The Mind on Strike: Atlas Shrugged as the Revolt of the Engineers

by Peter Saint-Andre (2004)

Ayn Rand's working title for Atlas Shrugged (Rand 1957) was The Strike. A core premise of the novel is that all segments of society have at one point or another gone on strike and refused to return to work until their demands have been met. All segments but one: the "men of the mind", who are the Atlases holding up the world.

Yet who are these "men of the mind" in Atlas Shrugged? With a few token exceptions, they are not intellectuals, novelists, philosophers, artists, or even scientists -- the professions usually associated with "the mind" in Western civilization. Instead, they are almost exclusively engineers.

Consider the main characters: John Galt is an electrical and mechanical engineer who invents a revolutionary motor powered by static electricity; Francisco D'Anconia is a mining engineer who owns and runs the world's most important copper mining company; Hank Rearden is a metallurgical engineer who owns and runs America's most important steel mill and who invents a revolutionary metal that is stronger and lighter than steel; Dagny Taggart is a civil engineer who runs America's most important railroad.

Yet it doesn't stop there. Most of the other strikers are engineers, too (or, to be precise, engineer-entrepreneurs): Calvin Atwood runs a power company, Dan Conway runs a railroad, Ken Danagger runs a coal mine, Quentin Daniels is a physicist and electrical engineer, Lawrence Hammond and Ted Nielsen run automobile factories, Owen Kellogg and Pat Logan are railroad engineers, Roger Marsh runs an electrical appliance company, Dick McNamara is a civil engineering contractor, Dwight Sanders runs an airplane factory, Andrew Stockton runs a foundry, and Ellis Wyatt runs an oil company. Sure, there's a doctor (who seems to have invented a portable X-ray machine), a movie actress, a judge, a banker, a philosopher, and a composer (whose music is described as having "the radiance of engineering"; Rand 1957, 729). But the vast majority of the "good guys" are engineers.

Is this coincidence? I think not. Somehow, Rand imbibed the "ideology of the engineer" and gave it extended expression in her magnum opus.

What is the ideology of the engineer? In a book entitled The Revolt of the Engineers (Layton 1971), Edwin T. Layton described it as a kind of "philosophy of engineering" grafted atop the ethics of Herbert Spencer, resulting in a creed that values professional excellence, practical rationality, rugged individualism, and laissez-faire capitalism. That combination probably sounds suspiciously familiar to readers of Ayn Rand, because at a high level it pretty well describes her ideas, too.

The engineer as hero is not limited to Atlas Shrugged. Kira Argounova, the heroine of Rand's first novel, We the Living, is an engineering student whose potential career as a builder of bridges is snuffed out by the Communist regime in the early years of Soviet Russia. Equality 7-2521, the hero of Rand's second novel, Anthem, is a fearless tinkerer who craves the knowledge of things, rediscovers electricity, and pieces together an electric light in a benighted totalitarian society of the far future. Howard Roark, the hero of Rand's third novel, The Fountainhead, is expelled from engineering school for his independent ways but ultimately succeeds as a modern architect who pays scrupulous attention to the engineering aspects of his discipline. However, Rand's fourth and final novel, Atlas Shrugged, is the culmination of the engineering thread in her fiction.

Why was Rand drawn to portraying and celebrating engineers more than any other profession? It is clear that the act of creating machines, buildings, mines, metals, engines, bridges, railroads, airplanes, and other industrial artifacts appealed to Rand not only philosophically but also aesthetically: the products of the engineering mind prove the practical importance of independent thinking, but according to her quasi-modernistic perspective they are also radiantly beautiful in and of themselves.

Aside from Rand's viscerally aesthetic appreciation of machines, one source for her regard for engineers may lie in attitudes toward engineering in the Russia of her youth. As Kendall Bailes observed (Bailes 1974, 464):

A high respect for engineers had been fostered among the youth since the Revolution. Fertile ground for technocratic attitudes had been prepared in both literature and education. To take one example, engineers had been the heroes of a number of novels popular among the young. These included the science fiction works of A.A. Bogdanov, Red Star and Engineer Menni, and of Alexis Tolstoy, Aelita and The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin, which projected future societies where engineers would play crucial social and political roles.

