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The word ‘imperialism’ is one of the most powerful concepts of our time. Originally coined as a term to describe and analyze the expansion of the European powers over the rest of the world in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the term was soon employed to also characterize a particular stage in the development of capitalism, especially by Marxist thinkers, and later developed into an invective for describing the activities of one’s political adversaries. In scholarly writing, the word mostly indicates the extension of what was largely European formal or informal political rule over Asian and African countries in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It also serves more generally to describe some other forms of Western predominance during and after the colonial period. Prior to the end of the Second World War, an economic interpretation of imperialism was prevalent, but after that time, other theories were brought forward giving more attention to other aspects, particularly political ones. More recently, the primacy of economic interpretations, especially of British imperialism, has been reasserted. In the vast literature on British, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Dutch imperialism that developed from the 1960s onward, the various national forms of this general European phenomenon have been studied. The rather different cases of Russian, American, and Japanese expansion have also been analyzed from the perspective of the theory of imperialism. In modern scholarly literature, imperialism is no longer conceived of as a unilateral process imposed by a dominating power but as a process of interaction between the metropole and the periphery.
- Introduction: The Problem of a Definition
- Imperialism: The History of a Concept
- National Articulations
- Explanation: Motives and Means
Introduction: The Problem of a Definition
“Imperialism is not a word for scholars”, Sir Keith Hancock remarked a long time ago, and he was right (see Wesseling, 1997: p. 74). More recently, Bernard Porter has written that “‘Imperialism’ is a much vaguer term than ‘the empire’. Its extent and limit are less definite, and for that reason open to interpretation and dispute” (Porter, 2012: p. 4). Scholars have to make clear what they mean when they use certain concepts or terms, and therefore have to provide definitions. This, however, is problematic with the word ‘imperialism’. The difficulty is not that there is no single definition of imperialism. Rather, there are about as many definitions of imperialism as there are authors who have written on the subject. They vary from those that refer to one specific form of imperialism, mostly Europe’s nineteenth-century colonial expansion, to others that give a very general meaning to the word, such as the one in Webster’s Dictionary: ‘any extension of power or authority or an advocacy of such extension’. Clearly, such a definition can cover almost any situation involving a stronger and a weaker power. Not surprisingly, therefore, the word has often simply been used pejoratively in order to criticize the policy of another country. With some justification, P.J. Marshall has noted: “‘imperialism’ has tended to become a term of abuse for any supposed domination which the speaker happens to dislike” (Marshall, 1982: p. 49).
Used in this context, the term imperialism is of little scholarly value. However, in academic studies, the word has always had a more limited meaning. The problem is exactly how limited its meaning should be. Sometimes the word is used in a universal historical way in order to characterize the politics of a dominant power. Thus, some historians have spoken of Roman or even Assyrian imperialism, but this is highly exceptional. John Darwin has succinctly defined imperialism as the “sustained effort to assimilate a country or region to the political, economic or cultural system of another power” (Darwin, 1997: p. 614). In historical studies, imperialism generally refers to the policy of European countries, and primarily of Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, aiming at the expansion of their power and influence over other continents. It is in this context that the term imperialism originated and began to be used as a political and historical concept. Historically speaking, the word imperialism is therefore obviously closely associated with colonialism. While colonialism was only used to refer to one specific form of alien rule, namely, the colonial one, imperialism acquired a wider meaning and included various other forms of influence over alien nations and states, for example, the financial influence of France and Germany in the Russian and Ottoman Empires, or such ideas as British ‘gunboat policy’ and American ‘dollar diplomacy’.
