Imperialism can be defined as a doctrine, political strategy, practice, state policy, or advocacy that consists in extending power by territorial acquisition or by extending political and economic control outward over other areas. Imperialism oftentimes involves the use of military and economic power, and always aims for more expansion and collective or individual domination. 

John Atkinson Hobson uses the term “imperialism” for the first time in 1902 in a book named after the concept (Imperialism, A Study), where the author analyzes the components of imperialism and the forces that create it. Historically, the term imperialism is connected to the notion of Empire, the political form of organization that arose in ancient times. More precisely, the term Imperialism found its meaning when European States expanded their power through the colonial conquest that lasted from the XVIIth to the XVIIIth Century. During these times, the most significant conquests that illustrate imperialism are the European territorial pretentions over African lands, or the distribution of the land of the defeated Ottoman Empire organized by the League of Nations after the First World War.

Imperialism has been justified in the name of a “civilizing mission” of supremacy that the European states granted to themselves. Moreover, the expansion of their power has been done after a wish to universalize their values. In reality, the Empires were leading a policy of conquest, motivated by the wish to exploit resources and appear stronger on the international scene. 

Another illustration of imperialism in ancient times can be found in Greece, where imperialism reached its peak under Alexander the Great.

In its Marxist sense, imperialism means the division of the world between great powers and guides international relations. According to Marxists, imperialism is the superior phase of development of capitalism, which is assured by a policy of economic, political and military expansion and the economic and political dependence of the populations or States.

Today, the notion of imperialism frequently has a negative connotation, but it does not only apply to territorial expansion anymore, but also to other domains such as the economy, technology or culture. 

[Last updated in April of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]