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Clausewitz as Sociologist

Clausewitz as Sociologist Clausewitz as Sociologist
To cite this article: Smith, Hugh, “Clausewitz as Sociologist”, Infinity Journal Special Edition, Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict, February 2012, pages 12-15.

Clausewitz, of course, was not a sociologist (and perhaps not a strategist either – but that is another question). At the time of his death in 1831 the scientific study of society was in its infancy and Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was still to baptize it as ‘sociology’ in place of ‘social physics’. Nonetheless, I suggest that Clausewitz can be placed in a tradition of sociological analysis and ranks as an important figure in that tradition.

Among his predecessors in seeking to understand the relationship of war and society was Montesquieu (1689-1755) whose De l’Esprit des Lois proposed underlying laws of social and historical development based on physical and non-physical factors. A key argument was that types of government could be distinguished which reflected their particular societies and influenced the sorts of war they fought. Clausewitz found Montesquieu’s approach congenial and strong parallels in their work are evident [Aron, 1983, pp.230-2].

Perhaps a more direct influence was the German Johann Fichte (1762-1814), whom Clausewitz called the ‘great philosopher’ [Paret, 1976, p.169]. Fichte wrote and lectured on a wide range of social and philosophical issues: the importance of education, religion in society, the duties of citizens, patriotism, political activism, the need to prepare for war and the nature of statesmanship (with Machiavelli expressly in mind). Clausewitz read Fichte early on, later corresponding with and meeting him. Whether or not he always agreed with Fichte, he found his ideas stimulating.

Clausewitz’s approach to war reflected both this sociological bent and the spirit of the Enlightenment. Scientific method was beginning to be applied to society, seeking general principles that could explain seemingly disparate and complex developments. Early success came in economics when Adam Smith (1723-1790) analysed not only economic activity in The Wealth of Nations (1776) but also its equally important social, cultural and ethical underpinnings in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). As Smith sought principles to explain economic activity, Clausewitz did the same for war.

Many early ‘sociologists’, including Comte and Saint-Simon (1760-1825) believed that industrialization and growing prosperity would lead to peace. War was dismissed as a feudal activity, dependent on a warrior class that could be more usefully occupied pursuing wealth and on a peasantry now required in industrial production. Trade, as Adam Smith had argued, would replace conquest as a means to wealth, and commerce diminish the martial spirit – a diagnosis that became the mainstream view among sociologists. While Clausewitz recognized the social, political and economic developments in his time, his response was neither to welcome it nor set his face against it. Ever the pragmatist, he saw change as a challenge statesmen and military leaders had to reckon with.

Four aspects of Clausewitz’s sociological analysis of war can be outlined: the idea of war as a social act; armed forces, the state and society; the sociology of the military; and social science methodology. This broad-based approach to war, it is argued in the conclusion, ensures Clausewitz’s continuing relevance.

War is a social act

Clausewitz’s starting point was that war is ‘an act of human intercourse’, a ‘part of man’s social existence’ [1976, p.149]. A theory of war, therefore, cannot be confined to a narrow range of issues but must allow for ‘every kind of extraneous matter’ [1976, p.580]. For Clausewitz ‘the forces that give rise to war’ are ‘the social conditions of…states themselves and…their relationships to one another’ [1976, p.76]. The German original makes clear that this refers to social relations, not simply to the political relations that are the more proximate causes of war.

The social foundation of war is also evident in Clausewitz’s ‘remarkable trinity’ – his perception of war as combining in infinitely variable ways three fundamental tendencies of human life. First is the ‘blind natural force’ of human passion which includes ‘hatred’ and ‘enmity’. ‘The passions that are to be kindled in war’, he says, ‘must already be inherent in the people’ [1976, p.89]. Even civilised nations can be ‘fired with passionate hatred for each other’ [1976, p.76].

As well as passion, war contains the element of reason which shapes the purposes that societies set for themselves and influences the ways in which they seek to achieve those goals. It is reason that makes possible (at least sometimes) the harnessing of war by states as an instrument of policy.

