Nationalism and Imperialism: The Premises of Hobson's Definition

Giovanni Arrighi's The Geometry of Imperialism was published by New Left Books in 1978, in a translation by Patrick Camiller. "I was disturbed, at the time," Arrighi later told David Harvey, "by the terminological confusions that were swirling around the term ‘imperialism’. My aim was to dissipate some of the confusion by creating a topological space in which the different concepts, which were often all confusingly referred to as ‘imperialism’, could be distinguished from one another."

In Marxist debate, Arrighi argued, such confusions could be traced to Lenin's classical theory of imperialism, which at times fails to clearly distinguish it from "the monopoly stage of capitalism" or "finance capital." Arrighi's study would then be neither 
"a simple reproduction of the thought of this or that theoretician" nor the development of a new theory of imperialism, but rather an examination of "the presuppositions of the theory of imperialism in order to explicate, specify, and delimit them." Those presuppositions were to be located not in Lenin's own theory, but in that of J.A. Hobson, which preceded it.

In the excerpt below, the book's first chapter, Arrighi identifies 
four primary elements of Hobson's conception of imperialism and isolates them in the form of Weberian ideal types, which them serve as the coordinates for his "topological" reconstruction. 

It is no easy task to define the concept of imperialism. The same term is customarily used to designate diverse, and in certain respects antithetical, concepts. Indeed, theoretical controversy is often based on nothing more than a failure to grasp what is the object of reference.

J. A. Hobson was well aware of these problems when he made the first attempt to put a study of the phenomenon on a scientific footing:

Amid the welter of vague political abstractions, to lay one's finger accurately upon any “ism” so as to pin it down and mark it out by definition seems impossible. Where meanings shift, so quickly and so subtly, not only following changes of thought, but often manipulated artificially by political practitioners so as to obscure, expand or distort, it is idle to demand the same rigour as is expected in the exact sciences. A certain broad consistency in its relations to other kindred terms is the nearest approach to definition which such a term as imperialism admits. Nationalism, internationalism, colonialism, its three closest congeners, are equally elusive, equally shifty, and the changeful overlapping of all four demands the closest vigilance of students of modern politics.1

In this essay, I propose to elaborate freely the definition of imperialism which Hobson develops from these premises. My purpose is to derive a conceptual order that will assist communication among those who claim to stand on scientific ground in dealing with these questions.

1. Writing at the beginning of the 20th century, Hobson uses the term “imperialism” to refer to a historically determinate event: the transformation of Nationalism, which had dominated the international arena for more than a century, into a general tendency of states to expand beyond their national boundaries.

The impact of Nationalism on pre-existent territorial-political entities had in some cases been to increase their cohesion, in others to lead to their disintegration. But its general result was the formation of political units (States) of a relatively well-defined ethnic and cultural composition (Nations).2 Towards the end of the 19th century, however, these Nation-States had exhibited a tendency to “overflow their natural banks,” thereby giving rise to those expansionist phenomena which Hobson specified by the term “Imperialism.”

2. In using this expression, Hobson sought to distinguish the expansionism of his own time from the process, commonly designated by the term Colonialism, which had characterized previous epochs. Colonialism, in fact, had denoted the transfer of part of a nation to other territories with a low population density — a territorial expansion, therefore, of its own “stock,” language and institutions.

It mattered little that such expansion had normally involved the physical and cultural extermination of the indigenous populations of the newly occupied territories (as had occurred in the Americas and Australasia).4 Indeed, the antagonistic and exclusivist character of the enterprise merely strengthened the image of colonialism as the effective expansion of a nationality.

On the other hand, the peculiar historical experience of a new natural-social environment, combined with the great spatial distance from the mother-country, thereafter tended to shape the settlers into distinct nations. Hobson essentially shared the physiocratic image of the colonies as fruits which, once ripe, would drop off the tree that had born them — an image considerably reinforced by the experience of North and South America between the 1770's and the 1820's.

3. At the time when Hobson was writing, the term Colonialism still conveyed this dual image of (antagonistic) expansion of a single nation and filiation of new nationalities. But the expansionist phenomena which had become generalized in the last decades of the 19th century, while continuing to be generically designated as “colonialist,” in reality corresponded to neither of these two images.

For what was above all now occurring was not the territorial expansion of the nation, but the extension of its political power to territories, far or near, of peoples “too foreign to be absorbed and too compact to be permanently crushed.” Thus, within the couplet Nation-State, it was the State and not the Nation that was now expanding.

