Did New Imperialism differ in nature from earlier Imperialism?

Did New Imperialism differ in nature from earlier Imperialism?

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In Wikipedia, there is an article about New Imperialism, which refers to the territorial or colonial expansion during 19th-20th century. The article also says that the qualifier "New" is to contrast with earlier imperialism (particularly, European colonization in 15th to early 19th century).

Did the "new" imperialism differ in nature from 15th-19th century imperialism/colonialism, other than the difference in time frame? How was it different?

I hope to come back and expand this but very briefly for now…

The nature and extent of European domination was fundamentally changed as a result of the Industrial Revolution. In the the 16th century, Europeans famously had guns, germs and steel which allowed them to rapidly dominate the New World, but otherwise they were barely able to make inroads into Africa or Asia. It was only towards the nineteenth century that Europe gained vast technological and economic advantages that allowed it to dominate the rest of the world.

Technologies like the railroad, steamship and telegraph were absolutely critical to this later stage of imperialism. Cheap textiles and other consumer goods also meant Europe had an economic weapon to subjugate colonies, not just brute force. Ideologically, scientific racism developed which was quite distinct from the religious chauvinism that characterized earlier colonization.

The early imperialism, from the 16th to the 18th century, was characterized by European "settlers." Europeans would go to the Americas (North and South) or Australia. They would then "push aside" the natives, while living there the rest of their lives. Thus, the European colonies (at least the "settled" parts) would consist mostly of European descendants in North America and Australia, or "mixed" European and native people (with a European upper class) in South America.

In the later imperialism, Europeans went to Asia and Africa to "colonize" or rule, rather than "push aside" native peoples. They would spend their "careers" in the colonies, but their goal was to "retire rich" in their HOME (European) country. As such, they were what the Americans would call "carpetbaggers." These European colonies' populations would consist mostly of "natives."

India represented a transition from one kind of imperialism to the other. It was colonized by the British in the mid-18th century, at the end of the first (settler) imperialism, and ahead of the second (colonial) imperialism, but it was more like the second, than the first type of imperialism.

Whatever anyone says, someone here will call it a rant. =)

Basically there is no right answer to the question. it is just a label given to a mindset. so to answer the question… no it is the same thing…

There was no particular point in history where the people of the time said… hey now it is time to do new imperialism! No one said Imperialism needed a version upgrade.

And I would agree with Tom Au, the term "Early imperialism" describes the taking of the lower hanging fruits against substantially less developed civilizations (in Africa, North America, Central America, South America, and Australia).

"New Imperialism" is just the same thing, the same mentality, but a term coined to describe the taking of more established and more advanced civilizations, such as those in the middle east, south Asia, indochina, and east asia. (which was clearly enabled by the widening technology gap)

But ultimately it really is the same thing.

Eventually, we had Total Imperialism. A period that no children of the imperialists have gotten around to naming (still too raw).

This was a period where the imperialists ran out of fruits to pick and decided to play for all the marbles among themselves, resulting in WWI and then WWII. It is the exact same concept. But they ran out of outsiders to conquer. So they looked to each other.

And tens and tens of millions of deaths later… We ended up with 2 super power… then 1…

The original imperialists lost it all.

This should be the ultimate cautionary tale. But, for the average person, history stops at the GLORIOUS mankind triumph over the evil that was the 3rd Reich.

That was of course a great story, but evil exists in many forms. Hitler only happened because of imperialism…

And with a cultural mindset of Win-Lose, of domination, this will never stop happening.


To best answer this question, I feel like a direct comparison between these two events is necessary.

OLD IMPERIALISM (c. 1450 - 1750)

Old Imperialism is a term used to describe the imperialistic events of the Europeans towards the indigenous tribes of America. It all started when Christopher Columbus sailed across the waters to America.

1. Motives

The motives for this wave of imperialism could be summed up in three words: gold, God, and glory. You may of heard these before.

  • Gold. Europeans wanted a lot of gold since their supply back home was running out. Constant wars with neighboring countries and frequent peasant revolts didn't come cheap.

  • God. Europe also wanted to spread the word of God. Lots of missionaries and activists traveled about, jumping at every opportunity to convert people.

  • Glory. Europe's heavy view of ethnocentrism acted as a catalyst to conquering lesser advanced civilizations. They thrived to make a mark everywhere they go, and wanted it to stay.

And just a side note, gold was an active reason, while God and glory were passive.

2. Contact

When Europeans encountered the indigenous tribes for the first time, it did not end well. They killed thousands, decimated their homes, and took their lands.

They forcefully converted almost the entire population to Christianity through ways like Residential schools. They also enslaved many people.

NEW IMPERIALISM (c. 1881 - 1914)

Before I get started, I would like to point out that the information presented in the following lines are specifically from African imperialism. I'm not exactly an expert as to what happened to other places during the era of New Imperialism, but the ideology should be somewhat similar.

1. Motives

This time around, the motives were way better. Of course, they weren't great, but at least they were better than the old views of gold, God, and glory - kill everyone, take their land, and here, have my smallpox. Europeans actually wanted to help the people of Africa. This was because of their new views like the White Man's Burden. But of course, they were also still greedy for territory.

2. Contact

European colonialism brought many forms of sports to Africa, connecting it to the rest of the world like the African Cup of Nations (soccer tournament). The previous form of government, like the Isalmic rule, was also way worse to the society than the European rule. Europe even abolished some forms of slavery! European imperialism also brought over education, and the basis of which is still being used today. Europe brought over new cures and treatments for diseases, helping millions of people in Africa to live cleaner lives.

There! Hope this helps.

What is the difference between 'old imperialism' and 'new imperialism'?

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Answer has 79 votes.

Currently voted the best answer.

Old imperialism (traditional empire building) became increasingly frowned upon internationally by the 20th century, so simply having a powerful country conquer and gain land and rule centrally (which actually has happened at least since the Roman Empire and since) generally came to an end.

Neo/New Imperialism is the more subtle version of the same thing under political and economic cover, such as the USSR and more recently the EU. Countries under their rule (since the fall of the USSR) are nominally independent, but the ruling system takes more and more power from them until the differences are barely possible to distinguish.

