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Ayn Rand's Anthem: An Appreciation

Ayn Rand's Anthem: An Appreciation

10 Mins
July 7, 2010

Equality 7-2521, the hero of Anthem, is twenty-one years old when he escapes to freedom from a totalitarian state. The author of Anthem made the same escape, at the same age. Then, like her hero, she proceeded to rename herself.

Alissa Rosenbaum, who became Ayn Rand , was born on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was the daughter of a middle-class family. After communism came to power in 1917, her father's small business was confiscated, and the family endured years of suffering and danger. Alyssa, whose ambition was to become a writer, knew that she could not survive in a country where free expression was prohibited. She escaped from Russia and, two weeks after her twenty-first birthday, arrived in the United States. To free her writing from all traceable associations with her former life, she invented for herself the name Ayn Rand and set out, like the hero of her story, to make a new life for herself, in freedom.

The values at stake in Anthem are not merely those of the central character; they are the professed values of an entire civilization—our own.

It wasn't easy. Hoping to write for film, she traveled to Hollywood, where she found that the studios had little interest in her work. She supported herself as a waitress, a movie extra, a clerk in a studio wardrobe department. She gradually perfected her English, making herself one of a small handful of creative writers who have mastered the language in their adulthood. In 1935 she enjoyed her first success: her play, Night of January 16th, was produced on the New York stage. Her first novel, We The Living, appeared in 1936.

An Amazon best-seller

But there was a problem. The story, set in Russia, was highly critical of the socialist system of enforced "equality"; and the book was published at the height of Russian socialism's popularity among leaders of American opinion. It failed to attract an audience. In 1937, when Anthem was written, no one could possibly have predicted that Ayn Rand would become one of the most popular authors of the twentieth century.

The summer of that year found her living temporarily in Stony Creek, Connecticut. Her husband, Frank O'Connor, was working as an actor in summer stock, and she was planning her next novel. It was an elaborate project. She decided to take some time off and write a story that she had long had in mind—the story of Anthem.

It is a story of the individual's struggle against collectivism, against the idea that s ociety has the right to direct each person's life for the benefit of all. Rand's story carries the collectivist program to its logical conclusion: a society in which people are simply numbered units, completely subject to state control and planning. The origins of the story lie in Rand's own experience of Soviet communism, but its significance is far more than autobiographical. It is a critique of many of the world's most influential books, ideas, and intellectual movements.

The idea of a planned society goes back as far as the militarist communism of ancient Sparta and the philosophical communism of Plato's Republic. It reappears in Thomas More's Utopia and in virtually all succeeding visions of an "ideal" world. In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided an important extension of collectivist thought when he argued that a society cannot be truly democratic unless its citizens possess substantially similar values, convictions, and degrees of wealth. Realizing that people might not choose to make themselves politically "free" by making themselves materially and intellectually "equal," Rousseau predicted that "it may be necessary to compel a man to be free." His prediction would be fulfilled. As in the communist society of Anthem, so in every real-life collectivist state: "freedom" is regarded as inseparable from "equality," and "equality" is enforced by government action.

Rousseau believed that democracy cannot exist without an equalization of property; later collectivists insisted that the problem was private property itself. They saw the capitalist system as "heartless," "wasteful," and "undisciplined" because it allows people to compete for and acquire private property. Most political movements of the twentieth century, whether communist or noncommunist, called for a system of "social" planning, either to keep capitalism in check or to abolish it completely. Social planning was intended to be systematic, rational, and scientific, an immense improvement on "anarchic" capitalism. Theorists anticipated that the price of a planned economy would be nothing more than the individual's ability to do what he or she wished to do. To many twentieth-century intellectuals, that seemed an easy price to pay, at least for other people. This is the intellectual tendency to which Rand refers in her Foreword to the novel.

She was working from a different premise. She saw progress as dependent on the freedom of the individual mind. She knew that it is individuals, not social forces, who learn, create, discover. When one thinks of great scientific and technological accomplishment, one thinks of Franklin and Edison, Galileo and Pasteur, not the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the collectivist society described in Anthem, the pace of progress is indicated by the fact that the newest invention is the humble candle, which was developed "a hundred years ago." Perhaps the candle took so long to invent because "twenty illustrious men," instead of one real scientist, were assigned to the project. A society in which education is focused on sharing and brotherhood, and "the history of all the Councils elected since the Great Rebirth," is not likely to have a history that is worth remembering.

