Traditional Explanations for Imperialism
The traditional historiography of colonialism and imperialism focused on providential and Euro-supremacist explanations for European hegemony, and it was largely centered on noteworthy Europeans and military exploits. Traditional historians believed imperialism to be a divinely-inspired mission for Europeans to bring technology, Christianity, capitalism, and European political systems to foreign lands. In short, the traditional historiography tended to support European beliefs in the need to bring civilization to peoples considered inferior by Europeans. Typical of the Victorian-era historians who upheld these ideals was Richard S. Whiteway.
Whiteway was a British citizen who entered the Bengal Civil Service in 1866, after graduating from the University of London. He served in a variety of roles in the northwest Indian provinces, from tax collector to magistrate. He retired in 1893 and began to write, completing this work in 1899. His decades in India provided him the opportunity to understand the subcontinent by experiencing it first-hand. His 1899 book The Rise of Portuguese Power in India 1497-1550 contained rhetoric typical of the Eurocentric cultural superiority that passed for historical writing in the 19th century. Whiteway wrote at the height of British imperialism, when the Empire spanned the globe and colonized every continent. He managed to disparage and stereotype, in a proper British fashion, nearly every group that he mentions in the text. One can almost envision Whiteway sitting in a velvet-covered wingback chair, sipping a glass of 40-year vintage port, and twirling his waxed moustache as he intones in a pompous voice not unlike that of the late Winston Churchill:
Arabs: “They had a large admixture of Semitic blood in their veins, and had at least one peculiarity of that race very strongly marked- they were not producers, but traders.”Thus, to historians of Whiteway’s ilk, the admonition by Kipling to “take up the white man’s burden” was the highest honor that elite Europeans could undertake. Langer argued that the literature of adventure itself was a driving force in the rise of the high imperialism, and he noted that books “on the accomplishments of British rule in the far corners of the earth rivaled stories of adventure and war in popularity.” The “cult of the sea,” as Langer termed this urge, was a primary force in the development of modern forms of imperialism.
Africans: “On the African Coast, [the Arabs] had to deal with savages with no fixed form of government…an invading horde of negroes would at times sweep away their settlement.” “On the African coast the natives were mere savages…”
Catholics: “In an age, however, in which the spiritual head of the Christian Church, the Pope himself, was in treaty with the Sultan of Turkey…could not have been one in which religious aims took a very prominent position.”
Non-aristocracy as leaders: “There is nothing to show that the waste of such a body [non-elite civil servant] in an adventurous career could be made good from a lower stratum of the people.”
Portuguese: “Whatever the Portuguese were in Europe, once in the East there was nothing to improve their character or soften their defects... Among the causes [of Portuguese decline in Asia] partly moral, was the deterioration of the Portuguese race caused by intermarriage with native races. From this intermarriage… a loss of vigour and a loss of prestige."
Multiracial peoples: "This mixed breed [Portuguese and subcontinental Indians] the result of these unions, never invigorated by contact with the sterner race, some of whose blood was in its veins, approximated more and more to the type of the country where it originated. That it should have been unable to hold its own with hardier races is quite consonant with experience."
Left: Map detailing European partitioning of Africa; click for larger image
Economic Interpretations of European Imperialism
The first challenges to the orthodox Eurocentrism of Victorian-era imperialism apologists came from historians and economists influenced by Karl Marx. J.A. Hobson, in his landmark 1902 book Imperialism, argued that “the modern foreign policy of Great Britain has been primarily a struggle for profitable markets of investment.” This foreign investment, according to Hobson, benefited a select wealthy few in British society, and this elite class used its power to influence foreign policy so as to maintain the influx of profits from abroad. Any altruistic justifications for imperialism, argued Hobson, should not be recognized as anything other than primarily self-serving, for businessmen “are primarily engaged in business, and they are not unaware of the utility of the more unselfish forces in serving their ends.”
Hobson’s "Little Englander" approach seemed to spark a new generation of thinkers who saw fit to dissect the modern forms of European imperialism that spread across the globe in the late 19th century. One of the theorists who joined this vanguard was Lenin, who expanded on the writings of Marx, especially Das Kapital. Lenin argued that imperialism was the manifestation of capitalism in its highest form, and that the unique feature of imperialism – as contrasted with other capitalist systems – was that it took advantage of “the export of capital.” Thus, by expanding the sphere of influence, the financial elite were able to control larger and larger portions of the globe.
One of Lenin’s most blistering critiques involved the financial elites, which he characterized as the “stratum of rentiers…who take no part in any enterprise whatever, whose profession is idleness.” He noted the irony that the nation (at the time) richest in capital – Britain – also exhibited signs of decay. Imperialism, according to Lenin, exacerbated the contradictions of capitalism, and represented the dying gasps of an obsolete organization. Lenin’s intense focus on economic forces to explain European imperialism, while groundbreaking, is unfortunately an exercise in tunnel vision, as the work ignores social, political, and sociological aspects of European hegemony.
