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broadly, the extension of rule or influence by one government, nation, or society over another.

Early Empires

Evidence of the existence of empires dates back to the dawn of written history in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, where local rulers extended their realms by conquering other states and holding them, when possible, in a state of subjection or semisubjection. An early, highly organized empire was that of Assyria, which was succeeded by the even more integrated Persian Empire. Ancient imperialism reached its climax under the long-enduring Roman Empire, the eastern part of which lasted until late into the Middle Ages as the Byzantine Empire. In Western Europe no true empire arose to replace Rome; the Holy Roman Empire, despite the aspirations of its rulers, was little more than a confederation of princely states. However, imperialism remained an important historical force elsewhere. In the Middle East and North Africa the Arabs and later the Turks built large empires. Farther east, besides the huge, if unstable, empires of the nomadic Mongols and others arising out of Central Asia, there were long-lasting and complex imperial organizations exemplified by various Chinese dynasties.

Classic Imperialism

Imperialism was reborn in the West with the emergence of the modern nation-state and the age of exploration and discovery. It is to this modern type of empire building that the term imperialism is quite often restricted. Colonies were established not only in more or less sparsely inhabited places where there were few or no highly integrated native states (e.g., North America and Africa) but also in lands where ancient civilizations and states existed (e.g., India, Malaya, Indonesia, and the Inca lands of South America). The emigration of European settlers to people the Western Hemisphere and Africa, known as colonizationcolonization,
extension of political and economic control over an area by a state whose nationals have occupied the area and usually possess organizational or technological superiority over the native population.
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, was marked by the same attitude of assumed superiority on the part of the newcomers toward the native populations that prevailed where the Europeans merely took over control without large-scale settlements.

From the 15th to the 17th cent. the Portuguese and the Dutch built "trading empires" in Africa and the East for the exploitation of the resources and commerce with lands already developed. The Spanish and Portuguese established important colonies in the New World in the 16th and 17th cents., hoping to exploit the mineral wealth of the lands they conquered. The British and French imperialists became the foremost exemplars of colonial settlement in Africa and the East. Acting on mercantilist principles (see mercantilismmercantilism
, economic system of the major trading nations during the 16th, 17th, and 18th cent., based on the premise that national wealth and power were best served by increasing exports and collecting precious metals in return.
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), the European nations in the 18th cent. attempted to regulate the trade of their colonies in the interests of the mother country. Later, the increase of manufactures in the Industrial RevolutionIndustrial Revolution,
term usually applied to the social and economic changes that mark the transition from a stable agricultural and commercial society to a modern industrial society relying on complex machinery rather than tools.
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 introduced a new form of imperialism, as industrial nations scrambled both for markets and for raw materials.

The eastward spread of Russia after the 16th cent. and the westward spread of the United States may also be termed imperialistic, although the United States did not actually acquire colonial possessions until the Spanish-American War. In the late 19th cent. Italy, Germany, and Japan also developed imperial ambitions; these nations, like the older colonial powers, were moved by a variety of aims, including commercial penetration, military glory, and diplomatic advantage.

At its best, European imperialism brought economic expansion and new standards of official administration and public health to subject countries; at its worst, it meant brutal exploitation and dehumanization. In every instance, however, the pressure of an alien culture, with its different values and religious beliefs, and the imposition of new forms of social organization meant the breakdown of traditional forms of life and the disruption of native civilization.

At the end of the 19th cent. there was a strong reaction against the most inhumane forms of imperialist exploitation. Efforts were made to improve the standards of colonial administration; and a new justification of the rule of non-Europeans by the European powers was found in the idea of "the white man's burden," which advanced the notion that the developed nations of Europe had a duty to rule Asians and Africans in order to lead them to a higher level of civilization and culture. Among the leading critics of imperialism at that time were the Marxists, who saw imperialism as the ultimate stage of capitalism and made much of the connection between imperialist rivalries and war.

After World War I, anti-imperialist feeling grew rapidly throughout the world, sparked by the development of movements for national liberation within subject countries. Nevertheless the major colonialist powers, Great Britain, France, and others, held on to their colonies, while Fascist governments in Italy and Germany, as well as militarist opinion in Japan, fostered even more extreme imperialist aims.

In the years since World War II, most of the countries once subject to Western control have achieved independence. Much of the contemporary debate centers on the issue of neo-imperialism. Many of the less developed countries contend that their economic development is largely controlled and seriously retarded by the developed countries, both through unfair trading practices and by a lack of controls over international business corporations.


See R. Robinson and J. Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians (1961, repr. 1965); G. Lichtheim, Imperialism (1970); K. E. Boulding and T. Mukerjee, ed., Economic Imperialism (1972); L. S. Feuer, Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialistic Mind (1989); J. N. Pieterse, Empire and Emancipation (1989).

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The political and economic domination of one country, or countries, by another, which leads either to alien rule imposed by force, or to economic domination and exploitation.

