HY423: Empire, Colonialism and Globalisation: Introductory Lecture

Why study Empire?

Well, it matters. It determines who rules or ruled the world.

Studying empire is always interesting because they always encompass such a vast amount of time, space and culture. Because they are so vast, the study of empire is often polemical because it is hard to be indifferent to the values under which much of the world is run, especially if they seem alien and immoral to you.

Many people were in the lecture to ask “is the US an Empire?” Don’t bother. There is no definition of empire, so if you want the US to be an empire you define empire in a way that makes the US an empire. Don’t worry about if the US is an empire or not.

Studying empire is an exercise in imagination. It covers all history of all eras. Therefore, do not try to learn everything on this course because all you are doing is this, trying too hard and paying the consequences.

epic fail photos - Throwing FAIL

What you need to learn is the principles and techniques so you can apply them as needed.

A classical description of empire is

Domination of peripheral societies by a metropolitan centre

This is a good definition of the European transoceanic empires, but it is less useful in other ways.

It doesn’t work for land empires because the periphery is very often internal i.e. the most exploited section of the Ottoman empire was Anatolia. There are also many types of empire.

Aristocratic empires are based on class not race, nationality or locality. So in Tsarist Russia nobles from far away were seen as closer than serfs from an hour outside your estate.

Religious empires The Ottoman empire was not defined by class or race or nationality, it was defined by religion. While still a tolerant place for the time if you wanted to be a ruling Ottoman you had to be a Muslim. Parallels with the USSR in that it is an empire built on ideology rather than race etc.

Nomadic empire Around the world commercial centres have been conquered by local nomads/barbarians. Inb Khaldun noted that conquerors are often less developed than the conquered, especially where nomads takeover commercial, usually coastal or riverine towns. Often rather than seeing a dominant culture forced on the conquered the conquerors are subsumed into their new home’s culture. This is what happened to the Manchu Qing, they eventually became Chinese/Han despite being from what is now Manchuria in Northern China.

So, why is our model of empire not more inclusive, why is it so eurocentric?

There is an obvious answer. Anglo-American intellectual hegemony. however, there is a more interesting reason.

Lenin saw imperialism as the highest form of capitalism. Lenin knew there had been empires in the past and had studied them, but he still singled out imperialism as a key component of modern capitalist society. He recognised that there is something different about modern imperialism when compared to the old land, religious and nomadic empires of yesteryear.

We have a eurocentric definition of empire because a eurocentric definition of empire is more useful and relevant to us today.

US Empire vs European Empire

The US is the heir to Anglo/Dutch financial systems and capitalist methods of production. It is also heir to a legal system with its roots in England.

Something which is obvious, but potentially overlooked, is that the US has geopolitical power because it is a continent sized countries sitting between the two great world oceans inbetween the economies of East Asia and Europe.

The UK, Dutch, Portuguese etc empires were exclusionary. We were all Subjects of her majesty but the de facto rights of those born in Britain were far greater than those born abroad. There was no desire to assimilate the new colonies, they were merely useful for prestige and mostly for resources. A prominent school of thought was that what had destroyed Rome was that the culture of the Asiatic holdings had infected the Republic and made it weak.

The Ottoman empire was not like this, there was no exclusion on who could rule, so long as you were Muslim. The height of the Ottoman empire was a time when it was ruled by converted ex-Christian ex-slaves.

The US is more like the Ottoman empire, it is built on an idea (however true) of “America.”

Towards an adequate definition of empire

  1. Polity of great geographic scope
  2. Multi-cultural-multi-national
  3. Not based on the consent of the governed
  4. Power – if you’re not powerful you’re not an empire.

What is Power? Michael Mann, in his Sources of Social Power, identifies four sources of power

  1. Military
  2. Political
  3. Economic
  4. Cultural or Ideological

To these four we can add two more to help describe the power of an empire

  1. Geopolitical
  2. Demographic

Empires use different combinations of these powers to varying degrees throughout their history. At different points at the same time and at different times at the same point different combinations of these sources of power will be deployed. 19th C Australia versus 20th C Algeria. Boston versus Delhi.

Remember, that Military and Economic power are not always connected. Islamic extremists are weak economically, however, if they secure a nuclear weapon the western world could become an even more repressive place. Much as Augustus’s rome became Diocletian’s in the face of barbarian incursions.


In the mid 19th C the future of the world already looked like it would belong to continental sized great powers. The US and Russia, although poor, were seen as potential superpowers even then.

This prompted the UK and France, both rich countries, to try to grab land  in order to bolster their support base. Germany started two world wars, in part, to try to join this imperial club, as it seemed necessary to survive.

However, the peak of empire coincided with the beginnings of ethnic nationalism and there seemed few ways to reconcile this with empire. States tried to consolidate empires into nations with mixed results.

The USSR attempted to do this with a new ideology rather than an ethnic group, Socialism would hold together then empire. To an extent it did, but only while it could bolster this ideology with military and political power.

We can imagine Scotland as an independent country. But can we imagine an independent Bavaria? Well 150 years ago Bavaria was independent and the idea of an independent Scotland laughable. The Ukraine was part of Russia for a long time, yet in the early 90s it popped into existence as its own nation state.

Why study collapsed empires?

Because you can learn a lot from old empires.

The Eastern Austro-Hungarian Empire was one of the homes of the great civilised idea of tolerance. “Consociational democracy” was born here. Group rights and individual rights were enshrined in law here – in many ways coercive empires can be more free and tolerant than democratic states. The same was true in 15th/16th C Italy – if you wanted a good life you better hope to be the subject of a prince, rather than a democracy.


Studying Empire teaches us that so much is contingent in life. Two generations after the Qing finally secure the borders of China and bring peace to what had become a violent part of the world the Europeans arrive and change China is ways which were utterly unpredictable, and at the time, unknown to everyone involved.


HY423: Empire, Colonialism and Globalisation – Indicitive Reading


  • M Doyle, Empires, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1986
  • P Kennedy, The rise and fall of the great powers, 1988
  • J Tracy (Ed), The Political Economy of Merchant Empires, Cambridge, 1993
  • G V Scammell, The First Imperial Age, London, 1989
  • J H Parry, Trade and Dominion, London, 1971
  • D Lieven, Empire. The Russian Empire and its Rivals, Pimlico, 2003
  • C A Bayly, Imperial Meridian, London, 1989
  • S Howe, Empire. A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002
  • G Lundestad, The Fall of Great Powers, Oxford University Press, 1994

Welcome to Global History @ LSE

This is the blog of a student taking the Global History MSc at the London School of Economics.

I am studying part time from October 2010 to September 2012 and I will be posting my lecture notes, seminar notes, reading notes and essays online.

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LecturesLecture in the New Theatre, c1981 by LSE Library.

SeminarsDr Peter Loizos (left) and students, c1981 by LSE Library.

ReadingStudent in the library, 1981 by LSE Library.

EssaysStudent in the library, 1981 by LSE Library.

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