After the end of the colonial empires, the word ‘colonialism’ could only be used to refer to a phenomenon from the past and thus began to fall out of use. ‘Imperialism’, however, continued to be used, and from then on also indicated those forms of domination that were formally different from, but factually comparable to, those formerly practiced by the colonial powers. For a while, the word ‘neocolonialism’ was also used for this purpose, but somehow this term was less successful. By the end of the Second World War, America had become the new superpower. Accordingly, imperialism was now mainly applied to describe the foreign policy of the United States vis-à-vis other countries, in particular in Latin America, Asia, and Africa (Ferguson, 2005). There was also an attempt to make the concept applicable to the policy of the Soviet Union with regard to the Central and Eastern European countries that came under its influence after 1945 (Seton-Watson, 1961), but this was not very successful. The reason for this is that historically speaking, imperialism has connotations with capitalism and not with communism, and with overseas possessions, and not with adjacent countries. Although there clearly was a Soviet Empire, it was not considered to be an example of imperialism but of traditional power politics. Only in its very general meaning as another word for all forms of power politics or simply as an invective, was it also used to describe communist countries such as the Soviet Union and China. After the end of the Cold War, this use of the word imperialism lost much of its earlier attraction.
In this research paper, imperialism is used in the sense of its initial meaning, that is to say as a term to indicate the extension of formal or informal, mostly European, rule over Asian and African countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as, more generally, for some other forms of Western predominance during and after the colonial period.
Imperialism: The History of a Concept
Like ‘colonialism’, which was probably first used in the title of a book of a French socialist critic of the phenomenon, Paul Louis’ Le Colonialisme from 1905, ‘imperialism’ was originally a French word. It was from the 1830s onward that the terms impérialiste and impérialisme came into use in France. They referred to the empire of Napoleon and to the imperial pretentions of his nephew Louis Napoleon, later known as Napoleon III. The colonial connotation only came after the word had begun to be used in the United Kingdom in the 1860s. Then, of course, the empire it referred to was no longer the continental one of France but the overseas empire of Great Britain (Koebner and Schmidt, 1964).
Although the word imperialism was already used in the United Kingdom in the 1860s, the historical concept only appeared in 1902 with the publication of J.A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study (Hobson, 1938). Hobson, a radical but not a socialist, was deeply influenced by the South African War (1899–1902). In 1900, he published a book on this subject, The War in South Africa. Its Causes and Effects, in which he argued that power in South Africa had fallen into the hands of a small group of financiers “chiefly German in origin and Jewish in race” (Hobson, 1900: p. 189). In his famous book Imperialism: A Study, he elaborated this vision into a general theory of imperialism, and used the term imperialism to indicate the “expansion of Great Britain and of the chief continental Powers” (Hobson, 1938: p. 27). The word expansion referred to the fact that over the previous 30 years, a number of European nations, Great Britain first and foremost, had “annexed or otherwise asserted political sway over vast portions of Africa and Asia, and over numerous islands in the Pacific and elsewhere” (Hobson, 1938: p. 15). For Hobson, the meaning of the word imperialism was very clear: it was the establishment of political control. He was also explicit about the forces behind it. Various people such as an “ambitious statesman, a frontier soldier and an overzealous missionary” might play some role in it, “but the final determination rests with the financial power” (Hobson, 1938: p. 59). Thus Hobson offered us a definition (imperialism is the expansion of political power of European countries over the non-European world), a periodization (imperialism took place over the previous 30 years, thus between 1870 and 1900), and an explanation (it was the result of the workings of the financial powers). In order to explain their behavior, Hobson argued that, as a consequence of the capitalist system, the British economy suffered from underconsumption. As a result of this, surplus capital could no longer be invested profitably in England itself. Therefore, the capitalists were “seeking foreign markets and foreign investments to take off the goods and capital they cannot sell or use at home” (Hobson, 1938: p. 85). “It is not too much to say that the modern foreign policy of Great Britain has been primarily a struggle for profitable markets of investment”, adumbrated Hobson, who concluded that “It is this economic condition of affairs that forms the taproot of imperialism” (Hobson, 1938: pp. 53, 81).
