The Sociology of War

Brought to light by an American journalist and an Austrian economist

by , May 31, 2016


The breakout of World War I upended many lives, including those of two great thinkers: the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and the American journalist Randolph Bourne.

The young Mises had just revolutionized the economics of money and the business cycle. And he was on the verge of still more breakthroughs when his career was interrupted by the Great War. Other economists in Austria were given cushy assignments in war planning offices. But Mises, who was radically out of step with prevailing politics, was sent to the front lines as an artillery officer.

Bourne had been pursuing independent study in Europe under Columbia University’s prestigious Gilder Fellowship for travel abroad. The continent-wide hostilities drove him back to the States where he resumed his previous career as a magazine writer. But Bourne was radically out of step with the militarism then sweeping America. His anti-war writing got him censored and shunned, both professionally and socially.

Both men deplored the Great War for upending, not only their own lives, but Western civilization itself. For Mises, it represented the end of an era. Mises called the century prior the “Age of Liberalism,” a time of rising economic freedom and integration, relative peace, and skyrocketing living standards. In 1914 that was all thrown away in favor of war, collectivism, and central planning.

Bourne saw the war as “a vast complex of life-destroying and life-crippling forces” that “devotes to waste or to actual destruction as much as it can of the vitality of the nation.”

Both subsequently worked to explain how such a calamity could come about. What is the fatal flaw in the soul of man that could yield such madness? What are the sociological factors that can drive a nation over the precipice of war and tyranny?

Ludwig von Mises and Warfare Sociology

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