Imperialism and Empire
By Claudio Mutti
Imperialism, the “supreme stage of capitalism”
The word imperialism, meaning the tendency of a State to expand in a wide geographic space and to impose its political, military and economical dominion, is a relatively recent neologism. In 1920 Lenin noted that since a pair of decades, in the historical period started with the Hispano-American war (1898) and the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902), “in the economical and political terminology of the old and the new world appear[ed] day by day more frequently the term imperialism”1 and quoted as an example a work called Imperialism, which the British economist J. A. Hobson had published in 1902 in London and New York.
Explaining the connections between imperialism and its basic economical peculiarities, Lenin stated the famous definition of imperialism as “age of the financial capital and then of the monopolies”2. “A specific stage of the development of world capitalist economy”3, will say then Paul M. Sweezy.
It does not appears to be fundamentally different from the one of the Bolshevik leader the analysis of imperialism made in the same period by a head of the counterrevolutionary thought, count Emmanuel Malynski, who used to define the imperialisms as “nationalistic megalomanias carefully enforced by capitalist greed”4. Faithful defender of the imperial idea and passionate apologist of the geopolitical structures destroyed by the World War and by Bolshevik Revolution, the Polish aristocrat wrote: “in the contemporary history, as in the two decades before, we will see the nationalisms of the great powers orienting themselves towards capitalism and rapidly degenerating into economical imperialism. They will be on a leaning table and will be drained by a chain of causes and effects towards political imperialism. Finally, the international capitalism will lead nations towards the greatest war ever existed”5. This opinion was shared by Julius Evola, who denounced “the imperialist decay of the imperial idea”6 as the product of ideologies “of nationalistic, materialistic and militaristic kind”7 or of economical interests.
Seen from a merely historical perspective, imperialism can be defined today as “the politics of great European powers, which aimed to build colonial empires by dominating extra-European territories, in order to take from them rough materials and working power and to send there the industrial productions”8, so that the imperialistic age “can be seen as the one from 1870 and the beginning of the World War I, when colonial division was in fact finished”9.
However, the definition of “imperialism” has been used even to define the politics of the United States of America in the historical periods after the two World Wars; this implies that imperialism is a typical phenomenon of contemporary age, which corresponds to a “specific stage of world capitalist economy”10 and is related to that internationalization of capitalism which culminated in globalization.
Phenomenology of the Empire
Concerning the category of Empire, it is not easy to define it, owing to the great variety of historical realities which can be related to it. Considering only those who took form in the areas of the Mediterranean Sea and Near East, we can see that the very first model of Empire was the civilization of ancient Iran, which probably took the idea of universal monarchy from the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian world. While in Persia the foundation of this idea is the dogma of the omnipotence of Ahoora-Mazda, the God who created sky and earth and gave to the “King of Kings” the earldom on different peoples, in Babylon and Egypt the Achaemenid lords refer on the local religious forms and thus “they take the character of national kings of different countries, having in each one of them the traditional figure of a divine monarch”11.
The project of supranational monarchy inspired to Alexander by the Persian model realizes itself, through the Hellenic kingdoms, in the Roman Empire, which for more than four centuries guarantees the pacific living and collaboration of a large community of peoples. Its basics are the common legal order (which lives with many juridical sources)12, the spreading of Latin (along with Greek and other local languages), the military defence of the boundaries, the institution of colonies which have to become centres of irradiation of the Roman influence in the bordering provinces, an imperial common currency (along with local provincial and municipal currencies), a complex street network.
Following the abdication of the last Western Roman Emperor and the restitution of the Imperial insignia to Constantinople, the Roman Empire continues to exist more 1000 years in its Eastern part. “Roman State structure, Greek culture and Christian religion are the main sources of the development of the Byzantine Empire. (…) The Empire, ethnically miscellaneous, was kept united by the Roman idea of State and its position in the world was determined by the Roman idea of universality. (…) Given this, a complex hierarchy of States takes form: on its height, we have the Byzantine Emperor, Roman Emperor and chief of the Christian ecumene”13.
But after two and half a century, when Justinian tried to re-create the world earldom by conquering the West, a Frankish King takes in Rome the Imperial crown. The brotherhood of the miscellaneous parts of the Holy Roman Empire – inhabited by peoples who are jealous of their ethnical and cultural identities – is based on the blood line which links the Emperor with the lords under him, and on the oaths by which they become loyal to the Emperor. The Carolingian Empire doesn’t survive more than 30 years after the death of its founder; for its rebirth we have to wait the deeds of a new dynasty, the Ottonian, and the moving of the capital from Aachen to Rome.
With Frederick II Hohenstaufen, the Empire looks like he is regaining its Mediterranean dimension. While Germany is an image of the Empire, since it is a community of different peoples (Saxons, Franks, Swabians etc…), the Mediterranean side of Frederick’s Empire is even more various and articulate: the Latin-Arabic-Greek trilinguism of the imperial Chancellery represents a mosaic of Latin, Greek, Lombard, Arabic, Berber, Norman, Swabian and Hebraic peoples, who belong to different religions. Therefore Frederick, one of his biographers says, “had the characters of the different Lords of the Earth: he was the First Prince of Germany, the Latin Emperor, the Norman King, the Basileus and the Sultan”14. In this last title we see its specific imperial idea: the aspiration to rebuild the unity of spiritual authority and political power.
Following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the legacy of the Roman Empire is followed by two new imperial formations: while “the Greek and Christian Roman Empire revives in the form of a Turkish and Muslim Empire”15, thus generating “the last hypostasis of Rome”16, Moscow becomes the “third Rome”, because, as written by Benedict XVI, “it founds a self-Patriarchy on the idea of a second translatio Imperii and therefore can present itself as a new metamorphosis of the Sacrum Imperium”17.
