Imperialism | Definition, Meaning & Origin

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Imperialism | Definition, Meaning, Origin and Historical Perspective

Imperialism maybe defined as the economic control and exploitation of foreign lands arising from the necessity to reverse the impediments to the accumulation of capital which gave rise to the internal contradictions of the domestic capitalist economy.

Deducing from Michael Barrett Brown’s essay “The Economics of Imperialism”, it may be more broadly defined as follows:

The outward drive of certain people to build empires, colonies and to occupy privileged positions in markets, protect sources of raw-materials and extend opportunities for profitable employment of labour”.

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However, this concept may be extended further as the creation of unequal economic relationship between states, not simply the inequality between the rich and poor states but that which borders on political and economic dependence of the poor on the rich.

In his book, Imperialism, Hobson articulated some of the psychological motives put forward as explanation of imperialism such as national pride, quest for glory, etc. He admitted that these factors are not major causes but that the dominant motive for imperialism was the quest for markets as well as opportunities for higher returns on investments.

He postulated further that the result of capitalist development in the West was that industry became more productive and needed greater imports of raw-materials, more food for the urban population growing in response to industrialization and products to meet the rising demand for luxury goods created by a rising standard of living.

Schumpeter, in his submission, explains that imperialism is characterized by an aggressive expansionism which has no objective beyond itself.

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Karl Marx also argued that imperialism is a necessary product of capitalism, where surplus value is converted into capital, a process called ‘accumulation’.

He further argued that this accumulation will tend to transport capitalism to economically backward countries.

V.I. Lenin in his essay, ‘Imperialism the highest stage of capitalism’ argued that imperialism grows out of the logic of the capitalist system and in addition that imperialism symbolizes a particular stage in the development of capitalism, a transitional stage of capitalism to a higher economic order, moving to the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly.

These writers appeared to have agreed in principle that the impetus for imperialism comes from economic interests and that imperialism is related to the process of capitalist accumulation.


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