The emergence of social theory is closely linked to the transformations inaugurated by the rise of a distinctly capitalist modernity from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards. In this article, I reconstruct the outlines of two strands of social theorising that emerged in response to the radical challenges posed by ‘the great transformation’ on the one hand, and the French Revolution on the other. I juxtapose two responses to the transnational constellations these events signify, one heralded by Auguste Comte, and the other, inter alia, by Karl Marx. While the Comtean frame obliterates meaningful registers of thinking about political transformation, I argue that conflict-theoretic tradition indebted to G. W. F. Hegel and Marx is much more amenable to analytical and practical concerns with responding politically to the challenges posed by ‘the rise of the social’. In the final part, this is discussed with reference to the ‘social turn’ in IR theory.