Within sociology, and the social sciences generally, there are two major perspectives. One emphasizes the political dimension of domination and traces imperialism back to ancient civilizations based on expansion, such as the Roman Empire. The other emphasizes the economic dimension and views imperialism as mainly a feature of the 20th century and of CAPITALISM. Although some writers would claim that direct colonial rule is a necessary part of the definition of imperialism, others would disagree. For example, they argue that the indirect political influence and economic dominance of the US constitutes imperialism, even though historically its colonial possessions have been few. With the decline of COLONIALISM since World War II, and the disappearance of the European empires, other writers, such as J. E. Goldthorpe (1975), have claimed that imperialism no longer exists. The emphasis on economic aspects is generally, though not exclusively, associated with MARXISM. This has been most influential in sociology in the UK in the last two decades. The approach is based on the work of LENIN. Whilst Lenin (1916) saw imperialism as an inherent feature of economic development in advanced capitalist countries, recent writers have concentrated more on the effects of imperialism upon the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Deriving from the works of Marx as well as Lenin, imperialism is said to originate from the drive for profitability intrinsic to capitalism, and the continued need to find outlets for both capital and commodities. Accordingly, territorial expansion is a necessity for capitalist societies.

This involves using the THIRD WORLD as a focus of investment and as a source of profits, markets for goods and suppliers of raw materials.

The effect on Third World countries is primarily seen as that of holding back internal development by concentrating their economies on a limited range of activities, often owned by foreigners, and involving a transfer of resources to the advanced capitalist countries. However, even within the Marxist approach there are disagreements, since Warren's work (1980) argues that colonialism and imperialism have helped promote capitalist development in the Third World rather than held it back (compare DEPENDENCY THEORY). Warren claims that this is in fact closer to Marx's original view. See also NEOCOLONIALISM, LUXEMBURG.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



monopoly capitalism; the highest and last stage of capitalism; the eve of socialist revolution. The transition to imperialism occurred at the turn of the 20th century, when capitalism underwent qualitative changes and the rule of monopolies became established in the main capitalist countries.

Great credit in the comprehensive theoretical investigation of the new phenomena of capitalism must be given to V. I. Lenin. Basing his work on the writings of the founders of scientific communism, Marx and Engels, and analyzing many facts, he arrived at the conclusion that the whole complex of new phenomena signified “the transformation of quantity into quality, of developed capitalism into imperialism” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 27, p. 387). Lenin defined the basic economic attributes of imperialism: “(1) The concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this ‘finance capital,’ of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves; and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed” (ibid, pp. 386–87).

Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism, inasmuch as it is precisely the domination of the monopolies that constitutes its economic essence. In the epoch of free competition numerous uncoordinated enterprises produced the same goods. They were the individual property of various capitalists, and among them relative equality in the conditions of competition was maintained. Under imperialism the concentration of production and capital leads to the formation of monopolies, which capture the basic resources of a society and take advantage of their economic and political supremacy to intensify their exploitation of the proletariat, enrich themselves at the expense of millions of common commodity producers in the city and countryside, establish their control over numerous small and middle entrepreneurs, and extract high monopoly profits.

The epoch of premonopoly capitalism was characterized by the dominance of industrial capital. But Lenin pointed out that “the characteristic feature of imperialism is not industrial but finance capital” (ibid., p. 389), which originates and develops during the concentration of production and capital, the formation of monopolies in industry and banking, and the merger and interlocking of banking and industrial monopolies. The magnates of finance capital—the leadership of the monopolistic bourgeoisie, or the financial oligarchy—concentrate in their hands all the levers of dominance over all spheres of economic life and all areas of politics. The omnipotence of the financial oligarchy, which first becomes established in a small group of the most highly developed capitalist states, eventually outgrows the national boundaries of those states; hence, an international network of dependence on and connections of finance capital develops (ibid,, p. 358).

A special role in the formation of the financial oligarchy is played by the export of capital, which becomes very important under imperialism. In premonopoly capitalism, by contrast, the export of commodities prevails in international economic relations. By exporting capital the monopolies of the imperialist states endeavor to capture key positions in the economies of countries that import capital (in particular, economically underdeveloped countries), in order to gain exceptionally high supplementary profits.

Above all, monopolies capture the domestic market—the economy as a whole within their own countries. This leads to the formation of monopolies so enormous that a substantial proportion of the world production of a given branch of industry is concentrated in their hands. The appearance of huge monopolies on the world market is accompanied by a sharp competitive struggle among them. In order to avoid losses, they frequently reach understandings among themselves and enter into agreements on the partition of world markets, raw materials, and capital, on the establishment of monopoly prices, and on the joint application of methods to ensure that maximum profits will be obtained. International monopolies are formed, which carry out the economic partition of the world and dictate to their respective governments a policy of continually making new imperialist seizures.

The imperialist monopolies carry on a struggle for territory, for regions with the most profitable markets, for sources of raw materials, and for objects of capital investment. Corresponding to the never-ending pursuit of new profits by finance capital is a “foreign policy, which is the struggle of the great powers for the economic and political division of the world” (ibid., p. 383).

The division of the territory of the world among the main imperialist states was essentially completed by the turn of the 20th century. The overwhelming majority of the economically underdeveloped countries had been turned into colonies or had become enmeshed in the nets of economic, financial, and political dependence. However, the territorial division of the world was not final. Uneven development is inherent in capitalism. The correlation of forces among the imperialist states changes over time, giving rise to a contradiction between the new correlation of forces and the previous division of colonies and spheres of imperialist control. The contradiction takes the form of a struggle for the repartition of the world. Given the nature of imperialism, this struggle is manifested in destructive military conflicts—world wars.

