Book Review: Theories Of Imperialism: War, Conquest, And Capital

Theories Of Imperialism: War, Conquest, And Capital, by Norman Etherington

The advantages of doing a great deal of research on a subject that is popular but not well understood is being able to understand aspects of it that have been missed by others. In this deeply humorous look at imperialism as it has been viewed over the course of decades, the author has done a great deal of research into the intellectual history of how imperialism has been viewed from the late-Victorian period onward to the last few decades, and has explored why it is that the concept remains in use despite the fact that it refers to so many things that it is difficult to grasp. To paraphrase the author, anything that people would be willing to die for is worth writing about, and that approach allows the author to take people seriously and draw insight from those who the reader is perhaps not used to taking seriously and drawing insight from. The author appears to be highly critical of Marxists and especially contemporary leftists with their usual terrible grasp of history and context, and comments on the importance of contextual understanding when it comes to dealing with something as contentious and as slippery as what means by imperialism, which the author defines as different from colonialism and empire, a distinction I think it wise to adopt as well.

This book is almost 300 pages long and it is divided into thirteen generally chronological chapters that explore the development of the concept of imperialism from the 1890’s to today. After a preface and acknowledgements, the author states his intentions in his introduction. After that the author looks at the United States as the origin for thinking about imperialism (1), specifically a little-known investment magazine. This magazine’s sudden interest in imperialism led to the first socialist theory of capitalist imperialism (2), which then crossed the Atlantic and was adopted by the British thinker J.A. Hobson (3). Hobson’s study of imperialism (4) became famous and helped to inform the British discussion of imperialism and war on the eve of World War I (5). After this the author explores the important role of German and Austrian socialists in destroying the unity of the socialist movement and their arguments over imperialism (6) and nationalism. The author then looks at how various radical socialists like Luxemburg, Bukharin, and Lenin sought to explain the German “betrayal” of the socialist movement (7), and how others assessed the prospects for peaceful capitalism (8) of the kind we mostly enjoy at present. The author gives a concise exposition of the classic theories of imperialism (9) before exploring how these became theories of empire (10). Of course, the patriots fought back in defending the legitimacy of empire under the guise of the Commonwealth (11), and World War II, the Cold War, and decolonization influenced the discourse on imperialism (12). The author closes with a brave attempt to sort out the historical problems of imperialism (13) before the index.

If you have to read only a small number of books about imperialism as it has been defined now for more than a century, this is the first book I would go to, not only because it manages to give the most complete discussion I have seen on the interrelation between various theories of imperialism and how it briefly became popular despite being viewed as a negative in almost its entire history, but because the book tells difficult truths about the way we tend to use words and (sometimes) deliberately misunderstand others who use them in a way that is humorous enough that it goes down relatively easily. That is not to say that this book is easy to read if one does not enjoy intellectual history, but those whose beat include economic history and politics will find plenty to appreciate here as the author explores the conversation that early writers had about imperialism that informed the way the world was originally defined, no matter how messed up our definitions have gotten in the meantime given the political agendas of the people involved in the discourse over empire and imperialism and the legitimacy of various aspects of business and government activity.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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