Rand was not the only anticollectivist writer of her generation. She distinguished herself from most of them, however, by her realization that collectivism wasn't just an offense to human rights; it didn't even work. Before leaving Russia, she may have read Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1920), an anticollectivist novel that circulated in manuscript. We, like Anthem, is the story of a totalitarian society in which personal names have been replaced by numbers. As several scholars have pointed out, however, the strange thing about this society, and about the totalitarian society in George Orwell's more famous novel 1984 (1949), is that it somehow survives with its technology intact. Throughout the existence of the Soviet Union, Western "experts" insisted that the communist experiment might still be considered successful, in some sense, because of its supposed advances in the economic sphere. They believed it was possible (though not, perhaps, desirable) to trade personal liberty for economic efficiency.

How do you plan for the welfare of everyone when you cannot decide what is right for any particular person?

Rand knew that they were wrong. She knew that no person or group of persons can ever know enough to be successful in planning other people's lives. In Anthem, a council of state-appointed experts decides on the lifework of Equality 7-2521, who has a brilliant scientific mind. It sentences him to a career of street sweeping. This is Rand's way of asking, How do you plan for the welfare of everyone when you cannot decide what is right for any particular person? For the collectivist, however, the Plan itself is what's important. Faced with Equality 7-2521's unexpected discovery of the electric light, the planners try to forbid its use:

"Should it be what they claim of it," said Harmony 9-2642, "then it would bring ruin to the Department of Candles." . . .

"This would wreck the Plans of the World Council," said Unanimity 2-9913.

No one who appreciated the value of the electric light, or any other unforeseen discovery of the individual mind (and all discoveries are unforeseen), would willingly suppress the invention simply because a collective of self-styled authorities disapproved of it. The planners must therefore respond with force. That is what happens in every collectivist society, and that is what happens in Anthem.

The intellectual friends of collectivism regard it as an expression of egalitarian principles, but collectivism can never arrive at the "equality" it seeks. The name of Rand's hero, Equality 7-2521, is a satire of that idea. Nothing is more egalitarian, more "democratic," than the word "equality," followed by a serial number. And sure enough, when Equality 7-2521 tries to give his great invention to the collective, it is rejected in the name of democracy as well as the name of planning. Nothing can be done, he is told, without the approval of the Councils, and "it took fifty years to secure the approval of all the Councils" when the last invention came along.

But the biggest joke is this: despite all the talk about equality and brotherhood, the collectivist society of Anthem is ruled by a tiny class of people. Why?

If "equality" means equal obedience to a social plan, then Rousseau was right: the plan has to be imposed by force.

Rand shows the reason. If "equality" means equal obedience to a social plan, then Rousseau was right: the plan has to be imposed by force. And certain people will have to enforce it. These people will constitute a separate class, superior to everyone else. Such a class will consist, not of the best, but of the worst elements of society—people who are willing to enslave, torture, and kill their "brothers" in order to maintain a lie, the lie of their version of equality. These are the people who are willing to say things like, "Take our brother Equality 7-2521 to the Palace of Corrective Detention. Lash them until they tell."

Anthem can be seen as a house of mirrors, a gallery in which brotherhood and equality, as they are understood in a free society, are parodied by the distorted image of "brotherhood" and "equality," as they appear in a collectivist state. And Anthem is more than that. It is a gallery in which mirrors come alive, in which a society devoted to the repression of the self is finally confronted by an individual who manages to reflect upon himself.

Equality 7-2521 has been taught to refer to himself as "we" and "us," as if the self were a mere reflection of the group. As he pursues his own thoughts, however, a world opens within him, a world much richer and more interesting than the world he sees outside. He becomes aware of himself for the first time, as if he were surprised by the first sight of his face in a mirror. He has not yet discovered a literal mirror, a physical substance that allows him to behold his own form. That discovery comes later. It is not primary but secondary; it results from his earlier discovery of the mirror of self-consciousness.

For the collectivists, what is primary lies on the outside—society, authority, physical labor. For Rand the individualist, everything starts from the inside, with a thought in an individual mind. All the discoveries that Equality 7-2521 makes in the exterior world are made possible by his prior discovery of himself.