Monopoly capitalism is the basis for the emergence of state-monopoly capitalism. Proceeding from an economic analysis of monopoly as the expression of the essence of imperialism, Lenin arrived at the conclusion that monopoly capitalism inevitably develops into state-monopoly capitalism, which is the expression of the further socialization of production, circulation, and distribution in the interests of the monopolies. In state-monopoly capitalism Lenin saw a stage of capitalist socialization of production that would ensure the fullest material preparation for socialism.

Contemporary imperialist capitalism is developing in the context of a general crisis that began with World War I (1914–18) and the Great October Socialist Revolution. The emergence of the world socialist system as a result of World War II (1939–45) and the disintegration of the colonial system led to the deepening of the general crisis of capitalism. Imperialism lost its world economic and political hegemony. The development of monopoly capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism was accelerated by the struggle of two world systems—socialist and capitalist—under conditions created by the scientific and technological revolution. The growth of the world socialist system impels capitalism to mobilize all its forces and resources by developing increasingly large monopolistic complexes. The drive to take advantage of the opportunities created by the modern scientific and technological revolution has also led to an unprecedented increase in the monopolistic concentration of capital and production and to the extension of this process to new spheres of the capitalist economy. The intensity of this process has been stimulated by increasing state intervention in the economy.

At the beginning of the 20th century the monopolies dominated the fundamental branches of heavy industry. In the second half of the 20th century all material production has come under monopoly domination. Even in agriculture the formation of monopolies has become an important trend, and agrarian monopoly capital has emerged in the USA and other imperialist countries. The nonproductive sphere has also become an arena of monopolistic control. In terms of assets, a number of the trade monopolies of the capitalist countries surpass some of the major industrial companies. There is a marked tendency toward the transformation of industrial monopolies into industrial-commercial-financial monopolies. In the USA the most powerful automobile, electrical equipment, and food-processing monopolies, for example, control not only the manufacture of products but also their transportation, wholesale and retail sale, and servicing. The major industrial companies establish their own banking firms to conclude such transactions as consumer credit deals.

With regard to the early 20th century, Lenin stressed the significance of combination as a form of monopolistic concentration—that is, the grouping within a single enterprise of the production of contiguous branches of an industry. Under contemporary imperialism multibranched firms (conglomerates) have developed. Through financial control, they encompass enterprises of the most varied branches of industry, which often have nothing in common technologically. The competitive capacity of such firms is very high. They destroy, absorb, or make dependent numerous small producers and entrepreneurs and even some of their large rivals. Thus, in 1969 there were 5,400 mergers and absorptions in the USA. Among the companies absorbed, some were very large, with assets totaling tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars. Nonetheless, the monopolies do not entirely eliminate small production but endeavor to maintain it and use it to further their own interests.

Early in the development of imperialism, state-monopoly enterprise did not hold a significant place in the economy of the capitalist countries. Today, however, there are many state-monopolies safeguarding the interests of the financial oligarchy in every imperialist country. In France, virtually the entire coal and gas industries, about 80 percent of the electronic and aircraft industries, more than two-thirds of the automobile and chemical fertilizer producers, and the largest credit institutions are in the hands of the government.

The concentration of banking capital took place on a much higher level in the 1960’s than in the early 20th century. In the USA the assets of all 13,473 commercial banks totaled $531 billion in 1969. The ten largest banks accounted for about one-fourth of the total assets, and more than three-fifths of all bank assets were concentrated in the 26 leading banks. Important changes occurred in the structure of finance capital. Monopolistic concentration of loan capital is exercised not only by banking monopolies but also by investment trusts—in particular, insurance companies. In terms of concentration of money capital, the insurance monopolies surpass the industrial companies. Present-day finance capital includes all these forms of monopolies.

In the initial period of imperialism the industrial monopolies were the highest form of monopolization. Under contemporary imperialism the highest form of private capitalist (as opposed to state capitalist) monopolization is the financial group—an amalgamation of industrial, banking, and insurance monopolies controlled by the largest member. The USA has about 20 such groups, Great Britain and France, about ten each, and Japan, seven.

Certain changes have also taken place in the structure of the financial oligarchy. A hierarchy has developed within the monopolistic bourgeoisie. Many of the controllers of industrial monopolies are, in turn, controlled by the monopolists that head the financial groups. As a result, the uppermost stratum of the monopolistic bourgeoisie wields power over incalculable wealth and exploits the entire working people, extracting ever-increasing superprofits. In the USA the 207 wealthiest families controlled corporations with total assets of $182 billion in 1967— about 50 percent of the market value of all shares in circulation.

