Imperialism theory

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A theory of imperialism seeks to scientifically explain the conditions and the process of emergence as well as the functional mechanisms of imperialism . Each such theory develops its own concept of imperialism and makes statements about which tendencies can be expected from a corresponding social system.

Theories of imperialism were developed in the 20th century. Scientists as well as revolutionary politicians tried to explain the development and course of colonial or other economic and political expansions, especially of European states, later also the USA or, less often, the Soviet Union. In the self-understanding of socialist political strategy, the respective theory should serve as the basis of revolutionary practice.

Important theories of imperialism

John Atkinson Hobson (1902)

Probably the first theory of imperialism was written in 1902 by the British economist John Atkinson Hobson (1858–1940). The reason for his considerations was the second Boer War , which he had witnessed as a reporter. Hobson saw the search for new capital investment opportunities as the cause of imperialism: Underconsumption of the broad masses with simultaneous capital surplus for a small minority lead to capital export .

"Everywhere there appear oversized productive forces, oversized capital that demand investment. All businessmen admit that the increase in the means of production in their country outstrips the increase in consumption, that more goods are produced than can be sold for profit, that more capital is available than can be invested profitably. This economic situation is the main root of imperialism .... Imperialism is the endeavor of the great industrialists to widen the channel for the drainage of their surplus wealth by looking for markets and investment opportunities abroad for goods and capital that they cannot sell or invest at home. "

In order to protect their investments, the investors would ask for the power of the state, which would lead to an enlargement of the national territory, a race between rival empires and thus to a threat to the peace. This theory analyzes imperialism from an economic point of view. The Boer Wars (1902) were probably the reason for his theory of imperialism ; they led the left-liberal democrat Hobson to a moral condemnation of imperialism.

In his economic analysis of imperialism, Hobson ties in with John Stuart Mill , according to which the laws of production are immutable, but distribution is in the realm of social will. This would also solve the problem of under-consumption by simply giving workers more money so that they can consume more. With the ideal distribution, there is no need to expand capitalism . Rudolf Hilferding in 1910 and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in 1916/1917 followed up on his preparatory work, although they tried to link imperialism to Karl Marx 's historical materialism .

Rosa Luxemburg (1913)

The theory of imperialism published by the Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919) in 1913 in her main work, The Accumulation of Capital , emphasizes the danger to world peace from the competition among capitalist nations. Only the expansion of the economy into areas not yet capitalist can therefore delay the decline of capitalism. In the long term, capitalist conditions prevailed around the world, which were either ended by the socialist revolution or crisis-shaken by an economic and political collapse and ultimately always ended in war.

Karl Kautsky (1914)

The German Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky (1854–1938) asserted shortly before the First World War that imperialism was one of the possible ways in which capitalism could achieve the capital accumulation it needed, but by far not the only one. He suspected that the finance capitalists of the individual nations could in future, instead of working against each other, proceed " syndicated ":

“The fierce competition between giant companies, giant banks and billionaires generated the cartel thoughts of the big financial powers, which swallowed up the small ones. So even now from the world war of the imperialist great powers a union of the strongest among them can emerge, which puts an end to their arms race . "

In this new phase of capitalism, which he called ultra-imperialism , wars between the imperialist powers would be made superfluous through agreements for the joint exploitation of the world.

Lenin (1916)

The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin wanted to theoretically underpin his strategy of "revolutionary defeatism ", according to which a defeat of Russia in the First World War would lead to a revolution with his work Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism , which appeared in 1917 under a pseudonym in Russia . The whole of politics is ruled by finance and monopoly capital, ie that production and capital are concentrated and govern politics with their economic power ( Stamokap = state monopoly capitalism). In addition, imperialism is vital for the large corporations to prevent the rate of profit from falling. It can only be eliminated through the abolition of capitalism . Lenin saw imperialism as the fifth and final stage of capitalism.

