Free Minds & Free Markets

Non-Marxist Theories of Imperialism

"Empire-building is done not by 'nations' but by men. The problem before us is to discover the men, the active, interested minorities in each nation, who are directly interested in imperialism, and then to analyze the reasons why the majorities pay the expenses and fight the wars necessitated by imperialist expansion."
—Parker T. Moon,
Imperialism and World Politics, 1926

"…we must name the system that creates and sustains the war in Vietnam-name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it."
—Carl Oglesby, "Trapped in a System", speech delivered at the October 1965 antiwar march on Washington

One of the most encouraging aspects of the emergence of the libertarian movement during the late 1960's and early 1970's has been the growing receptivity within that movement toward revisionist historical scholarshipboth within the areas of domestic political history and foreign diplomatic history. Not only are such revisionist classics as Harry Elmer Barnes' Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1953; Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, reprint of 1953 ed.) receiving wider attention, but increased interest has also been focused on the works of such "New Left" revisionist historians as Gabriel Kolko, William Appleman Williams, and Lloyd C. Gardner on the origins of the cold war. (Perhaps the most comprehensive bibliography of the works available on World Wars I and II revisionism is Harry Elmer Barnes' pamphlet "Select Bibliography of Revisionist Books Dealing with the Two World Wars and Their Aftermath," available in Barnes (ed.), The Rightwing Tradition in America [New York: Arno, 1972].)

As a consequence of their exposure to revisionist works, libertarians have acquired a more sophisticated awareness of the historical continuity underlying America's expansionist foreign policy and of the economic factors that have been important in shaping it. In particular, historical revisionism has played a vital role in penetrating the veil of anticommunist ideology which has served to justify America's interventionist role in world affairs during the post-1945 period.

Unfortunately, however, the response thus far to the work of revisionist historians has largely been restricted to passive acceptance or, in some cases, active cheering. Very few have undertaken the more difficult task of elaborating a theoretical framework capable of "explaining" the nature and evolution of U.S. foreign policy in terms of a solid free market analysis. Historical revisionism and Austrian economics have been largely compartmentalized areas of scholarship and little effort has been made to systematically integrate these two disciplines. A few, such as Murray Rothbard, Leonard Liggio, and Walter Grinder, are important exceptions to this generalization and some of their work will be discussed later.

A major reason for this failure has been the lingering taint attached to theories of imperialism by those who continue to view them as necessarily the product of a (fundamentally flawed) Marxist economic analysis. Such an attitude, however, overlooks non-Marxist theories of imperialism. The latter group encompasses economic analyses which are highly uneven in quality, but nevertheless contain useful insights for the elaboration of an authentically libertarian theory of imperialism.


Ever since the emergence of systematic laissez-faire economic analysis in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, advocates of laissez-faire economic doctrines have served in the forefront of anti-imperialist movements. While early critiques of England's colonial foreign policy had focused primarily on political and moral objections, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations presented the first comprehensive economic refutation of the mercantilist doctrines which had been used to justify the acquisition of colonies. Upholding the virtues of division of labor, economic specialization, and freedom of trade, Smith persuasively argued that protectionism and regulation of commerce would hamper, rather than promote, economic growth and welfare.

The insights of Adam Smith were later amplified by the two leading representatives of the Manchester School, Richard Cobden and John Bright, who vigorously campaigned on behalf of a strict noninterventionist foreign policy for England. While most people are probably aware that Cobden and Bright led the struggle to repeal the Corn Lawsas oppressive interference with free traderelatively few are aware of their extensive involvement in the peace movement in England or, in particular, their outspoken opposition to England's involvement in the Crimean War. This had been an extremely popular war in England and both Cobden and Bright suffered widespread vilification as "peace at any price" men. Their active role as critics of England's foreign policy is discussed in Donald Read's Cobden and Bright (London: Edward Arnold, 1967), William Dawson's Richard Cobden and Foreign Policy (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1926) and J.A. Hobson's Richard Cobden: The International Man (London: Ernest Benn, 1919, 1968).

