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Reading History: European Imperialism in the 19th Century

P. J. Marshall looks at the historiography of 19th European Imperialism.

The very wide range of meanings attached to the word 'imperialism' have been explored by Richard Koebner and H.D. Schmidt in their Imperialism. The Story and Significance of a Political Word (Cambridge University Press, 1965). They show that the term entered popular debate in Britain in the late 1870s as a condemnation of what seemed to be abuses of British power outside Europe. Very quickly, however, those who believed in consolidating and expanding Britain's empire were willing to identify themselves as 'imperialists'. At the very end of the nineteenth century the concept was given a new twist when it was applied to the use of state power overseas at the behest of economic interests at home. What these economic interests were and how they operated were much debated in the early twentieth century, especially by writers who followed Karl Marx, the most famous of such contributions being Lenin's Imperialism. the Highest Stage of Capitalism of 1916 . 'Monopoly finance capitalism', which inevitably preyed on the rest of the world, was Lenin's definition of imperialism. Later writers in the Marxist tradition have continued to use the term 'imperialism' to describe relations between what they see as the capitalist West and the rest of the world. Elsewhere use of the concept has rarely been precise; 'imperialism' has tended to become a term of abuse for any supposed domination which the speaker happens to dislike.

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