The question must be asked: Why does the author depict this totalitarian state of the future as a primitive, technologically backward society? The answer lies in Ayn .Rand's theory regarding the cause of production and wealth. Examples of her theory abound in the novel. It is important to note that the hero is an inventor. He has been enthralled by the phenomena of nature since childhood. He loves the "science of things." He desires above all to be a scholar, a scientific researcher. He is so committed to this dream that he faces hardship and endures every difficulty to accomplish it. He is a genius — a Thomas Edison of the future — who in the teeth of every form of opposition, re-invents the electric light. The essential point is that Equality 7-2521 is a man of the mind. He is a thinker, a man of reason. An invention such as the electric light is a product of the mind.
Rand argues that all aspects of progress — scientific research, medical advances, inventions, technological improvements, industrial production — are achievements of the mind. Such accomplishments are not brought about by faith in the supernatural or, primarily, by manual labor, but by the rational .mind. Historically, individuals such as Equality 7-2521 — thinkers — have been responsible for humankind's greatest advances. Men like Copernicus and Galileo, who established that the sun is the center of the solar system, Charles Darwin, who proved that human life evolved from simpler life forms, the Wright Brothers, who pioneered man's ability to fly, and many more are real-life examples of individuals such as Equality 7-2521. These are men whose minds have discovered vital new truths that significantly improved human life on earth. The overall principle is that human well-being depends on the reasoning mind.
The question Ayn Rand raises in Anthem is this: Is some social condition necessary for the creative mind to function properly? Can the thinkers perform their inventive work under any type of political system? Or is rational productivity possible only under certain political conditions? The answer she resoundingly provides is that the independent mind needs freedom.
Again, the details are in the story. Equality 7-2521 discovers a new force of nature. He does not yet realize that it is electricity; he calls it the "power of the sky" because he knows that it is the same force that is responsible for lightning. His identification of this power, and his ability to harness it to create the light, require his unswerving dedication to the laws of nature and the facts of reality. Society's beliefs are irrelevant to this creative process; in this case, they are mistaken. Equality 7-2521, if he is to succeed in his endeavor, must allow himself to be ruled exclusively by the scientific facts of the case. Nature, not society, sets the terms in all such research and scientific investigations. The independent mind commits itself to truth, facts, and the laws of nature. If the beliefs and/or laws of society contradict the scientific facts, then the independent thinker dismisses such beliefs as mistaken, which is exactly the case with Equality 7-2521.
The Scholars, as the leading spokespersons for society, regard the electric light as evil. But Equality 7-2521 has come to understand some truths regarding the nature of electricity and knows, from his research and experimentation, that this force can be harnessed to light cities and homes. Part of his proof is the glass box that he shows the Scholars, the light that glows under his control. The beliefs of his brothers are erroneous. The light is not evil; nor is it dangerous in the hands of a man knowledgeable regarding its power. Equality 7-2521 is a man whose mind is committed to the facts. He is not swayed by the irrational beliefs of his brothers. When society denounces Equality 7-2521's thinking and opposes the electric light, he does not bow to their commands. He is committed to truth and to the scientific facts, not to the beliefs of others. His is the nature of an independent thinker.
But the rulers of this society have no interest in scientific research or truth. They are interested exclusively in power. In order to maintain their grip over society, they have to control the thinking of their citizens. They cannot allow the mind to function freely. The acquisition and retention of dictatorial power requires the suppression of free thought. Therefore, real-life dictators — whether Fascist, National Socialist, or Communist — always ban freedom of speech, that is, freedom of thought and expression. They know that independent thinkers will disagree with their suppressive policies and, by speaking out, rile the masses against them. Dictators recognize that their most implacable foe is the reasoning mind; for thinkers are concerned solely with truth, not with the arbitrary commands of power-hungry rulers.
A dictator's suppression of the mind necessarily extends to scientific research, as well. Equality 7-2521 is consigned to the Home of the Street Sweepers and denied admission to the ranks of the Scholars because the authorities recognize his brilliant mind and independent spirit and relegate him to the task of unskilled manual labor. They will not encourage the development of his thinking — even if restricted to scientific questions — because they recognize that it is impossible to limit such a mind to science. The dictators are not themselves brilliant men, but they sense in some instinctual way that the mind is their enemy — specifically, that the mind capable of inventing the electric light or formulating the theory of evolution is just as capable of questioning the moral legitimacy of the dictator's regime.
Great minds are not necessarily limited to technical questions and concerns; as individual members of the human race, they are often concerned with matters of both personal morality and political philosophy. If they ask such questions and speak out, they are a threat to rouse the people. The common expression, "The pen is mightier than the sword," is true, because the pen is an instrument of the mind. The deeper truth is, "The mind is mightier than the sword," that is, the mind is mightier than brute force. Ayn Rand's point in Anthem is that dictators necessarily stifle the mind. In order to maintain their power, they must do so. This is why Equality 7-2521 is refused admittance to the Home of the Scholars and why, later, he is imprisoned, his light threatened, and his life endangered. A great scientist has no chance to flourish in a totalitarian state. In real life, for example, the brilliant physicist, Andrei Sakharov, was persecuted and imprisoned in the Soviet Union for his outspoken moral condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
If the entire world is a global dictatorship as in Anthem, if freedom exists nowhere on earth, then the mind can seek no haven, no example such as the United States to which one can emigrate in order to gain an independent life. In such a case, the author shows, the mind will be stifled everywhere. There will be no creative thinking or innovation, no scientific research, no technological progress or industrial advance. In a worldwide dictatorship, human society will not move forward.