Of course, exercise of this political power required the transfer abroad as functionaries of a number of citizens of the expansionist Nation-State, while others were attracted to the colonies by the privileges which that power would confer upon them. But the settlers' very position as a small privileged caste altered their original national character and prevented the latter from taking any root in the subject lands:

The best services which white civilization might be capable of rendering, by examples of normal, healthy, white communities practising the best arts of Western life, are precluded by climatic and other physical conditions in almost every case: the presence of a scattering of white officials, missionaries, traders, mining or plantation overseers, a dominant male caste with little knowledge of or sympathy for the institutions of the people, is ill-calculated to give to those lower races even such gains as Western civilization might be capable of giving.5

Thus, the new expansionist wave generated what Hobson described as a “spurious” type of colonialism. Its main characteristic was dictatorial political rule, all the more unrestrained the greater the cultural distance between the “colonial” peoples and the expansionist nation. Yet even this political and dictatorial expansionism, which Hobson designated by the term Imperialism in order to distinguish it from traditional Colonialism, had generated, and continued to generate, phenomena of a nationalist type, while accentuating their exclusivism or xenophobia:

From this aspect aggressive Imperialism is an artificial stimulation of nationalism in peoples too foreign to be absorbed and too compact to be permanently crushed. We welded Afrikanerdom into just such a dangerous nationalism, and we joined with other nations in creating a resentful nationalism until then unknown in China. The injury to nationalism in both cases consists in converting a cohesive, pacific internal force into an exclusive, hostile force, a perversion of the true power and use of nationality.6

4. Once he had introduced the term Imperialism to distinguish contemporary expansionist phenomena from those of previous epochs, Hobson found himself faced with another problem. For his chosen expression called to mind still more remote epochs by means of images which were in some respects not only distinct from, but even antithetical to, those he wished to evoke. In fact, the very idea of empire was traditionally associated with a hierarchical order of states guaranteeing universal peace, in which the imperial power appeared as one state raised above others. Originating in the so-called pax Romana, this image had over the centuries inspired not only political philosophers from Dante to Machiavelli, and from Vico to Kant, but also the policies of the dynastic states of continental Europe.

However, the ascent of Nationalism had sealed the decline of those imperial States which still overlaid newly-emerging nationalities. Attempts to realize the ideal of Empire were increasingly partial or abortive - indeed served ultimately to reinforce and diffuse existing nationalist currents. In fact, such attempts could in general succeed only when they were themselves grounded in growing national sentiments. But in the long run, imperial states with a weak national base (such as the Habsburg Empire) were debilitated by confrontations with autonomous nationalist forces emerging within their domain; whereas those which possessed a strong national base (such as the Napoleonic Empire) came in the end to propagate or intensify nationalist tendencies, both at home and abroad.

In a certain sense, the Napoleonic experience represented the watershed between the “internationalist” imperialism of the ancient and medieval world and the nationalist imperialism that was to dominate the world arena a century later. At the end of the eighteenth century, however, a policy calling itself imperialist could still evoke the image of an internationalism, albeit hierarchical, which served to maintain peace among nations.

In his Study, Hobson tried to dispel just this image. He showed how, in the historical conditions of a world governed by Nationalism (those before his eyes), projection of the State beyond its national borders, even when inspired by the internationalist idea of Empire, could mean only anarchy in interstate relations, tending towards universal war.

According to Hobson, imperialist expansionism provoked reactions politically homogeneous with itself, not only among peoples of a well-defined national identity (cf. §3), but above all among the stronger nation-states, driving them in an exclusivist and chauvinist direction: 

The older nationalism was primarily an inclusive sentiment; its natural relation to the same sentiment in another people was lack of sympathy, not open hostility. . . . While co-existent nationalities are capable of mutual aid involving no direct antagonism of interests, co-existent empires following each its own imperial corner of territorial and industrial aggrandizement are natural necessary enemies. . . . The scramble for Africa and Asia virtually recast the policy of all European nations, evoked alliances which cross all natural lines of sympathy and historical association, drove every continental nation to consume an ever growing share of its material and resources upon military and naval equipment, drew the great new power of the United States from its isolation into the full tide of competition; and by the multitude, the magnitude, and the suddenness of the issues it had thrown on to the stage of politics, became a constant agent of menace and of perturbation to the peace and progress of mankind.7 

