The Strike

2004-10-28

This evening I came home from the library with about ten books on engineering in Soviet Russia (and given that my saddle bags were full, I had a mighty hard time biking home with all those books -- it's a good thing I live only three blocks from the library!). Following up on my reading of Edwin Layton's book The Revolt of the Engineers, I'm delving more deeply into attitudes towards engineering (what Layton calls the "ideology of engineering") in Russia and America in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly as background for a planned essay on Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged as the story of an engineers' revolt (Rand's working title for the book was "The Strike"). As Layton describes, seeds for the American ideology of engineering were planted as early as the 1890s, came to fruition in 1920s, and then fizzled out in the 1930s despite enthusiasm for the application of engineering to social problems in the early years of the Depression. It seems that Russia never experienced quite the same optimism about the role of engineers in society as America did: engineers with their specialists' knowledge were mistrusted as opposed to the interests of the workers (a conflict illustrated in Bogdanov's 1913 novel Engineer Menni); there were engineers' strikes soon after the Russian Revolution (well before Rand left Russia in January 1926); and Stalin crushed any remaining independent professionalism among Russian engineers with the Shakhty Trial of April 1928 and the Industrial Party Trial of December 1930. Rand undoubtedly was aware of events and attitudes in Russia before her departure, as witnessed by the fact that the protagonist of her 1936 novel We The Living was a Russian engineering student during the early 1920s.

As noted in my previous post, the heroes of Atlas Shrugged are almost all engineers (indeed, in one striking passage, the fictional composer Richard Halley describes the process of writing music as a kind of sonic engineering!). But they are not functionaries: almost all of them are simultaneously engineers and entrepreneurs (the main exception in the prehistory of the novel is Galt, who goes to work in an industrial research laboratory -- with fateful consequences, since his experiences there precipitate the strike). Does this combination owe something to Peter Palchinsky's assertion that "the future belongs to managing-engineers and engineering-managers"? (Quoted in Loren R. Graham, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union, Harvard, 1993, p. 44.) Palchinsky argued for such a combination in the context of a socialist economy, but he opposed centralized planning and thought that such manager-engineers should function autonomously and take into account the particulars of time and place (e.g., the availability of local materials). I see similarities here to Rand's entrepreneur-engineers, who apply their rational judgement to their own companies and steer clear of broader industry groupings and even working for others.

Graham provides references to two resources that look like must reading: an essay by Kendall E. Bailes entitled "The Politics of Technology: Stalin and Technocratic Thinking among Soviet Engineers" (American Historical Review 79, 1974) and a longer treatment by Bailes of related issues in his book Technology and Society under Lenin and Stalin: Origins of the Soviet Technical Intelligentsia, 1917-1941 (Princeton, 1978). I guess it's back to the library for those two!

On a related note, I must say that I found the temporal setting of Atlas Shrugged to be a bit jarring when re-reading the novel recently. There are two mentions of television in the novel, and some rich industrialists have private planes, but radio is the main form of communication and aircraft are not used for commercial aviation (nor, it seems, for military purposes). The events of the novel depict something like a Greater Depression that disintegrates into an economic death-spiral (greatly hastened by the strike of the engineer-entrepreneurs) and a political descent into a kind of bumbling fascism. So the novel seems to be set in something like the 1930s gone even more horribly awry, which is why continued references by latter-day Objectivists to the prospect of "Atlas shrugging" seem so off the mark to me.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal