Four Views of Imperialism and the Transformation of its Meaning

Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore


2. Imperialism as a Continuous Economic Process

This differs from empirical imperialism positing that there can neither be a simple closure to nor a universal or fact-driven history if imperialism. While empirical imperialism relies on tangible political structures like the state, this view derives from economically determined processes surrounding Marxist views on production, capital accumulation, class relations, and the consequent forms of exploitation. In this case, the historical events surrounding imperialism are not so much "in themselves" but both demonstrative of the relations of production and the purpose-driven nature of bourgeois history.

An event like postwar decolonization does not act as a definitive rupture in imperialism's history, but reaffirms the authority of the capitalist class to narrate history without there being a corresponding change in the relations of production. If imperialism ended with the gaining of independence to former colonial territories, this line of thought asks why there has not been any clear-cut resolution to the continued economic and political disparities in the world. It also remains skeptical towards the attainment of modernity and social progress that the "civilizing mission" optimistically proffered.

Marxist views of imperialism thrived on this because the social problems after decolonization continued to underlie economically founded core-periphery relations characterized by exploitation, dependency, underdevelopment, and poverty. This is certainly not to say that Marxist theories have been static but have dynamically appropriated recent ideas to account for the phenomenon of post-decolonization imperialism. Hence, even though the writings of J.A. Hobson and Lenin have been shaped particularly by the social conditions of the early 20th century, such as foreign economic expansionism as a result of falling profits in Europe or new forms of financing capital, contemporary Marxist writers have endeavoured to incorporate their ideas into current accounts of imperialism. Writers like Immanuel Wallerstein, Paul Baran, Giovanni Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank, and Samir Amin have established theories of dependency, development, and underdevelopment that both retain classical Marxist impressions of imperialism and newer social theories responding to contemporary phenomena.

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Last Modified: 9 April, 2002