5. For Hobson, in a world dominated by Nationalism, Internationalism could signify only an informal order among free and independent nations, assuring their harmony of interests through peaceful interchange of goods and ideas. Without idealizing the so-called pax Britannica, which towards the middle of the 19th century seemed partially to have realized an order of that type, Hobson glimpsed in the policy of Free Trade that internationalist spirit which he could not discover in the “imperial” politicians of his time: 

The politicians of Free Trade had some foundation for their dream of a quick growth of effective, informal internationalism by peaceful, profitable intercommunication of goods and ideas among nations recognizing a just harmony of interest in free peoples.8

Just in proportion as the substitution of true national government for the existing oligarchies or sham democracies becomes possible will the apparent conflicts of national interests disappear, and the fundamental cooperation upon which nineteenth-century Free Trade prematurely relied manifest itself.9

We shall employ the term Informal Empire to designate this image of internationalism. We thereby intend to emphasize, on the one hand, the “pacific” quality of the image which it shares with the idea of Empire, and on the other hand, the “impersonal” and formally egalitarian characteristics which mark it off from the hierarchical inter-state order typical of the latter.

Like Imperialism, the Informal Empire of Free-Trade represented a relationship of international competition. At least in principle, however, two quite distinct types of rivalry were involved. In the case of Imperialism, rivalry affected political relations among states and was expressed in the arms race and the drive to territorial expansion; whereas in the case of Informal Empire, it concerned economic relations among individuals of different nationality and was expressed in the international division of labour. Thus Imperialism signified political conflict among nations, Informal Empire economic interdependence between them.

Peaceful interchange of goods and ideas betokened a type of development of diverse nationalities antithetical to that of Colonialism: instead of territorial aggrandizement and elimination of entire populations, it led to “crossing” among them:

A true test of efficiency of nations [demands] that the conflict of nations should take place not by the more primitive forms of fight and the ruder weapons in which nations are less differentiated, but by the higher forms of fight and the more complex intellectual and moral weapons which express the highest degree of national differentiation. The higher struggle, conducted through reason, is none the less a national struggle for existence, because in it ideas and institutions which are worsted die, and not human organisms . . .

The notion of the world as a cock-pit of nations in which round after round shall eliminate feebler fighters and leave in the end one nation, the most efficient, to lord it upon the dunghill . . . pays exclusive attention to the simpler form of struggle, the direct conflict of individuals and species, to the exclusion of the most important part played by “crossing” as a means of progress throughout organic life.

The law of the fertility of “crosses” as applied to civilization or “social efficiency” alike on the physical and physiological plane requires, as a condition of effective operation, internationalism.10

The antithesis between Informal Empire (Internationalism, in Hobson's terminology) and Colonialism becomes yet clearer if we consider the significance of migration in either case. InColonialism, as we noted above (§3), emigration is the necessary means of expansion of one national culture to the exclusion of an older local culture. In Informal Empire, however, migrations have an inclusivist function: they enlarge not the national culture of the emigrants, but rather that of the country in which they settle. European emigration to the Americas provides a good illustration of these two contrasting processes — on the one hand, expansion of Iberian and Anglo-Saxon cultures through extermination or marginalization of indigenous societies, resulting in the formation of new nationalities; on the other hand, enrichment of these new nationalities (especially the North American) by inclusion of individuals and groups originating in the most diverse cultures. In the first form, emigration expressed a relationship of a colonialist type, in the second, one of an “internationalist” type.

One last point should be made clear. Informal Empire, like Imperialism and unlike Formal Empire and Colonialism, represented for Hobson a stable form of expansion of nationalities, that is one which tended to create a homogeneous environment:

To ascribe finality to nationalism upon the ground that members of different nations lack “the common experience necessary to found a common life” is a very arbitrary reading of modern history . . . Direct intercommunication of persons, goods and information is so widely extended and so rapidly advancing that this growth of the “common experience necessary to found a common life” beyond the area of nationality is surely the most mark-worthy feature of the age . . .

