Four Views of Imperialism and the Transformation of its Meaning

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


4. Imperialism as a Retrospective Reflection of the Present

Regardless of the periodicity or event-particularity of historians of imperialism, the counter-history of class consciousness, or the atemporal categorizing of imperialism, all views are anchored to definite, social conditions of the day. While these preceding three views of imperialism are not so immediately suggestive of this "presentness," it is this fourth view that more neatly epitomizes it. Like many of the recent writings on Marxist theories of dependency and (under)development, this view concerns itself with the phenomenon of imperialism after decolonization. But it pretends to go further by attempting to use world political events after formal colonialism to recast imperialism as a more enduring form of global social relations rather than just representing a rupture in world history.

As a European conference on "Imperialism after Empire" aimed to discuss, it was important to "take a fresh look at the continuation of various forms of imperialist intervention, imperialist influence or imperialist control, formal or informal, after colonial rule had ended, from about 1880 to the present day" (Mommsen quoted in Wesseling, 3-4). In 1986 Wolfgang Mommsen and Jurgen Osterhammel published the proceedings of this conference in Imperialism and After: Continuities and Discontinuities. While the papers represented a fairly diverse mix of area specialties, history, and political science, there was an underlying and implicit consensus in reformulating the concepts of empire and imperialism as well as the relationship between the two. Although the spirit of the papers was to draw upon increased historical knowledge since decolonization and to find an effective channel between "continuities" and "discontinuities" in imperialism, the papers were paradoxically unable to elevate themselves from the "presentness" of history.

Writing under the shadow of American global hegemony, many of the papers found it necessary to tailor explanations of imperialism so that they accounted for U.S. political behaviour that departed markedly from that of European classical imperialism. Hence the following redefinition of imperialism used by an essay on United States foreign relations is more context specific than illustrative of an original or comprehensive way of rethinking imperialism:

[Imperialism is] something more general than just direct colonial rule; it will encompass informal domination as well, including relations of domination within the industrially advanced world. At the same time, it will mean something more specific than mere inequality of power between different nations and the effects of that inequality. Effective control will remain an essential quality for the notion of imperialism. (Schwabe, 16)

But what is more pronounced in this set of papers is whether or not such a new conception of imperialism could retrospectively be inserted into history. In this regard, the distinction between formal and informal empire features extensively in the volume, and the originators of these terms, Robinson and Gallagher, were cited very often.

Yet the "presentness" of Robinson and Gallagher's musings were not so much a cause for concern. In their 1953 article, "The Imperialism of Free Trade," the authors were heavily influenced by the nature of U.S. imperial power at the time of writing. Quite unlike the formalized system of colonial administration, overt intervention, and physical suppression, the United States relied on more tacit, economic means of control. This led them to speculate that empire could also be informal and that the more important phase of British imperialism was not after the late19th century but during the preceding period. In this case, there is an attempt at reconsidering the past exercise of power based on contemporary models.

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Last Modified: 9 April, 2002