Hobson and Imperialism: An Appraisal

  • Lars Magnusson


John Atkinson Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study (1902) was undoubtedly one of the most influential books of the early twentieth century. In a period when ‘imperialism’ was a catchword of politicians for winning popular support, he portrayed imperialism in a more grim fashion, showing it to be devastating both at home and in the colonies and pursued mainly in the interest of a few wealthy financial capitalists. As Richard Koebner has shown, this word ‘imperialism’ — ‘loaded with an emotive force eluding all demands for precise definition’2 — has a long history back to the early decades of the nineteenth century when it was mainly used to describe a policy of military grandeur and aggrandisement by acquisition of dependencies in the style of the Imperium of ancient Rome — or to use a more recent comparison, the empire of Napoleon. However, by the 1890s the word had found an alternative usage and most of its early derogatory meaning ‘had paled’, according to Koebner.3 In Britain Chamberlain and his followers had launched a policy of ‘popular imperialism’ in fashion not only among the Conservatives, but also among many Liberals and Socialists (especially of the Fabian brand). It was this policy that Hobson — probably more thoroughly and certainly more effectively than anyone else at the time — so fiercely attacked in his several books and articles by the turn of the century, among which Imperialism: A Study stands out as the most central.


Foreign Investment Capital Export Historical Argument Overseas Investment Foreign Lending 
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    K. Tribe, Governing Economy. (Cambridge, 1988).Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    J.A. Hobson, Confessions of an Economic Heretic (London: 1938), p. 59.Google Scholar
  3. 52.
    J.A. Hobson, Democracy After the War (London, 1917), pp. 90ff.Google Scholar
  4. 62.
    M. Kalecki, Theory of Economic Dynamics (New York, 1968).Google Scholar

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© John Pheby 1994

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  • Lars Magnusson

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