Surely there is a third alternative to the policy of national independence on the one hand, and of the right of conquest by which the more efficient nation absorbs the less efficient on the other, the alternative of experimental and progressive federation, which, proceeding on the line of greatest common experience, grows wider, until an effective political federation is established, comprising the whole of the civilized world.11 

In other words, peaceful interchange of persons, goods and ideas heightens the homogeneity and interdependence of nations to the point where their existence as separate and exclusive realities can be overcome. Colonialism and Formal Empire are unstable expansionist tendencies, destined in the final analysis to strengthen nationalist phenomena. Nationalism in turn permits of two alternative outcomes: either Imperialism, that is, anarchy in inter-state relations which tends in the short term to the oppression of weak nations by strong, and in the long term to universal war; or Internationalism (Informal Empire), that is to say, free circulation of men, goods and ideas, which tends to increase the interdependence and homogeneity of nations.

6. We are now in a position to synthesize the series of distinctions and oppositions through which Hobson attempted to define and convey his conception of Imperialism. We shall have to schematize to some degree the wealth of his images, but a certain impoverishment of language will probably assist us to understand more precisely the real object of Hobson's Study.


In Fig. 1, Hobson's image of Imperialism is designated by the segment NS—S+, distinct from the images of Colonialism (NS—N+) and Informal Empire (NS—N-), and counterposed to the image of Formal Empire (NS—S-). Whereas Imperialism is distinguished from Colonialism and Informal Empire as expansion of the State and not of the Nation (§3), it is counterposed to Formal Empire by virtue of that anarchy of its interstate relations which tends towards universal war (§4).

Colonialism and Informal Empire are themselves distinguished from each other as the exclusive and inclusive (or antagonistic and non-antagonistic) forms of expansion of nationality (§5). Finally, the point where the two axes of State expansion (S- —S—S+) and National expansion (N- —N—N+)12 coincide, designates the Nation State (NS) as the “origin” in an analytical sense of the four expansionist phenomena taken as a totality.13

Nevertheless, we have already seen that Hobson does not confine himself to distinction and opposition of various images of expansionism in order to “pin down and mark out” the concept of imperialism; he ventures at the same time a judgment on the stability of such phenomena in an epoch dominated by Nationalism. He considered that the tendency to form sovereign and independent political units (States), on the basis of entities relatively integrated from an ethnic, cultural and territorial point of view (Nations), had made of Colonialism and Formal Empire “unstable” forms of expansionism, which inevitably resulted in the diffusion and reinforcement of Nationalism itself (§§2 and 4). For Hobson, Nationalism could spread in only two directions: towards Imperialism and towards Internationalism (Informal Empire) — the only relatively “stable” forms of expansionism, in that they generated tendencies homogeneous to themselves (§§3 and 5).

We may depict this assessment of the relative stability of the respective forms of expansionism by assigning a direction to the segments represented in Fig. 1. In this manner, we obtain the four directional (or arrowed) segments of Fig. 2, which define not only the meaning attributed by Hobson to the term Imperialism (NS → S+), but also a conceptual grid capable of ordering various tendencies observable on the international arena. 

Let us now take this arena towards the end of the 19th century. On a synchronic reading, the arrow N+ → NS would designate the nationalist tendencies developing in the “colonial” world (in the restricted sense which Hobson gave to the term). Such tendencies had been revealed most dramatically during the Boer War, and indeed it was this event which inspired Hobson's Study; but they could be discerned in other, apparently quite dissimilar areas, such as those of the “white” colonies of Australasia and Canada, whose formal subordination to England could be reproduced only at the price of ever more substantive concessions to their independence. The arrow S- → NS, on the other hand, would designate the nationalist tendencies growing in the centre and the periphery of the old formal empires - such as they still existed. The disintegration of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires were the clearest instances of this, but a similar process was discernible in Russia, Japan and China, where the imperial organization of the state remained formally intact.

The arrows NS → N- and NS → S+ would, by contrast, designate the fact that Nationalism was going beyond simple dissolution of the “vestiges” of a colonial and imperial past to transform itself into Internationalism and Imperialism (again, in Hobson's restricted sense of the terms). To a varying degree, both these trends were present in all recently formed Nation-States, even if the former — the tendency to surpass enclosure into separate and exclusive realities and to open out in peaceful interchange of goods and ideas with other nations — was starting to be more typical of countries with a colonial past like the United States, while the latter tendency was starting to predominate in countries with an imperial past, like Germany (cf. §13).

This distinction will prove useful for a diachronic reading of Fig.2 as a totality of successive phases. Thus, taken together, the four arrows express the “scissors” movement of nationalist phenomena between the end of the 18th century and the end of the 19th. In a first period, represented by the convergence at NS of N+ → NS and S- → NS, Nationalism restructures the world into Nation-States; in a second phase, depicted by the divergence of NS → N- and NS → S+, the world-wide affirmation of Nationalism poses the alternative: Internationalism (Informal Empire) or Imperialism.

