University of Sussex
Nguyen, Huu Phu Gia.pdf (1.2 MB)

The age of reactive empire: the uneven and combined origins of Japanese imperialism 1869-1910

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posted on 2024-06-11, 10:47 authored by Huu Phu Gia NguyenHuu Phu Gia Nguyen

The late nineteenth century witnessed an unparalleled spasm of imperial expansion that redrew the world map into a handful of colonial empires. The first attempt to explain what caused this epoch was the Hobson-Lenin classical theory of imperialism. Nonetheless, over the past century, many have problematised the theory’s “internalism”—its negligence of the undeniable impact of interactive multi-societal co-existence (or, simply, the international)—and attempted to rectify it. Yet, there persists a Hobson-Lenin “zombie”, whereby the Hobson-Lenin thesis is often used as a shorthand explanation for the origins of late-nineteenth-century imperialism. This zombie, this thesis argues, has been sustained by a lack of satisfactory theorisation of the significance of the international in the late nineteenth century. Against this predicament, this thesis’s main theoretical argument is that Leon Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development (UCD) is the most suitable international social theory from which a new, non-internalist, and interactive theory for the origins of late-nineteenth-century imperialism can be constructed. In doing so, the thesis also makes an original contribution to UCD through its extension to imperial policymaking, a problematic has been relatively marginal to UCD scholarship. It does so through a refinement of UCD’s concepts of “backwardness” and “combination.” After firstly establishing above the main theoretical argument to combat the Hobson-Lenin zombie, the thesis secondly shows what a UCD-based meso-theory of the origins of late-nineteenth-century imperialism looks like as a theoretically more coherent and analytically more effective explanation of the “age of empire.” I argue that UCD can and should account for the origins of imperialism for each late-nineteenth-century empire—whether British, German, Italian, or Japanese. Nonetheless, due to the limited scope of a single thesis, I focus on Japanese imperialism as explaining the origins of the Japanese empire in East Asia suffers the most from the Hobson-Lenin internalism. Accordingly, I apply UCD to account for the origins of Japanese imperialism in the late nineteenth century in its four formal colonies: Hokkaido, Okinawa, Taiwan, and Korea. Specifically, I examine how the international unevenness heightened by the rise of capitalism in the West and concretised through the “whip of external necessity” of the Western intrusion into East Asia, which took place over the course of the nineteenth century, triggered “combined” socio-political changes that led the Meiji government to develop inter-related yet distinct imperial policies and practices against those four regions. Alongside the thesis’s contribution to the study of Japanese imperialism, its wider implications are fivefold. First, in offering an international social theory as the basis for a new theory of the origins of late-nineteenth-century imperialism broadly, it affirms IR’s unique potential towards trans-disciplinary debates on the “age of empire.” Second, it extends IR’s recent reappraisal of the impact of the long nineteenth century towards modern international order. Third, it offers potentially useful parallels for ongoing attempts to theorise the relationship between capitalism and imperialism in the contemporary world. Fourth, in refining UCD’s concepts of “backwardness” and “combination,” it tests recent arguments for the use of “multiplicity” as a new common ground for IR. Lastly, the exploration of the case of Japanese imperialism offers useful yet critical case studies for postcolonial scholarship in completing its chronicles of the global postcolonial experience.


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  • International Relations Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • phd


  • eng


University of Sussex

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Kevin Gray, Justin Rosenberg, Kamran Matin

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