CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
As I have to present a paper, I have chosen a subject that I have been thinking about for ten or so years and on which I have just written a short book, which is undoubtedly overly long. But I have a few other reasons that I do not wish to withhold, let’s say semi-aggressive reasons, relating to the young generation of sociologists: in fact, a few years ago, when Mr. Œconomo, in the Revue française de sociologie, published a report on a short book entitled La société industrielle et la guerre [Industrial Society and War], he began by asking whether the problem of war was really associated with sociology, and his review, which was, by the way, much too kind, consisted in saying: “If one accepts, which does, incidentally, seem strange, that sociologists should deal with war, after all, you can deal with it to a certain extent, as does Mr. Raymond Aron”. [1]

1This article, whose overall subject matter came in part from a thesis on the contribution of French social sciences to the study of military issues, [2] proposes to shed light on some of their recurrent cognitive difficulties in understanding military topics, accepting them as fully legitimate subjects for research, and, above all, proposing an appropriate scientific process for this. The historical lack of interest by French sociologists in military issues is striking. Even though this is relative—for example, in relation to American output on the same theme, or French output on other topics—and has varied since the beginning of the nineteenth century, it is very clear and was fully highlighted and commented on by those rare persons who regularly devoted themselves to its study: Raymond Aron, Gaston Bouthoul, Raoul Girardet, Bernard Boëne, to cite just a few of them. More recently, the historian Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, in a work entitled Combattre. Une anthropologie historique de la guerre moderne [To Fight: A Historical Anthropology of Modern War], questioned the strange silence of the social sciences on the subject of combat, despite many well-known sociologists, historians, and anthropologists having themselves carried arms and fought. The long absence, and then the small number of journals specializing in the study of war and/or armies, as well as their confidential nature, was another marker of this disinterest, to which we can add the small amount of teaching devoted to the subject in universities and at the Grandes Écoles. While still a student, I had my first experiences at university of the reactions that the desire to study such subjects generally provokes: surprise, as it was a totally incongruous choice, and suspicion, at best. While suspicion can easily be explained by ideological and moral reasons, the main source of the feeling of incongruity is found elsewhere. The French identification of classical sociology as the study of social cohesion, and the perception of war as the ultimate destruction of social cohesion, did not move in the right direction. [3] And when we recall that, for the founders of French sociology, social cohesion was not only the main subject of the discipline, but the justification for the social and political utility of sociology, we are able to better understand the reluctance to include the study of war, and, with this, that of armies, in the corpus of legitimate sociological themes. Since its emergence, French sociology, in contrast to German sociology—at least until the mid-twentieth century [4]—aimed to promote social consensus. However, Raymond Aron [5] was right to point out that the precursors of the nineteenth century judged that the study of war, peace, and armies came quite naturally under sociology. One could therefore assume that the more or less conscious identification of military phenomena with antisocial expressions developed in France at the same time as Durkheimian thought.

2However, as already mentioned, this lack of interest is relative, and paying attention to what the social sciences, despite everything, have produced in France on military issues between the time of their emergence (namely the beginning of the nineteenth century) and the middle of the twentieth century allows us, among other things, to highlight a tradition of understanding the subject that is not without contemporary consequences. The concerns of the exercise are internal to the sociological discipline, and more broadly to the social sciences, linked to the process of producing knowledge and evaluating it. They are both social and political, in a consistent and structural way, in that they refer to the conditions of sovereignty and the modes of defense of our country, or economic, in that they touch on what drives public life in political and security contexts that are somewhat strained. The subject is currently generating keen interest and sometimes fierce debates within a French contemporary society that is continually at war outside its borders and is regularly affected by terrorism. [6]

“Sociology of Military Issues“

3The concept of sociology will be understood here in its broad sense, as a general research program common to all the social sciences, and not in its narrow sense, synonymous with a particular discipline in the social sciences. The multidimensional nature of military issues and the transdisciplinarity of their approach are in fact aspects judged to be fundamental by most of those who are interested in this, whatever their nationality. The choice of the broad sense of the term sociology, with regard to the military domain, is so obvious for the majority of actors in the thematic area that Théodore Caplow and Pascal Vennesson, in the introduction to the first general work in the French language on the subject aimed at a students, indicate that “the term military sociology is to be understood as a shortcut that refers to the works of social sciences devoted to military issues” by being content to claim that “these dimensions (law, anthropology, economics, psychology, history, and strategy) are necessary for a complete understanding of the military”. [7] Opting for the narrow meaning of the concept of sociology would thus go against the way in which the vast majority of actors in the thematic area perceive their field of research and in practice work in this field to produce knowledge.

4The terms “military issues” or “military themes” should be understood as involving not only armies, regular or irregular, and irregular soldiers organized into small groups, but also military action, particularly in the form of combat. The expression is therefore also an equivalent shortcut to war and armies in their conventional forms, or not. In fact, considering the study of the military institution, war, and, beyond that, international relations, to be independent introduces a rift where coherent understanding should prevail in the reasoning. Of course, not everything can be understood at once: these three general subjects correspond to analytically distinct parts of reality. But distinct does not mean autonomous. The unity of the military domain, as it is envisaged, is based on the idea by which neither the military institution, nor war, have meaning in themselves, namely if they are not theoretically considered as means. It is true that the armed forces are an instrument that the power to which they are subordinate never completely shapes as it wishes, including when it concerns a state that has long been established and stable. It is equally right to emphasize that war is a means where the element of violence, by its very nature, tends to escape controls on calculation and to raise the control of collective action to the level of utopia. Nevertheless, limiting the sociology of military issues to the sociology of armies is to run the risk of forgetting that the military institution only has meaning, as a particular institution, because it is a political instrument. Likewise, approaching the phenomenon of war by disconnecting it from the characteristics of the armed forces in conflict (regular or not), as well as the motives and aims for which violence is employed, comes down to condemning oneself to the irrational at best, and to the absurd at worst. Yet there is a significant difference between recognizing, then trying to explain, the variable part of the irrationality of social life, and to assume that this, from the point of view of actors, has neither logic nor meaning.

Corpus and Methodology

5These remarks are drawn from a doctoral investigation devoted to recounting and understanding the history and modes of investment of the French social sciences in studying military issues from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the Cold War. Here we are only interested in the tradition that such an undertaking allows us to recreate, before the development of social sciences after the Second World War and the break-up of disciplines into multiple specialisms. The analysis is therefore based on a corpus of works and articles published between 1817—the date of the first publication by Henri de Saint-Simon of the first volume of L’industrie—and 1940. The first principle for selecting titles was to choose a subjective definition of the thematic area: rather than consisting of all of the titles that are objectively part of the thematic area, the corpus instead comprises those that actors in the field consider to be part of it. Preference has been given to the perception that actors in the field have of the literary substance of their area of activity, rather than seeking an exhaustiveness that is technically unmanageable and that, ultimately, is of little academic interest. There are quite a lot of subjective biases linked to this first principle of creating a corpus, but they are partly neutralized by the systemic nature of the main technique for selecting titles: the “snowball” method. First, the actors in the thematic area, who could legitimately be described as “central”, had to be identified, then the bibliographies of their publications were used as a starting point for the corpus, and then the search for titles from those obtained was repeated, until this process ended up going around in circles. A few secondary criteria complete the definition of the corpus: works published for the first time in the French language and in France; between 1917 and 1991 (for us here 1940); in their original edition; and excluding historical works or articles that are too descriptive or subjects that are too singular or narrow. Put together in this way, over the entire period, the corpus amounts to 411 titles, with 172 articles (42%) and 239 books (58%), distributed very unequally over the time period. Indeed, we have to wait until 1945 to see a relatively significant and above all constant development in French output take shape—75% of the corpus comprises works published after 1945. The corpus providing the subject of this article therefore consists of 88 titles: 28 articles and 60 books.

