What is Social Imperialism? - Definition, Effects & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Imperialism is not often a word we associate with social reform or seizing the means of production. Yet, people have found ways. In this lesson, we'll look at the concept of social imperialism and check out some historical examples.

Imperialism and Society

You know what would make our society better? Colonizing a bunch of other people. Right? Yeah? Okay maybe not. But that logic isn't without historical precedent. For a long time, governments have connected the wellbeing of their people with imperialism - the perpetual geographical expansion of the empire. In general, we call this social imperialism, but is it a valid theory or just an excuse to conquer and oppress?

Technically, there are two kinds of social imperialism, which both share some traits but are also pretty different: imperialism to benefit society, and socialist countries acting like imperialists. Let's take a look through history and see how social imperialism has been used in these two contexts.

Social Imperialism Type 1: Imperialism to Benefit Society

By the late 19th century, several European empires were starting to become concerned that they would eventually run out of places and people to colonize. This was an issue, as imperialism had become a staple in these cultures and was a part of their national identity.


British politician Cecil Rhodes once even called imperialism ''a bread and butter question'' and claimed that without imperialism, Britain would fall into civil war. The logic was not only that imperialism provided the resources necessary to sustain Britain, but that to be British meant to be imperialist. It was a matter of national identity and pride.

For empires like the British, imperialism was seen as making the nation and the people stronger, here personified in Cecil Rhodes


Where we really saw this idea come into play, however, was in Germany. Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German Empire in the mid-late 19th century, came into power at a time when Germany was dealing with some major economic problems at home. In order to deal with these issues, Bismarck took two distinct approaches.

On one hand, he initiated the first true welfare system in modern European history. Bismarck's social reforms were meant to keep socialism at bay by jumping the gun on the sorts of policies that socialists would use to start riots and rebellions. On the other hand, Bismarck launched the German Empire by claiming colonies in Africa and the South Pacific. By all accounts, he had never really supported colonialism before this, so why the change of heart?

Officers of the German Empire in Cameroon

Together, the social reforms and imperialist expansion provided both temporary relief and a distraction from the economic and social problems of Germany. To many historians, this what we mean when we refer to social imperialism: it's an imperialist program that's presented as part of broader social reforms, but which is actually little more than a distraction. Bismarck had seen how imperialism fostered strong, nationalist pride in other nations that kept the riotous working class contended and subservient. By combining social reform and welfare with a new imperialism that Germans could be proud of, he undercut growing socialist and labor movements and encouraged national stability and unity.

Social Imperialism Type 2: Imperialism Masked As Socialism

European empires like Britain and Germany connected imperialism with the welfare of their state. A similar idea would appear half a century later, but under a very different regime: that of the USSR.


The USSR was a communist state that positioned itself as the center of the socialist world in the 20th century, and used that power to expand its reach across Europe. In the aftermath of World War II, the USSR claimed effective control over all of Eastern Europe, expanding all the way through the eastern half of Germany. Winston Churchill would claim that an ''iron curtain'' had descended, trapping these nations with the sphere of Soviet influence.

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