The export of capital under contemporary imperialism far exceeds that of the early 20th century. In 1914 the foreign capital investments of the USA, Great Britain, and France came to about $30 billion. By the end of the 1960’s the sum exceeded $180 billion. Moreover, fundamental changes have taken place in the structure and geographic orientation of capital export. In the first half of the 20th century Great Britain was the chief exporter of capital, but by the 1950’s and 1960’s this role had shifted to the USA. Prior to World War II the export of capital was almost entirely in the hands of private individuals and companies, but after the war the government became substantially involved. In 1967 about 24 percent of the total foreign investments of the USA belonged to the government. Initially, capital export was carried on solely or primarily for the sake of profit. Contemporary monopolies, however, subordinate the export of state capital to broader tasks, the fulfillment of which provides the monopolies with profits only in the long run. Between 1968 and 1969 the US government exported $84 billion in so-called aid, under conditions that allow the USA to gain political and military-strategic advantages. By rendering so-called aid to developing countries, imperialists endeavor to implant neocolonialism in them. Until World War I the imperialist states exported capital primarily to colonial and other economically backward countries. In the present stage of monopoly development, however, a number of pressures (for example, the growth of the national liberation struggle and the changed structure of world trade) have led the imperialist states to prefer in many instances to export capital to industrially developed countries, where modern technology and skilled labor power are employed to obtain high profits. In 1968 more than two-thirds of the direct private foreign investments of the USA went to economically developed capitalist states.

The process of international interpenetration of capital has accelerated significantly in connection with the export of capital from certain countries to others. The international monopolies assumed a greater role in this process in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Initially, they had taken the form of international cartels, whose members—national cartels or trusts—entered into agreements on the division of markets, the restriction of competition, and the inflation of prices. In the present period new forms of international monopolies are emerging and developing. Many of them are joint owners of enterprises in various countries. Giant trusts and concerns have grown up, some of which are national in terms of the ownership of capital but international in the scope of their activity. International monopolies that unite the capital of various imperialist states have also been formed. In addition, a type of international monopoly has emerged that pools the capital of many countries in order to promote the use of the newest technological means and methods and to exercise joint ownership of the patents, licenses, and new technical experience accumulated in the member countries. The tendency toward the international interweaving of capital has been manifested in imperialist integration, which led to the formation of the European Economic Community in Western Europe on Jan. 1, 1958, and the European Free Trade Association in 1960. These organizations are evidence of the birth and development of international forms of state economic regulation in the interests of the world monopolistic supergiants.

The increasing export of capital, the growing participation of the state in capital export, and the mastery exercised by the international monopolies have resulted in more aggravated contradictions between the financial oligarchy of the chief imperialist countries and the peoples of the whole world.

As a result of the development of the world socialist system, the disintegration of the colonial system of imperialism, and the emergence of new phenomena in the system of the productive forces and production relations of capitalism, fundamental changes have taken place in the relationships among the imperialist powers. The contradictions among them have been exacerbated. Between 1964 and 1970 alone, Japan’s share in the industrial production of the capitalist world grew from 5.8 percent to 9.4 percent, whereas Great Britain’s share decreased from 8.5 percent to 7.1 percent. The monopolies of the countries whose economies are growing more rapidly advance new claims for markets, sources of raw materials, and spheres of capital investment. However, the existence of the world socialist system and fear of the world revolutionary process have forced the imperialists to resort less frequently to military conflicts—the traditional way of resolving mutual contradictions. They have been obliged to broaden their methods of economic expansion and seek ways to resolve their conflicts primarily through international state-monopoly agreements. However, the contradictions are not resolved but deepened by these means.

Lenin defined the place of imperialism in history: “Imperialism is (1) monopoly capitalism; (2) parasitic or decaying capitalism; (3) dying capitalism” (ibid., vol. 30, p. 163). The fact that capitalism is decaying means that its characteristic production relations are transformed from a factor in the development of productive forces (their initial role) into a factor retarding the further progress of these forces.

Lenin emphasized that the combination of two opposite principles—monopoly and competition—is fundamental to imperialism. In turn, this combination results in the interweaving of two contradictory tendencies—the tendency toward the obstruction of technical progress and the tendency toward the growth of productive forces. The incentive for technical innovation is diminished and, in many instances, altogether eliminated by the fact that monopolies, which control capital production and scientific research, can, within certain limits, dictate monopoly prices to the market. Under imperialism the domination of the monopolies creates the economic possibility of artificially stopping technical progress. In US manufacturing during the 1960’s, 82 percent of the total capital investments in scientific research was concentrated in the 100 largest monopolies. The results of research done in state scientific research institutions also end up in the hands of the monopolies. Guided by the drive to obtain new profits, these monopolies decide whether some discovery or invention should be introduced into production.

Competition, which becomes particularly fierce under monopoly domination, forces the monopolists to raise the technical level of their enterprises. There is a never-ending struggle between two tendencies—decay on the one hand, and elevation of the level of technology and the volume of production on the other. First one tendency, then the other comes to the fore as a function of the conditions of a given period. During the 1930’s the tendency to decay was vividly manifested in severe economic crises. But even then the second tendency did not cease to operate. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s there has been an intensive development of the productive forces of imperialism. The monopolies have endeavored to use the achievements of the contemporary scientific and technological revolution to raise the productivity of labor and increase the exploitation of the proletariat. Nonetheless, the decay of contemporary capitalism is revealed in the gap between the potential of the productive forces and the real growth rates of production. New techniques are being applied on a far lower scale than is possible at the present level of scientific research. For example, although by the beginning of the 1970’s the volume of production in the USA was about three times that of the prewar period, the accumulated results of scientific research could have ensured much greater growth, if growth had not been fettered by capitalist production relations.