The originality of Hobson’s explanation for imperialism has been questioned by Gregory Claeys who contends that the economic side of his ideas was “if more sophisticated, methodical and carefully crafted, none the less the stock-in-trade of both Positivist and much socialist argument, built up over the previous half-century” (Claeys, 2010: p. 246). However, as Hobson’s theory implied a criticism of capitalism, it had a palpable attraction for Marxist thinkers. As a result of this, a new Marxist theory of imperialism was born. While originally Marx and Engels had considered colonialism as an ‘objective’ progressive force (Avineri, 1968), now Marxist theorists such as Karl Hilferding and Rosa Luxemburg scorned late-nineteenth-century imperialism as a form of exploitation and suppression. The Marxist theory of imperialism became very influential when it was appropriated by a man who was not only a theorist but also a practical politician, Lenin. In 1916, he published his famous brochure Imperialism. The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Lenin, 1916). While Hobson perceived imperialism as a malfunctioning of capitalism, Lenin saw it as a sign of its ultimate and inevitable decay.
Lenin’s ideas were mostly based on the work of the already-mentioned Marxist authors, who in turn had been inspired by Hobson’s theory. It was therefore understandable that a direct link was seen between Hobson’s and Lenin’s theories, so much so that it became fashionable to speak of the ‘Hobson–Lenin thesis’. There are, however, two important differences between Hobson and Lenin. First, for Hobson, the flight of capital from the metropolis to the overseas world was a consequence of the development of capitalism, but not a necessary consequence. The origin of the problem was underconsumption. Therefore, theoretically, it should also be possible to solve the problem by increasing the purchasing power of the working classes. Indeed, Hobson remarked: “If the consuming public in this country (Great Britain) raised its standard of consumption to keep pace with every rise of productive powers, there could be no excess of goods or capital clamorous to use Imperialism in order to find markets” (Hobson, 1938: p. 81).
Second, and more importantly, Hobson and Lenin tried to explain two different things. Hobson, who wrote his book during the South African War, wanted to explain the division of the world, and more specifically of Africa, in the late nineteenth century. Lenin, who wrote in 1916, tried to explain the redivision of the world of which the First World War was the most spectacular outcome. The word Africa hardly appears at all in Lenin’s brochure. The period he referred to was also different from the one dealt with by Hobson: not 1870–1900 but thereafter. He wrote explicitly about this: “I have tried to show in my pamphlet that it (imperialism) was born in 1898–1900, not earlier” (see Stokes, 1969: p. 289). Thus Lenin parted ways with Kautsky and Luxemburg, for whom imperialism was little more than another word for colonialism (Stokes, 1969: p. 297). For Lenin it was something else: not the highest stage of colonialism but of capitalism.
Although the capitalist theory of imperialism was not generally accepted, and alternative interpretations were launched and had some influence, some form of economic interpretation became the standard explanation of imperialism during the 1920s and the 1930s. Imperialism was considered as having originated from economic problems in Europe that were characteristic of the late nineteenth century, in particular the need to guarantee the flow of raw materials to the industrialized countries, and the protection of overseas markets for the sale of their industrial products. This consensus broke down after the Second World War under the influence of decolonization and the rise of the American Empire. The new world political situation also had an impact on the theory of imperialism. In a celebrated article, ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’, two Cambridge historians, Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, developed the concept of ‘informal empire’ (Gallagher and Robinson, 1953). They argued that the real zenith of the British Empire was not to be found in the late nineteenth century but rather in the mid-Victorian period of informal British economic hegemony. For Britain, the entire nineteenth century was one of expansion. It was an imperial century. Britain’s imperial expansion manifested itself in various forms: emigration, trade, overseas investments, the establishment of naval bases, etc. The extension of political authority over foreign people was only one form of imperialism, and not even the most important one. The mid-Victorian Empire was comparable to the informal American Empire that came into being after 1945. It worked with informal means because that was the best way of doing things. The maxim of British policy makers was: informal empire if possible, formal only if necessary. Due to foreign competition and rivalry, however, the late Victorians were forced to formalize their Empire, and they did so, willy-nilly.
While Gallagher and Robinson discovered imperialism before empire, other theorists also discovered imperialism after empire. This resulted not so much from a reflection on the rise of the American Empire, but from a reassessment of decolonization. While after the First World War the European powers had increased their territorial possessions – for example, by the division of parts of the Ottoman Empire – and stabilized their colonial rule, the situation was very different after the Second World War. In Asia, the process of decolonization started immediately after the war and was followed later in Africa. Thus, by the 1960s, most of the former colonies had become independent politically. But political independence did not automatically bring an end to the social problems, nor to the economic dependency of the ex-colonies. Some of the new states became even more dependent on the Western-dominated world system than they had been before. For many observers, it was clear that the end of empire was not at the same time also the end of imperialism. Some theorists worked this out in the theory of dependency. According to the dependencianistas, imperialism not only was the extension of political control but also included the dependency of less developed parts of the world on the industrial powers. Empire was only one form of imperialism, one stage in the history of Western dominance.
