History News Network

By Marc Palen

Elite opinion has grown more hawkish even though public opinion at large hasn’t. When it comes to foreign policy, the key divide is no longer between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between the elites of both parties and their rank and file.

It is a provocative argument, but it lacks any real historical context. Historians of empire, however, will find the article’s thrust eerily familiar — critiques of foreign policy makers’ penchant for militarism go back a long way.

A century ago, critics of imperialism were making similar observations in Europe and the United States, as they viewed with alarm the colonialism and militarism of the era, culminating in the First World War. On the one hand, Marxist theorists like V. I. Lenin in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) argued that the Great War was an inevitable outgrowth of capitalist competition among the Western imperial powers. On the other hand, non-Marxist theorists like Schumpeter and Veblen developed a more nuanced explanation, one that did not condemn capitalism completely. They developed what might be called ‘elite imperial theory’, in which the root cause of turn-of-the-century imperialism and militarism was not inherent in capitalism, but with powerful, antiquated, anti-capitalistic policy makers. It was this outdated and aristocratic class, working closely with industrial and financial monopolies, which led countries undemocratically to war.

Writing in the early twentieth century, Schumpeter (today more famous for his work on entrepreneurship and ‘creative destruction’) was a provocative imperial theorist. In Imperialism and Social Classes (1919) he attacked what he saw as the symbiotic relationship between the European aristocracy and militarism in order to explain the imperial expansionism leading up to the First World War.

For Schumpeter, global capitalism in its purist form — international free trade, market competition, and economic interdependence — was peaceful in nature. Imperialism was therefore irrational and outmoded, an archaic outgrowth stemming from the influence of aristocrats alongside nationalist cartels, which had been allowed to develop within protectionist regimes to export surplus production abroad.

This pre-modern ‘warrior culture’ and cartels — an earlier incarnation of what US President Dwight Eisenhower would later dub the ‘military-industrial complex’ — impelled states ‘to unlimited forcible expansion’. But Schumpeter also optimistically believed that this imperial impulse would soon ‘wither and die’ once the global capitalist system rid itself of protectionism and whatever aristocratic vestiges that remained.

In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904), Veblen blamed a combination of inimical influences as the root causes of Western imperialistic tendencies: an older ‘dynastic’ ruling elite, protectionism, irrational nationalism and vested financial interests. Stemming from America’s long history of European immigration, so too had American foreign policy makers been imbued with this pre-industrial militaristic and nationalistic ethos.

Witnessing the international fallout of the First World War and the subsequent resurgence of global protectionism, Veblen became much more pessimistic than Schumpeter regarding the relationship between democracies and militarism. ‘The democratic nations have been gradually shifting back to a more truculent attitude and more rapacious management in all international relations,’ he wrote in 1919. Veblen believed the world war had also made the US more militaristic and less liberal. And in contrast to Schumpeter’s more pacific view that democracies would one day shed their imperial ways, Veblen saw in the US a democratic reversion to an ‘aggressive chauvinistic policy’ of imperialism.

This article was originally published at History News Network