Yet there was a great tension in Russian society between respect for engineering and bitter resentment of engineers' higher social status and expertise. This tension comes through even before the Russian Revolution in novels such as Bogdanov's Engineer Menni, but broke into open conflict between "Reds" and "Experts" after the Revolution, when the newly triumphant proletariat made life difficult for members of the engineering profession. The Soviets relentlessly downgraded engineers (so-called "bourgeois specialists") within society, placed them under the control of ignorant managers with politically correct working class backgrounds, and vilified them as "wreckers" of progress toward the Communist ideal. Eventually, Stalin actively hounded the old specialists in the rigged Shakhty Trial of April 1928 and especially the Industrial Party Trial of December 1930 (in which the leaders of the old specialists were alleged to have plotted the overthrow of the government); in the aftermath of these show trials, the Communist government sent somewhere between 20% and 70% of Russia's most valuable engineering experts to the Gulag. Perhaps sensing their eventual fate even early on, the professional engineers "met the Bolshevik takeover with a strike" (Bailes 1974, 452), although these strikes mostly ended during 1918 (Bailes 1978, 45).

Rand would have experienced the tension between Expert and Red first-hand during her formative years in Russia. And it is no surprise that she would have sided with the engineers, for to her they must have been symbols of capitalism, industry, intelligence, and modernity.

Yet Rand's heroic engineers -- especially those in Atlas Shrugged -- were not the "old specialists" of Russia, nor indeed the professional engineers that might have become familiar to her after she arrived in America in 1926. In both Russia and America, engineers attempted to maintain a professional identity separate from the businesses or government organizations for which they worked (thus the importance of the many engineering societies in America and, to a lesser extent, in Russia). By contrast, almost all of Rand's strikers seamlessly combined both innovative engineering and successful entrepreneurship. Consider a statement by M.G. Evreinov, a prominent Russian engineer, describing a congress of the All-Russian Union of Engineers in 1918 (Bailes 1978, 22):

The majority recognized the impossibility of turning to the owners for a subsidy, even the smallest. If at a given moment, in the struggle to save industry, transport, etc., we find ourselves in agreement with the entrepreneurs, we should not forget that this has not always been so, nor will it be so in the future. The overwhelming majority of members in our union are people who sell their labor and are not entrepreneurs. The union of engineers has been created for the long haul, it has its own road to follow, and it is not necessary to become dependent on either organizations of entrepreneurs, nor on those of workers.

Sadly, it soon became clear that the engineers could not truly travel down their own road, since they were to be co-opted and corrupted by the Soviet regime, eventually with horrific consequences both for the engineers themselves (thousands of them were sent to prison camps, never to return) and for the workers who slaved on the gargantuan and misguided projects on which the engineers advised the government (especially the White Sea Canal, constructed through the forced labor of well over 100,000 "citizens", more than 10,000 of whom died during the project).

Or consider the fate of engineer Peter Palchinsky, alleged leader of the supposed engineers' plot to turn back the Revolution, who was summarily executed even before the Industrial Party show trial (Graham 1993, 40-41):

Palchinsky promoted a very ambitious role for engineers. He wanted engineers to apply a new form of social analysis to problems of industrialization, and he believed that in order for this to happen the engineer's place in society must change. Earlier, the engineer had been assigned a passive role by society: higher authorities asked him to find solutions to technical problems. Now, Palchinsky maintained, the engineer must emerge as an active economic and industrial planner, suggesting where economic development should occur and what form it should take....

Palchinsky's vision of the new Soviet engineer was based on a justifiably strong conviction that a broad approach to engineering would result in more efficient industrial enterprises and more satisfied workers. The new model engineer also appealed to Palchinsky's professional pride. Edwin Layton observed that engineers in the United States in the same period displayed an "obsessive concern for social status." Palchinsky and his colleagues were eager to promote the engineer to a new prominence in society, and they believed that the Soviet state, with its emphasis on centrally planned industrialization, provided unusual opportunities for this promotion.