However, why one form of imperialism was replaced by another remained a question, an answer to which was also given by Gallagher and Robinson in their famous book on the partition of Africa: Africa and the Victorians (Gallagher and Robinson, 1961). Here, they argued that changes in the periphery, that is, in the overseas world rather than in the mother countries, were responsible for the changes in the ways and means of imperialist control. Although Africa and the Victorians dealt primarily with British policy, the theories developed here had a wider meaning. While the theory of the imperialism of free trade was typically a theory about British imperialism, the peripheral theory was applicable to the imperialist activities of other nations as well. In many cases, changes in the non-Western world were decisive in determining imperialist action. Egypt’s financial problems, for example, led to increasing foreign interference, and this, in turn, led to a ‘nationalistic’, or rather proto-nationalistic, reaction that plunged Egypt into an internal political crisis that led again to foreign intervention and occupation. The discovery of minerals in South Africa, to give another example, led to a complete change in the balance of power in that part of the continent.
Ronald Robinson later elaborated this interpretation into a more general theory based on the observation of the important role of the African and Asian partners of the imperialist rulers. In this so-called collaborationist theory, imperialism is conceived of as a system of collaboration between European and non-European forces before, during, and after colonial rule. The changing forms of imperialism are considered as changing forms of collaboration that resulted from changes in the bargaining positions of the various parties (Robinson in Owen and Sutcliffe, 1972: pp. 117–142).
The Gallagher and Robinson theories were followed by a greater number of studies on the economic significance of the British Empire and the role of economic factors in British imperialism. Foremost among these were a number of seminal contributions by P.J. Cain and A.J. Hopkins. “Explanations of imperialism”, they contended, “ought to begin with a close study of economic structure and change in Britain” (Cain and Hopkins, 1987: p. 17). In particular, they argued that nonindustrial forms of capitalism, especially those associated with financial and commercial services based in the City of London, had been underestimated. They proceeded to assert that it was “in the second half of the nineteenth century, and especially after 1870, that Britain’s expanding financial power created a world-wide ‘invisible empire’ which compensated for her dwindling economic influence in the United States and Europe” (Cain and Hopkins, 1987: p. 11). In Cain and Hopkins’ interpretation, the essential link between Britain’s expanding financial sector and imperialism was provided by ‘gentlemanly capitalists’, landowners, and financiers from southern England who boasted the same social background and inculcated similar notions of national interest as the aristocratic governing class. In his quasi biography of Hobson, Cain has maintained that “Where Hobson went wrong was in his forthright view of the relationship between finance and politics: finance was often crucial to expansion, financial conspiracy was not. Even in Egypt, where the financial motives for occupation were obvious, there is no evidence to support Hobson’s continuously reiterated assertion that ruthless financiers manipulated much less visionary and hesitant politicians to serve their clearly understood ends” (Cain, 2002: pp. 277–278). Although Cain and Hopkins have drawn criticism, not least their tendency to focus on gentlemanly capitalists to the exclusion of other important influences on British imperialism, their work has also found admirers (Webster, 1998).
While examining British imperialism beyond a simple concentration on gentlemanly capitalist interests, John Darwin places economics at the heart of the explanation for British imperialism: “It was coal, cotton and capital, not derring-do or district officers, on which Britain’s world empire was built” (Darwin, 2012: p. 394). He also seeks to downplay the role of the ‘official mind’ in the growth of the British Empire. “British expansion”, he insists, “was driven not by official designs but by the chaotic pluralism of British interests at home and of their agents and allies abroad” (Darwin, 2009: p. 3). More specifically, Darwin observes that “Since the prime motive was profit not the glory of Church or king, this was an empire of commercial experiments not an empire of rule by design” (Darwin, 2012: p. 389). As such, he points out that the “hallmark of British imperialism was its extraordinary versatility in method, outlook and object” (Darwin, 2012: p. 388). The impact of imperialism on Britain itself is a contested issue that has drawn contrasting interpretations regarding the depth of its imprint on the metropole (Porter, 2004; Thompson, 2005).