There are still a few territories under foreign rule, most of all the French territories which (apart from a few small exceptions) have full French nationality despite being mainly in Africa. They have become an example of a more mutual form of imperialism where the conquered countries appear to accept and benefit from the arrangement so have not pushed for full independence.

Old Imperialism:
It occurred between 16th and 18th centuries. It began in 1870s colonized Asia and Africa by using military force to take control of local governments. It exploited local economies for raw materials required by Europe’s growing industry. It imposed Western values to benefit the “backwards” colonies.

New Imperialism:
European powers did not usually acquire territory (except for Spain in Americas and Portugal in Brazil) but rather built a series of trading stations. It respected and frequently cooperated with local rulers in India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and other areas where trade flourished between locals and European coastal trading centers. It involved economic penetration of non-European regions in the 19th century.

How Was Imperialism Justified?

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, imperialism was justified through the theory of Social Darwinism. This theory sought to apply the theory of biological Darwinism, as proposed by Charles Darwin in "Origin of Species," to human societies. Imperialists justified invading a foreign territory by citing the improvements their culture and innovation had on the occupied territory.

While the theory of Social Darwinism is similar in nature to Darwin's theory of evolution of plants and animals, it was proposed by Herbert Spencer. Spencer is credited with coining the phrase "survival of the fittest" to predict the outcome of imperialism, or the competition between social groups. The first group, the imperial power, maintained more power and resources than the colonized nation. Thus, the cultural and societal characteristics that would distinguish one culture from another were erased, resulting in cultural assimilation.

Social Darwinism is criticized for its exploitation and subjugation of vulnerable populations. It is also believed to have incited racism and xenophobia within imperial nations, as well as influence the decline of the welfare state in the late 20th century. In Marxist thought, Social Darwinism is described as the result of late capitalism and evidence of the decline of civilization.

Causes Of The Age Of Imperialism

European imperialism? (YES) INTRODUCTION: The Industrial Revolution contributed to the prosperity of the capitalist system in Europe during the 19th century, this was reflected on the European community. The flourishing of the capitalist system in Europe during the 19th century caused the emergence of an imperial expansionist movement. - What is the meaning of imperialism and what their motives? And which causes make this imperial movement disappear little by little? I-European imperialism and its

Rise of new industrialized nations

Parallel with the emergence of new powers seeking a place in the colonial sun and the increasing rivalry among existing colonial powers was the rise of industrialized nations able and willing to challenge Great Britain’s lead in industry, finance, and world trade. In the mid-19th century Britain’s economy outdistanced by far its potential rivals. But, by the last quarter of that century, Britain was confronted by restless competitors seeking a greater share of world trade and finance the Industrial Revolution had gained a strong foothold in these nations, which were spurred on to increasing industrialization with the spread of railroad lines and the maturation of integrated national markets.

Moreover, the major technological innovations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries improved the competitive potential of the newer industrial nations. Great Britain’s advantage as the progenitor of the first Industrial Revolution diminished substantially as the newer products and sources of energy of what has been called a second Industrial Revolution began to dominate industrial activity. The late starters, having digested the first Industrial Revolution, now had a more equal footing with Great Britain: they were all starting out more or less from the same base to exploit the second Industrial Revolution. This new industrialism, notably featuring mass-produced steel, electric power and oil as sources of energy, industrial chemistry, and the internal-combustion engine, spread over western Europe, the United States, and eventually Japan.

Conclusion ↑

Even if imperialism was one of the crucial factors that led to World War I, it is striking that by early 1914 all colonial disputes between Germany and Britain had been solved. After long and difficult debates and diplomatic maneuvers, the agreements concerning the Baghdad Railway had resulted in compromise solutions in which all parties (except the Ottoman Empire) profited. British diplomacy stopped resisting the German-Turkish project of building a railway from Constantinople to the Persian Gulf. However, the Germans agreed that the last section of the line would be built only by British investors and would be under sole British political and economic control. A compromise was also found in the question of the Mesopotamian oil fields. The secret Anglo-German treaty of 1913 concerning the partition of the Portuguese colonies was a German success as well. Britain agreed to act against the political interests of its traditional ally, Portugal, and used the question of the colonies to appease Germany. By 1912/1913 the extra-European world had been stabilized. From this perspective, World War I began as a European war but then had global and imperial consequences because of the nature of the states that took part in it.

Imperialism was responsible for reforming the European alliances.

  1. Imperialist expansion played a major role in the growing tensions between Germany and Great Britain after the turn of the century. The growing imperialist rivalry was responsible for the slow formation of an anti-German alliance system in Europe. Because of the increasing imperial competition and the naval race, the British decided to work with France and to sign the Entente Cordiale in 1904, thus putting an end to long-standing Franco-British colonial rivalries.
  2. German diplomacy was based on the conviction that the Anglo-Russian antagonism would remain a central factor for Great Power diplomacy no matter how Germany acted. However, the same constellation that led to the Franco-British détente also forced Britain to change its policy towards Russia. In 1907 Eyre Crowe formulated his famous memorandum predicting that Germany, not Russia, would become the most dangerous threat for Britain. In the same year the Anglo-Russian treaty on the partition of Persia was signed, ending any major imperial rivalry between the two countries. Neither of these treaties was a military alliance, but they shaped British foreign policy, as the British continued to view Germany as the only dangerous international competitor.
  3. Between 1911 and 1913 the British concluded that relations with the aggressive Wilhelmine state had to be improved to avoid the danger of a major European war. After the failure of the famous Haldane Mission, British statesmen looked for initiatives in imperial affairs for which compromise solutions with Germany could be found. The difficult negotiations for the Baghdad Railway were successfully finished in the spring of 1914. Additionally, with the 1913 treaty partitioning the Portuguese colonies, the British allowed Germany to acquire territory in Africa at the cost of its traditional ally Portugal. As a result, by the summer of 1914 the period of Anglo-German imperial rivalry had ended.
  4. By the end of the Second Moroccan Crisis most of the colonial disputes between Berlin and Paris had also disappeared. The French colonial administration focused on penetrating and stabilizing its newly acquired African territories. In the Balkans, however, the combination of conflicting Austro-Hungarian, Italian, and Russian imperialist aspirations, the breakdown of the European region of the Ottoman Empire, and aggressive processes of nation building (in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania) had been an increasing threat since 1912. Ultimately, the explosive combination of these events contributed to the constellation of the July Crisis in 1914.