For all his sophistication about engineering, Palchinsky badly misunderstood the political course of the Soviet Union. His ambitions for engineers could be realized only in a society that granted the various professions a high degree of autonomy and whose government was willing to listen to advice from outside official circles. As he was to discover, Stalin had a very different vision of society and of industrialization.

Palchinsky once asserted that "the future belongs to managing-engineers and engineering-managers" (Graham 1993, 44). Although he argued for such a combination in the context of a socialist economy, he opposed centralized planning and thought it best for manager-engineers to function autonomously and take into account what Friedrich Hayek called "the particular circumstances of time and place" (e.g., the availability of local materials). There may be similarities here to Rand's engineer-entrepreneurs, who apply their rational judgement to their own companies and steer clear of broader industry groupings or (mostly) working for others. Yet Rand's technical specialists are not only engineer-managers: they are engineer-entrepreneurs and engineer-owners, since most of them started and run their own companies. This status gives them true independence and makes them the ultimate in autonomous professionals. Stalin once said that "the engineer, the organizer of production, does not work as he would like to, but as he is ordered, in such a way as to serve the interests of his employers" (quoted in Bailes 1974, 466). Rand's entrepreneurs turn Stalin on his head by becoming employers themselves.

So Rand's engineers are not mere technocrats. As Kendall Bailes explains, technocracy urges engineers to "develop a wider sense of social responsibility for the use of their technical knowledge, and particularly urges them to take an important role in policy formation. In other words, engineers should not simply be content to be the technical executors of other men's policies, but should become politicians themselves." However, Rand's principled advocacy of laissez-faire led her to reject the desirability of influencing society by becoming a politician. Instead, her engineers rule (at least over their own fates) by becoming independent industrialists; and according to Rand it is only by doing so that engineers are no longer merely "technical executors of other men's policies", whether those policies be corporate or governmental.

Is is clear that Rand glorified the engineer-entrepreneur, whom she called "the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being" (Rand 1957, 391). Yet it is less clear that the theory and practice of engineering directly influenced her own philosophy. For instance, in 1927, a Russian group led by engineer P.K. Engelmeier proposed to "work out a whole new world view, fully adapted to contemporary technical culture" by exploring "the relations of technology to science, art, economics, law, and ethics", aiming eventually to develop "an overall philosophy based on technology" (Bailes 1974, 454). Rand seems to have taken her engineers more as symbols of industrial capitalism than as templates for a particular way of life or approach to reality. From the perspective of the technologist, Rand's philosophy offers a defense of professional autonomy (similar to if more fundamental than the once-standard ideology of engineering elucidated by Edwin Layton), but it does not incorporate insights from the practice of engineering. In fact, her characters often directly contravene the ethics of engineering; as an example, consider that Dagny Taggart insists on completing the initial run of a new railroad line at full speed without first completing any test runs, simply because she knows (somehow) that it will work as designed. No self-respecting engineer would function in that way today or even in the days of Rand's youth, since testing is an integral part of validating that a design functions properly.

Despite these flaws, Rand's novels (and especially Atlas Shrugged) provide probably the most sustained celebration of engineers and engineering in serious literature, which may in part explain why they are perennial favorites among geeky adolescents and would-be entrepreneurs. If only more of those who admire her novels were the kind of radical innovators she portrays, the world would be a much richer place.


Bailes, Kendall E. 1974. "The Politics of Technology: Stalin and Technocratic Thinking among Soviet Engineers", American Historical Review 79:2, 445-469.

__. 1978. Technology and Society under Lenin and Stalin: Origins of the Soviet Technical Intelligentsia, 1917-1941. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Graham, Loren R. 1993. The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Layton, Edwin T. 1971. The Revolt of the Engineers. Cleveland: The Case Western Reserve University Press.

Rand, Ayn. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections