Imperialism: A Study (1902), by John A. Hobson, is a politico–economic discourse about the negative financial, economic, and moral aspects of imperialism as a nationalistic business enterprise.
The Taproot of Imperialism
The "taproot of imperialism" is not in nationalist pride, but in capitalist oligarchy; and, as a form of economic organization, imperialism is unnecessary and immoral, the result of the mis-distribution of wealth in a capitalist society. That dysfunction of political economy created the socio-cultural desire to extend the national markets into foreign lands, in search of profits greater than those available in the Mother Country. In the capitalist economy, rich capitalists received a disproportionately higher income than did the working class. If the owners invested their incomes to their factories, the greatly increased productive capacity would exceed the growth in demand for the products and services of said factories.
When productive capacity grew faster than consumer demand, there was very soon an excess of this capacity (relative to consumer demand), and, hence, there were few profitable domestic investment outlets. Foreign investment was the only answer. But, insofar as the same problem existed in every industrialized capitalist country, such foreign investment was possible only if non-capitalist countries could be "civilized", "Christianized", and "uplifted" — that is, if their traditional institutions could be forcefully destroyed, and the people coercively brought under the domain of the "invisible hand" of market capitalism. So, imperialism was the only answer.— E.K. Hunt, History of Economic Thought, 2nd ed. page 355.
As a political scientist, J.A. Hobson said that imperialism was an economic, political, and cultural practice common to nations with a capitalist economic system. Because of its innate productive capacity for generating profits, capitalism did not functionally require a large-scale, large-term, and costly socio-economic enterprise such as imperialism. A capitalist society could avoid resorting to imperialism through the radical re-distribution of the national economic resources among the society, and so increase the economic-consumption power of every citizen. After said economic adjustments, a capitalist nation did not require opening new foreign markets, and so could profitably direct the production and consumption of goods and services to the in-country markets, because "the home markets are capable of indefinite expansion . . . provided that the 'income', or power to demand commodities, is properly distributed".
Influence and criticism
Imperialism: A Study (1902) established Hobson's international reputation in political science. His geopolitical propositions influenced the work of prominent figures such as Nikolai Bukharin, Vladimir Lenin, and Hannah Arendt. In particular, Lenin drew much from Imperialism: A Study to support and substantiate Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), which then was a contemporary, war-time analysis of the geopolitical crises of the imperial empires of Europe that culminated in the First World War (1914–18).
Ultra-imperialism, or super-imperialism, [was] what Hobson, thirteen years earlier, [had] described as inter-imperialism. Except for coining a new and clever catch-word, replacing one Latin prefix by another, the only progress [that] Kautsky has made, in the sphere of 'scientific' thought, is that he gave out, as Marxism, what Hobson, in effect, [had] described as the cant of English parsons.
Moreover, Lenin ideologically disagreed with Hobson’s opinion that capitalism, as an economic system, could be separated from imperialism; instead, he proposed that, because of the economic competitions that had provoked the First World War, capitalism had come to its end as a functional socio-economic system, and that it would be replaced by pacifist socialism, in order for imperialism to end. Nevertheless, Hobson's influence in Lenin's writings became orthodoxy for all Marxist historians.
Hobson was also influential in liberal circles, especially the British Liberal Party. Hobson's theory of Imperialism has had many critics. Contemporary historian D. K. Fieldhouse, for example, argues that the arguments used are ultimately superficial. Fieldhouse says that the "obvious driving force of British expansion since 1870" came from explorers, missionaries, engineers, and empire-minded politicians. They had little interest in financial investments. Hobson's answer would be to say that faceless financiers manipulated everyone else, so that "The final determination rests with the financial power." Lenin believed that capitalism was in its last stages and had been taken over by monopolists. They were no longer dynamic and sought to maintain profits by even more intensive exploitation of protected markets. Fieldhouse rejects these arguments as unfounded speculation. Hobson's contention that economics underpinned imperialism was attacked by the historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in their 1953 article "The Imperialism of Free Trade" which argued that strategic considerations and geopolitics underpinned European expansion in the 19th century.
- Hunt, E.K. (2002). History of Economic Thought. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe. pp. 351–356. ISBN 0-7656-0606-2.
- Hunt, E.K. (2003). Property and Prophets: The Evolution of Economic Institutions and Ideologies. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc. pp. 183–184. ISBN 0-7656-0609-7.
- Lenin, Vladimir Illyich. "Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism". Fordham University Internet Modern History Sourcebook. Retrieved February 19, 2013.
- Hunt, E.K. (2003). Property and Prophets: The Evolution of Economic Institutions and Ideologies. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc. pp. 188–189. ISBN 0-7656-0609-7.
- Tony Brewer, Marxist theories of imperialism: a critical survey (2002)
- David Long, Towards a new liberal internationalism: the international theory of JA Hobson (1996).
- J. A. Hobson (1902). Imperialism: A Study. p. 59.
- David K. Fieldhouse, "'Imperialism': An Historiographical Revision." Economic History Review 14#2 (1961): 187-209. in JSTOR
- Stephen Howe, "David Fieldhouse and ‘Imperialism’: some historiographical revisions." Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (1998) 26#2 pp: 213-232. online
- Imperialism: A Study. Hosted online at The Library of Economics and Liberty and Google Books (pdf)
- Eckstein, Arthur M., "Is There a 'Hobson–Lenin Thesis' on Late Nineteenth-Century Colonial Expansion?”, Economic History Review, vol. 44, no. 2, May 1991, pp. 297–318, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2598298
- Särkkä, Timo. Hobson's Imperialism. A Study in Late-Victorian Political Thought. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä, 2009,