The important place of Britain in the debate on imperialism is understandable, because Britain was the imperial power par excellence. Some historians have suggested that British imperialism ‘made’ the modern world or even acted as a progenitor of modern globalization (Ferguson, 2004; Darwin, 2008). Nevertheless, Britain was by no means the most typical imperial power. Rather, it was atypical and therefore the discussions in other European countries on imperialism have followed different lines and focused on different questions. Chronologically speaking, however, the European revisionist theories were developed in the same years as the British: the debate started in the 1960s and continued well into the 1980s and beyond.
In France, Henri Brunschwig’s Mythes et Réalités de l’Impérialisme Colonial Français, 1871–1914, which appeared in 1960, set the tone for the debate on French imperialism (Brunschwig, 1960). According to Brunschwig, the causes of French imperialism were not to be found in economic demands but in the development of French nationalism after the defeat in the Franco- Prussian war of 1870. The protectionist factor was a myth; political factors were decisive. Given the specific intellectual climate that existed in France after the Second World War, and in which Marxism played such an important role, it was to be expected that Brunschwig’s book would lead to great controversy, as it did. But the Marxists could hardly deny the fact that the French colonial empire had been of little economic importance in France. In order to rescue the Marxist theory of imperialism, they therefore argued that French imperialism was not to be found in the French colonies but elsewhere, in the Russian and Ottoman Empires. They argued that French colonialism was not imperialist, and French imperialism was not colonial (Bouvier and Girault, 1976). In 1984, an important study by Jacques Marseille, based on an extensive data bank on French colonial trade, threw new light on the question of economic interest. His conclusion was that in the beginning the colonies were useful to French industry from an economic point of view, but subsequently they became a burden (Marseille, 1984).
There was also a strong connection between imperialism and nationalism, but it is not altogether clear to what extent imperialism was a result of nationalism. This is because the decision to found a German colonial empire was very much the decision of one man, Chancellor Bismarck. Therefore, in Germany, the discussion on imperialism has always been concentrated on Bismarck and his motives. There were two main interpretations: a foreign political one (imperialism as a move in Germany’s international relations) and one in terms of domestic policy, such as electoral success, financial pressure groups, etc. The discussion was reopened when H.U. Wehler (1969) added new elements to this debate. Although he stressed the economic background of imperialism, he agreed that, as in the case of France, the German colonial empire had not been very profitable. In his view, the link between economics and empire must be sought on a different level. He emphasized the social problems of the Reich (its lack of legitimation because of its creation von oben, by force) and considered Bismarck’s bid for colonies as a shrewd political move intended both as part of a general, more or less anticyclical, economic policy and of a social policy seeking to unite the Germans around issues of foreign policy, and thus to overcome internal tensions. Thus Wehler’s emphasis was more on the domestic than on the diplomatic motives of German imperialism under Bismarck (Wehler, 1969). Here, the debate on German imperialism touched upon a wider discussion, the one on the problem of continuity and discontinuity in German foreign policy, the so-called German Sonderweg, and the place of national socialism in German history.
Italian imperialism was also studied from a special perspective. It was not very successful during the classical period of imperialism but it continued during the interwar years, under the influence of fascism. The French historian Jean- Louis Miège has emphasized not only the demographic factor in Italian imperialism but also its political and ideological dimensions – the nationalistic reaction to the loss of population as a consequence of emigration – comparing it in this respect to Spanish imperialism (Miège, 1968). The interpretation of Portuguese imperialism was long dominated by Hammond’s theory of an ‘uneconomic’, that is to say a primarily nationalistic, form of imperialism. Gervase Clarence-Smith later challenged this view by making a strong case for an economic interpretation of Portuguese imperialism. He argued that economic motives went hand in hand with other ones such as missionary zeal and nationalism (Clarence- Smith, 1985).