6The initial purpose of studying the whole corpus was twofold: on the one hand, to re-establish the outlines of the history of French “military sociology”, and, on the other hand, to analyze the content, structure, and evolution by extracting, from the historical contexts of output, the general conditions and factors that are most relevant for their understanding. It was therefore a question of re-establishing the intellectual and social meaning of a little-known part of French output in the social sciences and in their history. It is not a question here of explaining all these aspects, but a few words should be said on the descriptive and analytical categories by means of which the corpus and its evolution have been understood. [8]

7In terms of description, the thematic content of the field has been divided into eight categories, depending on the dominant affiliation of output to a functional, internal section (military action and instrument), or the external sociopolitical section of the subject of the military (relations between military action, armies, society, and state), and according to the analysis level of the subject—four levels of analysis have been observed: primary (individuals and primary groups), secondary (military organization, profession, community), tertiary (state and society at the national level), and finally a last level devoted to transnational comparisons, the international system, and its theorization. Between 1817 and 1940, output was distributed equally between the functional and the socio-political sections. In contrast, its distribution according to the analysis levels shows a very clear preference for the level of the nation state (29%), and the international level (51%); the level of understanding of the subject thus rarely goes below the national level. The second descriptive dimension was disciplinary entries (sociology, philosophy, history, economics/political economics, strategy, social psychology, political science, law, public law, and military publications). In the period we are interested in, sociology leads, with 20% of the corpus, and political science is bottom of the ranking, with scarcely 4.5%; its external component, the study of international relations, is almost non-existent. Strategy barely appears. Until 1945, law dominated the corpus of understanding international questions, followed closely by political economics. Finally, different paradigmatic approaches complete the description of the corpus: actionalism, interactionism, culturalism, evolutionism, organicism, functionalism, social Darwinism, and theories of history. We are not surprised to note the domination of evolutionism (40% of the corpus) up until the second half of the twentieth century.

8From an analytical viewpoint, three main variables have been prioritized. The relationship to historical action, namely the relationship to the values that the output expresses in its relationship to the historical context, are deployed in four categories: the technological approach (social or political engineering), independent scientific research, the contribution to a debate on society, and the polemical approach. The contribution to public debates is the largest part of the output until 1940 (37%), and if we add to this polemical publications (17%), this amounts to slightly more than half the corpus. The other half is shared between independent science (26%) and engineering (20%). The second variable distinguishes occasional contributors and regular contributors in the thematic area and, with these, military sociology as special sociology or as specialized sociology. There is no great surprise there either, the share of occasional contributors is overwhelming: 81%. The final variable concerns the conceptual dimension and proposes a distinction between the modes of dealing with specific and non-specific objects. Between the beginning of the nineteenth century and 1940, 75% of the corpus covers non-specific subjects, while from the end of the Second World War, more specific subjects were covered and ended up dominating the corpus, even though they were distributed very unequally, depending on disciplinary affiliations. I therefore propose to focus on this dimension of the analysis, first by explaining its meaning in a more detailed way, because it is this that seems to best characterize the tradition of French social sciences understanding military issues. This tradition is not just in the past: it is what the disciplines and their representatives have retained of this and what—despite the development of specific approaches, small specialized milieux, and the increase in the number of researchers involved regularly in studying the military—still exerts an influence on collective representations and practices.

Specific and Non-Specific Approaches in the Military Field

9The idea by which war and armies have to be subject to a sociological analysis that is partly specific compared with the study of other forms of conflict—“social conflict”, for example—or to that of organizations, is certainly still a polemical idea. It remains the case that, for those seeking to develop the sociology of war and armies as specialized sociology, [9] this is a necessity. In fact, if the field covered by military themes is only an area of application of concepts and theories developed from a study of other research subjects, then there is no valid scientific reason justifying a specialized sociology. All the groups of researchers who, without considering this requirement, were involved, in the second half of the twentieth century, in the development of research programs and think tanks devoted to the study of military phenomena, finally ended up with a double scientific and institutional failure. [10]

10But what is a specific approach or treatment of the subject? [11] The use of the descriptive in fact has nothing to do with any military assumption of exceptionalism, an essentialized particularism of the subject. It refers, more prosaically, to the fact that a specialism within a discipline is scientifically justified by recognition of the relative alterity of its subject vis-à-vis subjects around which other areas of research specialization are formed. Family and work are two institutions, but these institutions have to be judged, from a certain angle, to be sufficiently specific, one compared against the other, so that a sociology of the family and a sociology of work can exist, separately. The relative alterity of areas of specialism is embodied, inter alia, in the partial originality of the methodological, conceptual, or theoretical understanding of subjects of research, the aim being to produce a scientific discourse that is adapted to their empirical characteristics. With these precautions taken, we come to elements that distinguish specific and non-specific approaches to military phenomena from the cognitive point of view.

11The first criterion of differentiation is the consideration or rejection of the political dimension of military issues. This does not have to be judged to be exclusive; a study can certainly be part of a specific treatment by emphasizing its social, economic, or cultural dimensions. On the other hand, non-specific analyses are all those based on theories which, overall, exclude political aspects of the existence of the military institution and the phenomenon of war, systematically send them to the margins, or consider that they are determined.

12Regarding the military institution, the theories concerned are those that conceal the fact that: 1) armies are a means of political action, whatever the identity of the beneficiary of this means; [12] 2) the use, at least potential, of violence results in a certain number of particularities in the institutional functioning of armies; 3) of all the possible functions fulfilled by the military institution, that which consists of embodying, defending, or promoting sovereignty cannot be removed. With regard to war, what is involved this time are sociological theories identifying the structural causes of the phenomenon, with the exclusive and mechanical influence of psychological, biological, social, economic, demographic, or cultural factors.

13The distinction between specific and non-specific approaches also goes through the cognitive divisions between objectivism and subjectivism on the one hand, and rationalism and irrationalism on the other. The complexity of the clarification of specific approaches, from this angle, comes from the fact that they propose a combination of four dimensions. If only two of these are expressed, then theoretical understanding is not fully adapted to the empirical characteristics of the subject. None of the pairs, subjectivism-rationalism, objectivism-irrationalism, subjectivism-irrationalism, or objectivism-rationalism, is capable of fully accounting for a military reality that is dependent, both on the objective structure of relations between collective entities (states, armies, parties, social groups, and so on), and on its subjective interpretation by individual and collective actors, on rationality and the potential irrationality of their motivations, representations, or behavior. In fact, one cannot theoretically exclude the study of war and, by extension, that of armies: the intention of instrumental rationality—the ends-means relationship—the practical necessity of axiological rationality and irrationality—motivations for combat: the sanctity attached to sovereignty and/or the “cause”, traditions, and affects—and, finally, the risk of absorbing rational elements by the uncontrolled development of irrationality—ideological conceptions of political leaders and/or military chiefs, collective passions and beliefs of the “masses” or opinion, and multiple affects of soldiers.

14It is therefore completely logical, depending on the historical realities taken as references, that relations between rationality and irrationality are organized empirically in a very varied way. For example, an analysis that concludes in the elimination, indeed the disappearance, in a given place and moment, of the instrumental rationality of war, [13] could be specific. In contrast, the same analysis will be put into a non-specific category if it a priori starts from the principle of the integral, universal, and timeless irrationality of the phenomenon of war.