Boris Barth, Universität Konstanz

Modern Imperialism and its Impact

Imperialism played a big part in the economies of large, industrial or militarily-powerful nations and even in the world economy in the last two centuries.

In the 19th century, several countries in Europe, including Britain, Germany, France and others, created colonies in Africa, Asia and its islands in order to have control over the resources there. They accomplished this by using their military, politicking and businesses investments. Britain was the greatest European “empire” of the 19th century. It included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several colonies in Africa and Asia. India rebelled against the British in 1857, like American colonists did in 1775. The British crushed the rebellion in India, unlike in America. The British built railroads, telegraphs, canals, harbors and had improved farming there. France, Germany and other European powers learned from this and “jumped on the bandwagon”, gaining colonies – mostly in Africa.

American Imperialism

Following the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States saw the opportunity to gain colonies from the islands it conquered from Spain in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, including Cuba, Puerto Rico,Guam and the Philippines. Many people in these “empires” believed they could truly be a world power only by gaining colonies around the world.

The ‘new’ Imperialism

Imperialism, expressed as a nation’s securing economic dominance of, influence over, or advantage from other nations, remains much as Lenin characterized it in his 1916 pamphlet, Imperialism. Its uninterrupted persistence, from the time well before the pamphlet’s publication through today, certainly supports the claim that it constitutes the “highest stage of capitalism.” Its basic features, as outlined by Lenin, remain the same over a century: monopoly capital serves as its economic base, it supports a profound and growing role for finance capital, and the exportation of capital to foreign lands continues as a primary aim. Corporations spread their tentacles to every inhabitable area of the world and nation-states vie to encase those areas in their protected spheres of influence. War is the constant companion to imperialism.

While the character and grand strategy of imperialism never changed, the tactics evolved and shifted to adjust to a changing world. New developments, shifting power relations, and new antagonisms produced different responses, different approaches toward the imperialist project. With the success of the Bolshevik revolution in the immediate wake of an unprecedented bloodletting for nakedly imperial goals, the task of suffocating real existing socialism rose as the primary focus of imperialist powers. Those same powers recognized that the Soviets were encouraging and aiding the fight not only against the spread of colonies, but against their very existence.

Consequently, it is understandable that the next round of imperialist war was instigated by rabidly anti-Communist, extreme nationalist regimes in Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan. World War II came as a caustic mix of expansionism, xenophobia, and anti-Communism.

In the twentieth century, accelerated by the technologies of war honed in World War I, oil production played a greater and greater role in shaping the future fields of imperial contest. Acquiring oil and other resources was not an insignificant factor in the aggressions of both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Clearly, both economic factors and political factors shaped the trajectory of imperialism in the first half of the twentieth century.

While no one doubts that the old European great powers hewed to an imperialist course until World War II (after all, they ferociously clung to their colonies), the myth still exists that the US was a reluctant imperialist. Apologists point to the ‘meager’ colonial empire wrenched from Spain (conveniently ignoring the nineteenth-century expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans as well as the deals, wars, and genocide that ‘earned’ that expansion). They point to the ‘isolationist’ foreign policy of the US following the Treaty of Versailles, a claim demolished by the historian William Appleman Williams and his intellectual off-spring.[1] Appleman Williams showed that imperialist ends are achievable by many means, both crude and belligerent and subtle and persuasive. He showed that domination is effectively achieved through economic ties that bind countries through economic coercion, a tactic as effective as colonial rule. US policy, in this period, anticipates the financial imperialism of the twenty-first century. Appleman Williams and others revealed a continuous US imperialist foreign policy as doggedly determined as its European and Asian rivals.

A new model prevails

After World War II, the balance of power shifted in favor of a Euro-Asian socialist bloc centered around the Soviet Union and a liberated China, threatening even greater resistance to imperial world dominance. Through both mass resistance and armed struggle, colonial chains were loosened or broken. The war-weakened European powers strained to hang on to their colonial possessions. Moreover, the US, the supreme capitalist power, largely rejected the old colonial model.

In its stead, less coercive, but even more binding economic ties were secured through ‘aid,’ loans, investments, and post-war institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This ‘neo-colonial’ tactic especially recommended itself because of the needs of the Cold War and the vast economic asymmetries favoring US power. Since the Cold War was also a monumental battle of ideas, US rulers sought to cast aside the ugly, oppressive imagery of colonial administration and military occupation. Further, the enormous need for capital by those under-developed by colonialism or ravaged by war could easily be fulfilled by the US, but at the price of rigid economic ties binding a country to the global capitalist economy now dominated by US capital.

The towering figure of Africa’s most fervent advocate for unity, socialism, and defiance of imperialism, Kwame Nkrumah, was a pioneer in developing our understanding of neo-colonialism. He wrote in 1965 in words that ring true today:

Faced with the militant peoples of the ex-colonial territories in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, imperialism simply switches tactics. Without a qualm it dispenses with its flags, and even with certain of its more hated expatriate officials. This means, so it claims, that it is ‘giving’ independence to its former subjects, to be followed by ‘aid’ for their development. Under cover of such phrases, however, it devises innumerable ways to accomplish objectives formerly achieved by naked colonialism. It is this sum total of these modern attempts to perpetuate colonialism while at the same time talking about ‘freedom,’ which has come to be known as neo-colonialism.[2]

President Truman affirmed the US commitment to the evolved neo-colonial program in his 1949 inaugural address when he rejected the ‘old imperialism.’