Taken separately, however, the two axes N+ → NS → N- and S- → NS → S+ designate the distinct trajectories followed by Nationalism in two specific situations — those of the United States and Germany, to be precise. In the USA, after nearly a century of inwardly concentrated effort to forge a single nation out of a multiplicity of colonial societies, Nationalism turned outwards at the end of the 19th century towards the external world, or rather towards an integration of that world within an Informal Empire. In Germany, on the contrary, after a century dominated by the drive to reunify the German “nation” in a single State at the expense of neighbouring Formal Empires, Nationalism now set out on the road of militarism and territorial expansion, abandoning, among other things, the Prussian tradition of free trade.

We shall explore these designations further in the course of our analysis. For the moment, their interest is merely one of exemplification. However I hope that, in this respect at least, the reader may begin to glimpse the utility of the conceptual grid (represented in Fig. 2) as a means both of organizing in a synchronic-diachronic order the expansionist waves of the 19th century, and of conveying the particular images of imperialism which agitated Hobson's mind.

That the grid has certain limits is self-evident: if it had none, it would not be a grid at all, that is, an instrument capable of retaining (fixing) one set of images, while allowing through (obscuring) another set. It is no less obvious that these limits are intimately connected with the system of values or the “vision of the world” in which Hobson was steeped. However, as Stretton has pointed out in answer to historiographical criticisms of Hobson: 

“Complete” explanation would in principle be coextensive with much of human history in much of its detail; so voluminous as merely to pose the problems of selection all over again. Meanwhile in all common sense there are enough very obvious patterns in reality, and enough values shared by investigators of the most diverse politics, to make sure that a lot of knowledge gathered in different interests will prove useful to everybody. . . . [What we need] is to know more, skilfully; not to know all, neutrally.14

In the course of the next section, we shall attempt to circumvent some of the more striking limitations of the schema so far adopted, making clear its contours and content. But even when all these points have been specified, the grid will remain a grid — one, moreover, that is woven rather loosely. Its utility depends not on the quantity of images which it fixes, but rather on their quality. In other words, it is a function of the goals which Hobson set himself in his study of imperialism and which we set ourselves in our study of Hobson.


1. J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study, London 1968, p. 3.

2. Hobson defines the image of nation or nationality by means of a quotation from John Stuart Mill's Representative Government: “A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a nation if they are united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and others. This feeling of nationality may have been generated by various causes. Sometimes it is the effect of identity of race and descent. Community of language and community of religion greatly contribute to it. Geographical limits are one of the causes. But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents, the possession of a national history and consequent community of recollections, collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past.” Representative Government, in Three Essays, Oxford 1975, p. 380.

3. Hobson, op. cit., pp. 6-7.

4.  Ibid., pp. 252-3.

5. Ibid., p. 282.

6. Ibid., p. 11.

7. Ibid., pp. 11-12.

8. Ibid., p. 12.

9. Ibid., p. 363,

10. Ibid., pp. 188-90.

11. Ibid., pp. 68-9.

12. The symbols which appear in Fig. 1 have been selected in order to help the reader remember their designation. Thus it should be kept in mind that S and N (whether with a plus or minus) refer to forms of expansion of the State (Formal Empire and Imperialism) and the Nation (Colonialism and Informal Empire) respectively. The signs + and - refer respectively to the antagonistic (exclusive) and non-antagonistic (inclusive) character which each of these two types of expansionism may assume, It is thus possible to distinguish Imperialism (NS—S+) from Formal Empire (NS—S-) and Colonialism (NS— N+) from Informal Empire (NS—N-).

13. From a historical point of view, the Nation-State evidently does not represent the origin of either Colonialism or Formal Empire — or even of Informal Empire, if 17th-century Dutch imperialism is to be included in this category. It will become clear as we proceed that the grid which we are constructing has a limited historical validity; and that, in particular, it has no meaning before the Nation-State has become the primary structure of the international system. Its function is purely analytical — that is to say, it defines an object which has no empirical correlates before the second half of the 17th century and which is not fully visible until the end of the 19th century (cf. §18).

14. 'H. Stretton, The Political Sciences, London 1969, p. 140.