15The final element in the differentiation of specific and non-specific treatments of military phenomena is the part of the contingency of the subject—more generally of the reality from which the subject is extracted—placing the many actors involved in a situation where their behavior is neither completely free (social, cultural orientations linked to education and experience, constraints arising from uncertainty, the “fog” of war and frictions), nor entirely determined by external causes (condition of the possibility of the development of a political, strategic, and tactical praxeology).


16Of the three constituent elements of specific approaches, the most problematic for French sociologists has been, and still is to a certain extent, the relationship between military issues and political issues—identifying the sociology of the war and armies with a branch of political sociology. It may even be reasonably considered that, when the approaches developed are equally non-specific, from the viewpoint of the other two criteria, this is mainly as a consequence of the refusal to define the subject as participating in a reality, where the political dimension is central.

17To avoid misunderstandings, I wanted to draw attention here to what a conception of war as a political phenomenon is not necessarily. First, as I have said, it is not necessarily an exclusively political theory. Next, neither is it necessarily a state theory of war. The reason for this is simple: politics and the state are two different things. The fact that contemporary wars are no longer predominantly the expression of interstate conflicts through conventional confrontation between regular armies takes away nothing of the political nature of the phenomenon. This always opposes groups of individuals who do not agree on the aims and methods of their relations, and who confront each other through the collective use of more or less organized armed violence. What is political is everything in the organization of a common existence, within a society or between societies, that becomes the subject of a lasting collective public conflict. [14] As for a modern state, this is just one of the forms that the political and administrative organization of a society can take, and it is a historical process. [15] There was politics before the state, and there is politics outside the state. Finally, a concept of war as a political phenomenon is not necessarily a rationalist concept of warlike action. Political meaning and rationality are not necessarily conflated.

18What fundamentally distinguishes the political understanding of war, irrespective of its many variants, is, first, the assertion by which this is a collective conflict where the concerns refer to the general organization of a common existence, and for the regulation of which armed violence is used. In other words, it is the idea that war cannot be reduced, neither to “conflict” alone—it is a particular kind of conflict—nor to “violence” alone—it is a particular form of violence: collective, tending to be organized and legitimized, in the eyes of those who fight, by the value of its proclaimed concerns. [16] Reducing the phenomenon of war, in an explicit or implicit way, through the intervention of theoretical tools used to account for, in the generic category of “conflict” or the very conceptually hazy “violence”, is the best starting point toward developing the non-specific.

19This is, then, the assertion of the at least relative autonomy of politics, understood as a general activity with its own and distinctive characteristics, which differentiates it from other collective phenomena.


The autonomy of politics, that which Raymond Aron did not cease to reaffirm in his work—in a dual meaning: autonomy compared with the economic and the moral—is not, however, an absolute autonomy. On the one hand, the principle of autonomy in the political sphere allows one to refuse Marxist reductionism—which ultimately reduces politics to the economic “infrastructure“—but not to prevent an explanation of political actions by the interaction of many social factors. On the other hand, this principle of autonomy implies that politics should be accepted and analyzed in itself, that it “cannot be reduced to morality“, outside the sphere of “good feelings“. [17]

The French Sociological Tradition and Military Issues

21Yet when we study the way in which the representatives of French social sciences included in the corpus have, since the emergence of the disciplines, understood war and armies, the most striking thing is their tenacity in rejecting the idea of military issues as political issues. If we focus on the dominant schools of thought of the French sociological tradition—so understood in a broad sense: encompassing, as Émile Durkheim would have wanted, all the social sciences—here, in their broad outlines, are the theories of military issues which succeeded each other at the beginning of the nineteenth century to the Second World War.

At the Beginning: The Irresistible Peace of an Inevitable Future

22Output in the period 1815-70 is dominated by the influence of liberalism, socialism, and nascent technocratism. [18] It sees an optimistic sociology-philosophy of history open up in a context of European peace. The central idea disseminated by the precursors and pioneers of social sciences, including Saint-Simon, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Auguste Comte, despite variations and nuances of view and of expression—namely that the development of industrial and democratic societies can only result in permanent peace [19]—also coincides with the aversion to war and the contempt for armies that seized society at the end of the Napoleonic adventure. The peasants would long remember the pain of conscription; the nobility, returning to power with the Restoration, distrusted an army whose loyalty they doubted; the bourgeoisie, which had already begun the process of social and political ascent, judged soldiers as inefficient at best and as devoted to destroying what it was trying to create at worst. The modernization of France was thus perceived by many as directly opposed to maintaining the institutions of the Ancien Régime, in particular the military institution. Politics, assimilated into the petty and bloody activity of the deposed princes, was destined to perish with the custom of settling a conflict using arms.

23Taken from the lawyer Charles Comte, co-founder of the liberal journal Le Censeur, the well-known distinction between the “military or government” regime and the “liberal and industrial” regime benefited from growing publicity throughout the nineteenth century:


From Saint-Simon the distinction was passed on to Auguste Comte, from Auguste Comte to Buckle, from Buckle to Herbert Spencer, who gave this a character of universal popularity. [20]

25When we go back to Charles Comte’s words—opposition between the governmental and the industrial—an idea explicitly appears that the common expressions of Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte tended to make implicit: the conflict and reversal of the domination of the industrial spirit over the military spirit were in fact the conflict and reversal of the domination of the economy over politics—even if Auguste Comte ended up doubting the disappearance of “governments”. The classic liberal political economy is based on the central idea that the emergence of industrial civilization makes politics, as an art of governing and of imposing itself on other nations, and of which it is obviously assumed that the only object is the acquisition of wealth, just as superfluous as the ultimate means of its action: armed violence.

26Industrial development tends first to subordinate politics to the economy within industrial society. Saint-Simon, who feared nothing and who really had a way with words, expressed in a few remarks what was most important in the views of the positivist liberal economy on the issue:


Politics, put simply, is the science of production. [21]

28The possible conflict between irreconcilable interests, values, collective projects, the basis of activity and the very idea of politics, is absent from a society whose members are finally aware of the identity of the interests of all, combined with the interest of each. Moreover, it is judged to be obvious that the behavior of humans is organized according to the unique direction of their interests. The utilitarian morality is combined with positivity to create the figure of an individual motivated by seeking to maximize his interests, which he perceives and anticipates according to an optimal rationality.

29In the end, the only social confrontation considered by Saint-Simon and the French liberals of his era was that which temporarily opposed those who were productive and those who were unproductive, the parasitic vestiges of times past, of which the first were soldiers and people of private means. In the same way as the industrial society removed internal politics as the government of men, it reduced foreign policy to the peaceful organization of economic relations with foreign countries, namely an activity comprised, for the states, of allowing international trade to develop as freely as possible. If, in Saint-Simon’s view, politics was henceforth “the science of production”, then we could assume that he would have agreed with the idea by which the foreign policy of industrial societies was the “science of international trade”.

30A small nation, isolated within society, shunned and scorned, the army only interested the pioneers of social sciences insofar as it was a stigma of the past, to eliminate, to change into an industrial organization or into regulating work. Although they differed on many points, [22] the liberal, socialist, or technocratic ideas that dominated the era had one major point in common: the idea that modernity was antipolitical. Whether thanks to the development of the market, thanks to a revolution in class relationships, or thanks to the improvement in their technical and administrative abilities, modern societies would self-regulate and would no longer need governments. [23] Once this premise had been stated, the reasoning was as follows: no more governments, no more wars; no more wars, no more armies.