This discovery does not come without error and pain. Rand knows that no story exists without conflict, and that conflict brings pain. Equality 7-2521 is in conflict with society; before that, he is in conflict with himself, a self that he does not yet completely realize he possesses. His realization of what lies inside him is actually intensified by his conflict with himself about whether it is right to look inside. The recognition that when he does so he is sinning against the collective sharpens his awareness of himself. Even the moment when he accepts his socially-decreed Life Mandate as a street sweeper constitutes an important stage in the process of self-awareness. He submits to his Life Mandate willingly, exercising precisely the quality of choice that his collectivist bosses are trying to destroy. Ironically, his ability to see, analyze, and approve of himself is confirmed by the pride he feels in gaining a "victory" over himself by accepting the assignment. Later, his assessment of collectivism will change, but his pride in himself will endure.

Words are mirrors of the self. For Ayn Rand , a woman who left her homeland, learned a new language, and suffered years of privation in order to write her thoughts freely, words were always the primary means of understanding both the world and the self. Appropriately, Anthem's story of self-discovery starts and ends with the written word. In the beginning, Equality 7-2521 "must" write, even though he believes that writing his own thoughts is sinful, because he wants "to speak for once to no ears but [his] own." By "speaking" to himself by means of the written word, he sees the evidence that he has a self, a self that he can identify, analyze, and name, that he can make fully his own property. His quest for himself concludes when he discovers the ancient word for the self as single, individual, and independent: "the sacred word: EGO."

In Latin, "ego" simply means "I." In English, it has more extensive associations. It is the root of such words as "egoism" and "egotism." "Egoism" suggests the idea that the self is, indeed, primary, that everything starts from the self. Rand, like her hero, was a proud egoist, but she knew that egoism is often confused with what is sometimes called "egotism"—the arrogant desire to dominate others. That is why her hero emphasizes the idea that respect for the self and its freedom requires a similar respect for the freedom of other selves.

The hero of Anthem is determined neither to obey nor to command; he is determined, instead, to create. The ego, the "I," is the creative thing in man. When Equality 7-2521 discovers the nature of selfhood, he creates for himself a real, individual name—Prometheus. He chooses the name of a god, but not the king of the gods. The name he selects is that of the god who taught men arts and sciences, and gave them fire, and was tortured by the king of the gods in retaliation. Prometheus is a mythic name for the independent mind, suffering yet ultimately victorious.

Anthem is a crystallized epic.

Every culture has mythic stories that identify its values and dramatize its idea of the way things happen in the world. One of the defining stories of Western culture is the myth of Prometheus. Another is the Bible's account of the world as the creation of a God who is "the Word" and who works his will by means of words: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." Rand combines the two stories, Greek and Judeo-Christian, making her hero both a Promethean scientist and a worker with words.

An Anthem is a solemn hymn—ordinarily, a hymn to God. Rand did not believe in God; yet, as her title suggests, she is trying to project the secular correlative of intense religious feeling. Like the Greek poets, she feels free to remake traditional stories to suit her own ideas. When a new world comes to life in Anthem, it is created not by a literal god but by a godlike human being.

Rand also departs from the traditional names for the world's founding father and mother. In her story, they are not Adam and Eve, as they are in the Bible; nor are they Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaea (Earth), as they are in Greek mythology. "Gaea" survives as the female figure who, earthlike, will nurture "a new kind of gods"; but Rand has no use for Ouranos. He was a god, but he was no one's idea of an intellectual. He was a force of nature. By replacing him with Prometheus, the god of intellect, Rand emphasizes her distinctive view of the way things happen. In her world, the riches of earth are called forth by intellect; "environment" alone creates nothing new and beneficial.

America has its myths, and Rand exploits them, too; but here, nothing essential has to be changed. Myths are sometimes based on fact; American myths are often nearly identical to American realities. Thus, Equality 7-2521 is a creator in the same way as Franklin and Edison and the Wright brothers were creators. The American parallels run still farther. Like Franklin, who "snatched the lightning from the heavens and the sceptre from the tyrant," Rand's hero is a revolutionary as well as a scientist. Like millions of Americans who journeyed to new lands and created a new civilization, he is both explorer and pioneer.

There is a word for the type of literature that embraces such mythic stories, gives them the widest possible meaning, and raises them to the highest level of intensity. That word is "epic."