Gordon Gray, in a special report to the President issued on November 10, 1950, offered a motivation for the new program:

The largest part of the non-Soviet world… measured in terms of population and land areas, consists of economically underdeveloped regions. With some exceptions, the countries of the three areas–Latin America, Asia, and Africa–fall into this category. In the non-Communist parts of these areas live… 70 percent of the population of the entire non-Soviet world. These areas also contain a large part of the world’s natural resources… [T]hey represent an economic potential of great importance… The contrast between their aspirations and their present state of unrelieved poverty makes them susceptible to domestic unrest and provides fertile ground for the growth of Communist movements…[3]

But the US variant of classical imperialism predates the Cold War instantiation embraced by the Truman administration. As Appleman Williams notes, post-World War I leaders like Hoover, Coolidge, Hughes, and Stimson endorsed an international ‘community of interest,’ achieved by encouraging the penetration of US business worldwide. In Appleman Williams’s words, “These men were not imperialist in the traditional sense… They sought instead the ‘internationalization of business’… Through the use of economic power they wanted to establish a common bond… Their deployment of America’s material strength is unquestioned.”[4]

It is important to note that their choice of a more benign imperialism was not based upon moral considerations, but self-interest. Moreover, it necessarily preferred stability when possible, even if stability came through the exercise of military might. President Coolidge acknowledged this in a Memorial Day address in 1928: “Our investments and trade relations are such that it is almost impossible to conceive of any conflict anywhere on earth which would not affect us injuriously.”[5] As a late-comer to the imperial scramble, US elites chose the non-colonial option, avoiding the enormous costs in coercion, counter-insurgency, and paternalistic occupation associated with colonialism–and equally avoiding conflicts that might rock existing and expanding business relations.

In the post-World War II era, the Marshall Plan and The Point Four program were early examples of neo-colonial Trojan Horses, programs aimed at cementing exploitative capitalist relations while posturing as generosity and assistance. They, and other programs, were successful efforts to weave consent, seduction, and extortion into a robust foreign policy securing the goals of imperialism without the moral revulsion of colonial repression and the cost of vast colonies.

In the wake of World War II, US imperialism reaped generous harvests from the ‘new’ imperialism. Commerce Department figures show total earnings on US investments abroad nearly doubling from 1946 through 1950. As of 1950, 69% of US direct investments abroad were in extractive industries, much of that in oil production (direct investment income from petroleum grew by 350% in the five-year period).[6] Clearly the US had recognized its enormous thirst for oil to both fuel economic growth and power the military machine necessary to protect and enforce the ‘internationalization of business.’

One estimate of the rate of return on US direct investments from 1946 to and including 1950 claims that Middle Eastern investments (mainly oil) garnered twice the rate of return of investments in Marshall Plan participant countries which, in turn, produced a rate of return nearly twice that of investments made in countries that did not participate in the US plan.[7] Undoubtedly, US elites were pleased with the rewards of the new imperial gambit.

Patterns were set in the period immediately after World War II, patterns that persist even today. The basis for US hostility toward Venezuela can be anticipated in US imperialism’s early stranglehold on the Venezuelan economy. As early as 1947, the US exported nearly $178 million of machinery and vehicles to that country, primarily to and for foreign-owned oil companies. Only $21 million of that total went to domestically owned companies or for local agricultural use. In the same year, the income from American direct investments totaled $153 million.[8] Is it any wonder that the US would meet any independent path of development, such as the Bolivarian Revolution, with intense resistance?

The idea of parlaying economic power, capital resources, loans, and ‘aid’ into neo-colonial dependency through the mechanisms of free and unfettered trade–the ‘internationalization of business’–may well be seen as the precursor of the various trade organizations and trade agreements of today, like GATT, NAFTA, TPP, and so many other instruments for greasing the rails for US corporations.

Outside of the socialist bloc, much of the world was newly liberated from colonial domination, but ripe for imperialist penetration in the post-war era. For two decades after WWII, the socialist bloc was united in solidarity with the forces in opposition to imperialism. Arrayed against the anti-imperialist alliance were the imperialist powers bound together by the NATO alliance and their client states. In the imperialist camp, the anti-Communist Cold War imperatives secured US leadership and contained inter-imperialist rivalries in this period.

Two worlds, or three?

It is both useful and accurate to characterize that era as a confrontation between imperialism and its opponents: imperialism and anti-imperialism.

But in the battle of ideas, Western intellectuals preferred to divide the world in a different fashion. They preferred to speak and write about three worlds: a First World of developed, ‘advanced’ capitalist countries, a Second World of Communism, and a Third World of underdeveloped or developing countries. Clearly, the gambit here was to isolate the world of Communism from the dynamics of global capitalism and plant the notion that, with the help of some stern advice and perhaps a loan, the Third World could enjoy the bounty of the First World. The Three-World concept captured completely the world view espoused by Gordon Gray in his missive to President Truman quoted above. Assuredly, the three-world distinction was both useful and productive for elites in the West–decidedly more useful than the division between imperialists and anti-imperialists.

Sadly, late-Maoism, breaking away from the socialist bloc, uncritically adopted the three-world concept in its polemics against the Soviet Union. Embracing a tortured, twisted re-interpretation, Maoism sought to separate the socialist world from the anti-imperialist struggle and establish the People’s Republic of China as a beacon for the Third World. In reality, this theoretical contortion resulted in the PRC consistently siding with imperialism for the next three decades on nearly every front, including and especially in Angola and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, significant sectors of the Western left fell prey to the confusions engendered by the debates of that time. To this day, many liberals and left activists cannot locate opposition to US dominance as objectively anti-imperialist. They place their own personal distaste for regimes like that of Milosevic, Assad or Gaddafi ahead of a people’s objective resistance to the dictations of imperialism. Confusion over the central role of the imperialism/anti-imperialism dynamic breeds cynicism and misplaced allegiances.

For example, Islamic fundamentalist fighters sided with imperialism against the socialist-oriented government of Afghanistan and Soviet internationalists. When the same forces turned on their imperialist masters their actions, not their ideology, became objectively speaking anti-imperialist. For other reasons–irrationalism, fanaticism, intolerance–we may condemn or disown them, while locating them, at the same time, in the framework of anti-imperialism. Similarly, in the imperialist dismantling of Yugoslavia, it doesn’t matter whether imperialism’s collaborators were Croatian Ustashi-fascists, or Bosnian liberals, they were all aligned with imperialism and its goals. Those who opposed these goals were acting objectively in the service of anti-imperialism. Moral rigidity is no excuse for ignoring the course of historical processes. Nor are murky notions of human rights.

As it has for well over a century, viewing international relations through the lens of imperialism/anti-imperialism serves as the best guide to clarity and understanding imperialists prey as well upon those who we may find otherwise objectionable.

Confront or undermine?

It would be wrong to leave the impression that US imperialism is solely based upon dollar persuasion or economic coercion. American military might exists as the international police force for imperial maintenance and expansion. The difference is that the US variant of imperialism chooses the option of planting military installations throughout the world–like the cavalry outposts of Western lore–rather than incur the costs of infrastructure and administration associated with Old World colonialism.