31If the fears of the bourgeoisie regarding the military institution diminished from 1848, it was mainly because it revealed itself to be effective and loyal in its job of keeping order, not as an instrument of France’s foreign policy. However, from 1860, the fear of a new conflagration in Europe tempered the optimism present at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Provoked by a situation perceived as economic, it did not fundamentally question the scientific doctrines of peace. The expression of these new fears corresponds to the era of upheaval in Europe in the nineteenth century in national wars (Germany, Italy, the nations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and not, as anticipated, a historical digression—the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870 and the First and Second World Wars would be respectively the prolongation, the conclusion, and the riposte to this.

The Virtues of Conflict

32From 1870 to 1914 there was a significant shift in ideas. While the breaking point was around 1870, it was not because it was the year of the Franco-Prussian war, but because the influence of liberalism, despite the phases of recession, the competition of socialism, and the traditional or authoritarian concepts of social order, had largely resisted until then. Moreover, it was not the war that was behind the change, in France, in the understanding of military issues, but the defeat. A brutal and unexpected humiliation, for about twenty years it led to a powerful national consensus around the military institution. This was located at the center of society: conscription was re-established, gradually becoming compulsory, egalitarian, and universally masculine, while martial values and practices, nationalism, and the idea of revenge were disseminated. When the Third Republic was established, scientific and industrial development speeded up and the military concept was no longer thought of as being against modernity: the opposites merged. The successive waves of anti-militarism would shake French society from 1890—young bourgeois found it hard to bear the company (in equality) of peasants and workers that military service imposed on them, and republican humanitarianism and internationalist pacifism gained ground—but the national consensus was reformed around 1910.

33However, the significant reorientation of ideas was not in favor of a return to grace of politics. The process of professionalization that affected both military and university activity often led officers who were now experts in their field to only consider war from the military viewpoint, in a way that was sometimes either too empirical or too abstract, in any case often too dated and/or dogmatic. It also led experts in the social sciences to align themselves in order to strengthen their scientific legitimacy, on the methods, concepts, and reasoning of the sciences of nature, then in full Darwinian revolution. Sociologists who were interested in military issues at this time were largely among those who endorsed understanding of their subject by using the analytical tools provided by social Darwinism. [24] The scientistic transfer operated by doctrine, whose ascendancy in the social sciences was remarkable, had the huge advantage of expressing, in a pseudo-scientific way, all the prejudices, all the desires, and all the pride of European nations that their expansion to the ends of the earth through colonial conquest confirmed, in the idea that they were politically, economically, socially, culturally, morally, and biologically superior. [25]

34Against the backdrop of an evolutionist concept of universal history, scientism therefore favored the development of social Darwinism, of which the emergence, before the publication of Darwin’s work On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) was, first of all, the result of the diffusion of the ideas of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, himself influenced by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck and the idea of the hereditary transmission of acquired characteristics. Social Darwinism borrowed from naturalist theories the notions of “selection of the fittest”, of “struggle for existence”, and of “species”—a notion assumed to be equivalent to that of “races”—in order to analyze the general evolution of societies. From this concept of history stems a revalorization of war, an essential factor in improving civilization through the constant regeneration of “superior races” or, on the contrary, its designation as a phenomenon responsible, in the modern era, for the degeneration of the human species through the elimination of “races” and the most evolved individuals, a kind of reverse selection.

35The orthodoxy of social Darwinism, from the viewpoint that interests us here, is in fact divided into two areas, each of which is deployed in different sections. The first considers that war is the major factor in the historical advancement of human societies:


Wars may not only be an instrument of collective selection ensuring the superiority of the strongest nations through cohesion, willpower, courage, intelligence and great numbers, but also an element of individual selection favorable to the species. [26]

37The second, placing just as perfunctorily the distorted theory of Darwin over the history of human societies, judges this differently, however, like the anthropologist Georges Vacher de Lapouge:


Among modern peoples, war and militarism are real scourges, the final result of which is to deplete the race. [27]

39Military selection processes shield those who have lesser qualities from war and the consequence of collective confrontation is the elimination of the best:


Only the healthiest run the risk of being eliminated by premature death. [28]

41But the existence of social Darwinism at the time was not limited to orthodox Darwinism and its internal debates on the function and consequences of the phenomenon of war. Many sociologists and anthropologists found themselves in a heterodox social Darwinism, maintaining more or less critical relations with orthodox social Darwinism. Inspired by Darwin’s work rather than copying it, they took elements from this, then combined them with other influences. This is how one Jacques Novicow provided a liberal version of social Darwinism in Les luttes entre les sociétés humaines et leurs phases successives, [29] how the journalist-economist Gustave de Molinari tried to adapt Auguste Comte’s industrial doctrine to the Darwinian mode in his Grandeur et décadence de la guerre, [30] or, even more surprisingly, how the political scientist Jean Lagorgette, trained as a lawyer, proposed in his thesis a version of social Darwinism amended by the theory of the rationalization of the world. In the end, even when the intellectual relationship to social Darwinism was partly critical, few French authors at the end of the nineteenth century really escaped its influence. And a not insignificant section of scientists, intellectuals, and opinion leaders, whatever their ideological and political preferences, were united in the same passion for strong vitality that imagines, in all the recesses of a world beset by widespread conflict, the combats that would crown it in the face of the world and of history.

42The increasingly fervent adoration across Europe of the principle of nationalities, the industrial and commercial competition that the Western powers relentlessly engaged in, the growth in their military potential, and finally the increase in tensions, conflicts, and ambitions that they aroused or accentuated, portrayed an international background in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, without which it is very difficult to understand the change in the understanding of modern society in its relationship to war. The time is long past when the industrial, liberal, or governed society, the future of the civilized world for most of the “progressives” of the first half of the century, was built intellectually on the idea of the community of interests and served the cause of brotherhood and universal peace. The industrial society of the end of the century was, on the contrary, an enclosure and an organ of universal struggle: struggle between individuals, whose “abilities” were the object of the most rigorous measures, and struggle between communities, whose interests were inherently opposing and whose identities excluded themselves. Nevertheless, this resurgence of war occurred on the basis of another rejection of politics: its origins went back to the biological domain.

In the Great War

43From 1915, the First World War was seen by French sociologists, doctors, and military practitioners as an event that could be exploited in order to extend and improve the knowledge of social sciences and psychology. A huge area of documentation and an unprecedented experience, an empirical consequence of the history of theories of war formulated since the beginning of the nineteenth century, conflict provided a unique opportunity for the different disciplines to review and deepen the knowledge produced until then.

44This opportunity was largely missed by professional sociologists who most often observed the Great War from afar, mainly concerned with foreseeing the overall social functioning of French post-war society, and with anticipating the continuities or the ruptures introduced into social life by a conflict that was seen as a digression and which, in any case, was not in itself a subject for scientific investigation: [31] the general subject of sociology remained that of “normal” social functioning, conflated with that of peacetime.

