The notion of ‘American empire’ in global political discourse today is extremely controversial, but it has historically been one of America’s longest running grand narratives. From our post-Cold War viewpoint, we use the term ‘imperial’ in a neutral and descriptive manner, and avoid using it in both a pejorative or reverent sense, because we are interested in historical precision over political commitment. This is difficult because the ‘linguistic’ or ‘rhetorical’ turn in historiography has shown how persuasion is inherent in language, and how history is always written in the present. Language, vocabulary, and dramatic structure are inseparable from historical knowledge. Literary embellishments have characterized, promoted, or obscured notions of empire. Historically, the term ‘empire’ has been employed for various ends—on both sides of the political spectrum—the positive or negative value of the connotation is determined by the rhetorical strategy of the writer.
For many the term ‘imperialism’ is a word that is either too ideologically charged, or anachronistic for serious use today. However, tossing it into the dustbin of history would be premature since it remains central to economic, political and social history. The term comes from the Latin Imperator: from the verb imperare, to command, order, or rule. The word first appeared to describe Napoleon III’s internal polity, not to France’s external policy in the 1860s, and was associated with notions of Ceasarism and Bonapartism. Later, it came to denote the attitudes and policies of Napoleon III, Bismarck, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and their semi-literate electorates. This meaning is now obsolete.
Britain’s popular support for Disraeli’s imperial policies arose in response to corresponding nationalistic feelings that were simultaneously occurring on the Continent, beginning around 1870 with the creation of a powerful German empire. The classical debate on imperialism began to explain the unprecedented outburst of overseas expansion during the late-Victorian and Edwardian period, which, more or less, revolved around the Neo-Marxist condemnation of the capitalistic state’s inherent and natural tendency to progress towards monopoly and expansion, or the liberal-bourgeois refutation of any necessary connection between capitalism and imperialism. The common meaning of imperialism as the domination of distant peoples and exploitation of raw materials was shaped by this debate. Discussion of imperialism around World War I existed within the immediate vicinity of party politics, programs and policies. Never before had a debate been such an object of academic discipline. The literature on imperialism was very extensive, particularly, in Germany, where socialist and non-socialist writers had long struggled with the question. The term Imperialismus, an overcharged Schlagwort, was polemically disputed by politically impatient theorists, which has thrown doubt on its scientific value until this day. Imperialismus had a universal connotation that differed from the British expression, which always connoted something specific to the British Empire. The most ancient political forces in history, such as the Chinese and Persian empires, as well as the medieval Ottoman, Romanov, Hapsburg and Hohenzollern dynasties had all vanished by 1918. Only the liberal British Empire and her protectorates survived the war.
World revolution spread after bourgeois civilization destroyed itself in the Great War. When President Woodrow Wilson went to war against Germany to eliminate America’s main competitor for economic empire, he masked national interests with liberal rhetoric. Since 1917, political rhetoric in both the United States and the Soviet Union had become explicitly anti-imperialistic. Marxist-Leninist discourse was essentially a translation of the liberal Wilsonian project of national self determination—both currents are revolutionary. Ironically, colonialism by the liberal democracies of Britain, France, Holland, and Belgium posed more of a threat to African and Asian independence than fascism. After the transnational economy finally broke down in the 1930s world depression, communism and fascism fought hard for the soul of Europe. Thus, theories of imperialism in the1930s and 1940s suffocated both inside fascist controlled lands and in the states fighting them. Theorists simply redirected their attention to more impending matters.
American leaders were enthusiastically contemplating the dissolution of the British, French, Dutch and Portuguese empires and the establishment of a new liberal world order during the Second World War. The inevitable dissolution of European empires began, when Japanese broke the yoke of their overseas dependencies in South East Asia. Immediately after World War II, when Britain became more interested in promoting her own welfare society than providing security for Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific, the White dominions became independent as well as US clients. Once this was done, it was only a matter of time before the nonwhites would follow suit. Neither racial kinship nor sentimentalism stood in the way of self-government. Liberalism could not be reconciled with imperial rule. Western Europe had no chance of maintaining control of their dependencies against the anti-imperial rhetoric emanating from both the Soviet Union and the United States. The decolonized world became the main battle ground of the Cold War.
