Joseph Schumpeter’s essay The Sociology of Imperialism is a dramatic departure from his contemporaries’ approach on the subject, who viewed geographic expansion as a necessary component of the capitalism. Contrary to this prevailing belief, Schumpeter argues that imperialism is pre-capitalist and, a result, its source cannot be attributed to capitalism. Instead, imperialism is a result of atavistic tendencies among the traditional ruling elites and the remnants of pre-capitalist social structures.

Capitalism and capitalists, according to Schumpeter, are merely subject to these atavisms due to the current inability of the bourgeoisie to overcome the traditional socio-political structures of power. For example, he claims that tariffs and trade barriers are originally mercantilist policies enacted by absolute monarchs for the purposes of nationalism and, tangentially, maintaining stability domestically. In the modern capitalist system, however, the bourgeoisie are subtly coerced into support these ostensibly regressive policies in order to pacify the elite’s concerns over its socio-political standing; thus, indirectly promoting imperialism because of capitalism’s inherent need for (forcible) expansion. Or, as Schumpeter puts it: “The bourgeoisie seeks to win over the state for itself, and in return serves the state and state interests that are different from its own.”

Capitalism’s need (forcible) expansion, though, can be offset through the adoption of free trade policies worldwide — which Schumpeter predicts will eventually occur. Generally, war is unprofitable to the economically dominant capitalist class. They will, therefore, free themselves from the atavisms of the past, politically challenge the old elites, and usher in an era of free trade on a global scale. In other words, Imperialism can exist under capitalism, but a causal link between the two does not exist.

While Schumpeter’s essay provides a rebuttal to the ever-popular Marxist analyses of imperialism, I find his analysis faulty on two accounts. Firstly, The Sociology of Imperialism defines imperialism too rigidly, viewing it only as militaristic expansion. Modern scholars such as Arrighi and Wallerstein convincingly show through empirical analyses that imperialism can be pursued economically as much as it can militarily.   Secondly, Schumpeter fails to adequately explicate the manner through which the bourgeoisie will change the existing order. Even though he discusses at length how the capitalist classes became attached to the atavistic order, he is vague, and perhaps necessarily so, as to how the two factions de-link.

The Sociology of Imperialism offers a theory that provides a thoughtful starting point for the conceptualization of the phenomenon, but in the end leaves the reader less than convinced concerning its conclusions. Personally, I find that Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital or Lenin’s Imperialism. The Highest Stage of Capitalism provide more insight than Schumpeter’s work.