45Military practitioners or doctors and amateurs of nascent social psychology, having known life on the front, were the only ones to engage in an approach that tended toward scientificity. Spending time on the front had provided them with empirical experience and opportunities for observation, but also, through the intervention of the effects of perspective, encouraged them to consider the phenomenon of war at more limited levels, and to prefer a sociological discourse that moved the development of more technical analyses toward social philosophy, connecting the contributions of sociology and psychology. [32]

46Finally, some academics participated in the national propaganda initiative, which began almost at the start of the war, even though the vast majority of the first publications only appeared in 1915. For internal use, and aimed at soldiers, as at those behind the lines, or aimed at public opinion in neutral countries, these publications met an invariable general objective: legitimizing the country’s entry into war in relation to the values claimed by republican France. While many experts, led by the French state, deliberately did the work of the propagandists—Émile Durkheim for example [33]—others strengthened the “morale” of their compatriots in an isolated way, sometimes without really realizing it, in the perpetuation of academic work that, well before the First World War broke out, was already extremely steeped in patriotic and national considerations. These latter experts ran the risk of becoming confused and, while believing that they were studying the war, were in fact being above all “shaped” by it. [34]

47While nationalist warmongering tended to subsume the ideological divisions in society, the investment of French academics in the propaganda of war generally took place in a mixture of patriotic fervor and scientific certainties, namely in the unconsciousness or concealment of its partisan—therefore political—nature. The fight against Germany was that of “Humanity”, of “Civilization”, of “History”, of “Peace”, almost never of “France”. Experienced academics lived the war from afar, bringing up the clichés of propaganda or more concerned with knowing which theory on the evolution of democratic and industrial societies was the reason for the return to peace that this major event was in the process of bringing about—with a few exceptions. The youngest, the intellectual future of the country, died in the war or returned deeply scarred.

48Thus, the Great War was probably one of the most significant contemporary reasons for the divorce between the French academic world and the army. While the influence of the Dreyfus affair is systematically mentioned as a factor in academic antimilitarism, it is very strange that the massacre of the First World War was just as systematically forgotten. And it is very probable that the omission of the influence of the first global conflict on the relationship of the academic world with the subjects of scientific investigation that are war and armies was only the extension of the silence of the great names in social sciences who, in the twentieth century, experienced modern war. Highlighted by the historian Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, [35] the silence on their wartime experience of sociologists, historians, and anthropologists, whose role in the development of the social sciences in the twentieth century was central, is no doubt related to two major reasons. The first is not at all specific to academics: ex-soldiers, generally, do not talk much about what they’ve experienced. Conversely, the few who do talk often do not seem capable of letting go of the subject, which they approach directly or indirectly—for example Alain (Mars ou la guerre jugée) and Jean Norton Cru (Du témoignage). The inability to communicate a wartime experience defying the rules and norms of “normal” times was all the more intense since after the great bloodshed, societies were motivated by the desire to forget. It was expressed either by silence, or by an obsession with talking—but in this case, the words and the mind seemed as if they were “blocked”, halted on the event. The second reason relates to the judgment that the academics made a posteriori on their attitude, as citizens and experts, during the period preceding their discovery of modern war. The account by Jean Norton Cru is invaluable here, as are the thoughts of Alain on the military aesthetic—the philosopher, the central figure of French pacifism, exerted a considerable influence on young philosophers educated between the wars. Culture did not stand in the way of wartime romanticism as easily as might be imagined. On the contrary, it could reveal a formidable effectiveness in the struggle, valorizing and exalting common passions. There was, perhaps, in the silence of academics who were former soldiers, a measure of shame and guilt to have been united, without being aware of the consequences, in the collective enthusiasm marking the beginning of the Great War. And the fact is that the lack of evidence cannot be accepted as proving that this did not have any effect on the thinking of French social science experts. Silence is a refusal. The pacifist tradition of the École normale supérieure dates from the sacrifice of a generation of brilliant young minds. Marcel Mauss, heir to the founder of French sociology, refuted everything that could, in the opinion of his uncle, Émile Durkheim, contribute to supporting the nationalism of the Third Republic. Marc Bloch ended up admitting that the collective “fatigue” after the First World War was the major reason for the liberals’ poor fighting spirit in the 1930s.

Law against Politics

49It was not always a political understanding of war that led to the extreme desire for peace in the 1920s—which again turned society away from an army that found it difficult to return to isolation and social denigration. After having been denied by the development of industrial and democratic society, biological laws, and war propaganda that dissolved nationalism in universalism, politics, still incriminated as a warmonger and assumed to be expendable, was now fought, especially by the law.

50Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the period from 1920 to 1945 had the lowest number of titles in the corpus—29. Of course, objectively, the era was not so lacking in output, but it is unlikely that this “lean period” was only the result of a corpus built on the basis of the subjectivity of actors in the thematic area. Although later authors very rarely quote works or articles dating from the period—apart from a few very well-known works, such as those written by Charles de Gaulle or Marc Bloch—there is no doubt that the output of the time, while not being as meager as all that, underwent a real deflation. Against this backdrop, the legal discipline stood out as the only one at the time that provided a consistent and coherent output, which later authors recall. And there is, perhaps, a link between these two main aspects of the corpus during the period.

51For the first time we must therefore try to understand the eradication of the French scientific effort aimed toward analyzing the subject. The motives and explanatory factors were not identical for the whole of the period. The silence during the period 1940-45 may easily be explained by the fate that the Vichy regime reserved for academics who were, at best, deprived of their professional independence and, more broadly, for intellectuals subjected to the ideological rigors of the time. As for those fighting the regime and the Nazi invader, from inside or outside metropolitan France, they had, essentially, other fish to fry [36]. What was important was thus reduced to understanding the eradication, between 1919 and 1939, of an orientation in French scientific investigations that the international, political, economic, and intellectual situation, the collective desire for “revenge”, and the Great War, had encouraged in another way.

52France is victorious, it was proclaimed during the two years following the end of the war. Once the euphoria had passed, the extent of the victory was revealed in bitterness: 1,350,000 dead, 3,220,000 injured, hundreds of thousands of disabled, 3,000,000 children not born (age groups depleted by low birth rate); twelve departments devastated, including the monumental heritage; 30% of the national wealth and half the gold reserves gone; and transport equipment and the tools of factories worn out or destroyed by fighting and the retreating German army. The shock caused by the realization of the human and material damage did not resonate in the same way in all minds. To simplify, one can say that the socialists, liberals, and radical republicans gave an apocalyptic significance to the First World War. This was the final gigantic struggle of the united forces of good against evil: the new world that would emerge from the end of the encounter would no longer be nourished by the blood of the people.


Paradoxically, the very watchwords of the antimilitarist ideology had been taken up by the war propaganda: fighting against the Germany of Wilhelm II, for some, this was fighting the very spirit of “militarism“, “waging war on war“, fighting for the universal advent of pacifist humanitarianism. [37]

54For monarchists, all supporters of an authoritarian political order, and conservative republicans, the core issues of the war were the recapture of Alsace-Lorraine and the international standing of France. One regularly cited historian was in the habit of saying, almost in these terms and while joking, that in the Great War, half of French people believed they were at the Battle of Poitiers—which took place in the year 732—and the other half at the Battle of Valmy during the Revolution, but they didn’t realize this because the enemy’s appearance was the same. One can, no doubt, discuss the proportions, the simple division into two groups, the degree of awareness, and the formalization of these historical and ideological references by individuals. The misunderstanding is, however, undeniable and echoes the divisions in French society from 1890—partisan divisions from a common agreement outside the military sphere, after the defeat of 1870, covered by the banner of the Union Sacrée [political truce] of 1914, and which reappeared intact at the end of the war:


At the ideological level in particular it is, in fact—in almost the same words—the same debate conducted since the middle of the nineteenth century around the military institution which started again after 1919 and continued until the eve of the Second World War. [38]