The case of Belgium is very special, because in the nineteenth century, Belgium was an anti-colonialist country, but in spite of this, it was eventually to acquire one of the biggest European colonies in Africa, the Belgian Congo (later called Zaire, now Congo again). That this happened was due to the extraordinary zeal, tenacity, ruse, and ruthlessness of one man, King Leopold II. Jean Stengers has analyzed the singular nature of the king’s imperialism, which was one of old-fashioned economic exploitation and in this respect inspired by the example of the Netherlands (Stengers in Owen and Sutcliffe, 1972: pp. 248–276).
In the Netherlands, the historical discussion on imperialism began rather late. The most important contribution to the debate came from a book by Maarten Kuitenbrouwer (Kuitenbrouwer, 1991). In this he argued that the Dutch case was roughly analogous to others, and that the Netherlands followed more or less the general pattern. It has also been noted, however, that Dutch imperialism was defensive rather than offensive, reluctant rather than enthusiastic. In this respect it was comparable to that of Britain. In both cases, there was more continuity than discontinuity, and what discontinuity there was, derived from a change in circumstances, not in policy (Wesseling, 1997).
The historical debate on imperialism was mainly about the traditional colonial powers of Western Europe but observations have also been made about other countries. Russian imperialism poses interesting questions and offers paradoxical aspects because, on the one hand, Russia was an object of Western European financial imperialism, but on the other, it was itself also acting as an expansionist power by extending its empire to the East and eventually to the shores of the Pacific (Geyer, 1977; Le Donne, 1997). The case of Japan is particularly noteworthy because it is the only Asian nation that became an imperial power. In keeping with other Asian countries, it was first confronted with Western influence but it reacted in a very different way to this challenge. After having been forced to ‘open’ the country in 1853, it accepted Western notions and techniques very rapidly, so much so that already by the 1890s it had started its expansion into China. Japanese imperialism was continued in the 1930s and of course during the Second World War. Some analysts have also considered Japan’s economic expansion after 1945 as a form of informal imperialism (Mommsen and Osterhammel, 1986: pp. 53–82).
The concept of American imperialism is a very complicated one, not only because of its origins as a former colony that engaged in a violent struggle to disengage from the British Empire but also because of the fact that it has prided itself on its anti-colonial rhetoric. The foremost historian of American imperialism is arguably Niall Ferguson. Ferguson in many ways sees America as the postwar successor to British imperialism, arguing that “in terms of economic resources as well as of military capability the United States not only resembles but in some respects exceeds the last great Anglophone empire” (Ferguson, 2005: p. 19). For Ferguson, the American Empire resembles its mid-nineteenth-century British predecessor since it “preferred indirect rule to direct rule and informal empire to formal empire” (Ferguson, 2005: p. 12). Also seeking to link British and American imperialisms, Bernard Porter observes that “The continuity does not lie in the imperialisms per se – America simply inheriting Britain’s imperialism from her . – but in the underlying process that carried both of them. That was the ‘progress’ of the world towards globalization, free markets, consumerism, liberalism and the all the rest: the ‘end of history’, perhaps. This is the fundamental historical trend. Modern imperialisms are just corks, bobbing along the surface of them” (Porter, 2012: p. 316). For Ferguson, nevertheless, the American empire is a curious form of imperialism; as he puts it: “The United States has acquired an empire, but Americans themselves lack the imperial cast of mind. They would rather consume than conquer” (Ferguson, 2005: p. 29). As such, Ferguson depicts American imperialism as “an empire in denial” (Ferguson, 2005: p. 294).
For John Darwin, the preeminent historian of global empires, it is the case that “Imperial power has usually been the rule of the road” (Darwin, 2008: p. 23). As such it is axiomatic that the United States has become an imperial power. “After 1990”, he asserts, “it became the only world empire. A state with the means to intervene forcibly in almost any part of the world, with such a massive advantage in military power over any possible rival, and with an advanced economy more than twice the size of its nearest competitor was such an empire de facto” (Darwin, 2008: p. 482). That the United States has lacked the colonial possessions of its Victorian predecessor, insists Darwin, is of “trivial importance” (Darwin, 2008: p. 483).