Left: Immanuel Wallerstein
Immanuel Wallerstein argued that there were four different categories to describe a region’s relative position in the emerging transnational world economy: core, semi-periphery, periphery and external. These categories also described particular characteristics within the region itself, particularly as they related to labor. Wallerstein’s work is broader in scope than that of Marx and Lenin, although he is usually categorized in the Neo-Marxist camp.
Wallerstein developed the category of “the core” to describe the regions that most profited from the rise of capitalism; the first core, according to the author, consisted of England, France, and Holland. These states developed strong central governments, bureaucratic machinery, and mercenary armies with which to exert control over their interests. The switch from feudal obligations to money rents in the aftermath of the feudal crisis encouraged the rise of yeoman farmers, but forced many other peasants off the land. With few rural opportunities, these impoverished peasants often moved to urban areas, which provided a ready source of inexpensive labor necessary for the growth of manufacturing.
Wallerstein envisioned the category of “periphery” to describe regions that lacked strong central governments (or were controlled by imperial states), exported raw materials to the core, purchased manufactured products from the core, and relied on coercive practices for their labor needs. Wallerstein argued that Eastern Europe and Latin America fell into the earliest manifestation of periphery in early modern Europe.
Labor systems in peripheral areas differed from earlier modes in feudal Europe because they were established to produce goods for a capitalist world economy and not merely for internal consumption. In addition, the peripheral aristocracy grew wealthy from their relationship with the world economy, and could draw on the strength of the central core region to keep the population under control. The term “semi-periphery” described regions that, according to Wallerstein, were either in decline from or ascension to the core. Wallerstein argued that these regions served as buffer zones between the core and the periphery.
Wallerstein postulated that Spain and Portugal were examples of declining core states, since they lost their position of preeminence during the sixteenth century. These states, while participating in the emerging world economy, nonetheless did not benefit as much as core states from capitalism. Finally, “external” states - such as Russia and Japan - were those nations that did not directly participate in the emerging world economy.
Wallerstein ignored the role of individuals to effect the directions in which history unfolds, and his model does not explain the cases where European nations engaged in colonial activity that was highly unprofitable. Moreover, world systems theory considers the missionary impulse only in the context of supporting larger economic aims. The category of “external nations” seems to be a convenient way to account for nations that do not fit Wallerstein’s model. As a stand-alone paradigm, Wallerstein’s work is inadequate to explain the complex web of causal and prolongational factors that influenced European imperialism. Wallerstein, the sociologist-turned-economist, can be contrasted with another multi-disciplinarian: Joseph Schumpeter.
Left: Joseph Schumpeter
Sociological Explanations for the Imperial Impulse
While ostensibly an economist, Schumpeter incorporated an interdisciplinary approach to his 1918 work The Sociology of Imperialism. On one level Schumpeter challenged Marxist interpretations of imperialism, arguing that “it is a basic fallacy to describe imperialism as a necessary phase of capitalism, or even to speak of the development of capitalism into imperialism.” The capitalist age, argued Schumpeter, “has seen the development of methods for preventing war, for the peaceful settlement of disputes among states.” Schumpeter believed that the version of capitalism that evolved in the United States possessed fewer of the “precapitalist elements” that fueled the imperialist drive; one wonders how Schumpeter might rethink his assessment of American imperialistic tendencies in light of the current growth of US military bases around the globe.
Schumpeter argued that one of the precapitalist elements that lurked in the psychosocial memory of Europeans was the vestige of the medieval feudal aristocracy, which he described as the “war-oriented nobility.” The rise of merchant capitalism failed to displace the ruling elites of Europe, and these warrior-nobles still yearned for power and prestige; Schumpeter claimed that this “atavistic” impulse manifested itself in the form of imperialism.
Max Weber argued that expansionism possessed two characteristics that may or may not be in confluence. The “pacifist” tendency toward expansion is exhibited in the classical liberal desire for free trade, while the “imperialist” tendency seeks monopoly conditions that produce a maximum profit. For Weber, the struggle between groups in a particular society determined whether imperialist or pacifist expansion would occur in a capitalist system. Weber also believed that he lived in an era in which imperialist expansion had triumphed over pacifist expansion:
The universal revival of imperialist capitalism, which has always been the normal form in which capitalist interests have influenced politics, and the revival of political drives for expansion are thus not accidental. For the predictable future, the prognosis will have to be made in their favour.Weber also believed in the power of state bureaucracies to help perpetuate the imperialist drive. The colonial administrative machinery, in Weber’s view, was an organization unto itself, with its own evolving collective sense of self-preservation. This argument predated that of a pair of British historians, whose controversial work turned upside down the world of the historiography of imperialism.
“The Official Mind” and Imperialism: Robinson and Gallagher
Robinson and Gallagher (along with Alice Denny) created a firestorm of controversy with Africa and the Victorians, a book that created a new model for understanding European imperialism, which broke from tradition by adopting a more Afrocentric perspective. The authors discounted the idea of a “high imperialism,” arguing that European imperial designs possessed continuity throughout the 19th century; that the “official mind” and strategic concerns were more important than economic forces in the rise of imperialism; and that indigenous peoples played crucial roles in the ability of Europeans to exert informal and formal control over colonial territories.