In addition, US imperialism confers special status on trusted watchdogs strategically placed in various regions. Before the revolution, the Shah’s Iran functioned as a regional cop, armed with the latest US weaponry. South Korea filled a similar role in the Far East, replacing Taiwan after US rapprochement with the PRC. With sensitivity to oil politics, the US has paired reliable Arab countries–Saudi Arabia or Egypt–with Israel to look after things in the Near East.

But employing regional gendarmes has challenged US policies as domestic upheavals or peer embarrassment has convinced some trusted clients that subservience will be widely viewed as–well, slavish subservience. Consequently, cooperation with the US has become more covert, less servile.

The hottest moments of the Cold War demonstrated that military confrontation with Communist led forces was not a wise move either in desired results or costs. The Korean and Indochinese Wars, interventions visiting a military reign of terror on small countries, proved that even the greatest imperialist military machine could not match the tenacity and dedication to victory of a far less materially advantaged foe. After the decisive victory of the Vietnamese liberators, the US never again sought a direct military confrontation with Communism.

But when the struggle of those fighting to escape imperialism and the capitalist orbit escalated, the US began relying more on surrogates, mercenaries, and clients. In place of direct military intervention, US policymakers relied on covert schemes, secret armies, and economic sabotage. In the Portuguese African colonies and South Africa, in Ethiopia, South Yemen, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and several other countries, Marxism-Leninism served as a guiding ideology for liberation and nation-building. At the same time, Marxist parties played a significant role in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in the Portuguese revolution, and in European politics. By the end of the 1970s, the zenith of militant anti-imperialism and the global influence of Marxism-Leninism were reached. Imperialism appeared to be in retreat worldwide. And the leading imperialist country, the US, had suffered a domestic crisis of legitimacy from the extra-legalities of the Nixon Administration and serious economic instability.

Unfortunately, supporting this shift in the balance of forces globally came at great costs to the Soviet economy. The newly born, socialist-oriented countries were largely resource-poor, economically ravaged, and riven with ethnic and social schisms, all of which were easily and readily exploited by imperialism. Aid and assistance taxed the Soviet economy and in no small way contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union a decade later. Civil war, dysfunctional economies (thanks to colonialism), insufficient cadres, and unskilled administrators left those committed to building socialism facing a profound challenge, a challenge that proved impossible for most after the demise of the Soviet Union. It would have taken decades to integrate these countries into the socialist economic community. Unfortunately, they were not granted that opportunity.

Faced with a deteriorating international position, the cornerstone of the imperialist alliance–the US and the UK–changed course, electing regimes that refused to accept a restructured world order disadvantaging imperialism. The Thatcher and Reagan administrations signaled a new belligerence, a vigorous and aggressive assault on the twentieth-century bastion of anti-imperialism, the socialist community. A massive arms build-up and innumerable covert interventions coincided with the rise of an ideologically soft-headed Soviet leadership to dismantle the European socialist community in the decade to follow.

With the demise of the European socialist bloc, imperialism regained its nineteenth-century swagger, enjoying a nearly unopposed freedom of action. TINA–the doctrine that There Is No Alternative–seemed to prevail as much for imperial domination, as for capitalism.

A shaken international left faced a new, unfavorable balance of forces going into a new century. Far too many stumbled, took to navel-gazing, or spun fanciful, speculative explanations of the new era. The moment was reminiscent of the period after the failed revolution of 1905 famously described by Lenin:

Depression, demoralisation, splits, discord, defection, and pornography took the place of politics. There was an ever greater drift towards philosophical idealism mysticism became the garb of counter-revolutionary sentiments. At the same time, however, it was this great defeat that taught the revolutionary parties and the revolutionary class a real and very useful lesson, a lesson in historical dialectics, a lesson in an understanding of the political struggle, and in the art and science of waging that struggle. It is at moments of need that one learns who one’s friends are. Defeated armies learn their lesson.[9]

Unfortunately, most of the left learned nothing from the defeat of 1991.

Militant anti-imperialism returns

If Marx teaches us nothing else, he reminds us that historical processes play out in unexpected, perhaps even unwelcome ways. The suppression of secularism as a tactic for disarming movements for independence or social progress is as old as the British Empire and probably older. Certainly the British colonial authorities were masters at divide and conquer, encouraging ethnic or religious differences to smother otherwise secular movements. It was this proven approach that joined US and Israeli policy planners in making every effort to discredit, thwart, split, and penetrate every secular movement in the Middle East: influential and substantial Communist Parties, left Ba’athists, radical democrats, nationalists, etc. The secular PLO was notably targeted. At the same time, they sought to use Islamic fundamentalists by covertly supporting them as an alternative and actively encouraging divisive conflict. Hamas was one such organization, chosen specifically as a hostile option to the militantly anti-imperialist PLO.

Similarly, the US and its allies sought to weaken the Soviet effort in Afghanistan by funding and arming the Islamic fundamentalists engaged in a civil war against forces advocating free, secular education, land reform, gender equality, and modernization.

Radical Islamic fundamentalism had waned in the 1950s and 1960s, losing momentum to the awakening inspired by Nasserism and other nascent national movements. But the encouragement and material support of the US and Israel rekindled these movements. Add the demise of the Soviet Union and the loss of support for secular national movements, and imperialism blazed a path for the growth and prominence of fundamentalism.

Not surprisingly, the grievances, the injustices endured by the people of the Middle East now found expression through the organs and institutions of fundamentalism, just as the peoples of Latin America found expression for their plight through the Catholic Church when denied other options by fascistic military dictatorships.

The Palestinian Hamas-inspired intifada shocked Israel and its allies from their smug arrogance. And the brutal attacks on US interests, the US military, and on targets in the domestic US further shocked imperialism. Lost in the revenge hysteria, hyper-patriotism, and religious bigotry fueled by the attacks were the casus belli invoked by the fundamentalists: the occupation of Palestine since the 1967 war and the use of Saudi bases as US military staging points before and after the 1991 invasion of Iraq.