Explanation: Motives and Means
The rich literature on imperialism that has been published from the 1960s onward has led to a revision of the traditional views on the origins and meaning of late-nineteenth-century imperialism. Transformations not only in Europe but also in the overseas world have received attention as factors that can explain the new imperialist attitude. The main distinction is between European interpretations on the one hand, which underline economic, political, strategic, and ideological motives, and peripheral interpretations, which give special attention to activities and developments in the overseas world and in particular to the ‘frontiers’ of European influence. The new research has also given attention to such topics as the ecological aspects of imperialism (Crosby, 1986), cultural imperialism (Said, 1978, 1993), the impact of imperialism on the sciences (Petitjean et al., 1992), and so on.
Much of the debate on imperialism concerned the motives of the imperialists. In order to understand the origins of imperialism, however, attention has also to be given to another aspect, not the motives but the means. The development of imperialism cannot be understood by looking only at transformations in Europe and the overseas world, and the incentives for imperialist actions that were created by these. What also was essential for such action was the possession of the necessary means (Headrick, 1981, 1988). It had always been virtually impossible for Europeans to survive in the environmental conditions of tropical Africa. New developments in the medical sciences, such as the prophylactic use of quinine (as from the 1840s), made it possible for Europeans not only to live but also to work and even to fight under such conditions. The development of new means of transportation (steamships, railways), the opening of new sea routes (like the one via the Suez Canal), and the revolution in the means of communication (the telegraph, and later on the telephone and wireless communication) made the extension of imperial rule possible Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the development of new weapons, and in particular of the machine gun, gave the Europeans an enormous advantage in their battles with non- European nations. Colonial wars became successful almost by definition and the European colonial armies became ‘ever-victorious’ armies. Entire continents could be conquered at very small cost to the conquerors.
Thus the great technological superiority of the Europeans came into existence during the later part of the nineteenth century due to the so-called Second Industrial Revolution that took place in Western Europe and created rivals for British trade. These technological transformations not only offered the means for imperial expansion but also led to new demands in the European societies, which had their effects on foreign and colonial policy. Social and economic questions assumed increasing importance. State welfare provisions expanded. The import of tropical products at affordable prices was considered as a matter of public concern. This called for sustained economic exploitation, which presupposed the existence of peace and order; in other words, effective authority.
The balance of power in Europe also changed dramatically in the 1870s. In the early nineteenth century, from Napoleon to Bismarck, Europe had found itself in an exceptional political situation. Germany and Italy did not yet exist. Britain had eliminated France as a maritime and colonial rival. Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, the old colonial powers, had had their day. Hence, Britain enjoyed de facto world supremacy, much as the United States was to do after the Second World War. All these factors began to be compromised from the 1870s. After its defeat in 1870, France sought compensation for its loss as a continental power by strengthening its overseas role. Germany and Italy, newcomers both, claimed a place under the sun.
Internal political factors also played a part. European governments were faced with a new phenomenon: they had to take the wishes of their electorate into account. Economic growth and social harmony became declared objectives of government policy. The Paris Commune of 1871 accentuated the danger of social revolution and hence the importance of social issues. The state was asked to do more things for more people. Conversely, technical progress, economic growth, and growing political involvement by the citizens of Europe created the conditions for a strong state. The military might of the European powers reached unprecedented heights. At the same time in the overseas world, transformations took place, which often proceeded from previous contacts with Europe or European settlers, and which changed the existing internal balance of power. Thus in many respects, a new situation came into being after 1870, in Europe as well as in the overseas world, and therefore, after all forms of revisionism, it is still justified to speak of the period of 1870–1914 as an age of imperialism, as Hobson did when he introduced the concept over a century ago. That imperialism is still with us, either in the form of contemporary globalization as writers such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest (Hardt and Negri, 2000), or in the rise of an informal American Empire in the postwar world as Darwin, Ferguson, and others contend, demonstrates the vitality of the concept and its ongoing relevance to the contemporary world.
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