In the newly liberated countries the imperialist monopolies are attempting to block technical progress altogether. The uneven-ness of technical progress is revealed, in particular, by the fact that the mainstream of scientific discoveries and inventions is directed toward the production of arms. This is a particularly striking manifestation of the decay of capitalism, inasmuch as technical progress is to a great degree subordinated to the development not of productive forces but rather of new means of destruction and mass annihilation.

There has been an unprecedented rise in militarism in the period of imperialism. Only the arms industry has a guaranteed state market independent of any disruption of the process of capitalist reproduction. The arms industry has become a branch that, to a considerable degree, determines the development of the capitalist economy. The decay of capitalism is also revealed in the creation by the monopolistic bourgeoisie of a so-called worker aristocracy—that is, a stratum of workers whose way of life and world view is petit bourgeois. The worker aristocracy is the class foundation of opportunism in the workers’ movement. The enormous growth of parasitism provides additional evidence of the decay of capitalism. Characteristic of imperialism is the complete isolation of capitalists from the direct organization of production, a function that is shifted to hired directors, or managers. The rentier stratum grows. In the USA about one-third of the class of capitalists do not even have a formal connection with production; they lead a patently parasitic way of life. Imperialism carries the internal contradictions of capitalism to their ultimate limit—the point at which the downfall of the world capitalist system occurs.

The bourgeoisie, incapable of directing the progressive development of social production, undergoes parasitic degeneration, and the leading force in contemporary society—the working class—comes to the fore. In accelerating the development of capitalism at the expense of small production, whose mass destruction is decreed, imperialism contributes not only to increasing the number of proletarians and enhancing their role in society but also to expanding the social base of the revolutionary struggle led by the working class. The petit bourgeois strata of the city and countryside who have been ruined by monopoly capitalism are potential allies of the working class. Imperialism also brings into the arena of historical activity the peoples of the colonies and semicolonies that it has oppressed. In addition to the intensification of imperialist oppression on the basis of the intertwining of precapitalist and purely capitalist forms of exploitation, the export of capital results in the creation of a material base for the growth of new social forces in the colonial world—the national bourgeoisie, working class, and intelligentsia, who become the exponents of the interests of enslaved peoples resisting imperialism. The socialist movement of the working class and the national liberation movement of the oppressed peoples of the colonies and semicolonies are united under imperialism.

Imperialism is the eve of socialist revolution, inasmuch as both the necessity and the possibility of overthrowing capitalism are established at this stage. Under imperialism the objective and subjective prerequisites of socialist revolution reach full maturity. But the possibility of socialist revolution is not realized automatically. Imperialism will not leave the historical arena on its own simply because it is moribund capitalism. The financial oligarchy fights desperately to retain its domination, and the elimination of imperialism is possible only as the result of the revolutionary struggle of the broadest masses of the working people, led by the proletariat and its communist vanguard, against the forces fighting for the preservation of the historically outdated capitalist system. The revolutionary destruction of the world capitalist system occupies a whole historical epoch known as the general crisis of capitalism.

The operation of the law of the uneven economic and political development of capitalism explains why socialist revolutions do not triumph simultaneously in various countries. Because different countries and groups of countries break away from capitalism at different times, the revolutionary transition from world capitalism to world communism fills a substantial historical period, which is called the period of peaceful coexistence of the two opposing economic systems. The transition from capitalism to socialism cannot be the same in different countries. The principal laws of socialist revolution are common to all countries. However, the diversity of historically established national characteristics and traditions and of economic and political conditions determines the differences in the forms and pace of the revolutionary surmounting of capitalism and the establishment of socialist society. “The present epoch, the basic content of which is the transition from capitalism to socialism, is the epoch of struggle between two opposite social systems, the epoch of socialist and national liberation revolutions, the epoch of the downfall of imperialism and the liquidation of the colonial system, and the epoch in which new peoples shift to the path of socialism and socialism and communism triumph on a world scale” (Program of the CPSU, 1971, p. 5).


Lenin, V. I. “Imperializm, kak vysshaia stadiia kapitalizma.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 27.
Lenin, V. I. “Imperializm i raskol sotsializma.” Ibid., vol. 30.
Lenin, V. I. “Voina i revoliutsiia.” Ibid., vol. 32.
Mezhdunarodnoe soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii. Dokumenly i materialy, Moskva 5–17 iiunia 1969 g. Moscow, 1969.
Varga, E. S. Ocherki po problemam politekonomii kapitalizma. Moscow, 1964.
Vygodskii, S. L. Sovremennyi kapitalism. Moscow, 1969.
Leninskii analiz imperializma i sovremennyi kapitalizm. Moscow, 1969.
Politicheskaia ekonomiia sovremennogo monopolisticheskogo kapitalizma, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1970.
Dragilev, M., and N. Mokhov. Leninskii analiz monopolisticheskogo kapitala i sovremennost’. Moscow, 1970.


In Russia. Imperialism in Russia was the phase of the country’s economic and social development that took place between the beginning of the 20th century and 1917. A number of common features and interests link Russian imperialism with “military-feudal imperialism,” although the latter has a different material and social foundation (an absolutist-gentry empire and colonial and foreign policies based on serfdom).

