Primer: Imperialism

Frederick Cooper


World history courses often feature the rise and fall of various empires, but often little attention is paid to the concept of empire itself. While empires, defined as "expansionist states that governed different people differently" have been one of the most enduring forms of government going back to ancient history, the critique of empire implied by the word "imperialism" is a relatively recent phenomenon. In this essay, historian Fred Cooper traces this critique beginning in the Enlightenment to the present day.

The modules in Methods present case studies that demonstrate how scholars interpret different kinds of historical evidence in world history.


Adding “ism” to “imperial” gives it a particular meaning: a political form whose legitimacy could be attacked or defended. Empires–expansionist states that governed different people differently–are among the oldest, most widespread, and most durable forms of political life, whether or not they called themselves by that name. One can think of Rome, Byzantium, the Persian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire of Charles V, the Islamic Caliphates, the Mongol and Mughal Empires, the Ottomans, and a succession of Chinese dynasties, leading into the expansion of European colonial empires in the nineteenth century (Burbank and Cooper, Empires in World History). Imperial conquest was often resisted and empires came and went. But critique of the idea of empire, and not just abuse, came with the Enlightenment, some of whose figures, like Denis Diderot, contrasted arbitrary rule over others under the Old Regime to a new vision of people ruling themselves (Muthu, Enlightenment against Empire). Napoleon, however, brought back empire with all its symbolism. His fall was more the work of other empires–British and Russian most importantly-- than of “national” resistance, and it left intact a Europe dominated by a small number of polities each with a mixed population as well as the Ottoman Empire, the Qing dynasty, several empires in Africa, and other polities with an imperial dimension. With industrialization, Britain, France, and later Germany and other European countries could use technological innovation–the steam ship, the machine gun, and the telegraph–to lower the costs of extending empire, and they put together over the nineteenth century colonial empires, a form of empire that accentuated the invidious distinction between colonizer and colonized.

As debates over democratic governance became more pronounced in Europe, rule over colonies became increasingly distinguishable from governance at home. Some political leaders insisted that it was legitimate for a superior civilization to make use of the material and human resources of inferior societies. Others claimed to be improving the lives of the colonized. All worried that if they didn’t engage in colonization, other powers would monopolize global resources. There were doubts emerging in European political bodies: colonization was too much of a militaristic adventure for a rational, bourgeois society. That colonization was not a uniform process meant that a variety of European witnesses–missionaries, explorers, journalists–exposed some of the violence and degradation that was the daily reality of colonization. In the late nineteenth century, as the last regions of Africa to escape European colonization were being lapped up, colonial empire was becoming subject to critique.

In 1902 and 1916, two books systematized the critique, using the word “imperialism” to make clear its object. Both interpreted the quest for colonies in terms of capitalism in its then-current state. J. A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study (1902), condemned empire as capitalists’ quest for markets in a context where the population at home was paid too little to buy industry’s products. It was a remediable flaw, one that could be corrected by the redistribution of wealth. In contrast, V.I. Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) portrayed imperialism as intrinsic to the capitalist system, reversible only by the destruction of capitalism and the creation of a socialist economy. Hobson wrote in the shadow of the Anglo-Boer War (1898-1902), Lenin during World War I (1914-18), and both saw the danger of the clash of empires leading to destructive conflict among great powers as well as violence against the colonized.

These liberal and socialist arguments framed much of the political debate over colonial empire for the ensuing decades and influenced thinking even after the empires’ collapse, notably among leaders of colonized people themselves. The Leninist argument was a central part of the ideological arsenal of communist movements in colonial territories from the 1920s, including such leaders as Ho Chi Minh, movements that aimed not just at taking specific territories out of empires but overthrowing the capitalist system. Influenced by liberalism, some movements in the colonies insisted that empire could be reformed, giving colonized people a full voice in their own affairs and countering the extremes of economic exploitation, while others thought that secession from colonial empires would produce societies that could then tackle the socio-economic problems they faced. Some leaders–Nehru for instance–were influenced by both liberal and socialist critiques. In the years after World War II, political movements in Africa and Asia were pushed in opposing directions. In the Cold War context, the Soviet bloc accused the West of subordinating people around the world to its imperialist practices, while the western bloc accused the Soviets of trying to take over much of the world in its own imperialist designs. At the same time, political movements within African and Asian territories gained ground by focusing on the “colonial” rather the imperial, on colonial rule as an excisable part the world order that could extend liberal, democratic forms of government to all people.

When the colonial empires finally collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s, new states could seek alliances with either or both sides of the Cold War or seek their own pathway–the “Third World” –by acting together (Westad, The Global Cold War). As newly independent countries found great difficulty maintaining political stability in the face of continued subordination within the world economy, the term “neo-colonialism” became a rallying cry for efforts to counter the continuing domination of capitalist powers. Kwame Nkrumah invoked Lenin in a book entitled Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965). Nkrumah was soon thrown out of power by a coup, and global capitalism had more than one life remaining.