In Western and Central Europe, the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation suffers from the birth of the first national States; but the course of the history seems to change with Charles V, “champion of that old idea of Europe that appears very actual today”18, when the Empire founded by Charlemagne gets rid of the strictly Germanic aspect it had from XIV to XV century and goes towards regaining its basic supranational character, which it will maintain it in the following centuries, until the fall of the Habsburg monarchy. All over the XVI century and a large period of the XVII century the Empire “was the historical face of a central force which unified all the miscellaneous kingdoms which divided Christianity during the Middle Age; its unifying and enforcing power makes us see other chances for the European history other than those who concretely happened”19.
With the Peace of Pressburg, Francis II renounces to the dignity of Holy Roman Emperor, which the Napoleonic conquers deprived of its corresponding territorial substance; on the same time, Napoleon receives the same chance of taking Charlemagne’s legacy in a brand new Empire, a continental cluster of territories bond by the French military power and guided by the trusted functionaries of the Empereur. Therefore, even the members of the old European aristocracy can see in him “a Roman Emperor – a French Roman Emperor, if we want, as before the Emperor had been a German one, nevertheless an Emperor; the Pope has to be his almoner, the Kings have to be his vassals and the Princes the vassals of these vassals. A feudal system, indeed, with a height which lacked during the times of the Middle Ages”20.
Rethinking the Empire
From this limited and synthetic historical sum, we see that Empire is not only a great political and military power exercising its influence on a wide territory. More adequately, Empire can be defined as “a kind of political unity which associates different ethnicities, peoples and nations related by one spiritual principle. Respectful of the identities, it lives thanks to a sovereignty founded on faithfulness rather than on direct control” 21. Each historical face of the imperial model was built, beyond its geographical dimension and ethnical variety, as a unitary order determined by a superior principle.
Concerning Europe, the Empire has always been its ideal and political heart, its gravity centre, until, with decadence and then with the fall of the most recent imperial forms, Europe has become West, as an appendix of the transatlantic superpower and a bridge for its invasion of Eurasia.
However, US monopolarism is not eternal; the switch to a new “nomos of the Earth” living in a pluriversum of “great spaces” lies now in a realistic perspective, so that Europe will have to rethink the model of Empire, the only model of supranational unity ever developed in the course of its history.
- Vladimir I. Lenin, Imperialism, supreme stage of Capitalism, Milan 2002, p. 33.
- Vladimir I. Lenin, Imperialism, supreme stage of Capitalism, quote, p. 140.
- Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, New York 1968, p. 307.
- Emmanuel Malynski, Les Eléments de l’Histoire Contemporaine, cap. V, Paris 1928; trad. it. Fedeltà feudale e dignità umana, Padova 1976, p. 85. From the same author: L’Erreur du Prédestiné, 2 vol., Paris 1925; Le Réveil du Maudit, 2 voll., Paris 1926; Le Triomphe du Réprouvé, 2 vol., Paris 1926; L’Empreinte d’Israël, Paris 1926; La Grande Conspiration Mondiale, Paris 1928; John Bull et l’Oncle Sam, Paris 1928; Le Colosse aux Pieds d’Argile, Paris 1928. La Guerre Occulte,
- Emmanuel Malynski, Fedeltà feudale e dignità umana, quoted, ibidem.
- Julius Evola, L’Inghilterra e la degradazione dell’idea di Impero, “Lo Stato”, a. IX, 7 July 1940.
- Julius Evola, Universalità imperiale e particolarismo nazionalistico, “La Vita italiana”, a. XIX, no 217, April 1931.
- Enrico Squarcina, Glossario di geografia politica e geopolitica, Milan 1997, pp. 81-82.
- Enrico Squarcina, Glossario di geografia politica e geopolitica, cit., p. 82.
- Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development, New York 1968, p. 307.
- Pietro de Francisci, Arcana imperii, vol. I, Rome 1970, p. 168.
- Maurice Sartre, L’empire romain comme modèle, “Commentaire”, 1992, p. 29.
- Georg Ostrogorsky, Geschichte des byzantinischen Staates, München 1993, pp. 25-26.
- Giulio Cattaneo, Lo specchio del mondo, Milan 1974, p. 137.
- Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, vol. XII, 2a ed., London – New York – Toronto 1948, p. 158.
- Nicolae Iorga, The Background of Romanian History, cit. in: Ioan Buga, Calea Regelui, Bucarest 1998, p. 138. C. Mutti, Roma ottomana, “Eurasia. Rivista di studi geopolitici”, a. I, n. 1, ott.-dic. 2004, pp. 95-108.
- Josef Ratzinger, Europa. I suoi fondamenti oggi e domani, Milano 2004, p. 15.
- D. B. Wyndham Lewis, Carlo Quinto, Milano 1964, p. 18.
- Franco Cardini – Sergio Valzania, Le radici perdute dell’Europa. Da Carlo V ai conflitti mondiali, Milano 2006, p. 16.
- Emmanuel Malynski, La guerra occulta, Padova 1989, pp. 48.
- Louis Sorel, Ordine o disordine mondiale?, in L. Sorel – R. Steuckers – G. Maschke, Idee per una geopolitica europea, Milano 1998, p. 39.
Mutti, Claudio. “Imperialism and Empire.” Eurasia: Rivista di Studi Geopolitici, 10 July 2013. <http://www.eurasia-rivista.org/imperialism-and-empire/19840/ >.