56The 1914-18 war was therefore understood by some as ending a historical era and opening a new one, and by others as an important moment in the evolution of France in its historical “path” and “role”, in the route of its destiny. Yet, it was finally the failure of these two visions of France which led to the Great War: it was not the great historical rupture hoped for by some; for others it marked the beginning of a backward development. The myth of the endless advance of civilization, which had aroused and caused so many hopes to flourish in the nineteenth century, never really recovered from the terrible ordeal. Nor did the idea of national grandeur, where, in particular, thoughts on the demographic decline and France’s industrial backwardness highlighted the feeling of decline increasingly clearly. Certainly, after the war France appeared to be the great European power and, at the technical level, this was true. Hélie de Saint-Marc recalls:


The well-established society of my youth, with its institutions, its public figures, its army, the most powerful in the world, its government, suddenly collapsed in 1940 like a house of cards. [39]

58This is perhaps why, at the level of collective representations and their moral foundations, things were much more complex and ambiguous. Science and the machine, theoretically serving Man’s emancipation, became the queens of successive slaughter; democracy was not able to protect its children from massacre. France, which wanted, through war, to prove its supremacy in Europe, when defining the conditions for peace, had to compromise with the Anglo-Saxons, who did not want to weaken Germany too much, economically and financially; as mentioned, the concerns highlighted the subject of its demographic and industrial vitality.

59Even today, in human and social sciences, we do not have a rigorous conceptual tool that allows us to account for the phenomena of “collective trauma”. However, it was indeed something of this kind, but which is extremely difficult to define, that seemed to strike the different components of French society at the end of the 1914-18 war. [40] Apart from its military, political, industrial, bureaucratic, and intellectual causes, the defeat of 1940 did undeniably have a dimension of incongruity expressed by the intuition of Marc Bloch that French morality—for him the “collective conscience”, for us a composite result—was affected before 1939 by an evil that was unclear but real. The hypothesis of underground cracks caused by the Great War in the different collective representations of the historical sense of the French future was also part of the research perspectives opened up by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker.


The historiography of the First World War over the last eighty years has ignored the long furrow of suffering trailed in its wake by the great conflict. Let us be clear: the mass killings were—not without difficulty, moreover—in effect recorded. What was not, in contrast, was the loss. What was not, was the bereavement. Everything happened, in fact, as if the announcement of the numbers of dead, their breakdown by categories of age, by year, by type of unit, acted as a record of the extent of the disaster. This was included as a priority in a demographic register, and not in that, just as important, of collective suffering. [.. . ] In this respect, the problem goes beyond the history of the conflict itself. It is the history of the relationship of those in the West to war, to death in war, and perhaps to death in general, which is at stake here. It is, then, a whole part of the universe of representations within which we still move today that is in question. [41]

61In this context, the development of legal engineering dedicated to peace, at least until the 1930s, was perfectly understandable. This engineering was occupied with setting the philosophical foundations and reflecting on the smooth functioning of the institutions of a new international law, assimilated into a social law simultaneously with a state law: a “law of the people” coming from the “universal society”. All conflicts are judged as subject to regulation by legal means: it is enough to limit the state’s sovereignty legally.

62Many French lawyers, having participated in the League of Nations’ endeavor and the development of an international law distinct from state law, sought in Durkheimian sociology something to support the idea of the existence of an international society as an organic whole, in order to negate the classic distinction between the mechanisms of the internal regulation of societies and the mechanisms of the regulation of relations between collective entities in the international milieu, the specificity of which is the legitimacy of resorting to violence. [42] One finds, even among these, a few sociologist-lawyers, such as, for example, Georges Gurvitch.

63According to the optimistic ideas that presided over its birth, the League of Nations’ role was to ensure the enactment of international treaties and to resolve disagreements between nations peacefully and democratically. However, the new organization did not have any coercive means allowing it to enforce its decisions. This in no way discouraged the French lawyers, who worked toward promoting the new international law.

64With the occurrence of “escalating dangers”, a few minds tried to shake up the prevailing torpor, the belief in a “collective security”, based on an incantatory international law, the sterile dogmatism of “relentless defense”, advocated both by the political authorities and by military officers, after the deadly excesses of “the relentless attack” of the first years of the Great War. But France obtained compensation for the insult of 1870, it recovered Alsace-Lorraine, and was the leading power in the continent of Europe. Henceforth it was a power of the status quo, dominated by a pacifism that went beyond the social milieux which, until then, had traditionally conveyed this.

65* * *

66While social Darwinism only had an extremely marginal influence on French sociology, as it was reconstructed after 1945, the imprint of the other schools of thought mentioned remained very strong on contemporary sociology, even if, from the 1960s, a small milieu that specialized in the study of military phenomena was created in France, favoring specific approaches. Whatever the intellectual resources that were mobilized and their ideological background, the schools of thought that dominated the French sociological tradition finally shared the refusal to think about their subject. It was not the war and armies that were the material for study and reflection, but the conditions of their disappearance. And yet, to say that for permanent peace to reign politics must be replaced by the market, by the realization of a divided society, by the administration—today the famous “governance” and management—or again by the law, was paradoxically to admit that war and politics were inseparable. Contrary to the beliefs of the majority of authors who shaped it, the real element of debate that emerged from the tradition of French social sciences was not, then, of knowing whether war was a political phenomenon or not, but of knowing whether, on the one hand, it was possible to envisage the disappearance of politics and whether, on the other hand, the struggle against politics was the historical “mission” of sociology and, more broadly, of social sciences.