But the author shows that the implications are even worse. It is not merely the case that humanity will not progress, but that it will regress into a second Dark Age. Society will lose the great accomplishments of the past. If common individuals are to learn from great minds — as they do — they, too, must engage in rational thinking. The successful student, as well as the teacher, must be a thinker. It takes rational thought to learn to operate computers, to service and rebuild airplanes, to perform surgical techniques, to administer plants supplying electrical power, and so on. One does not fly or repair an airplane by rote memorization; one must understand the process.
Those who learn from great inventors and discoverers of knowledge are also individuals of the mind. A society that suppresses the mind, that ruthlessly punishes its most independent thinkers, will soon degenerate into a state of primitive barbarism. When the mind is stifled, a society cannot hold onto the technological achievements of the past. An individual, as well as a society, must prove worthy of the achievements inherited from great thinkers of the past. Innovations are the product of freedom and thinking. If humans are no longer free to think, they will lose the creations of the free mind. To see that Ayn Rand depicts an accurate picture in Anthem, one can look at the historical Dark Age.
The achievements of the Classical world were many. Plato and Aristotle were extraordinary philosophers, and their schools — the Academy and the Lyceum — flourished for centuries. The dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes wrote their brilliant plays in Athens, and the poets Virgil, Horace, and Catullus their great works in Rome. The ancients made advances in medicine, in physics, in mathematics, and in astronomy. Athens was the world's first democratic political system, and its standard of living and life expectancy were both relatively high. Both Greece and Rome, though marred by endless wars and political violence, were essentially civilized societies. Because these societies emphasized reason, they provided freedom, education, and a good life for many citizens.
This all ended in the Dark Age that existed between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance. The invading barbarians were men of brute force, not advocates of the mind. They sacked the centers of civilization and, in some cases, burned them to the ground. The barbarians were eventually converted to Christianity, but religion emphasizes faith, not reason. During the period in which the Catholic Church held cultural and political power in Europe, unquestioning obedience to religious dogma was required, and freethinkers were often burned at the stake. Independent thinking was stifled, scientific advance was non-existent, and illiteracy was rampant. Europeans of this age fell far below the knowledge level, standard of living, and life expectancy that had been attained centuries earlier. They lost the advances that the Classical period had reached. Because the culture stifled the mind, it lost the rational achievements reached by freer men of the past. In this regard, the Dark Age of the historical past is an accurate model to the one of the fictional future portrayed in Anthem.
Where the primitive society depicted in the story compares closely with the European Dark Age of the medieval period, it contrasts with the collectivist dictatorship presented by George Orwell in his novel, 1984. Both Rand and Orwell show the unrelieved evil of a collectivist society — the thought control, the necessity to surrender one's mind and life to the state, and the utter lack of individuality and freedom. But despite the two authors' agreement regarding the stifling evil of totalitarianism, an important difference exists between them. Orwell depicts a future collectivist dictatorship as a society that has made great scientific and technological progress. The state employs an ultra-sophisticated technology to engage in mind reading and thought control.
Orwell's theme that a global dictatorship can make scientific advances (or even retain the accomplishments created by freer societies of the past) contrasts sharply with Rand's depiction of collectivism's regression to ignorant savagery. Rand believes that Orwell makes the mistake of believing that the mind can continue to function under compulsion. He does not realize that great achievements are the result of .independent thinking by humans such as Equality 7-2521, who recognizes only the truths of nature and who conforms neither to society's irrational beliefs nor to the state's arbitrary commands. In the Dark Age, the independent thinkers were burned, leaving the Church authorities with no one but lackeys following blindly the prescribed dogma. Rand argues that the recent collectivist states, such as the modern Nazis and Communists, are more suppressive of independent thinking than the medieval Church ever was. Therefore, thinkers such as Equality 7-2521 have even less chance to flourish. If anything, a global collectivist dictatorship will sink to a lower standard of living than even that of the Dark Ages. Orwell's belief that the mind will continue to create progress — even under the most suppressive political conditions — is not borne out by historical fact and is false.
Ayn Rand grew up in the Communist dictatorship of Soviet Russia and stayed in touch with friends and family in her homeland for as long as possible. She saw firsthand, and fled from, the murderously suppressive policies of Stalin. She knew that any who dared think for themselves, any who criticized the regime, were dragged off by the secret police never to be heard from again. The most independent thinkers, the best creative minds, lived in terror, knowing they dare not speak out. With the best minds murdered or stifled, the country was utterly unable to achieve progress or prosperity. Even with massive help from the free societies of the West, the Soviet dictatorship subsisted in miserable squalor until finally collapsing from its own destitution. Rand had predicted such a result decades earlier in Anthem. A collectivist world, she shows, in the absence of freedom anywhere on earth, will permit no independent thinking and will inevitably backslide into primitive conditions. When thinkers such as Equality 7-2521 are suppressed on a global scale, there can be neither scientific progress nor industrial production. The backwardness and poverty depicted in the novel are the only possible results.