Then there is chance which war has in abundance. While chance is in one sense objective i.e. determined by the nature of things, it also has a subjective side i.e. the uncertainty that people feel about the world and the future course of events. In the dangerous circumstances of war social and psychological factors inevitably influence how people act and react.

Clausewitz’s ‘remarkable trinity’, indeed, applies to human life in general. The idea goes back to the Ancient Greeks and was noted by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), an acquaintance of Clausewitz. Life is shaped by three factors: first is the nature of things i.e. what is pre-determined and cannot be changed (passion); second is human freedom i.e. the capacity to take control of events (reason); third is chance, the unknown and uncontrollable element of life. For Clausewitz war is governed by these ‘three different codes of law’ [1976, p.89] – perhaps more so and on a grander scale than any other human activity.

War and the prospect of war also release their own passions such as patriotism, xenophobia, the desire for vengeance or the quest for glory – all complex emotions that are felt by individuals but thoroughly shaped by social relationships. These emotions also influence war and how it is fought. The violence of war, moreover, is directed against a living subject – an army, a society, a nation – which reacts with its own emotions, and in ways difficult to predict. War, like many social interactions, is thus dynamic, unpredicatable and – in modern parlance – non-linear.

At the heart of Clausewitz’s concept of war is the idea of imposing one’s will on an opponent. Getting an enemy to the point of conceding to one’s demands is as much a psychological and social struggle as a military one. Importantly, concession is not determined simply by the physical encounter on the battlefield. The outcome of war often has a strong element of social convention. Since warfare entails the mutual sacrifice of human lives, there is a kind of unspoken agreement that victory in battle carries with it a certain prerogatives. Clausewitz hints at this idea when he talks of abandonment of the battlefield as tantamount to abandonment of intentions [1976, p.234; Smith, 2005, pp.95-6].

Armed forces, the state and society

Clausewitz took a deep and abiding interest in the relationship between state and society. Different societies in the past meant different types of warfare: ‘The semibarbarous Tartars, the republics of antiquity, the feudal lords and trading cities of the Middle Ages, eighteenth-century kings and the rulers and peoples of the nineteenth century – all conducted war in their own particular way, using different methods and pursuing different aims’ [1976, p.586].

Clausewitz’s thinking on this topic was stimulated by his analysis of the French Revolution, which was remarkably dispassionate, balanced and sociological. The French nobility had fallen into decline as an absolute monarchy turned them into mere subjects of the king, enjoying unearned incomes and undeserved privilege while being deprived of their traditional functions. At the same time, the bourgeoisie were increasingly performing useful roles in society and finding ways to make money. For Clausewitz the collapse of the ancien régime came about not from petty causes or the failures of individuals but from a fundamental shift in social structure.

Critically, the revolution in France had released enormous social energies as the populace, imbued with nationalism and patriotism, took up arms. As Clausewitz saw it, ‘war again became the business of the people – a people of thirty millions, all of whom considered themselves to be citizens’ [1976, p.592]. France had thrown down the gauntlet to states such as Prussia with absolute monarchies that relied on standing armies under the firm control of the state, limiting both their size and their military potential.

To guard its security, Prussia needed social and political as well as military change. A spirit of nationalism had to be nurtured and education promoted so that the talents of all citizens could be harnessed to the common cause. Social and corporate privileges ought to be eliminated. This did not mean the levelling of society, rather a meritocracy with an élite based on education and achievement. Governments, as Clausewitz put it, had to take the people into their confidence.

Similarly, military service should not exempt the privileged and leave the burden to the poor, the ill-educated and the weak. The people must be more fully incorporated into Prussia’s army – without causing undue social and political upheaval. Hence Clausewitz’s continuing and controversial interest in a militia (Landwehr) which was closer to the population than the regular army and could better capture popular enthusiasm for national defence. He welcomed the idea that in the Landwehr a nobleman could serve under the son of a grocer. But the Landwehr, he acknowledged, must remain subordinate to a professional standing army.

Critical in the relationship between armed forces and society is political control (or lack of it) over the military. This is a complex social and organisational matter to which Clausewitz paid much attention. The relevant institutions should ensure that war remains directed to political goals while military considerations are not ignored. Nor could personal factors be ignored. As Clausewitz knew at first hand, ‘the personalities of statesmen and soldiers’ could render policy-making infinitely complex [1976, p.94].