  • [1]
    Raymond Aron, “Une sociologie des relations internationales”, Revue française de sociologie, 4, 1963, 307. Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited material are our own.
  • [2]
    Laure Bardiès, “Deux siècles de sociologie militaire en France (1815-1991): sociologie d’une sociologie”, Ph.D. diss. in sociology, 2008, University of Toulouse I.
  • [3]
    At least two arguments can be set against the assertion of war as a break in social cohesion. The first is that what links human beings together cannot be confused with the absence of conflict. Conflict, even violent conflict, is a form of relationship. War is not anomie. The second argument emphasizes that if war is indeed the break in some kinds of relation between groups of humans, at its peak it contains social cohesion within these. There is nothing more social, in Durkheim’s meaning, than a society at war, except, perhaps, a society that is completely carried along by exacerbation of the feeling of the sacred. It is rare that one goes without the other.
  • [4]
    When we look for great, well-established classical authors on the subjects of politics, war, and conflict, the first that come to mind are often Carl von Clausewitz, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and Carl Schmitt. And it is quite strange to note, even if it is probably anecdotal, that the two later great French authors who were most interested in these subjects and in these authors, Raymond Aron and Julien Freund, both had Lorrainian links: Aron was Lorrainian through his paternal family (since the eighteenth century), whilst Freund was born in Lorraine.
  • [5]
    Aron, “Une sociologie des relations internationales”.
  • [6]
    Terrorism is assimilated into a category of war in its irregular forms and not into a category of criminal action. Cf., among others, Gérard Chaliand, Terrorismes et guérillas. Techniques actuelles de la violence, Paris, Flammarion, 1992, and Les guerres irrégulières. xxe-xxie siècles, Paris, Gallimard, 2008 (Folio).
  • [7]
    Theodore Caplow and Pascal Vennesson, Sociologie militaire. Armée, guerre et paix, Paris, Armand Colin, 2000, 7-8.
  • [8]
    For further methodological and conceptual clarifications and justifications, cf. Bardiès, “Deux siècles de sociologie militaire en France”, vol. I.
  • [9]
    The way in which a specialism is designated is a matter of debate. The position here is to focus on scientific problems, rather than diving into ideological disputes or disciplinary legitimization. It goes without saying that the common expression “military sociology” neither describes nor promotes a “militarization” of sociology. This is simply a contraction of “sociology of military phenomena”.
  • [10]
    The most striking example is that of polemology, but it is far from being the only one. Polemology was defined at the end of the Second World War by its creator, the sociologist Gaston Bouthoul, on the one hand as a specific science of war based on the assumption of the non-specificity of its subject, broken down into demographic and economic causes, and on the other hand as a positive scientific undertaking with a moral purpose. At the very heart of the polemology project there were, therefore, two major contradictions, one cognitive, the other axiological, which undermined its scientific and institutional development, despite the interdisciplinary activity and exchanges that, for a time, flourished around the journal Études polémologiques, launched in 1970, while Bouthoul simultaneously broadened the area of polemology to transform conflicts, war, and peace into science. The question of the status given to the subject, the models chosen to try to make it intelligible and to develop a scientific knowledge, is thus central. Cf., among others, Gaston Bouthoul, Les guerres, éléments de polémologie, Paris, Payot, 1951.
  • [11]
    It is to Bernard Boëne that we owe the first version of the analysis of specific sociological treatments of military themes, in the doctoral thesis that he devotes to American output. Cf. Bernard Boëne, Les sciences sociales, la guerre, l’armée: Objets, approches, perspectives, Paris, Presses Universitaires Paris-Sorbonne, 2015.
  • [12]
    This is also true in situations where power is exerted by soldiers. Even when it is military regimes that embody political power, it is never the army as an institution that is in charge. It remains an instrument of the politics of those in power, regardless of whether they are soldiers. If the military institution does not always obey a civil political power, it is still linked, except for in an anarchic context, to a higher power to which it is subordinate.
  • [13]
    This is typically the case with the book Les guerres en chaîne by Raymond Aron (Paris, Gallimard, 1951). Contrary to an idea that is too widespread and is often instrumentalized for ideological purposes, he has never been a “rationalist” thinker.
  • [14]
    Defining politics through collective conflict does not equate to assimilating war and politics: not every conflict is a war. Cf. on the subject the publications of two sociologist-political scientists, whose scientific and axiological orientations are, moreover, very different: Julien Freund, L’essence du politique, Toulouse, Sirey, 1965, and Pierre Clastres, Archéologie de la violence. La guerre dans les sociétés primitives, La Tour d’Aigues, Éditions de l’Aube, 1999.
  • [15]
    It would seem that it is, paradoxically, to Max Weber that we owe both the tendency to conflate politics and the state (the same definition by the monopoly of legitimate violence), and the dynamic sociological understanding of the modern state.
  • [16]
    Violence (potential), organization, legitimacy (state or not), and issues of sovereignty (to defend, to extend, or to create) are the four dimensions that enable a definition of the military domain. Cf. Bernard Boëne, “Conditions d’émergence et de développement d’une sociologie spécialisée: le cas de la sociologie militaire aux États-Unis”, Ph.D. diss. in sociology, 1995, Université Paris V; Caplow and Vennesson, Sociologie militaire; and Bardiès, “Deux siècles de sociologie militaire en France”.
  • [17]
    Pierre-André Taguieff, Julien Freund, au cœur du politique, Paris, La Table Ronde, 2008, 33.
  • [18]
    Cf. in particular: Benjamin Constant, De l’esprit de conquête et de l’usurpation, Paris, Flammarion, 1993; the writings of the lawyer Charles Comte, co-founder of the journal Le Censeur, and the liberal historian Augustin Thierry, first secretary to Saint-Simon; Saint-Simon, “L’industrie”, in Íuvres de Saint-Simon, Paris, Anthropos, 1966; Auguste Comte, Cours de philosophie positive, Paris, Herman, 1998; Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve and Francis Bowen, New York, Courier Dover Publications, 2017 [French version cited in original: De la démocratie en Amérique, Paris, Flammarion, v. II, 1981]; Adolphe Blanqui, Du régime économique en temps de paix, Paris, Firmin Didot frères, 1838; Émile de Girardin, Vues nouvelles sur l’application de l’armée aux grands travaux d’utilité publique, Paris, Desrez, 1838; articles published throughout the nineteenth century in Journal des économistes, including Michel Gustave du Puynode, “De l’organisation de l’armée dans les États”, 37(15), October 1853, 1-24; Gustave de Molinari, “La paix perpétuelle est-elle une utopie?”, 12(34), October 1856, 33-56; Frédéric Passy, “La paix armée”, 46(137), May 1865, 221-30; Louis Reybaud, “L’économie politique et la guerre”, 7, July 1866, 5-12; Jean-Gustave Courcelle-Seneuil, “Les erreurs de la guerre”, 5(14), February 1867, 50-62; Louis de Dreuille, “Comment pourrait-on réduire l’armée tout en assurant la défense nationale”, 9 (27), March 1868, 353-88; the writings of the Saint-Simonians (a summary of which was produced by Michel Collinet, “Le saint-simonisme et l’armée”, Revue française de sociologie, 2, April 1961, 38-47); Ferdinand Durand, Coup d’œil sur l’ordre social actuel, Paris, Anselin, 1834, and Des tendances pacifistes de la société européenne et du rôle des armées dans l’avenir, Paris, Bocquet, R. 1834; Constantin Pecqueur, Des armées dans leurs rapports avec l’industrie, la morale et la liberté, ou des Devoirs civiques des militaires, Paris, Capelle, 1842; Michel Chevalier, Cours d’économie politique, Paris, Capelle, 1842; Prosper Enfantin, Colonisation de l’Algérie, Paris, P. Bertrand, 1843.
  • [19]
    Only Alexis de Tocqueville considers the possibility of a huge conflict between armed nations before achieving permanent peace.
  • [20]
    Élie Halévy, L’ère des tyrannies, Paris, Gallimard, 1990, 37.
  • [21]
    Halévy, L’ère des tyrannies, 46.
  • [22]
    Auguste Comte, as he gradually freed himself from the influence of Saint-Simon (and thus from the liberal orientation of the first works of the latter, very largely dependent on ideas from his secretary, Augustin Thierry), drew up a new doctrine to which he gave the name industrialism. This substituted the idea of replacing feudal and military societies with positive and industrial societies with the idea of their merger. Auguste Comte thus gradually distinguished himself, both from the classic liberal economy and from Saint-Simonianism, which was expressed by less violent and definitive judgements on the traditional military institution.
  • [23]
    “We have said it twenty times, wrote Dunoyer, we will repeat it thousand times again. The object of man is not the government, the government can only be, in its eyes, a very secondary thing, we say almost very subordinate. Its object is industry, it is work, it is the production of everything needed for its pleasure. In a well-ordered state, the government should only be a dependency of production, a commission tasked by the producers, who pay it for that, to ensure the security of their people and their goods while they work. [.. . ] The limit of perfection would be that everyone worked and that no-one governed” (cited by Halévy, L’ère des tyrannies, 38).
  • [24]
    Cf. Georges Vacher de Lapouge, Les sélections sociales, Paris, Thonn and son, 1896, and “Le darwinisme dans la science sociale”, Revue internationale de sociologie, 1, 1893, 414-37; Félix Le Dantec, La Lutte Universelle, Paris, Flammarion, 1906; Capitaine A. Constantin, Le rôle sociologique de la guerre et le sentiment national, Paris, Alcan, 1907; Gustave de Molinari, Grandeur et décadence de la guerre, Paris, Guillaumin, 1898; Jean Lagorgette, Le rôle de la guerre, Paris, V. Giard and E. Brière, 1906; Jacques Novicow, La critique du darwinisme social, Paris, Alcan, 1910, and Les luttes entre les sociétés humaines et leurs phases successives, Paris, Alcan, 1893.
  • [25]
    For a detailed analysis of Darwinian ideas from the German viewpoint, and their consequences for the outbreak of the Great War, cf. the work of Thomas Lindemann, Les doctrines darwiniennes et la guerre de 1914, Paris, Economica, 2001.
  • [26]
    Constantin, Le rôle sociologique de la guerre, 165
  • [27]
    De Lapouge, Les sélections sociales, 232.
  • [28]
  • [29]
    Novicow, Les luttes entre les sociétés humaines.
  • [30]
    De Molinari, Grandeur et décadence de la guerre.
  • [31]
    By way of exception, I quote Gustave Le Bon, Enseignements psychologiques de la guerre européenne, Paris, Flammarion, 1915; and Jean Valéry, “Considérations sur les milieux sociaux et les relations entre les diverses classes de la société dans la guerre actuelle”, Revue internationale de sociologie, 27(1-2), January-February 1919, 49-52.
  • [32]
    In particular Louis Huot and Paul Voivenel, La psychologie du soldat, Paris, La Renaissance du livre, 1918; Charles Coste, La psychologie du combat, Paris, Berger-Levrault, 1929.
  • [33]
    Émile Durkheim’s final written works were part of a patriotic propaganda that was fully self-aware and accepted, as is shown by his correspondence with Marcel Mauss: Émile Durkheim and Ernest Denis, Qui a voulu la guerre?, Paris, Kimé, 1996; Émile Durkheim, L’Allemagne au-dessus de tout, Paris, Armand Colin, 1991; Émile Durkheim and Ernest Lavisse, Lettres à tous les Français, Paris, Armand Colin, 1992.
  • [34]
    In the category “naive propagandists”, we find, for example: Joseph Barthélémy, Les institutions politiques de l’Allemagne contemporaine, Paris, Alcan, 1915, and Démocratie et politique étrangère, Paris, Alcan, 1917; Charles Gide, “La guerre et la question sociale”, Revue internationale de sociologie, 23, 1915, 32-141; Guillaume Léonce Duprat, “Essais de psychologie sociale: les combattants”, Revue internationale de sociologie, 26, 1918, 14-21.
  • [35]
    Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, Combattre. Une anthropologie historique de la guerre moderne, xixe-xxie siècles, Paris, Seuil, 2008.
  • [36]
    There was a multinational strategic debate during the Second World War, centered on London, and with the participation of, amongst others, Raymond Aron. However, the press was its only support. It therefore seems appropriate to consider the period and the English capital, according to the words of Christian Malis, as a “laboratory of post-war ideas”. “The article devoted to the Riom trial, and which was the first to demonstrate that Aron had a real knowledge of military problems, appeared in July 1942. Moreover, three fundamental articles contained what was the core of the Aronian analysis of the war at the level of sociology: “La stratégie totalitaire et l’avenir des démocraties”, “Batailles des propagandes”, “La menace des Césars”. They are dated respectively May, July, and September 1942. They develop the assumptions of sociology of the war during the contemporary era, contained in the commentaries of the work of Élie Halévy” (Christian Malis, Raymond Aron et le débat stratégique français, 1930-1966, Paris, Economica, 2005, 135).
  • [37]
    Raoul Girardet, La société militaire de 1815 à nos jours, Paris, Perrin, 1998, 238.
  • [38]
  • [39]
    Hélie de Saint-Marc, Les champs de braise, Paris, Perrin, 2002, 59.
  • [40]
    This idea is in fact very widespread, even if it is expressed more through a metaphorical psychological vocabulary than in the explicit form of a hypothesis: “In the background, in fact, it is the question of the original shock that is posed. It was indeed the war of 1914-1918 that, despite the apparent return to normal after 1918, profoundly shook the system of values and references of French intellectuals. To all appearances, the political, economic, financial stabilization of the 1920s seems to have subsequently erased the shock of the war, but this remained hidden. The crisis of 1929, in many areas, replayed the rifts created by the war. In the end, the 1920s were already redolent of the following decade and the crisis that traversed it. And the very scale of this crisis is explained by this phenomenon of replay: in fact these were two shock waves which were then superimposed, while that, structural, emerged from the war, and that, more economic, was created by the consequences of the American crisis of 1929” (Jean-François Sirinelli, La France de 1914 à nos jours, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1993, 103).
  • [41]
    Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, 14-18, retrouver la Guerre, Paris, Gallimard, 2000, 233.
  • [42]
    The best known was Georges Scelle (Le pacte des nations, Paris, Sirey, 1919; La réforme du conseil de la Société des Nations, Paris, A. Pedone, 1927; Précis du droit des gens: principes et systématique, Paris, Sirey, 1932; “Essai de systématique du droit international”, Revue générale de droit international public, 1923, 130-42). Cf. also Léon Bourgeois, L’œuvre de la Société des Nations, Paris, Payot, 1923; Ferdinand Larnaude, La Société des Nations, Paris, Imprimerie nationale, 1920; Nicolas Politis, Les nouvelles tendances du droit international, Paris, Hachette, 1927; Louis Le Fur, “La philosophie du droit international”, Revue générale de droit international public, 1921, 565-603, including 585 et seq.; Joseph Thomas Delos, “Le problème de l’autorité internationale”, Revue générale de droit international public, 1927, 507-19, especially 507 et seq., and “La société internationale et le principe du droit public”, Revue générale de droit international public, 1929, 452-78; Georges Gurvitch, Le temps présent et l’idée du droit social, Paris, Vrin, 1932.