According to Lenin's short definition, "imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism". Such a definition would contain the main thing, because on the one hand finance capital is the banking capital of a few monopoly big banks, which is merged with the capital of monopoly industrial organizations, and on the other hand the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which is unhindered to areas not yet conquered by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopoly domination of the entire territory of the completely divided earth. The direct cause for the imperialist wars is the law of the unevenness of the economic and political development of the capitalist countries , which was also first formulated by Lenin and which periodically questions the division of the earth.

In his more detailed definition, which Lenin still does not consider to be the theory expounded, he cites five main features:

"1. Concentration of production and capital, which has reached such a high stage of development that it creates monopolies which play the decisive role in economic life; 2. The amalgamation of bank capital with industrial capital and the emergence of a financial oligarchy on the basis of 'finance capital'; 3. The export of capital, as distinct from the export of goods, is of particular importance; 4. international monopoly capitalist associations are formed, which divide the world among themselves, and 5. the territorial division of the earth among the capitalist great powers is over. Imperialism is capitalism at the stage of development where the rule of monopolies and finance capital is taking shape, the export of capital has gained outstanding importance, the division of the world by international trusts has begun, and the division of the entire territory of the world by the largest capitalist countries has been completed is. "

The extra profits gained in this way would be used by the imperialist powers to “bourgeois” part of the working class, the “ labor aristocracy ”, through comparatively high wages. With this theorem Lenin attempted to explain the lack of revolution, which, in view of the internal rottenness of capitalism, was long overdue. At the same time he polemicized against the " revisionist " tendencies of the German social democracy and especially Kautsky's. They were later exaggerated in the social fascism thesis, according to which social democracy is not an ally of the communists in the fight against fascism , but as its “twin brother” must be fought in exactly the same way.

The revolution expected Lenin from World War II, which he interpreted as the product of the contradictions between the imperialist powers:

“In its imperialist stage, capitalism comes right up to the all-round socialization of production, it draws the capitalists into a kind of new social order, as it were, without their knowledge and against their will, which forms the transition from completely free competition to complete socialization. "

Max Weber (1921)

The German economist and sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) explained in his posthumously published major work Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, imperialism as a consequence of the desire for prestige that belongs to all great powers. This is also aimed at securing domestic political power:

"Every successful imperialist coercive policy towards the outside usually at least initially also strengthens the prestige and thus the position of power and the influence of those classes , estates , parties under whose leadership the success has been achieved"

These political motives could be supported by economic groups who see greater profit opportunities in the direct violent exploitation of the colonial population through forced labor than through trade (“colonial looted capitalism”). Last but not least, these included the arms manufacturers . In addition, there are the intellectuals of the imperialist states, who have an interest in expanding the scope of their own national culture . With this motif Weber offered an explanation for why imperialism found massive support around the turn of the century, especially in bourgeois circles .

Joseph Schumpeter (1919)

The economist and social scientist Joseph A. Schumpeter (1883–1950) developed a theory of imperialism in his work “On the Sociology of Imperialisms” (1919) with the main thesis that imperialism was “the objectless disposition of a state to violent expansion without definable borders”.

Schumpeter assumes the following premises for this thesis: 1) In the majority of all cases, war does not arise out of rational reasons, but out of an instinctual tendency. 2) This will to go to war is justified by the vital necessity of war-waging competition, which is anchored in the human psyche but no longer current. 3) The will to go to war is further driven by two interest groups: the ruling class, which achieves advantages on the domestic political level through the war, and the sum of all individuals who hope for a social or economic gain through warlike politics.