If imperialism has an important history as a category deployed by political actors, it has had a controversial life in scholarship. For scholars on the left, it points to a framework of thinking and self-conscious action on the part of certain governments, creating and maintaining structures that maintain political subordination and economic exploitation (Brewer, Marxist Theories of Imperialism). Others insist that “imperialism” gives a false coherence and misleading sense of intentionality to processes that, however much they fostered economic and political inequality among different parts of the world, had more complex roots (Fieldhouse, “Imperialism”). As colonial empires collapsed, academic writing became more abstract, finding, for example, in a “capitalist world system” dating back to at least the fifteenth century an unequal relationship between a capitalist “core” and its weak and impoverished “periphery” (Wallerstein, The Modern World System). The American invasion of Iraq brought out a wave of books invoking imperialism or empire as an epithet for arrogant power (Harvey, The New Imperialism); but as the United States proved unable to manage the occupation of one country let alone to colonize much of the world, these words lost much of their political punch even as they became increasingly attractive subjects for historical scholarship (Kohli, Imperialism and the Developing World). Whatever the controversies over political and scholarly uses of the concept of imperialism, the fact remains that the extremes of inequality in the world that we live in require some sort of explanation (Piketty, Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century).

Primary Sources

Photograph of Fatima the Moroccan

By 1900, only the Kingdom of Morocco remained more or less independent of European rule, although European competition for Morocco was intense between Spain, France, and Germany. Between 1899 and 1912, French armies progressively occupied the country using Algeria as a base. In 1912, the French and Spanish protectorates were declared, with the lion’s share of Moroccan territory going to France. Nevertheless, it took France several decades to quell the numerous rural revolts sparked by military occupation. These rebellions had scarcely been suppressed when the Moroccan nationalist movement emerged in the post-World War I era. One of the ironies of colonialism is that native peoples worldwide were forced into the imperial armies of the French, British, Italian, and other empires. Moroccan soldiers served under the French flag—as did Algerian and Tunisian soldiers—in large numbers. Some were forced into the army against their will; others were enrolled as “volunteers”—“perfect mercenaries” for combat in Europe or other French possessions worldwide. During World War I, France sent tens of thousands of North African soldiers to fight in the trenches in Europe, where they often were deployed as “cannon fodder.” Some 173,000 Algerians served in the French army during the “Great War.” In addition, the North African units were segregated from French soldiers and often housed and fed in an inferior manner compared to European combatants. At the same time, the European empires employed propaganda to enlist women in the war effort—for example, by laboring in jobs traditionally restricted to men, such as manufacturing weaponry. Women as warriors, as soldiers, women bearing arms, however, has always been problematic. Thus, this photo from the French newspaper, Le Miroir, dated June 13, 1915, is entitled “Women who fight as real soldiers,” raises many issues. The text reads: “Fatima [Fathima in French], the Moroccan woman, whose portrait we reproduce here, followed into battle from the beginning of the war our [North African] units and fought courageously like a man.” We have no other information on Fatima, the Moroccan, or how she got to the European front during the war. Did she disguise herself as a man? Historically speaking, this was a way that women seeking to fight could do so. Or was she already in France before the war and subsequently volunteered when Moroccan units, perhaps including male family members, arrived to fight with France against Germany? And what propaganda uses were made of her image? Was the photo of her, dressed in a soldier’s uniform, meant to encourage Moroccan soldiers fighting in a strange land for a cause that was not theirs? Or was this image aimed more at European audience, intending to demonstrate the loyalty of the colonized in a world war of Europe’s own making? The questions are endless. Although one hint lies in the weekly Le Miroir’s statement that it “would pay any price for photographic documents relating to the war and presenting a particular interest to the public.” Nevertheless, one thing is certain—this image contrasts with the depiction of “Belle Fatima,” the sensuous woman clothed in oriental finery and posed reclining in a studio photograph in accordance with the dictates of European male fantasies. This source is a part of the North African Women and the French Empire, 1850-2000 teaching module and the Primer: Imperialism methods module.


Brewer, Anthony. Marxist Theories of Imperialism. London: Routledge, 1980.

Burbank, Jane, and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Fieldhouse, David. "'Imperialism': An Historiographical Revision." Economic History Review 14 (1961): 187-209.

Harvey, David. The New Imperialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Hobson, J. A. Imperialism: A Study. New York: J. Pott, 1902.

Kohli, Atul. Imperialism and the Developing World: How Britain and the United States Shaped the Global Periphery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Lenin, V. I. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. New York: International Publishers, 1933 [1916].

Muthu, Sankar. Enlightenment against Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Nkrumah, Kwame. Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (London: Nelson and Sons, 1965.

Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer.
Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press 2018.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World System. 3 vols. New York: Academic Press, 1974-89. 4th volume. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Westad, Odd Arne. The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


Frederick Cooper is Professor Emeritus of History at New York University. His research has focused on Modern Africa, empires in world history, colonization and decolonization, and the social sciences and the colonial situation. Cooper initially studied the history of labor and of labor movements in East Africa, but later moved on to broaden his scope to embrace francophone West Africa as well. Though a firm base in social and polit-economical history is a constant of his works, one characteristic of Cooper`s approach to history is a strong concern with epistemological questions and the possibilities and limits of knowledge production, as can best be seen in his articles on globalization and identity, reprinted in his book "Colonialism in Question" in 2005. Cooper`s contributions to the history of colonialism in Africa and to contemporary African history have been crucial in the fields of African studies and beyond. Cooper made some important impacts on the growing field of global history, not least with "Empires in World History" co-written with his wife, the historian Jane Burbank, and published in 2010.[2] Moreover, over the course of the last decades, several topical collections of articles by a wide array of international scholars which Cooper edited or co-edited, have had a lasting impact on global historical thought and research directions. These include "Struggle for the City" (1983), "International Development and the Social Sciences" (1997), and "Tensions of Empire" (1997).

How to Cite This Source

"Primer: Imperialism," in World History Commons, [accessed July 23, 2024]