In general, discussion of imperialism—both Marxist and liberal—stagnated from the 1930s until the 1960s. Marxist contribution to theory in the socialist world was not impressive. Theorists tried to shape arguments through exegetical examination of classical texts to meet the political needs of the Tageskamph—programs, political groups, organizations and messages were designed to influence practical affairs. The exegetical debate among socialists neither created new theoretical starting points, nor did it shed any analytical light on new socioeconomic and political realities. After WWII, liberal economists assumed that European imperialism was over, and busily sought to restore and protect conventional social science. Meanwhile in the 1950s, the debate was quietly kept alive in historiography. Economic historians challenged older forms of history writing and kicked off a great debate on ‘free trade imperialism.’
Though American ‘revisionists’ studies of the Cold War were published during 1950s, they were virtually ignored by the academic establishment. Around the middle of the 1960s a new discourse—coterminous with the Vietnam War—began to develop that centered on both past and present forms of imperialism. The novelty of this popular debate was its concern with contemporary issues. A younger generation of authors came to see America’s support for the wealthy and leadership in the world-wide anti-revolutionary movement, against the backdrop of American bombing of Vietnam in 1965. As events got out of hand for the Administration in Washington, the guardians of the academic establishment began to lose their grip on the ivory tower. Articles on imperialism mushroomed on the left, which was influenced by New Left authors, such as C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse among others.
Theory remained ideologically contentious throughout the Cold War. Both sides accused the other of being an evil-empire. The Cold War was more than ideological in the third world, it was a Clash of Empires in which both sides artificially supported national sovereignty and propped up states in the decolonized world to fight proxy wars. Many of these new sovereign states were never nations to begin with in the first place. After the 1989-90 collapse of the Soviet Union, civil war and tribalism are creating failed states, due to the absence of political and financial support from their Cold War patrons. Today, policy experts in both the United States and Russia both employ the paradigm of “world economic systems analysis” to explain the current situation of simultaneous increasing economic integration and political disintegration while they ignore Marx’s notion of ‘primitive’ accumulation and rhetoric. Moreover, both countries practice imperialism to deflect attention from domestic reform in the classic manner.
The lively debate on contemporary imperialism arose concurrently with the ‘war against terror.’ Though the various terms related to ‘imperial’ have traditionally had a negative connotation in American English, pundits from the Anglo-American establishment have been uttering the ‘E’ word lately with approval. After 9-11 Neoconservatives kicked off the debate when they came out in full support for an American Empire. Ironically, the core members of this movement originally stem from the so-called ‘New York Intellectuals,’ predominantly Jewish leftists from the Lower Eastside. Around 1940, these intellectuals, on America’s periphery of power, moved towards the liberal center. Because they believed Stalin betrayed the socialist revolution, they became anti-Communist, cultural warriors, before the Cold War. During the 1960s some became critical of the New Left in their defense of the establishment. Neoconservativism was coined in the 1970s, when the old left moved right of center and counter-attacked the New Left. During the 1980s, members of the second and third generation joined the Reagan administration and aggressively confronted the Soviet empire and defended Israel. After the Cold War, they reinitiated a Wilsonian imperial project. Since British neoconservatives see themselves more as Whigs than Tories, they have had no qualms supporting Tony Blair.
Critics of empire are found on both America’s far right and left, such as Pat Buchanan and Noam Chomsky. Since traditional terminology no longer seems adequate in describing the new historical reality, our project has to examine the language and categories of understanding. For example, both Britain’s and America’s contemporary political spectrum of left and right in its new conceptual guise as neo-liberal and neo-conservative seem to obscure any meaningful ideological difference. The problem with inventing new vocabulary or introducing foreign words or finding and redefining terms is connected to a larger project of creating a new scheme. Since rhetoric and oratory create ideology, the language of America’s new ‘war on terror’ must be scrutinized against the realities of geopolitics and a broader historical perspective