Equilibrium, Theory of

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Equilibrium, Theory of


a term for a number of non-Marxist sociohistorical conceptions that attempt to explain, on the basis of the principle of equilibrium, the ways society or its elements develop and function. The principle of equilibrium is taken from the natural sciences. These conceptions do not constitute a theory in the strict sense of the word: the concept of equilibrium is used here as a general explanatory principle.

Attempts to consider society as a system in equilibrium first appeared in European social science in the 17th century as a result of the rapid development of mechanistic trends in the natural sciences (B. Spinoza, T. Hobbes, G. W. von Leibniz). The philosophers of that era examined social problems from the point of view of “social physics” or the “mechanics of the passions” and tended to reduce the problem of the existence of a social order to that of an equilibrium between the various parts of society, one that resembled the equilibrium of the elements of the physical world. The theory of equilibrium was first expounded in detail in the 18th century, in the Utopian writings of C. Fourier. Fourier based his plan for an ideal human communal existence on the methods he “discovered” for calculating the equilibrium and harmonization of the passions. He considered the idea of equilibrium applicable to the entire universe.

In the second half of the 19th century, the idea of equilibrium as applied to social problems was developed by the positivist sociologists A. Comte, H. Spencer, A. Small, and L. Ward, for whom the yardstick continued to be the equilibrium of physical systems. The conceptual foundations of the theory of equilibrium were slightly modified in the early 20th century under the influence of organismic thinking. The yardstick of equilibrium was no longer a mechanical system but the living organism, where this equilibrium is achieved through complex processes of internal regulation. One of the first to use such an approach was A. A. Bogdanov, whose tectology prefigured certain hypotheses of cybernetics and contemporary systems approach, even though his theory was not devoid of several serious mechanistic miscalculations and simplifications.

In the 1920’s, the theory of equilibrium found a number of adherents among Soviet mechanistic philosophers, including D. Sarab’ianov and I. I. Skvortsov-Stepanov. In effect, these philosophers set the hypotheses of the theory of equilibrium against the teaching of dialectical materialism on the unity and struggle of opposites by considering leaps to be violations of equilibrium. The theory of equilibrium served as a methodological basis for the right-wing deviationist notions of N. I. Bukharin, which masked the contradictions in the development of productive relations during the period of the construction of socialism.

Some elements of the theory of equilibrium have been reformulated since the late 1930’s, and the theory is being used as an explanatory principle rather than as a developed theoretical model. The application of this principle was stimulated to a considerable extent by the principle of homeostasis, taken from physiology and cybernetics, and by studies of steady-states in the natural sciences and technology. The model of dynamic equilibrium has become a tool for structural-functional analysis in bourgeois sociology, where the idea of equilibrium assumes a hidden conservative ideological significance. Many bourgeois sociologists criticize the functionalistic theory of equilibrium, noting that it only deals with ideal and balanced systems, ignores intrasystemic sources of disequilibrium, and is therefore not applicable to the analysis of processes of social change. These weaknesses stand out with particular clarity in empirically oriented trends in sociology—industrial sociology, research on “human relations” in industry, “management science”—which specialize in creating methods for the manipulation of individuals in order to ensure equilibrium in the functioning of bourgeois society.

Marxism-Leninism rejects the theory of equilibrium in principle as a theoretical construct and exposes the conservative prejudices of the theory’s proponents. This does not signify a rejection of the concept of equilibrium and the related concept of stability; these concepts play an important heuristic function in the study of dynamically developing systems and constitute one of the bases for measurement. The problem is that it is impossible to construct a holistic explanation of processes in the systems under consideration on the basis of these concepts.


Komarov, M. S. “Funktsional’noe ob”iasnenie v sovremennoi burzhuaznoi sotsiologii.” In Aktual’nye problemy razvitiia konkretnykh sotsial’nykh issledovanii. Moscow, 1971.
Russet, C. E. The Concept of Equilibrium in American Social Thought. New Haven, Conn.-London, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.