While the targeting of civilians is regrettable, it is regrettable in its entirety: whether they be German civilians bombed by the allies in Dresden, Korean women and children massacred by US soldiers in Taejon, or villages destroyed by US aircraft in Vietnam. But it is more than a curiosity or a mark of barbarism that oppressed peoples facing a modern, advanced army with superior resources fight by different rules. Nor has there ever been an anti-imperialist movement that was not called ‘terrorist’ by its adversaries. Granting that Marx and Engels were not always consistent or correct on these questions, Engels offers insight in his column in the New York Daily Tribune published on June 5, 1857:

The piratical policy of the British Government has caused the universal outbreak of all Chinese against all foreigners, and marked it as a war of extermination.

What is an army to do against a people resorting to such means of warfare?… Civilization-mongers who throw hot shells on a defenseless city and add rape to murder, may call the system cowardly, barbarous, atrocious but what matters to the Chinese if it be only successful? Since the British treat them as barbarians, they cannot deny to them the full benefit of their barbarism. If their kidnappings, surprises, midnight massacres are what we call cowardly, the civilization-mongers should not forget that according to their own showing they could not stand against European means of destruction with their ordinary means of warfare.

In short, instead of moralizing on the horrible atrocities of the Chinese, as the chivalrous English press does, we had better recognize that this is a war pro aris et focis, a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality, with all its overbearing prejudice, stupidity, learned ignorance and pedantic barbarism if you like, but yet a popular war. And in a popular war the means used by the insurgent nation cannot be measured by the commonly recognized rules of regular warfare, nor by any other abstract standard, but by the degree of civilization only attained by that insurgent nation.[10]

Writing well over a century-and-a-half ago, Engels better understood the dynamics of anti-imperialist resistance than modern-day commentators, including most of the left.

Failing to understand the dynamic of ‘popular war,’ as Engels called it, only led to escalation: an invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, a subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq, incursions in Somalia, drone attacks throughout the region, aggression against Libya, destabilizing Syria, isolating Iran and other actions proclaimed as ‘anti-terrorist,’ but perceived by the people of the Middle East as aimed at forcing their submission to outside diktats. Accordingly, there is little chance that the hostilities invited and unleashed by imperialism will ebb any time soon. Only an exit and a cessation of meddling can promise that result.

Writing in 1989, well before the full unfolding of militant Islamic fundamentalism, Manfred Bienefeld reflected upon what he saw as the dimming prospects for anti-imperialist struggle, speculating on the—

…terrible possibility that in today’s world these forces may be permanently beaten back aided by the massive resources and powers available to the ‘international system’ and their local collaborators. It is striking that those movements that appear to be capable of sustaining such resistance for any length of time are movements like those of Islamic fundamentalism which refuse to calculate costs and benefits according to the calculus of those who shape the international system. [my emphasis][11]

Bienefeld’s words were eerily prescient.

Like the Chinese response to British aggression, the resistance to US imperialism in the Middle East has been nasty fighters have refused to submit to incineration and slaughter like the Iraqi army when faced with an overwhelmingly overpowering conventional army in 1991 and 2003. And like the English press cited by Engels, the Western media moralizes over tactics while purposefully ignoring the century of great-power aggression, occupation, and colonization of the region. For the apologists of imperialism, the systematic injustices of the past carry no moral weight against the most desperate actions of the powerless. One is reminded of the scene in Pontecorvo’s brilliant film, The Battle of Algiers, when the captured Ben M’Hidi is asked by a reporter why the liberation movement, FLN, plants bombs in discos and schools. His reply is succinct: “Let us have your bombers and you can have our women’s baskets.”

Where Islamic fundamentalism will take the people of the Middle East (and other areas of largely Islamic populations) is unclear. Close study of the different threads would undoubtedly show different and socially and economically diverse prospects. But what is clear is that as long as it carries the mantle of the only force resisting imperialism in the region, it will enjoy support and probably grow, though fraught with the contradictions that come from religious zealotry.

Risings in the south

Resistance to imperialism in the backyard of the US–Central and South America–has a long and noble history: long, because it traces back to the fight of the indigenous people against conquest and enslavement noble, because millions have given life and limb in wars of liberation and movements of resistance.

But it wasn’t until 1959 that a Latin American country broke completely away from the grasp of imperialism. The Cuban revolution produced a government hostile to foreign intervention, rapacious landowners, and greedy corporations—a formula sure to bring the disapproval of the powerful neighbor to the north. The rebel leaders met threats with defiance. As US belligerence began to suffocate the revolution, the Cuban leaders turned to and received support from the socialist community. In retaliation for this audacious move, the US organized an invasion of the island, only to be met with overwhelming, unexpected resistance. Unable to bring Cuba to its knees, imperialism enacted a cruel quarantine of Cuban socialism that persists to this day.

In the post-war era, the cause of the Popular Unity program in Chile inspired a generation in much the way that the cause of the Spanish Republic inspired a generation in the 1930s. The Allende government embodied the aspirations of nearly the entire left: a break from US imperial domination and a peaceful, electoral road to socialism. In 1973 those aspirations were dashed by economic subversion, the CIA, and a brutal coup launched by the Chilean military. More importantly, the coup in Chile sent the message that US imperialism would readily accept military, even fascist rule in Latin America before it would tolerate others following the Cuban path, the path away from imperialist domination.

But the tide of anti-imperialism could not be held back. Leaders like Lula, Rousseff, and Bachelet emerged from resistance to military dictators or, like Morales, from trade union militancy. As democratic changes inevitably surfaced, all were positioned and prepared to take their respective countries in another direction. The Kirchners in Argentina were more a product of the Peronista tradition of populist nationalism, a tradition often annoying the superpower to the north.

But most interesting and, in many ways, most promising, was the emergence of Hugo Chavez as the lightning rod for anti-imperialism in Latin America. Because Chavez rose from the military, he seemed to hold a key to unlocking the problem of military meddling in Latin American politics. Moreover, the Venezuelan military was a Latin American rarity–a military unwelcoming to US training and penetration. Chavez’s prestige with the military held or neutralized much of the military from going over to the 2002 coup attempt.

