This classic study of imperialism by the radical-liberal economist J A Hobson was originally published in 1902. Hobson’s influential work was drawn on by Lenin when he wrote his book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1917.
Hobson seeks to explain the rise of the “new imperialism” in the 1870s and 1880s when Britain, together with the other Great European powers, engaged in a scramble for colonies. This move towards formal control over colonies was a break from the previous British pattern, where it exercised its global dominance through free trade and “informal” mechanisms of political control.
Hobson argues that advanced industrial capitalism produced an excess of capital that was unable to find any profitable outlet in the domestic economy. This led to the search for new markets abroad. It was this process that drove the pressure to annex territories, both to safeguard existing investments and to secure areas for new investments.
But Hobson locates this drive to export capital as the result of the search for profits by “rentier” financial interests around the City of London, allied to certain sections of industry like arms manufactures and the shipping industry. He thus mistakenly argues that the costs of empire were not in the interests of British capitalism as a whole.
Imperialism, a Study: points to the role of such drives as patriotism, philanthropy, and the spirit of adventure in advancing the imperialist cause
Despite this weakness, Hobson’s work was pioneering and its republication is to be welcomed.