An epic is a narrative that embodies, in the life story of an heroic character, the life and ideal values of a civilization. It does not attempt to tell everything about that civilization; it selects what is most significant. It does not begin at the very beginning of the story; it begins in the middle, at a crucial episode in which essential values are at stake. It then moves backward and forward, using flashbacks to explain the origin of the central conflict and forward action to show its ultimate resolution. It distinguishes, indeed, between right and wrong ways of resolving conflicts, offering a means by which readers can both affirm their values and test how well they understand and practice them.

Anthem is a crystallized epic. Shorter than many "short stories," it is nevertheless constructed on an epic frame. The values at stake in Anthem are not merely those of the central character; they are the professed values of an entire civilization—our own. Our civilization is built on a conception of individual rights, and its existence cannot be conceived on any other basis. If you wonder about that, try to imagine what would happen if individualist values were no longer in place. The result would be the world that Equality 7-2521 inhabits. What is at issue in Anthem's opening scenes is not simply the decision of Equality 7-2521 to begin a process of self-discovery and self-fulfillment; it is our own understanding of the difference between a collectivist society and a society that maintains a defining emphasis on the individual self, its rights and powers. Anthem is about us, and about what will happen to us if we do not follow Equality 7-2521 in his rediscovery of the importance of individualism.

In the epic poetry of Homer, Virgil, and Milton, in the epic novels of the past two centuries, in America's epic histories of its own development, the central story is a complex union of many stories. Usually it is a union of apparent opposites—a myth of both separation and unification, discovery and recovery, adventure and return. Homer's Odyssey is the story of a man who leaves his home and then returns to it with newly assured self-mastery and power. Virgil's Aeneid is the story of a man who flees his home, then recreates it in a distant country. The history of America's pioneers and inventors is the story of men and women who set themselves apart from other people and, in so doing, create the means to a better life for everyone.

So it is in Anthem. By separating himself from his "brothers," Equality 7-2521 becomes their greatest benefactor. Not only does he invent a device that can immeasurably enrich their lives, but he discovers the real basis of brotherhood, which is recognition of the sanctity of the self. He separates himself from humanity as it is and embraces what it may become; he flees into the wilderness and discovers a new home; he recovers knowledge of the world of the distant past, destroyed by the flood waters of collectivism, and he uses it as the foundation of the free world of the future.

As Equality 7-2521 is driven by his "sin" from the purported paradise of collectivism and regains the true paradise of individualism, one hears a distinct echo of the Christian story of fall and redemption. In Anthem the original paradise is false, and the sin is in fact a virtue, but the outlines of the story remain. It makes sense for Rand to use this story, because she, like the writers of the Bible, or Milton in Paradise Lost, is trying to grasp the largest and loftiest of all literary themes—the theme of the eternal things.

By separating himself from his "brothers," Equality 7-2521 becomes their greatest benefactor.

The theme appears in Anthem's story about the Saint of the Unspeakable Word. Notice: not "words" but "the Word." Denied the ability to communicate with literal words, the Saint communicates with his whole being; and Prometheus at last understands his message, which is the eternal reality of the "I" in man. The Saint—like Prometheus and all other people who have awakened to a consciousness of themselves and, therefore, to the nature of human consciousness—demonstrates by his very existence and intent to speak that individualism can never be extinguished, that it will always reassert itself. The martyrs of individualism may die, but their cause will never be defeated:

[T]he battle they lost can never be lost. For that which they died to save can never perish. Through all the darkness, through all the shame of which men are capable, the spirit of man will remain alive on this earth. It may sleep, but it will awaken. It may wear chains, but it will break through. And man will go on. Man, not men.

This may seem paradoxical: a battle that is lost but not lost, a humanity that transcends individual failures because of the spirit that manifests itself in individual attempts. But Rand's myth does what myths ought to do: it offers a change of perspective. It allows the reader to make sharp distinctions between things that are superficially the same. It shows that "man" is at the opposite end of the spectrum from "men" in their collective groups—the crowd, the mob, the "council." It shows that the spirit of individualism, spontaneously regenerating itself in the nature of man, can be "lost" a thousand times without ever being truly lost.

