phenomenon in which certain political entities have sought to exert control over and extract resources from others, whether through formal conquest, informal coercion or a host of intermediate solutions. It also denotes the concepts or theories of imperialism. Initially coined to designate the existence and expansion of empires, the notion of imperialism gained prominence in the late nineteenth century, where it came to identify the reality of European colonialism. The ensuing history of the concept registers a distinction between purely political definitions of imperialism, which reduce it to an instance of power politics and foreground the issue of territorial gain, and socio-economic analyses, which, while not discounting the significance of physical expansion, emphasize the underlying and systemic causes of imperialist policies. The penchant for a given theory of imperialism will determine which processes and events count as cases of imperialism, so that analytical definitions are here inseparable from historical judgments.

The acceleration in colonizing ventures during what Eric Hobsbawm (1987) has termed ”the age of empire” gave rise to the first great debates on imperialism. Liberal opposition to imperialism attacked what it regarded as a jingoistic manipulation of mass sentiment for irrational ends or petty interests. In Schumpeter’s analysis, this led to a focus on the use of irrational and ”objectless” nationalist tendencies to condition the masses. Where Schumpeter defined the causes of imperialism as primarily socio-political in character, Hobson’s Imperialism opened the way for its structural analysis as a necessary correlate of a particular socio-economic order. Hobson contended that imperialism was driven by the needs of financial elites and monopolies which, failing to get sufficiently profitable returns on their investments in a saturated market constrained by the low purchasing power of workers, pushed for the forcible opening of overseas opportunities.

Hobson’s ideas were of great import for what is certainly the most read and influential tract on the subject, Lenin’s (1917) Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Compensating for the insufficient theorization of imperialism in Marx’s own works, Lenin followed Hobson in seeing finance and monopoly capital as the key factor. In the midst of World War I, Lenin tried to understand that conflagration as an effect of the conflict between great capitalist powers, now held captive by increasingly parasitic financial oligarchies. Rosa Luxemburg (1913), in The Accumulation of Capital, also attempted to integrate a political critique of the age of empire with an economic analysis – founded on the idea of underconsumption and capitalism’s constant need to expand to non-capitalist zones to create markets and realize surplus-value. She also introduced the analysis of ”militarism” both as an ideological tool and as a component (in the guise of the arms industry) of capital accumulation under conditions of imperialism.

Marxist theories of imperialism grew in political significance and conceptual variety in the postwar period, in the contexts of the cold war and decolonization. The ebb of theories of imperialism in the 1980s seemed terminal, especially as the analysis of the political economy of the world market came under the aegis of globalization theories. Even from the Left, namely in Hardt and Negri’s (2000) theory of ”Empire” as a new form of virtual, decentered capitalist sovereignty, the notion of imperialism appeared to be relegated to another era. However, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have triggered a resurgence in thinking on imperialism.

One of the key questions has been whether the USA’s form of primarily non-territorial economic power and influence should be defined as imperialism. David Harvey (2005) has argued that the ”new imperialism” must be understood in terms of two conjoined but irreducible logics: a territorial logic of political power and a molecular logic of capital accumulation. He regards the war as a means of securing US hegemony over energy resources and thus bolstering its economic primacy. Ellen Wood (2005) has instead defined capitalist imperialism – as opposed to previous ”empires of property” and ”empires of commerce” – in terms of the detachment of economic from political power. However, this economic power demands for its hegemony and expansion the presence of a system of multiple states, and the more globally integrated the system, the greater the tendency to the hegemony of one of these states (e.g., the US ”empire”) over the task of maintaining the capitalist system. Updating the methods of historical materialism, Wood thus returns to the key theme already broached by Luxemburg: the intimate correlation between capital accumulation and expansionist militarism.



  1. Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Harvey, D. (2005) The New Imperialism. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Hobsbawm, E. (1987) The Age of Empire: 1875-1914. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
  4. Wood, E. M. (2005) Empire of Capital. Verso, London.


Alberto Toscano