Imperialism: The Spectre That Never Waned

Imperialism Past and Present challenges several existing notions about empires, colonists and imperialists, making it an interesting read.

King Leopold described Africa as “the magnificent cake” to be devoured by his ilk and the impact of his brutal savagery continues to play out in the Congo and its surrounding countries even today. Image: Congolese soldiers being trained by American contractors wait for instructions during training at Camp Base, Kisangani. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

King Leopold described Africa as “the magnificent cake” to be devoured by his ilk. The impact of his brutal savagery continues to play out in the Congo and its surrounding countries even today. Image: Congolese soldiers being trained by American contractors wait for instructions during training at Camp Base, Kisangani. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the introduction to the first volume of his famous The Third Reich trilogy, the British historian Richard J. Evans says, “Contemporaries could not see things as clearly as we can, with the gift of hindsight: they could not know in 1930 what was to come in 1933, they could not know in 1933 what was to come in 1939 or 1942 or 1945. If they had known, doubtless the choices they made would have been different”. This wisdom is perhaps essential before embarking to review a book like Imperialism Past and Present by Emanuele Saccarelli and Latha Varadarajan.

The authors, both professors of political science at San Diego State University, examine (largely successfully) the origins, development and contemporary manifestations of imperialism. In doing so, they define imperialism as a theoretical concept, dispel common problems in the understanding of the concept and help the reader understand what imperialism is not. In a world beset with conflicts and associated uncertainty, this work makes a provocative argument that Western imperialism did not end with the end of colonialism.


Emanuele Saccarelli and Latha Varadarajan
Imperialism: Past and Present
Oxford University Press, 2015

The book, divided into six chapters, starts with a grim introduction where Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness is used to introduce the idea of imperialism as a historical epoch. This is followed by the longest chapter of the book that lays down the conceptual foundations for the arguments that the authors make. The remaining chapters provide an overview and the various manifestations of imperialism from the 19th century down to the present day.

What is imperialism?

The primary argument that the authors make is that imperialism emerged as a result of specific economic developments that fomented political transformations in the late 19th century. They also contend that imperialism is a definite epoch that continues to define the current global political scenario.

For a layperson, the difference between an empire and imperialism or for that matter between colonialism and imperialism is confusing. The book successfully differentiates between the three controversial ideas. While empire refers to political domination in all historical periods and colonialism refers to acquisition and rule of territories outside the mother country, according to the authors, “imperialism” refers exclusively to capitalism – beyond the economic system – and all of its political reverberations.

The origins of imperialism are presented through disparate views on the subject by liberal economist John Hobson and the leader of the Russian revolution, Vladimir Lenin. While the former viewed the idea as a set of misguided policies that could be reversed (and indeed rejected), the latter argued that imperialism is a systemic feature of capitalism.

The features of imperialism are explained through two important economic transformations. One, the rise of monopoly capital and the death of free competition as envisaged in the early days of capitalism leading to the creation of monopolies. Two, the financialisation of capitalism, which is the disproportionate importance and power of the finance industry. It is in this section that the ideological biases of the authors seem to take precedence over empirical evidence. While the authors make valid arguments about the nature and harm that monopolies can do, when it comes to finance they go on to denounce the entire industry with little in the way of finesse. Finance capital is referred to as parasitic and examples that fit the narrative are presented. This criticism, though, is a little hard to take seriously when the authors state, “the parasitic operation of finance capital assumes textbook quality – although in fairness to mushrooms and bacteria it should be noted that many of them are actually not pathogenic”. While this may be a tongue-in-cheek remark, comparing global systems of (mis)rule with mushrooms makes you wonder how much of their argument the authors want to be taken seriously.

From the standpoint of politics, a convincing case is made for the international character of imperialism. It is contended that the capital class “owns” the state in imperialist nations and the post-2008 crisis bailout example, in addition to projecting the inability of advanced capitalist economies to translate democratic will into actionable policy, is a strong argument. The volume demonstrates the erosion of democracy in the imperialist epoch rather successfully by way of relevant examples.

That said, the authors work within their definition throughout the volume and highlight the importance of studying imperialism as a theoretical concept and a political reality – a position that is not mainstream in today’s academia. In what is probably the best section of the book, the authors credibly distinguish their argument from the arguments posited by Edward Said in Orientalism, and by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire.

Continuities throughout history

The book tests the theoretical validity of the authors’ definition of imperialism on events from 1885 to the present day. The three chapters covering this timespan shed light on the daisy chain nature of world events and hold a mirror to the excesses exhibited by imperialist powers. For instance, the Berlin conference of 1885 displays the depraved moral compass of imperial powers. The conference, called for at the instigation of Portugal by Otto von Bismarck, averted war among imperial powers but peace was bought at the expense of the colonised – through unprecedented land grabs, political subordination and economic exploitation. If these three characteristics formed the flesh, the twin layers of racism and greed formed the rind.

The writers largely succeed in their endeavour. However, they exclude the Soviet Union from the ambit of an imperialist system, making their case far less convincing. Saccarelli and Varadarajan insist that the identification of an imperialist power is in the existence of a particular economic configuration and an internal political engine that the Soviet Union fails to meet (unless the term imperialism “is reduced to a mere epithet”). They also mention that the Soviet expansionist project was not motivated by the search for markets/resources but was, instead, a defensive move driven merely by the desire to create ‘buffer’ states in eastern Europe. Although this completely fits within the definition that is presented earlier, it fails to explain the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Additionally, the claim creates considerable cognitive dissonance in the mind of the reader and evokes a sense of semantic jugglery. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it usually is a duck, no matter what you call it. The people in various countries on the receiving end of Soviet expansionism are unlikely to believe that the USSR was not imperial, especially as the USSR did extract huge amounts of economic resources from the states it extended its hegemony over.

Importance of history

Imperialism Past and Present is a scholarly work that traces the long historical roots of the conflicts and tensions that we witness today (not to mention the excellent further reading list that it provides at the end). At a time when the term imperialism itself is shunned in academia and popular discourse, the writers makes a thorough case for a systematic study of the imperialist epoch right from its origins.

Apart from challenging several existing notions about empires, colonists and imperialists, the book successfully convinces the reader to be cognisant about history while engaging with the present. As is pointed out in the conclusion, “It is history that reveals the laws and regularities of the epoch out of otherwise overwhelming stream of seemingly arbitrary and unpredictable events”.

Nevertheless, theory should hold some space for the peculiarities of particular individuals. It is hard to believe any theory or hindsight could explain the odious behaviour of the likes of King Leopold who described Africa as “the magnificent cake” to be devoured by his ilk, the impact of whose brutal savagery continues to play out in the Congo and its surrounding countries even today.

Imperialism Past and Present is authored by Emanuele Saccarelli and Latha Varadarajan, and published by Oxford University Press.

Varun Ramachandra is a researcher at The Takshashila Institution. He tweets @_quale