Clearly the most radical of the wave of new Latin American leaders, Chavez advocated for socialism. While Venezuelan ‘socialism’ remains a visionary, moralistic project, neither fully developed nor firmly grounded, it counts as an energetic pole raising questions of economic justice in the most profound fashion. Growing from a strong personal relationship between Hugo and his spiritual kin, Fidel, Cuba and Venezuela mark one pole of militant anti-imperialism. Together, they stand for political and economic independence from the discipline of great powers, their institutions, and transnational corporations.

Because they cherish their independence, they have earned the enmity of US imperialism. Lest anyone believe the recent trade for the Cuban patriots negotiated by the Cuban government means that the US government seeks peaceful co-existence with anti-imperialism, think again. The US has, in fact, escalated its aggression against Venezuela and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the heels of that exchange.

The other social and political movements formed in Latin America range across the political spectrum from cautiously social democratic to avowedly socialist. They stretch from Nicaragua in Central America through the entire Southern continent. Though they have no common political ideology, they have a shared aversion to accepting the demands of greater powers, a refusal to toe the imperialist line. To a lesser or greater extent, they support independence from the economic institutions governing the global economy. And they tend to support the consolidation and mutual support of their vital interests within the Latin American community. To that extent, they constitute a progressive, anti-imperialist bloc.

Today’s imperialism and its problems

Any survey of imperialism and its adversaries must note the pathetic role of most of the US and European left in recent years. Even in the most repressive moments of the Cold War, large anti-war movements challenged militarism, aggression, and war. But those movements have shriveled before indifference and ideological confusion. In the post-Soviet era, imperialism cynically appropriated the language of human rights and manipulated or bred an entire generation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with innocuous, seemingly socially conscious banners, but disruptive missions. So-called ‘color’ revolutions proliferated, paradoxically supported and directed by a host of government and private-capital funded NGOs. These organizations promoted a brand of ‘democracy’ that mobilized Western-oriented liberals and Western culture-mesmerized youth against established, often election-legitimized governments. Most of the Western left naively applauded and uncritically supported these actions with no understanding of the forces at play.

Much of the European and US left passively watched the dismantling of Yugoslavia–blinded by NATO proclamations about self-determination and ethnic violence, as if kindling the fires of extreme nationalism would produce anything other than separatism and hatred. In a masterful assault on credibility, NATO bombs were interpreted as enforcing human rights in Serbia and Kosovo.

The imperialist game of deception proved to work so well that it has been repeated again and again, in Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and Syria, to only name a few. It’s a sad commentary on the US labor movement (and its European counterparts) that it stands aloof from US imperialism (when not assisting it). Samuel Gompers, the conservative, first President of the American Federation of Labor joined the Anti-Imperialist League over a century ago his counterparts of today cannot utter the words.

Looking back, it is likely that few if any of the US and NATO aggressions of the last twenty-five years would have been dared if the Soviet Union still existed. Put another way, nearly all of the many interventions and wars against minor military powers were initiated because the US recognized that there was no powerful deterrent like the former Soviet Union. In that sense, imperialism has had a free hand.

Nonetheless, while twenty-first century imperialism endures, it does so despite great challenges and severe strains. Unending wars and deep and lasting economic crises have winded the US and its NATO allies. Military resistance to imperialism has proven resilient and determined, as would be expected of those fighting in defense of their own territory. The US all-volunteer military and low casualty rate have been a calculated success in pacifying many in the US, yet there is a widespread disillusionment with war’s duration and lack of resolution. Despite media courtiers continually stirring the pot of fear and hatred with hysterical calls for a war on ‘terror,’ the cost of that war in material and human terms becomes more and more apparent.

Memories of Vietnam haunt military strategists in the US who are finding it difficult to disengage in the face of escalating violence and the surfacing of new adversaries. It may be tempting to follow the lead of many liberals and label the trail of broken nations, shattered cities, slaughtered and maimed people traveled by the US military, its mercenaries, and camp followers as a product of incompetence and miscalculations. It is not. Instead, it is the product of imperialism’s failure to peacefully maintain a global economic system that guarantees the exploitative and unequal relations that enable imperialist dominance. In fact, it is a sign of a weakening imperialism that less than thirty years ago triumphantly stood admiring its final victory.[12]

The old symptoms return to afflict imperialism. Lenin saw the intensification of imperialist rivalries–competition for resources, spheres of influence, capital penetration–as an intrinsic feature of imperialism. In his time, the British Empire dominated, but with Euro-Asian rivals rising to challenge its supremacy. Commentators noted the ‘scramble’ for colonies and the rising tensions that ensued. Military and economic blocs were formed to strengthen the hands of the various contestants. World War followed.

While inter-imperialist war may not be imminent, the signs of discord, intensified competition, and shifting alliances are growing. Tensions between the US, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and even the EU are constant. Japanese nationalism has stirred historic antagonisms in the Pacific region, challenging the PRC’s economic might. The US has sought not to diffuse these tensions, but to intervene to advance its own interests.

The US has promoted or prodded Eastern European nationalism to shear away countries that were formerly accepted as part of the Russian sphere of influence. Not surprisingly, Russia has interpreted these moves as hostile acts and taken countermeasures. The Ukrainian crisis has produced belligerence unseen since the Cold War. At the same time, the EU opposes escalating anti-Russian punitive sanctions urged by the US, sensing the danger of disrupted economic relations and even war at a time when the European community is already suffering severe economic pain.

New alliances have formed as a counter force to US imperialism. The BRIC group, for example, exists as a loose community made up of significant players in the global capitalist economy: PRC, India, Russia, and Brazil. Though the members are not ostensibly in conflict with the US, they oppose the hegemony of the US in international institutions and the tyranny of the US dollar in international markets. They espouse a multi-polar world without US domination. Theirs is not an anti-imperialist bloc, but an anti-US hegemony bloc. They are not opposed to the predation inherent in international economic competition they are only opposed to US dominance of that predation.

This is in contrast to the ALBA bloc, a group of eleven Caribbean, Central and Southern American nations establishing an economic community. ALBA was envisioned by then Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as an alliance moving to escape the clutches of the global economic system. Chavez saw the expanding development of mutual trade, shared institutions, integration and a common currency as steps toward a community more and more removed from the rapacious international capitalist system. Of course that is a promise only to be realized far into the future. Moreover, it is a project only capable of achieving escape velocity when the member states embrace socialist economic principles. Nonetheless, ALBA counts as a significant irritant to imperialism.