The genesis of Russian imperialism is the source of its distinctiveness, which makes it possible to speak of a special type of imperialism characterized by a number of unique features. First, the replacement of serfdom by capitalism and the development of the latter into imperialism took place within an extremely brief period of time. As a result, Russian finance capital was, on the one hand, a superstructure over a young capitalism that was developing comparatively rapidly, and on the other hand, part of a compound economy in which precapitalist and early-capitalist relations were firmly preserved (or in certain regions, predominant). Thus, the social structure was particularly complex, and various types of social antagonism were interwoven and exacerbated as the leading, capitalist mode of production grew. A second unique feature of Russian imperialism was the direct tie between monopolies of the most recent capitalism and the monopolies of the feudal era. The existence of an extensive state economy, which grew a great deal toward the end of the 19th century, as well as the traditional regulation of all spheres of socioeconomic life, allowed absolutism not only to adapt itself to bourgeois evolution but also to adapt bourgeois evolution somewhat to the needs of serfdom, particularly to the need to preserve the system of latifundia and the power of the landowning dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry).

The continued broadening of capitalism under the conditions of imperialism was a third characteristic specific to Russian imperialism. Finance capital’s achievement of economic mastery over the empire, chiefly through methods of colonial exploitation characteristic of military-feudal imperialism, preserved the most persistent vestiges of the Middle Ages, bringing the ruling classes together politically. A fourth unique feature of Russian imperialism was the connections between Russia and world imperialism. Although Russia was one of the “plundering great powers” fighting for the partition and repartition of the world (Lenin, ibid., vol. 27, p. 1), it was also among the major spheres for the export of capital. This explains the special interest of the financial oligarchy and the governments of the developed capitalist countries in preserving the absolutist regime in Russia, even by means of partial reforms. Taken together, the unique features of Russian imperialism determined Russia’s historical place as the country most fraught with social revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition, they determined a number of features of the social revolution that were new in principle compared to the revolutions of the past.

In Russia, as in other countries, the main precondition for the transition to imperialism was a high level of concentration of production. However, there were two different types of concentration in Russia: capitalist concentration per se, which was associated with technical progress (new branches of industry and new industrial regions); and concentration engendered by the semifeudal structure of industry (for example, in the Urals) and, on the whole, by the cheapness of labor power owing to agrarian overpopulation. The “natural” process of the emergence of monopolies was accelerated by the policy of implanting capitalism from above, the concentration of state demand, and the direct influence of the government, which was particularly active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Three stages of monopolization can be defined. Characteristic of the initial stage (1880’s and 1890’s) were temporary agreements and syndicates in branches of industry connected with railway construction financed by the state, as well as in other branches that were under the trusteeship of the government (the sugar and petroleum monopolies). During the second stage (the first decade of the 20th century), the world crisis and subsequent depression accelerated the formation of large stable syndicates (for example, Prodameta, Produgol’, Prodvagon, and the syndicate of locomotive works). In addition to the monopolization of state contracts—particularly in connection with the railroads— there was a struggle for the division of the “open” market.

The third stage—a period of the most extensive spread and increase in the power of the monopolies—was connected with the industrial upsurge of 1910–13. By 1914 there were about 150 syndicates and cartels, embracing virtually all the branches of big industry, including part of the largest one, the cotton industry. However, thanks to its patriarchal forms of ownership and financing by its own Moscow banks, the cotton industry continued to hold a special place in the Russian capitalist system. A new feature of the third stage of monopolization was the formation of monopolies of a higher type. No longer isolated phenomena like the petroleum trusts that had appeared as early as the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the new monopolies were quite widespread, especially in heavy industry. However, the sphere of industry dominated by monopoly was comparatively limited and failed to include a part of large industry, a substantial portion of middle and small industry, and a great number of small producers. In 1913, non-joint-stock companies and domestic handicrafts accounted for about 1.3 billion rubles of fixed capital, whereas joint-stock enterprises controlled about 2.8 billion rubles of capital.

The formation of finance capital proceeded spasmodically in Russia. Joint-stock banks, which held a secondary place in the credit system until the early 1880’s, had become a comparatively powerful and noticeably centralized force by the end of the 19th century. The industrial upsurge of the 1890’s drew the joint-stock banks into entrepreneurial activities, but the connections between the banks and industry remained unstable. A turning point came at the beginning of the 20th century. The substantial and increasing power of the banks (fixed resources quadrupled between 1900 and 1914, with the further centralization of capital), as well as the new emphasis placed by major St. Petersburg banks on financing industry, resulted in the formation of typical banking monopolies, which, however, retained certain early-capitalist features (for example, trade activity). An important characteristic of the banking monopolies in Russia was their close connection to state credit. By 1914, of the 4.5 billion rubles making up the resources of the joint-stock banks, about 1 billion rubles belonged to the accounts of the Ministry of Finance and the State Bank.

World War I gave a strong impetus to the combining of production and the interlocking of industrial and banking capital. Especially important was the charge toward the development of private capitalism and state capitalism into state-monopoly capitalism. This resulted in the rapid formation of a financial oligarchy that seized command positions in the economy of the country. By 1914 about 12 percent (in 1917,18 percent) of all the joint-stock enterprises in the country (excluding the railroads and the banks), which controlled 35 percent (in 1917,42 percent) of the country’s fixed capital, belonged to finance capitalist groups of heterogeneous enterprises connected with the eight largest banks. In turn, big commercial-industrial capital, which had grown rich on military deliveries, the acute shortages of commodities, and inflation, developed into industrial-banking capital (for example, the Stakheev, Vtorov, and Iaroshinskii concerns). However, imperialism had not yet fully taken shape as an all-Russian system when the proletariat revolution put an end to it.

