Literally ‘empire-ism’, a term originally used in the 1860s to denote the political and military aspirations of Napoleon III in France, and later applied to Great Power rivalry in general, involving military competition and the acquisition of colonial territories in Africa and Asia. More recently, it has been used increasingly (now almost exclusively) to refer to the domination of colonial by more developed countries, and hence as a synonym for colonialism .
Theories of imperialism seek to provide explanations for the expansion of European control after 1870. They fall into three broad categories. The sociological theory of Joseph Schumpeter , drawing on a tradition of liberal thought, sees imperial policies as unnecessary and counter-productive. It analyses imperialism as a reflection of the existence of a pre-industrial and precapitalist social stratum within the imperial countries, a landed and military aristocracy, whose atavistic ideals and social position impel them towards something that is not in the interests of modern capitalist society. Marxist and more broadly economic theories see imperialism as a necessary product of capitalist industrialization and the limits which this has reached in the more developed countries. Here, imperialism represents either the search for markets, for pre-capitalist societies to subjugate, or for low wages or higher investment returns. For Lenin , imperialism (in the sense of colonialism) was the ‘highest stage’ of capitalism , and its abolition would spell the end of capitalism as a whole. Finally, strategic or political theories of imperialism see the expansion of the 1870s as but one of many such historical phenomena, in which more powerful states, for a variety of reasons (many of them non-economic) and through different mechanisms, seek to subject weaker states to their control; that is, there is nothing specifically economic or capitalist about the phenomenon. In this sense the term would cover such ancient empires as the Persian and Roman, as well as the Soviet bloc up to 1990, and informal empires such as those constituted by the economic influence of the United States in Latin America. See also neo-colonialism.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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