Neither man was a pacifist but both were acutely aware of the necessary connection between laissez-faire economic policies and noninterventionism abroad. The first pamphlets written by Cobden, "England, Ireland and America" and "Russia," advanced a theme which he and Bright reiterated often in later years: war and intervention abroad are parasitic and destructive activities which sap the strength of the domestic economy and ruin trade. Such a foreign policy is necessarily accompanied by heavy national debt and oppressive taxation, which handicap industry, trade, and agriculture. Furthermore, the political consequences would inevitably be a strong executive government progressively restricting the role of Parliament, using the pretext of the need for secrecy in diplomatic activity. The extent of Cobden's opposition to England's interventionist foreign policy is indicated by the following:

I am opposed to any armed intervention in the affairs of other countries. I am against any interference by the Government of one country in the affairs of another nation, even if it be confined to moral suasion. Nay, I go further, and disapprove of the formation of a society or organization of any kind in England for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. (Quoted in Dawson, p. 108)

Cobden had perceived that England's aristocratic class was the major antagonist of free trade and, similarly, that the landed aristocracy was the strongest supporter of an interventionist foreign policy: "Wars have ever been but another aristocratic mode of plundering and oppressing commerce" (Quoted in Dawson, p. 122). Cobden's unrelenting hostility to the foreign policy of Lord Palmerston is best summarized in the following excerpt from one of his letters:

[W]e shall do no good until we can bring home to the conviction and consciences of men the fact that, as in the slave-trade we had surpassed in guilt the whole world, so in foreign wars we have been the most aggressive, quarrelsome, warlike and bloody nation under the sun. (Quoted in Dawson, p. 122)


Across the Atlantic, America's first tentative efforts to annex overseas territories at the end of the 19th century prompted the emergence of a broad anti-imperialist movement. The Anti-Imperialist League founded in 1898 served as the leading organizational embodiment of the movement and, with few exceptions, the organizers of the League were firm adherents of laissez-faire economic doctrines. Like the Manchester School of Cobden and Bright (which strongly influenced the anti-imperialist movement in the United States), these individuals perceived that free trade and anti-imperialism are inextricably bound together. Historical accounts of the movement at the turn of the century are available in E. Berkeley Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890-1920 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970) and Robert L. Beisner, Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898-1900 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968). Harold Francis Williamson, in Edward Atkinson: The Biography of an American Liberal, 1827-1905 (Boston: Old Corner Book Store, 1934, New York: Arno, 1972), provides an interesting biography of one of the leaders of the Anti-Imperialist League. Atkinson had been active in the abolitionist movement, raising funds to supply John Brown's guerrillas in Kansas with weapons and ammunition, and had campaigned vigorously for an end to tariffs and government-backed banking and currency. (The biography discusses Atkinson's great respect for the economic analysis of Frederic Bastiat.)

William Graham Sumner's essay "The Conquest of the United States by Spain" (Chicago: Gateway/Regnery) provides an excellent introduction to the main elements of the anti-imperialist critique of American foreign policy. Sumner explained the title of the essay in the following manner: "We have beaten Spain in a military conflict, but we are submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies. Expansionism and imperialism are nothing but the old philosophies of national prosperity which brought Spain to where she now is." (p. 139)

Sumner went on to develop the theme that republic and empire are antithetical concepts and that interventionism abroad would require the abandonment of America's traditional isolationist policies as well as her anticolonial heritage. Moreover, he argued, annexing overseas territories is morally wrong, violating such fundamental principles as liberty, democracy, equality, and self-government. Sumner stressed that the values of militarism and "industrialism" are inherently antagonistic, and that imperialism would result in the triumph of militarism. On a purely practical level, he challenged the assumption that the United States could effectively administer a far-flung colonial empire embracing people of different backgrounds and cultures, and charged that the colonies would become a serious drain on American economic resources.

The isolationist movement prior to World War II provides another example of an anti-interventionist movement which mobilized the support of a large number of adherents of classical liberalism (although the movement as a whole encompassed a broad spectrum of political views). A detailed bibliography covering this field is available in Justus Doenecke's "The Literature of Isolationism: A Guide to Non-Interventionist Scholarship, 1930-1972" (Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles, 1972). In addition, a penetrating analysis of the origins and development of the isolationist movement is provided in Leonard Liggio's essays in Left and Right ("Why the Futile Crusade?" Spring 1965, pp. 4-22, "Isolationism: Old and New," Winter 1966, pp. 19-35; "Early Anti-Imperialism," Spring 1966, pp. 39-57; "Palefaces or Redskins: A Profile of Americans," Autumn 1966, pp. 48-60; "Jonas on Isolationism in America," Spring-Summer 1967, pp. 55-61).

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