In principle, war ought to be a continuation of policy, but it is also – inevitably – a continuation of politics. For the policy of a state reflects the social and political forces within its borders. Policy is not an abstract calculation derived by brilliant minds through pure reason but a living, social force that represents – or ought to represent – all interests within a state. It ought to set goals that promote a nation’s security and honour and choose the means most likely to secure those goals. But in reality national leaders may make unreasonable or unachievable demands and act mistakenly, recklessly or cravenly.

Sociology of the military

Among the most important factors in war, Clausewitz argues, are moral forces (moralische Grössen) – psychological, social and cultural factors which permeate war and constantly interact with the will (Wille) that drives war on. Unsurprisingly, On War is permeated with terms such as Geist, Genie, Gemüt, Phantasie and esprit de corps.

By modern standards Clausewitz’s discussion of command in war and military genius is primitive, but it nonetheless displays subtlety and insight. In Clausewitz’s telling, the great commander has a skill that is largely intuitive. He requires, firstly, qualities of mind such as coup d’oeil, creativity and imagination – all vital assets, though they can also lead one astray. Second, the commander needs strength of mind and character: determination in the face of adversity; calmness amidst a host of conflicting and unreliable reports; will-power to overcome the friction of his own army and of war itself; and boldness to carry through plans that chance is constantly conspiring to thwart. Venturing into psychology – another field of social science in its infancy – Clausewitz produced a four-fold typology of military leaders based on two dimensions: whether or not they were easily moved, and the depth or shallowness of feelings. The ideal type is slow to move but, having made a decision, acts with passion and logic.

Clausewitz also linked military genius to the wider society. True military genius can be found, he held, only in civilised societies that allow the capacity for reason to flourish; less civilised societies might produce a leader with great passion but they lack the level of education and understanding that nurtures the true military genius. Where the Enlightenment marginalised the study of genius, preferring objective truths valid for all rather than subjective truths that appeared to work only for some, Clausewitz’s placed it at the heart of his thinking (Echevarria, 2007, p. 102).

Nor does Clausewitz overlook the psychology and sociology of the ordinary soldier. He vividly describes the emotions of young men in battle for the first time and discusses the nature of boldness and bravery in combat. Morale is a critical factor, inducing soldiers to undertake extraordinary efforts, bear great hardships and achieve unthinkable results in the face of friction, danger and uncertainty. Low morale, by contrast, causes an army to fight less keenly and put in less effort. Defeats, Clausewitz suggests, have ‘a greater psychological effect on the loser than on the winner’ [1976, p.253].

Clausewitz also emphasises the way in which friction in war produces wear and tear on troops – not only in physical and organisational terms but also in the form of sociological and psychological factors that make military action difficult. He therefore stresses the importance of lubricants that help an army overcome friction – notably realistic training and experience of war as well as esprit de corps and patriotic enthusiasm among soldiers, and genius and strong will among commanders.

Finally, Clausewitz discusses what we now call ‘human resource management’: recruitment; the need to focus on merit rather than social class in selection and promotion; the challenge of educating future commanders in the art of war and developing military professionalism; and the motivations of individual soldiers. He is well disposed, for example, toward soldiers having a ‘longing for honour and renown’ which in war is ‘the essential breath of life that animates the inert mass’ [1976, p.105].

Social science methodology

Clausewitz was a pioneer in social science methodology. He wanted a body of knowledge that would help a student understand war as a social phenomenon (Kriegswissenschaft) and help practitioners in the conduct of war (Kriegskunst). This was not an easy task. By embracing the social and psychological elements of war he had to reckon with complex factors, multiple causation and tenuous links between cause and effect. Earlier theorists had mostly ignored or simplified the problems, resorting to unreliable history and unsupported generalisation.