Political forces are unleashed worldwide that promise to disrupt the course of imperialism. Unanswered economic discontent has fueled nationalism and religious zealotry, forces that inspire distrust of existing institutions and open markets. Spain, for example, is riven with separatism even the UK is threatened with Scottish autonomy. Economic nihilism and conspiratorial xenophobia have strengthened neo-fascist movements throughout Europe to the point where they seriously threaten the existing order.

Clearly, the political, social, and economic fabric of imperialism, its stability, and its ability to govern the world is under great stress. From world economic crisis to interminable wars, the world system has fallen far from its moment of celebration at the end of the Cold War.

Indeed, imperialism has changed. Colonialism–with the exception of Puerto Rico, Guam and a few other remnants of the past–is gone, with vestiges, like Hong Kong, either absorbed or liberated. Yet what otherwise exists today strongly resembles the imperialism of Lenin’s time, the imperialism of economically vulturous nations unfettered by a counter force like the Soviet Union. Perhaps, the ‘new’ imperialism is little more than a return to the imperialism that opened the last century with the US replacing Great Britain as the dominant imperial power–the ‘new’ is simply the reassertion of the old.

Understanding today’s imperialism requires some ideological re-tooling. The days of an alliance of socialist countries and newly liberated colonies searching for new roads under the socialist umbrella are past. In its stead are capitalist countries competing against the more dominating capitalist countries. Should they succeed in deposing the US, they in turn will fight to retain hegemony. That is, they will behave like a capitalist country. Of course opposing US hegemony is objectively anti-imperialist even when it seeks to impose its will on another capitalist country (Russia, today, for example). Indeed that is part of the struggle against imperialism–an essential part. Likewise, the struggle to resist and end US aggression and occupation of lands in the Middle East is a component of the contest with imperialism.

But the fight to end imperialism once and for all is the fight to end capitalism.

[1] See The Legend of Isolationism in the 1920’s, Science and Society, Winter, 1954 for an early exposition of this thesis.

[3] The Point Four Program: Promise or Menace? Herman Olden and Paul Phillips, Science and Society, Summer, 1952, p 224.

[4] The Legend of Isolationism in the 1920’s, Science and Society, Winter, 1954, pp 13-16.

[6] All data from Olden and Phillips pp 234-237.

[8] Olden and Phillips, p 232.

[9] Lenin, ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, an Infantile Disorder, International Publishers, 1969, p 13.

[10] Engels, Friedrich. Persia and China, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on Colonialism, Foreign Languages Publishing House, ND, pp 127, 128.

[11] Bienefeld, Manfred. Lessons of History and the Developing World, Monthly Review, July-August, 1989, p 37.

[12] Most famously, in Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalist The End of History and the Last Man, 1992.

[Thank you ZZ for this essay.]

Zoltan Zigedy is the nom de plume of a US based activist in the Communist movement who left the academic world many years ago with an uncompleted PhD thesis in Philosophy. He writes regularly at ZZ’s blog, and on Marxist-Leninism Today. His writings have been published in Cuba, Greece, Italy, Canada, UK, Argentina, and Ukraine.

If publishing or re-posting this article kindly use the entire piece, credit the writer and this website: Philosophers for Change, philosophersforchange.org. Thanks for your support.

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The New Imperialism: Motives and Methods

By the time the late 1800’s rolled around, European nation-states had turned slave stations and trading posts along the coasts of Africa, India, China, and Southeast Asia into powerful empires of their own. As a result of their political dominance in Africa, Europe gained influential economic strength as well.

Starting in the late-19th and early-20th century Europe's most powerful nation-states were taking control of most of Africa as well as large parts of South and East Asia. This process, which came to be known as New Imperialism, happened very rapidly and expressed the aggressive and irrational side of human nature.

European states saw the need to establish strong international markets that could support their country’s manufactured products abroad. Colonies in Africa were seen by many Europeans as possible sources of necessary and cheap raw materials, such as rubber or petroleum. Another purpose the colonies served to European nation-states was the potential to hold Europe’s surplus population. One major advocate of imperialism, Russian communist Vladimir Lenin, proposed that it was necessary for capitalist economies to find markets abroad for their excess products for survival.

Important political leaders in Europe saw imperialism as a way to maximize popular support at home. The need to secure ports, coaling stations for their navies, as well as the ability to raise colonial armies to help fight was a necessity for European states looking to establish themselves as world powers.

Rudyard Kipling, a British poet most known for his poem "White Man's Burden" which expresses his views on imperialism by strong nation states, describing the colonized peoples as "half-devil and half-child."

Some strong supporters of imperialism saw territorial expansion as a moral enterprise that could bring the blessings of a superior civilization to those that were considered inferior. One French politician, Jules Ferry, said that superior races had a right to civilize those that were not. The famous poem, “White Man’s Burden” written by Rudyard Kipling, expressed Kipling’s views of racial and paternal disdain as he saw colonized peoples as “half-devil and half-child.” However, Kipling also had the idea that non-Western peoples could conform towards their western mentors and that at its base, imperialism was just an educational project as well as a way to spread European Enlightenment. The domination by superior powers over colonized peoples led to a hierarchical system and racism, leading to the view that the good and the just were reduced to the values the victor chose to impose.

Scientific Racism was often used by Europeans to show their superiority over inferior races. Europeans often used science to justify their discriminatory views towards other races.

Three methods were used by European powers to control the colonies. The first of which was using European administrators for direct colonial rule. This method was the most costly but ensured the most control for a nation-state. The second method was a protectorate arrangement where a local colonial ruler and the government carried on as usual, but the European nation-state controlled the country’s military, foreign affairs, and economy and intervened whenever necessary. The final method was known as the “sphere of influence.” In this agreement, a colony would grant a European state certain economic privileges within its territory. Europeans living or working within that territory were not expected to follow the legal system of that territory.

Educating the Colonial Elite:

European nation-states were able to maintain their control of the colonies by providing a Western-style education for colonial leaders. Certain colonial elites were given a traditional university education and were then given important roles the colonial bureaucracy. Despite the high status jobs given to certain elites, they were still never considered equals to their European counterparts. Inequality mixed with the new western education led many elites to search for civil equality and national self-determination, a result the European nation-states did not foresee.

Watch the video: Imperialism: Crash Course World History #35