What do we Mean by ‘Imperialism’

The world ‘imperialism’ holds a special place in Marxist rhetoric.

Alongside ‘revisionist’, ‘Trotskyist’ and various terms denoting bourgeois status, it is a favourite insult of many (particularly Maoists), and has been such ever since it was first theorised by Lenin as the ‘Highest Stage of Capitalism’. Yet, whilst popular, it seems that its meaning is not always clear. For example, many socialists would criticise the practices of both Julius Caesar and George W. Bush as ‘imperialist’, yet their actions were very different, and it’s as though this difference is often glossed over.

This can be seen in Mao’s Theory of Three Worlds, which groups the USA and the USSR as imperialist countries, Europe, Japan and Canada as ‘smaller’ imperialist nations, and Asia, Africa and Latin America as the victims of imperialism. Yet the way in which the USA exerts dominance over these parts of the world isn’t explained, for, the days of empire now gone, it’s clear that such exploitation is predominantly economic only, and perhaps neo-colonialism would be a more accurate description. This is something that I feel is often ignored; when Lenin wrote about imperialism’s role in the development of capitalism, he spoke of the British, German and Portuguese empires, yet here, Mao refers largely to the corporate exploitation of the developing world.

Something else left unexplained here is the distinction between western imperialism and that of the Soviet Union, which, unlike the west, did not profit through neo-colonialism. Here, the term refers to the Soviet domination over Eastern Europe or Afghanistan through military and diplomatic, as opposed to economic control. Thus, though these two forms of domination differ starkly, they are grouped under the same banner.

To clarify the distinction, I believe these two different varieties of imperialism need stating; economic, and military/political imperialism. Often there is overlap, such as the forceful domination Britain exerted over India for its own economic interests, or perhaps the Second Iraq War, arguably driven by similar interests, yet the differences are clear, despite how often they’re ignored.

7 thoughts on “What do we Mean by ‘Imperialism’

  1. While I don’t disagree with the thrust of your argument, just a word of warning AR. You write:

    “…the way in which the USA exerts dominance over these parts of the world isn’t explained, for, the days of empire now gone, it’s clear that such exploitation is predominantly economic only…”

    Caution is needed here, for the US has 780 foreign military bases in more than 70 countries. Russia, UK and France COMBINED have but 32.

    We of course cannot underestimate the global impact of the golden arches, but there’s a lot of military hardware backing it up.

    Keep up the good work!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. i like the subject and I think it is timely given the global situation presently but I think that although the Soviet Union did dominate Eastern Europe diplomatically and militarily this in my opinion did represent a form of neo-colonialism in that the economic output of those dominated countries were pooled into the Soviet pot and contributed to it’s economic clout. Also the fact that those countries did not benefit from the post-war reconstitution of Europe and were colonised by the Soviet system to my mind deprived Europe of a powerful source of economic energy. Had the Soviets concentrated on their Asian satellites it might have been better for them than trying to hold on to countries that were more natually aligned to Europe.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Max. This is a tad unrelated… Listening to Pick of the Week on Radio 4 last Sunday, I came across a reference to a company called Suma (I checked the spelling on the internet). Founded in 1975, it has a strictly egalitarian pay policy and has existed for 40 years, through a variety of governments in the UK. I wondered if you knew of it …


  4. What about Putin’s Eurasian Economic ‘Union’? Russia stealthily draws its neighbours into an ever tighter economic embrace.
    We have all seen how Gazprom is used like a tool.. an instrument… I read recently that Armenia’s state gas company now renamed Gazprom Armenia. Oh and there’s now Gazprom Krygyzstan too (if I’ve spelt it right). This all looks like economic control to me.


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