Imperialism is an atavism that is to be understood as the adoption of various characteristics and behaviors from a previous epoch and thus from a previous stage of development. Specifically, what is meant is the preservation of absolutist thought patterns by the pre-capitalist ruling classes such as the nobility and the military. According to Schumpeter, the social or economic present is composed of a large number of said patterns - social or economic in nature: "He (imperialism) is an atavism of the social structure and an atavism of individual psychological emotional habit." Imperialism arises from these two forms of atavism. However, the social structural change that is based in the historical development process of society is leading to its downfall. In contrast to many of his contemporaries (see Lenin, R. Luxemburg), Schumpeter regards capitalism as anti-imperialist, since in a capitalist society man’s own warlike energies are invested in the accumulation of capital, not in violent and aimless expansion. Still, capitalism and imperialism cannot be viewed as two separate phenomena. The interest of the cartels and trusts in maintaining the high price level in the interior of the country leads to the sale of goods overproduced under capitalism - through the fundamental use of all means of production - at dumping prices in the newly created sales markets of the colonies. In spite of these economic factors, imperialism did not arise out of an interest in the aforementioned material gain, it is only a side effect of the expansion, which is based on the atavism of the people, and is not purposeful.

Wolfgang J. Mommsen (1969)

The German historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen , however, gave a pluralistic and non-Marxist explanation in 1969 . He emphasized the ideological component of imperialism without ignoring the economic driving forces. Mommsen saw European imperialism as the ultimate form of nationalist thought. He made it clear that the idea of ​​the nation was originally linked to democracy . From 1885 a pathetic imperialism emerged, so that an anti-liberal understanding of "nation" came about. As reasons for imperialism, he cited “pseudo-humanism” and the religious sense of mission (eg Cecil Rhodes ) of the Europeans and the efforts of the great powers to achieve world power status. In this socio-psychological perspective, as it is also found in Walter Sulzbach , the “irrationalism and the need for prestige” of the ruling class, which is losing power, can also be used as the cause of imperialism. In addition, some nations' need for cultural broadcasting and the racism resulting from social Darwinism are reasons for imperialism.

Hans-Ulrich Wehler (1969)

In 1969, the German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler formulated a non-Marxist theory of imperialism based on Eckart Kehr's thesis of the “primacy of domestic policy”: In his opinion, the foreign policy intentions were only decisive for imperialism insofar as they reflected the domestic political relations of a minority should be sustained over the majority. The aim was to cover up the domestic political problems arising from this - such as the proletariat's demands for emancipation - with foreign policy ambitions. Outward successes should bind the workers to the state by having imperialism solve the social question by creating external markets that would ensure steady economic growth and divert internal social tensions outward. With this, Wehler put forward the theory of social imperialism .

"In the outward expansion, [social-imperialism] believed it would find a cure that expanded the market, restructured the economy, enabled its further growth, thereby removing the social constitution from its ordeal and stabilizing the internal balance of power."

Imperialism theories and imperial theories

Political science research has increasingly turned to imperial theories since the 1980s. In contrast to these, the theories of imperialism of the early twentieth century did not face their subjects without judgment. They always used the term empire pejoratively as something to be overcome. Its use as a fighting term can be seen in the example of Soviet and American rhetoric during the Cold War : Both world powers denounced each other that they were forming an empire and refused to apply the term to themselves. Most theories of imperialism also attributed prognostic potency and dealt mainly with the supposedly imminent collapse of capitalism and the future might of socialism.

In contrast to this, the current theories of empire proceed value-free and empirically: They describe world empires in their structures, their order function, their inherent development logics, practical constraints and their own dynamics. Contributions to the imperial theory published among others Michael W. Doyle , David B. Abernethy, Herfried Münkler and Hans-Heinrich Nolte .


Primary texts

  • Stefan Bollinger (Ed.): Theories of Imperialism. Historical bases for a current review. Promedia Verlag, Vienna 2004.
  • Nikolai Bukharin : Imperialism and World Economy. 1917.
  • John Atkinson Hobson: Imperialism: a study. University of Michigan Press, 1965, ISBN 0-472-06103-8 . (Facsim of: 1st ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1938. - Previous ed .: London: Archibald Constable, 1905.)
  • Karl Kautsky : Imperialism . In: Die Neue Zeit Vol. 2 (1914), pp. 908–922 ( online )
  • VI Lenin: Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. Common outline. 6th edition. Dietz Verlag, Berlin (East) 1962. (1st edition 1946)
  • Rosa Luxemburg: The accumulation of capital. 1913.
  • Joseph Schumpeter: On the sociology of imperialisms. 1919.