A key part of Clausewitz’s methodology was spelled out in what he called Kritik: ascertaining the facts of particular battles or campaigns with a degree of reliability; testing hypotheses in a rigorous fashion e.g. looking at as many similar cases as possible and taking counter-examples into account; and finally assessing the actual performance of commanders against the principles that emerged from such research. This was scientific method applied to social interaction and Clausewitz was far in advance of most of his predecessors. As Raymond Aron notes, Kritik became part of the common stock of social science methodology [1983, p.206 ].

Clausewitz was not looking for hard and fast rules for conducting war, which he dismissed as absurd. Rather, he sought general principles that took into account not only the more measurable factors such as numbers and geography but also the ever-changing and infinitely variable moral forces in war. To Enlightenment science, however, must be added a Romantic perspective on war. Observing principles in war requires intuition and speed of perception in the face of fragmentary information as well as strength of mind and character. Even then success is not certain and the military genius may find himself revising accepted principles.


Clausewitz himself remarked that ‘my nature…always drives me to develop and systematize’ [1976, p.63]. Treating war as a social phenomenon, he had to work out for himself how to comprehend an activity underpinned by social forces and driven by psychological, sociological and political factors. He became a ‘sociologist’ out of necessity and his methodology, though primitive by modern standards, opened a door to his successors. Others had looked at sociological factors but Clausewitz was the first to embrace society as the very foundation of war.

Yet Clausewitz’s sociological contribution has not been fully recognised by either sociologists or strategists. Mainstream sociology moved towards an anti-war stance, regarding war as outmoded and armies as relics of the feudal era. In doing so, Ian Roxborough argues, it has neglected Clausewitz, to its cost [1994, p.633]. This distrust of military values and military influence on society persists today, not least in academia. Interestingly, Clausewitz enjoyed a better reception among Marxists than among mainstream sociologists – partly because of his view of war as reflecting social structure and as an instrument of the state (i.e. the ruling class).

As for neglect by strategists, Michael Howard long ago identified society as one of the ‘missing’ dimensions of strategy [1979]. For the social dimension introduces elements into war that military and civilian strategists often find awkward to handle; military historians may prefer campaigns and battles to behavioural science. Increasingly, however, many analysts of war are now coming to emphasise the social factors in modern conflict – culture, sociology, psychology, anthropology, ethnography and the like. In our era, it is argued, inter-state wars are in decline and war now takes place ‘among the people’. War now needs social science as it once needed physics and chemistry.

This has given rise to furious debate about Clausewitz’s continuing relevance or otherwise. To some he is too state-oriented (Martin van Creveld), too militarist (Mary Kaldor) or too political i.e. insufficiently cultural (John Keegan). His few insights into guerrilla war, however modern they may sound, are insufficient to rescue his outdated focus. As argued here, however, such approaches fail to recognise Clausewitz’s thoroughly sociological interpretation of war. If war has indeed escaped the battlefield and spread into society, we need Clausewitz more than ever.

The debate is also being played out in the military colleges and academies where different disciplines contend for the Clausewitzian corpus. A professor at the Marine Corps University has proposed that professional military education should take him out of the clutches of historians and hand him over to social scientists [Klinger, 2006, p.87 n.29]. A US Naval Academy academic argues that he should be ‘taught as poetry’ to military officers, since On War is ‘an expression of the intrinsic contradictions of the human condition’ [Fleming, 2004, p.76]. Like Monstesquieu, Clausewitz can be claimed by several disciplines – not least sociology. It is a measure of his greatness and his longevity. 


Aron, Raymond, Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1983
Clausewitz, Carl von, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard, Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976
Echevarria, Antulio J. II, Clausewitz and Contemporary War, Oxford University Press, 2007
Fleming, Bruce, ‘Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes?’, Parameters (Spring 2004)
Howard, Michael, ‘The Forgotten Dimensions of Strategy’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 75 no. 5 (Summer 1979)
Klinger, Janeen, ‘The Social Science of Carl von Clausewitz’, Parameters (Spring 2006)
Paret, Peter, Clausewitz and the State, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1976
Roxborough, Ian, ‘Clausewitz and the sociology of war’, British Journal of Sociology, vol. 45 no. 4 (December 1994)
Smith, Hugh, On Clausewitz: A Study of Military and Political Ideas, Palgrave-Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2005