The most important feature of imperialism in Russia—the interpenetration of the higher forms of capitalism and precapitalist structures—had highly contradictory consequences. The vestiges of serfdom narrowed the base for the growth of monopolies, and the preservation of crucial positions in the administration for the landlords infringed upon the political and legal interests of all groups of the bourgeoisie. These same factors, however, facilitated the establishment of the dominance of big capital over the domestic Russian market by sharply and firmly restricting the sphere of competition. In addition to the influence of economic policy in both the narrow and broad senses (the privileges of a comparatively small group of enterprises and banks, the bureaucratic “regulation” of all entrepreneurial activity), there was the more active though indirect influence of serfdom.

Above all, the complex mechanism of the use and redistribution of domestic capital accumulations tended to promote the domination of the domestic market by big capital. The relative insufficiency of capital accumulations was aggravated by the diversion of a huge share of them for the benefit of tsarism and the landlords: state loans for nonproductive “general needs” as well as mortgages removed 70 percent of the resources of the money market in 1900 and 68 percent in 1914. A significant, though not easily calculable, portion of the accumulations was held by commercial-usorious capital, whose high profitability was derived, above all, from serf bondage in the countryside. The general consequence of this diversion of domestic accumulations was the restriction of the influx of capital into industry.

However, these conditions made it all the easier for the industrial and banking monopolies to redistribute monetary resources to their own advantage. As a result, the actual power of finance capital was considerably greater than its productive strength. The very conditions of the semifeudal system opened up particularly great opportunities for the exploitation of the proletariat and the small producers. This “‘Russian’ superprofit,” as Lenin called it, fell to large and to some middle capital (ibid, vol. 22, p. 62). However, the syndicates and trusts steadily increased their share of the superprofit by means of monopoly prices on fuel, metals, and other raw materials, while a handful of banks with a network of branches and intermediaries obtained even greater results, dictating their conditions for credit to a great number of so-called independent enterprises.

Thus, the preconditions for the early decay of the upper elements of Russian capitalism were created in the context of an immature level of capitalist development as a whole. Connected with this is the fact, paradoxical at first glance, that Russian imperialism had outstripped the finance capital of the advanced countries. Thus, as early as the end of the 19th century, the monopolies of Russia as a rule regulated production by limiting it and even by making outright cutbacks. Despite the comparatively high growth rates at the beginning of the 20th century, the prevailing tendency was toward the consolidation and reinforcement of the country’s backwardness not on a “purely” feudal but rather on a mixed feudal-monopoly basis. Concretely, this tendency was also conditioned by a number of factors, including the direct interweaving of finance capital with the latifundia system. (By 1914, half of the more than 40 million desiatinas [43.6 million hectares] of land mortgaged to banks by landlords was being handled by private banks.) Additional factors conditioning the tendency to consolidate the country’s backwardness were the extensiveness of the personal union of the upper elements of the nobility and the state bureaucracy with big capital and the specific role of landlord-bourgeois enterprise. On the one hand, this led to the expansion of the landlords* own farming and accelerated the capitalization of agriculture and the development of monopolies (for example, the sugar industry). On the other hand, it opened up additional opportunities for the intensification of the corvée and the exploitation of the peasant tenant.

The consequences of the penetration of imperialism into the colonial region of the Russian Empire (Transcaucasia and Middle Asia) were similar in principle. Promoting the development of productive forces (the extraction of mineral raw materials) and the growth of early-capitalist relations only to a small degree, imperialist penetration led chiefly to the intensification of precapitalist forms of oppression and nonequivalent exchange. As a result of all these processes, which took place in the context of a revolutionary upsurge in Russia, a conservative and later an aggressively counterrevolutionary type of semibourgeois landlord and capitalist took shape, associated with the state treasury. Most vividly represented by the Octobrists, these counterrevolutionary, semibourgeois landlords and capitalists became prevalent in various spheres of sociopolitical and business life (congresses of representatives of industry and trade, antiworker leagues of entrepreneurs, and in the broader scheme of things, agrarian-capitalist elements of the “united nobility,” representation of the big bourgeoisie in the State Council, and the Black Hundred-bourgeois bloc in the State Duma).

In addition, in proportion to the increase in the influence of both finance capital and the bourgeoisie as a whole, there were redoubled efforts to achieve a redistribution of political influence and participation in the administration to the advantage of the liberal-monarchist, Constitutional Democrat (Cadet), and so-called Progressive wing of the counterrevolution. These efforts, however, amounted to a compromise, which was extremely limited because of the insurmountable contradiction between serfdom and bourgeois evolution and, to a still greater degree, because of the defeats inflicted on liberalism by the proletariat in the struggle for hegemony in the liberation movement. This, in turn, accelerated the liberals’ direct rapprochement with finance capital and, simultaneously, with absolutism and the landlord reaction—a tendency that was ideologically expressed in the Struve and Vekhi currents, which dominated the mood of the bourgeoisie after 1905. The most general result of all these contradictions was the objectively revolutionary character of the entire situation in Russia in the epoch of imperialism—“the impossibility of carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution on the given path and by the means given (to the government and the exploiting classes)” (ibid., vol. 23, p. 301).