Introductions and general literature

  • Winfried Baumgart : Imperialism. Idea and reality of the English and French colonial expansion 1880–1914. Wiesbaden 1975.
  • Hartmut Elsenhans : Imperialism . In: Dieter Nohlen (Ed.): Lexicon of Politics, Volume 1: Political Theories. Directmedia, Berlin 2004, pp. 483-492.
  • Jörg Fisch , Dieter Groh and Rudolf Walther: Imperialism . In: Otto Brunner , Werner Conze and Reinhart Koselleck (eds.): Basic historical concepts . Historical lexicon on political and social language in Germany , Volume 3, Ernst Klett Verlag, Stuttgart 1982
  • Wolfgang J. Mommsen: Theories of imperialism. An overview of the more recent interpretations of imperialism. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen 1980.
  • Helmut Dan Schmidt and Wolfgang J. Mommsen: Imperialism . In: Soviet system and democratic society. A comparative encyclopedia. Vol. III. Ideology to achievement . Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau / Basel / Vienna 1966, Sp. 25–59
  • Hans-Ulrich Wehler: Bismarck and Imperialism. Munich 1969.

Current discussion

See also

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. John A. Hobson: Imperialism . Quoted from Bernhard Askani et al.: Anno 3. Braunschweig 1996, p. 183.
  2. ^ Karl Kautsky: The imperialism . In: Die Neue Zeit Vol. 2 (1914), pp. 908-922 ( online ); Clemens A. Wurm: Industrial Interest Policy and State: International Cartels in British Foreign and Economic Policy during the Interwar Period . Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1988, p. 9.
  3. Gerd Koenen : The color red. Origins and history of communism . Beck, Munich 2017, pp. 663 and 674 f.
  4. ^ VI Lenin: Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. Common outline. 6th edition. Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1962, p. 94f.
  5. ^ Helmut Dan Schmidt and Wolfgang J. Mommsen: Imperialism . In: Soviet system and democratic society. A comparative encyclopedia. Vol. III. Ideology to achievement . Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau / Basel / Vienna 1966, Col. 33 ff.
  6. quoted from Wolfgang J. Mommsen: Imperialismustheorien. An overview of the more recent interpretations of imperialism. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen 1980, p. 42.
  7. ^ Max Weber: Economy and Society. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 1921, p. 526 online at , accessed on August 27, 2017, cited by Wolfgang J. Mommsen: Imperialismustheorien. An overview of the more recent interpretations of imperialism. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen 1980, p. 19 f.
  8. Wolfgang J. Mommsen: Theories of Imperialism. An overview of the more recent interpretations of imperialism. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen 1980, p. 19 f
  9. ^ Based on : Josef A. Schumpeter: Essays on Sociology , Tübingen 1953, pp. 74 ff.
  10. ^ Walter Sulzbach: Imperialism and national consciousness . European publishing house, Frankfurt am Main 1959.
  11. J. Schumpeter: "On the Sociology of Imperials", 1919.
  12. Hans-Ulrich Wehler: Bismarck and Imperialism. Cologne 1972, pp. 114-115. Quoted from Bernhard Askani et al.: Anno 3. Braunschweig 1996, p. 185.
  13. Herfried Münkler : Empires. The logic of world domination - from ancient Rome to the United States . Rowohlt, Berlin 2005, pp. 36-40, 50-58 and. ö .; the same: Empire and Imperialism, Version: 1.0 . In: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte , February 11, 2010 , accessed on August 24, 2017.
  14. Michael W. Doyle: Empires. Cornell University Press Ithaca / London 1986.
  15. David B. Abernethy: The Dynamics of Global Dominance. European Overseas Empires 1415-1980 . Yale University Press New Haven / London 2000.
  16. Herfried Münkler: Empires. The logic of world domination - from ancient Rome to the United States . Rowohlt, Berlin 2005.
  17. Hans-Heinrich Nolte (Ed.): Imperien. A comparative study . Wochenschau Verlag, Schwalbach im Taunus 2008.