Robinson and Gallagher argued against the traditional historiographical focus on formal empires, which ignored informal means of asserting imperial will. Gallagher believed that this was akin to “judging the size and character of icebergs solely on the parts above the waterline.” Ignoring informal empire, contended Gallagher, was a failure in recognizing that “the difference between formal and informal empire has not been one of fundamental nature but of degree.” Gallagher and Robinson also argued that the partition of Africa in the late 19th century had more to do with African politics than a rise in European imperialist mentalité, and that “what drove it on was the Suez crisis and the repercussions of that crisis.”
One of the primary objections to the Robinson and Gallagher model revolves around their theory of a mid-Victorian “Imperialism of Free Trade.” Platt, for example, argued that Robinson and Gallagher relied too heavily on the writings of colonial administrators to support the concept of the primacy of the “official mind.” Shepperson, while acknowledging the value of the model for its fresh insights, nonetheless argued that Robinson and Gallagher understated the importance of scheming entrepreneurs such as George Goldie and Cecil Rhodes in the partition of Africa. Stokes and Rostow took issue with the authors’ seeming lack of credence given to the effects of falling prices and the European economic depression that arrived in 1872 and lingered for two decades. Brunschwig argued that the continuity of imperialism claimed by the authors did not recognize the political drive among the European powers to develop spheres of influence, which he likened to a horserace among the imperialists.
Left: British colonialist Cecil Rhodes stands astride Africa in an 1892 cartoon from Punch
Though not without its faults, Africa and the Victorians is a book that forced historians to reexamine long-held beliefs about the nature, manifestation, and causes of European imperialism. The authors moved colonial and imperial discourse into a new, Afrocentric direction, and opened the way for later generations of historians.
Political Fragmentation as a Cause of Imperialism
Woodruff Smith argued that the dominant causal factor in the rise of high imperialism was the phenomenon of political fragmentation, which he defined as a nation’s inability to “achieve consensus about national politics and to undertake consistent political action.” Smith argued that the late 19th century was a time of social upheaval and economic unpredictability, and these conditions created a wide range of problems that required political solutions. Such solutions, however, required political factions in Western European nations to pay heavy prices no matter which course of action they chose.
One area of political commonality, argued Smith, for Victorian-era politicians was the expansion of colonial and imperial activity. He provided numerous examples of European political factions that, on the surface, might be expected to disagree about their respective nations’ roles as participants in imperial schemes. Smith argued that British conservatives, such as Disraeli, embraced imperialism as a way to unite disparate groups. The working class would be attracted to the possibility of increased employment through imperial overseas commerce, financial leaders would embrace colonialism as a tool to secure foreign investments, and industrialists would welcome both the new markets and the possible economic stability that imperialism might bring. For British liberals, imperialism represented the “next stage” in human social organization, and they embraced imperial activity as a sign of progress.
Smith’s argument, however, places far too much weight on the role of the politician in the imperialist drive. Political leaders react to, and can enact policies that influence larger forces, but they have little ability to stop or control the powerful social and economic forces that swirl around them. Very often the results of their policies have effects that are quite different from their intentions, much like the flapping wings of the proverbial butterfly that set in motion a chain of events leading to a hurricane half a world away.
Left: Advertisement for Pears' Soap entitled "Lightening the White Man's Burden." (McClure's Magazine, Oct. 1899); click for larger image
The late-19th century phenomenon known as “high imperialism” - despite the respective pet theories of an esteemed group of historians, economists, and sociologists – was the confluence of a wide variety of factors. In addition, the disparate European nations had different motivations at given points in this artificial periodization; thus, the development of explanatory models must rely on assumptions about the uniformity of imperial European nations.
Western-style capitalist nations (which now include nearly every sovereign entity in this emerging globalized economy) have become components in what I call an evolving hierarchy of states. This system relies on the competition inherent in capitalist economic structures, but hierarchical competitiveness is also manifest in political, military, and cultural spheres. In short, nations want to avoid lower rungs on the metaphorical ladder of state hierarchy, and act out of a sense of national self-interest, which changes in response to the individuals, factions, and corporate interests that control the machinery of state at a given moment. States possess a degree of hierarchical inertia, and require the imposition of internal and/or external forces to change positionality.
The leaders of individual nations, no matter what their size, can be likened to captains of ships. In the manner of skippers, their crafts are subject to a wide variety of forces beyond their ability to control, and even the most capable of leaders cannot avoid the element of chance. Imperialism, though, offers our hypothetical captain a degree of self-determination; if he chooses the path of empire, he may gain the title of “pirate,” but he nonetheless secures for his crew and vessel a greater share of resources and security. One may decry the fact that the laws of the seas have been broken, or pontificate on the immorality of imperialism, but I believe that the desires to maintain and improve hierarchical positionality in an era of global competition were as deep-seated in the late-19th century as they are today.