Book Review: Theories Of Imperialism

Theories Of Imperialism, by Wolfgang J. Mommsen, translated by P.S. Falla

In the main, it is very dissatisfying to read about theories of imperialism. Part of that is due to the unfortunate vagueness of what is meant by empire. A great many of the countries that now exist are empires in the sense of being composite nations where one ethnicity has a relationship of dominance over others, but which fancy themselves as being anti-imperialist peoples (this was, for example, true of the Soviet Union and remains true of Russia and the United States). Additionally, both foes and advocates of imperialism, however it is defined, typically muddy the waters by seeking to use other terms to describe the sort of empire they want, to ignore the impolitic empires they have, or to criticize others for imperialism in extremely broad ways, including dependency and the dominance of nations by large companies that may not involve official external control. And while this book does a good job at talking about the various theories that have been advanced regarding imperialism, it does not make the study itself any more satisfying given the vagaries of what is meant by various theorists, even when it is known just how many theories of the field exist

This book is a short one at a bit less than 200 pages and it is divided into several chapters. After two prefaces, one original and one to the English edition, the author explores older theories of imperialism (1), including classic political and economic theories. This leads to a look at Marxist theories about imperialism, including later Maoist developments (2), and a provisional assessment of these various theories explored thus far (3). The author then turns his attention to more recent western interpretations of empire, including extreme nationalism, objectivist theories, and socio-economic theories, free-trade imperialism, socio-imperialist theories, and peripheral theories (4). This takes up a good bit of space, and after that the author discusses theories of neo-colonialism and under-development that have become en vogue in the last few decades (5), including state monopoly capitalism, the rule of big monopolies, underdevelopment as a by-product of imperialism, and “structural violence” leading to dependency relationships. It should be noted that the author’s efforts to understand empire have generally led him to ponder what one leftist or another has to say about imperialism, sometimes in ways that involve contemporary political disputes in areas not directly related to imperialism but often a consequence of it. The book ends with a discussion of summary and prospects (6), as well as notes, a bibliography, and an index.

One of the more frustrating aspects of imperialism [1] is the complexity of dealing with what is meant, and the author does a good job at discussing the different grounds on which people ahve talked about imperialism, including a specific idea that it is a late stage of capitalism that involves the desire to profit from foreign investments rather than seek the improvement of one’s home markets through better wages and the like. My own thinking about imperialism and empire relates to power and not really to economics much at all. Complaints about neocolonialism from those who have borrowed and wasted billions of dollars and find themselves unable and unwiling to repay have never particularly appealed to me personally, as common as they may be in left-wing writings about supposed neocolonialism to this day. But inequities of power, often in ways that leftists are blind to, sometimes because they or those they support have held power, has always been of great interest to me and has informed my own thinking about empire, which is of course not to be found here in this book or in many others. As is often the case, sometimes when one wants to read something that corresponds with what is in one’s own mind, one has to sit down and write the books for oneself.

[1] See, for example:

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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