Imperialism is often autocratic, and also sometimes monolithic in character. While the term imperialism often refers to a political or geographical domain such as the Ottoman Empire the Russian Empire, the Chinese Empire, or the British Empire, etc., the term can equally be applied to domains of knowledge, beliefs, values and expertise, such as the empires of Christianity (see Christendom) or Islam (see Caliphate).


Imperialism is found in the ancient histories of the Assyrian Empire, Chinese Empire, Roman Empire, Greece, the Persian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire (see Ottoman wars in Europe), ancient Egypt, India, the Aztec empire, and a basic component to the conquests of Genghis Khan and other warlords. Although imperialist practices have existed for thousands of years, the term "Age of Imperialism" generally refers to the activities of nations such as Britain, Japan, and Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, e.g. the "Scramble for Africa" and the "Open Door Policy" in China.

The word itself is derived from the Latin verb imperare (to command) and the Roman concept of imperium, while the actual term 'Imperialism' was coined in the sixteenth century, reflecting what are now seen as the imperial policies of Portugal, Spain, Britain, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Imperialism not only describes colonial, territorial policies, but also economic and/or military dominance and influence.

Imperialists and anti-imperialists

Imperialists claimed that they were expanding civilization to underdeveloped countries, and associated their military and technological strength with a belief in the racial and cultural superiority of Europeans. Lenin's view was that imperialism was a symptom of capitalism: capitalists used their control over government to encourage imperial expansion, providing them with new markets, raw materials, and opportunities for investment. Critics of this view accept that economic motives are important, but also point to nationalism, racism, and the pursuit of power as motives. Since Lenin, many on the left have adopted a strong ‘anti-imperialist’ stance, although this can sometimes be seen as conflicting with other left priorities, such as working-class unity. Accusations of imperialism or neo-imperialism have often been levelled at the USA (US imperialism and its allies by China and the former USSR, although Soviet intervention in Afghanistan could be criticized as Soviet imperialism, and Chinese rule in Tibet is described by some as imperialist.


The term ‘colonialism’ is often used in the same sense as imperialism, but some writers have used it specifically to mean a policy of maintaining a sharp distinction between the ruling nation and the ruled, both legally and economically. Although this is not always a feature of imperialism, it is very common, and commonest where the colony is distant and where the colonized peoples are seen as racially different from the ruling nation. Colonialist attitudes may even be applied to colonial settlers originally from the ruling country themselves, perhaps because they are remote from the home country, or because they begin to be seen in the same racist way as the subject people.

Problems left by imperialism

The break-up of previous empires such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire after 1918, and the British Empire in the second half of the 20th century, or of large multinational states such as the former Soviet Union after 1991, has led to a greater degree of self-determination (freedom for peoples to govern themselves), but this has brought its own problems. Ethnic groups have been mixed under the old regimes (as with the Russian community in the now independent Estonia), sometimes through state policies. In Africa many borders of nation states still follow lines drawn by imperial (often British) authorities, which often do not take account of ethnic differences. Some of these situations have sparked conflict. Imperial powers are also blamed for having exploited local economies and prevented proper economic development among the population.

Neo-imperialism and neocolonialism

Countries which have gained their freedom may still not achieve equality. The terms ‘neo-imperialism’ and ‘neocolonialism’ are used for the control of formerly colonized countries, or other developing countries, by Western nations or companies, through economic or cultural power. It is sometimes called economic (or ‘dollar’) imperialism, but can also take a cultural form (as in the worldwide prevalence of US films and television). Even ‘aid’ from the West may be seen as neo-imperialist from this perspective. Today many developing countries, heavily dependent on the leading industrial nations, are subject to this type of imperialism, with large proportions of their national product being used for the payment of interest on accumulated international debts. As the superpower of the West, the USA, while proclaiming democratic virtues, has secured and protected its interests by economic pressure, and sometimes by military intervention, in many parts of the world, particularly in Central America, which it is accused of regarding as its ‘back yard’.

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