The contemporary difficulties of French social sciences to properly grasp military phenomena can be partly construed as legacies of a tradition going back to the emergence of the scientific ambition applied to societies and history. As mix of an aspiration for objective knowledge and ideological developments, the French sociological tradition turned to the military issue, from the early 19th century to 1945, in multiple ways which all share the refusal to consider it as a political issue relatively independent from other dimensions of social life. But a synthetic examination of the most prominent ideas produced by this tradition shows that its relation to politics is more complex, and that one all too easily slips from an apolitical into an anti-political worldview.


  • French Social Sciences
  • War
  • Military
  • Politics
Laure Bardiès
Laure Bardiès is senior lecturer in sociology at the École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay at Cachan, seconded to the Écoles militaires de Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan. She has edited (along with Martin Motte): De la guerre? Clausewitz et la réflexion stratégique contemporaine, Paris, Economica, 2009; and has published: “Du concept de spécificité militaire”, L’Année sociologique, 61, 2011, 273-95; “Raisonnement stratégique et outils conceptuels: De la guerre aux logiques de guerre”, Res Militaris, 2(3), summer 2012, online; and “Le raisonnement stratégique”, in Stéphane Taillat, Joseph Henrotin, and Olivier Schmitt (eds), Guerre et stratégie. Approches, concepts, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2015, pp. 43-56. A specialist in issues of defense, she has a particular interest in strategic reasoning and co-founded the online journal of military studies Res Militaris (Centre de recherches des Écoles de Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan (CREC), 56380 Guer, <>).
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