To move her readers to this lofty vantage-point, Rand uses the plain, even abrupt language appropriate to a sudden intellectual ascent. She keeps action simple and description spare. She uses first-person narration, not simply because it emphasizes the importance of the "I," but also because a person writing for and to himself will feel no need to provide long descriptions of familiar objects. Since Equality 7-2521 at first knows nothing of history, philosophy, politics, or economics, no one will expect him to start with a comprehensive explanation of the world. He can begin in the midst of things. Nothing will stand between the reader and the intense crystallization of the story.

To sharpen the focus still further, Rand provides the intensely evocative imagery traditionally associated with epic and myth. Most of her imagery insists on the contrast between the two great competing views of life, collectivist and individualist. In the collectivist world, every vista is short, every space is confined, every object is cheap and drab and clumsy. This is a world of predictability and "security." The individualist world, by contrast, is a world of choices and risks, a world of depths and heights, tunnels and stars and forests and mountains, startling new inventions (the "glass box" enclosing electric fire) and mysterious ancient artifacts (the house that seems, paradoxically, to be supported by glass; those strange soft, ancient clothes; those curious things called "books").

The individualist world is a world of choices and risks.

To this contrastive imagery Rand adds the kind of images that connect the two worlds and emphasize their conflict. Perhaps the most vivid image is the execution of the Saint of the Word, punished for his Promethean pride with the fire that is the very emblem of the Promethean spirit. Rand's argument is in the image itself: the slave society lives by exploiting the Promethean figure's own attributes—his pride, his energy, his intellect—and turning them against him; yet even in these circumstances there is something about the Promethean mind that can never really "lose," can never cease to live and try to communicate itself.

Rand's smaller, subtler effects should also be noticed. Consider the scene in which Equality 7-2521 enters the House of the Scholars:

We saw nothing as we entered, save the sky in the great windows, blue and glowing. Then we saw the Scholars who sat around a long table; they were as shapeless clouds huddled at the rise of the great sky.

This is not simple description. It is part of a system of images representing man's relationship to nature. Like the ancient epic writers, Rand poetically personifies natural forces. Electricity, the "power of the sky," is like a friend who will "grant us anything if we but choose to ask." As Equality 7-2521 sees it, the sky is not threatening but welcoming—"blue and glowing." Because he is a scientist, he also sees it as rational and orderly: it "rise[s]" before him as the sun and the stars rise each day. What obscures it like "clouds" are the collectivist intellectuals who are about to betray and persecute the man who has come to grant them more than they could ever choose to ask. They are "shapeless" as all irrational things are shapeless; they obstruct as tyranny and irrationality always obstruct. But they do not succeed in blocking the sky. The sky remains as "great" as the hero's aspirations.

All of Anthem is in every part of it, even in such apparently insignificant parts as the one just cited. To achieve this intensity of effect was undoubtedly Rand's goal in choosing to write an epic story, and in choosing to write it in so few words. And intensity was certainly the goal of the revision she made almost a decade after Anthem first appeared.

In 1938, Cassell and Company published the book in Britain, but it did not find an American publisher. It remained virtually unknown in this country until 1946, when one of Rand's friends, Leonard E. Read, creator of the Foundation for Economic Education, arranged for it to be republished in a series of pamphlets advocating individualism. Rand took the occasion to edit the work. She repudiated none of its essentials, but she subjected every sentence to close analysis, and she eliminated every expression she considered unnecessary. She made the intense yet more intense.

By the time Anthem appeared for the second time, it was not so easy to ignore. Rand's novel The Fountainhead (1943) had achieved great—and, as it turned out, perennial—popularity. Its success was followed by that of Rand's next novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957). The two books repeated Anthem's ideas, and enormously extended them. By the time she completed Atlas Shrugged, Rand had developed her own philosophical system, which she called Objectivism , a name signifying her conviction that the individual mind is fully competent to understand the objective features of the world. She continued exploring the implications of her philosophy until her death in 1982.

Looking back on her life, she might have said what Equality 7-2521 says near the beginning of his story: "We have come to see how great is the unexplored, and many lifetimes will not bring us to the end of our quest. But we wish no end." And she might have remembered those moments, many years before, when she watched while the insight of Equality 7-2521 grew "sharper than the hawk's and clearer than rock crystal." Anthem is the crystalline product of that crystalline vision.

Dr. Stephen Cox is Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. Among his works are Love and Logic: The Evolution of Blake's Thought (University of Michigan Press), The Titanic Story (Open Court Publishing Company), and many articles and essays, such as the biographical introduction to Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine (Transaction Publishers).

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