Study of Imperialism (1902), Definition Of Imperialism

Imperialism: A Study (1902) examined the economic and political foundations of imperialism. For purposes of analysis, Hobson took the year 1870 as the year "indicative of the beginning of conscious policy of imperialism." Recognizing the difficulties of the task, Hobson spent the first part of his book attempting to define imperialism and suggested that imperialism compared and related very closely to other terms such as nationalism, internationalism, and colonialism.

According to Hobson, the most definite achievement of the nineteenth century was the general tendency of forming large and strong national units out a myriad of loose states and provinces. Nationalism, as such, was just fine for Hobson. However, as soon as this nationalism attempted to overflow its natural bounds and absorb a near or distant territory of reluctant and inassimilable people, then nationalism became debased and took on characteristics of imperialism.

Colonialism was merely a step toward imperialism. It was characterized by migration of part of a nation to a vacant or sparsely peopled foreign land and could be considered as an expansion or overflow of nationality. The British colonization of Canada and Australia were examples of colonialism of this sort.

Internationalism, in the modern sense, described a situation where two self-respecting nations sought union based on common needs and interests. In comparison, internationalism in the Old World merely suggested that a nation had its citizens implanted or infiltrating other nations all over the world. Imperialism could grow out of either colonialism or internationalism if their purposes and natures became perverted. Imperialism was a perversion of internationalism because it fostered animosity among competing ends rather than mutual cooperation. Imperialism, by its very nature, furthermore tended to attack upon the liberties of weaker or lower races, and it was essentially an excess of nationalism that glowed with greed and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. Imperialism, hence, harmed nationalism because it converted cohesive and pacified internal forces into forces of hostility.

Rather than become cooperative friends pursuing interests of mutual cause, imperialism caused two powerful empires to become enemies as they competed with each other for ends of imperial territorial aggrandizement. Economically speaking, this whole tendency of imperialism for competing ends that overflow a nation's natural bounds could largely be attributed to modern conditions of capitalist production and its necessity to incessantly identify and expand into additional markets.

Next, Hobson explored various measures of imperialism for the purpose of giving definiteness to the term. To do so, he provided actual data, lists, and tables of various European nations, especially Great Britain, all of which were actively engaged in imperialist policy. It is interesting to note that Great Britain, in a single generation (mostly within 15 years), added to its 120,000 square miles of natural turf and population of 40 million, 4,754,000 square miles and 88 million more people through imperialism tactics. In contrast, the extent and degree of expansion by the United States, France, Germany, and Russia did not compare with that of Great Britain during that time period.

Hobson next studied and attempted to explain, beginning with an analysis of Great Britain, reasons for undertaking imperialist policy. It is interesting to note that although Great Britain achieved such tremendous growth in terms of territorial expansion, only about one-fifth of their production came from the production of commodities for export. To explain this, Hobson argued that although Great Britain could not completely dispense with her external markets without some adverse economic repercussions, there was "no natural and necessary limit to the proportion of the national product which can be sold and consumed at home."

Do nations conduct imperialism for purposes of "commercial value?" Hobson concluded that they do not because of the fact that the expense incurred from the acquisition, administration, and defense of new possessions are much greater than any resulting profits from trade. Then why did imperialism occur?

First, Hobson evaluated the notion that imperialism helped to absorb and utilize the surplus of an ever-growing population. As the population in Great Britain increased, fewer satisfactory jobs would be available within the country. Therefore, it became of important national interest that a surplus emigrant population settled in lands under rule of the British flag. However, after noting that only an infinitesimally small fraction of British emigrants actually settled in newly acquired British lands, Hobson concluded that his assumption that imperialism was necessary for overpopulation concerns was highly unrealistic and insignificant.

A more plausible reason for imperialist ploy, according to Hobson, was founded on the fact that although imperialist policy was expensive and perhaps non-beneficial for the nation as a whole, there was a certain class of rich businessmen who sought their own advantage under the name and pretext of the commonwealth. Because of their huge influential power in political affairs, rich businessmen used the government to help achieve their narrow and selfish ends, ends that were in direct opposition to the common good. Some of the specific industries that stood to gain from imperialist policy included firms engaged in building warships, weapons and supplies for wartime, manufacturers for export goods, railroad companies, and those involved with shipping trade.

To Hobson, the most important economic factor in imperialism was the influence relating to foreign investment, especially those actors who were involved with investment, or financiers. Big money lenders and speculators profited the most when national policy was directed toward imperialist policy.

In order to justify imperialism, Hobson suggested that countries primarily conditioned people with national sentiments of patriotism. Countries also conditioned their people with imperatives of promoting Christianity.

In the final chapter of his book, Hobson reiterated that the most important reason for imperialism lay in the very nature of capitalism and its incessant need for capital accumulation. As more nations adopted advanced industrial methods with the capitalist mode of production, it became increasingly difficult for business to profitably dispose of their economic resources and it was thus inclined to draw upon their governments to help find additional outlets for investment. Based on Hobson's observations, production growth exceeded consumption, and this condition formed the "taproot of imperialism."