The development of Russian imperialism, whose domestic source was in the economic and social changes in postreform Russia, was at the same time part of a world process. The transition to monopoly was accelerated by an influx of foreign capital into the leading branches of industry (primarily mining and metallurgy in the south). Subsequently, Russian capitalism proved unable to “digest” foreign investments, as the USA had. However, the role of international capital in Russia was not identical to its role in semicolonial countries. In Russia international capital was primarily oriented toward the domestic market—state and private. It sought not special advantages but access to the privileges of the upper strata of Russian capital. Affiliates of foreign firms and monopolies were established only in a few branches of industry (chemicals and electrical engineering). In most cases, foreign capital operated under a “Russian” mask.

After 1905 the St. Petersburg joint-stock banks became the main channel for the penetration of the country by foreign capital. As a rule, these banks collaborated directly with several groupings of foreign capital and carried out an independent industrial policy, particularly in the prewar years. The role of foreign capital changed accordingly, although its relative influence remained more or less stable. In 1914 the share of foreign capital was 1.96 billion rubles—more than one-third of the total joint-stock capital in Russia.

Ultimately, all foreign capital functioned as a part of the Russian capitalist and imperialist system per se and as one of the most economically influential and, at the same time, politically most reactionary factions of the big bourgeoisie of Russia. The war introduced a number of new features, without, however, altering the general outcome of these developments. German capital was thrust aside, and the role of Russian big capital increased considerably. At the same time, however, with the acute weakening of the Russian economy and the catastrophic increase in the foreign debt of the government, the preconditions were established for the future renewal of the expansion of Entente and American capital.

Foreign loans played a very vital role in the evolution of Russian imperialism. By the end of the 19th century, tsarist Russia owed 4 billion rubles, and by 1913 the foreign debt had risen to 5.4–5.6 billion rubles (according to different estimates). Most of the debt (80 percent in 1900 and 65 percent in 1914) stemmed from railroad loans, which were direct or screened state loans. The productive significance of these loans was, to a considerable degree, relative, not merely in the narrow sense that the state railroads (two-thirds of the railroad system) were unprofitable until the years immediately preceding the war, but in a broader sense as well. The intensive stimulus given to the entire economy by railroad construction was outweighed by the specifically feudal underdevelopment of productive forces. In addition, despite the colossal increase in taxes, the indebtedness that was a legacy of the reform era could not be decreased owing to the government’s prodigal expenditure of its financial resources on reactionary domestic policies and military adventures at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, the payment of old loans required new loans. The balance of payments remained unfavorable even with a favorable balance of trade (1911–13). The loans of 1906 and 1909 imparted an openly political character to the foreign debt, which became a means of preserving absolutism and fighting the revolution.

Against this background, changes took place in Russia’s relations with its creditors because of the need to make concessions in economic relations and, later, in military-diplomatic relations as well (the evolution of the Franco-Russian alliance). At the same time, until it was overthrown, tsarism maintained its own imperialist goals, particularly in Asia, where new means of achieving these goals were added to the traditional ones (railroad concessions and banks in which the tsarist government held a decisive share). In turn, the economic strengthening of the bourgeoisie, which proclaimed the slogan “greater Russia” after 1905, gave impetus to military-feudal imperialism. The degree of equilibrium between the tendencies toward the collapse of Russia’s international prestige on the one hand and toward the growth of Russian expansionism on the other was sharply disrupted as a result of the military defeats of 1915 and 1917, economic dislocation, and the 7.2 billion-ruble wartime increase in the foreign debt, including a 2 billion-ruble increase during the few months when the bourgeois Provisional Government held power. By October 1917 the necessity of overthrowing Russian imperialism had become so strong that there was no other way of averting a nationwide catastrophe.

Profound changes in the social class structure and in the liberation struggle were the most important results of the development of imperialism in Russia. Growing in numbers and especially in social importance, the industrial proletariat benefited from a geographic distribution that facilitated its consolidation into an all-Russian internationalist force. The conflict between the proletariat and the semiproletarian strata of the countryside, on the one hand, and the peasant bourgeoisie on the other, ripened under conditions in which the resolution of the land question—the chief question for the entire peasantry—became increasingly dependent on revolutionary encroachment on large-scale capitalist property. Another result of the development of Russian imperialism was the rapprochement of the anticolonial and antifeudal struggle in the Asian regions of the empire with the resolution of the general Russian problem of the liberation of productive forces from serfdom, which had become inseparable from reactionary capital operating in a monopolistic sheath. The growth, on the one hand, of the material elements for the socialization of large-scale production and for the control of the petit bourgeois economy and, on the other hand, the rapid maturing of a class-hegemony capable of basing itself on the “last word” in world economic and technical development, made it both possible and necessary to unite bourgeois democratic tasks inherited from the past with new socialist tasks in a single revolutionary process. In realizing this possibility, which had been brought to light earlier by Lenin, October 1917 began a new epoch in history.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


White Man’s Burden
imperialist’s duty to educate the uncivilized. [Br. Hist.: Brewer’s Dictionary, 1152]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the policy or practice of extending a state's rule over other territories
2. an instance or policy of aggressive behaviour by one state against another
3. a system of imperial government or rule by an emperor
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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