As the story opens, Equality 7-2521 states that it is a sin to do the writing he is doing. It is a sin to do things that do not involve others, and the words he thinks and writes are for no eyes or ears but his. This is not his only crime. He has committed one far worse and does not know what his punishment will be if discovered.
One day, as he sweeps the streets with International 4-8818, they find an iron grill buried beneath the weeds and papers blown from the nearby theatre. When they pull at it, the earth falls in and they find a series of steps leading into the darkness below. Equality 7-2521, though frightened, descends. He finds an abandoned tunnel, which he immediately realizes is a remnant of the Unmentionable Times, the ancient, evil period prior to the establishment of the current collectivist state. Though it is unthinkable, Equality 7-2521 tells International 4-8818 that they will not report the tunnel to the Council; rather, it belongs to him.
Each night after that, when his brothers sit in the darkened theatre watching plays about the virtue of toil, Equality 7-2521 steals away to his secret tunnel. There, hidden beneath the ground, he has three hours in which he does scientific research and performs experiments. He also steals manuscripts from the Scholars, and every night he studies. This activity goes on for two years.
Equality 7-2521 is a freethinker living in a slave state. The state requires blind obedience to its decrees, which he refuses to render. He will not sacrifice his mind to the state's commands, the essence of the story's conflict. In Anthem, Ayn Rand shows the full reality of the ideals held by the Communists, Fascists, and their intellectual supporters. The underlying principle is collectivism: Society is paramount, and the individual must be subordinated to its dictates. Collectivists hold that an individual exists solely to serve the state and has no "inalienable right" to a free life or to the pursuit of happiness. Thus the citizens of this story are like mindless robots. They are not permitted to think for themselves; they must blindly obey the commands of the Councils.
In his conscious thinking, Equality 7-2521 accepts collectivism, because it is all he has been taught; nobody in this society has ever heard any different ideas. But implicitly, at the subconscious level, he holds and lives by the opposite premise, individualism: the theory that individuals have the right to think for themselves, to use their own minds and judgment in the pursuit of truth. Further, Equality 7-2521 believes that individuals have the right to choose what they want out of life — in this case, he has the right to pursue a career as a scientist because it is what he loves. Individuals, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, have an "inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." In his individualism, Equality 7-2521 espouses the same ideals that form the heart of the American political system. In his rejection of collectivism, he shuns the principles of the Nazis and Communists.
The collectivism of this society explains why Equality 7-2521 is not permitted to think. If the individual must serve an all-powerful state, then it requires obedience from him. Collectivism values a blind, unquestioning allegiance — a willingness to follow orders unthinkingly. The Councils are in no danger from the mindless brutes of a society, whose strong backs are harnessed for manual labor. The Councils must fear only one foe: the freethinking mind. Equality 7-2521 represents a danger to them for he has the brainpower to question the moral rectitude of their regime — and the courage to stand by his convictions, even though his life is in danger.
Ayn Rand suggests that the reason dictators of all kinds — Fascist, Communist, or religious — always prohibit freedom of speech and of the press is that they are expressions of a deeper freedom of thought and encourage the free dissemination of ideas that collectivist societies dread. Dictators know that, in a free market of ideas, their arbitrary commands will be unable to withstand logical scrutiny. Therefore, they must ruthlessly suppress the right to think freely and to criticize their policies. Thus Equality 7-2521 is not allowed to think and is forbidden to study science.
Instead he is made a Street Sweeper. The teachers and Councils knew from his youth that his intelligence and eagerness to learn stood out. He was beyond his brothers and sisters in this respect. Because his questioning mind would not be stifled, he was punished continuously by the teachers — he was lashed more often than all the other children. Two things were clear to the Councils: Equality 7-2521 had a mind of his own, and such a dangerous commodity was not to be encouraged. Therefore, he is consigned to the mindless task of sweeping the streets. Because he has the best mind, he is forbidden to think. Such is the inversion of collectivism, where things are the opposite of how they should be. Instead of glorifying the independent mind that invents the electric light and other advances — as they should — collectivist societies do everything in their power to stifle it.
The collectivist rulers understand that the essence of collectivism is conformity to the group. It is not just that individuals must serve the group in action. Deeper, they must accept and surrender their minds to its teachings. The foundation of Equality 7-2521's individualism is not pursuing his own happiness — this is a secondary consequence — but following his own mind. An individualist, such as Equality 7-2521, does not conform; he does not surrender the sovereign judgment of his own consciousness. He understands that to be a human being is to be a thinker. What makes someone an individual is a commitment to live by one's own best thinking — a refusal to betray one's mind, to yield the truth in order to follow the group. "To thine own self be true," says Polonius to Laertes in Hamlet. In Anthem, Ayn Rand shows that commitment to one's self is fundamentally commitment to one's mind.
A striking aspect of this society's war on the individual is its collectivization of the language, its eradication of all singular first-person references such as "I" or "me." By extirpating these words, the rulers have removed the possibility of even thinking in individualistic terms. From infancy, children are raised to think and speak of themselves only as "we." They are not permitted to know such a concept as "I." They know of an "Unspeakable Word," that to discover and speak that word is death, but they do not know what it is. In a brilliantly original indictment of collectivism, Ayn Rand points out that to fully subordinate the individual mind to society, collectivists must wipe out the very concept of an individual. If they succeed at this, there is no possibility of standing up to the stifling call for obedience; there is no independent mind to defend and no means by which to do so. The collectivists have wiped out individualism in language and in thought, as well as in action.
A further point raised in this chapter, which recurs throughout the story, is the struggle of an innovator against a society resistant to new ideas. Equality 7-2521 is like many of the great thinkers and scientists of history who have met hostility from the leaders of their times. Socrates was put to death by Athenian society for the originality of his ideas. Galileo was threatened with torture by the Inquisition for defending the heliocentric theory in astronomy — and his earlier colleague, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake for the same reason. In free societies such as the United States, inventive thinkers such as Robert Fulton, the Wright brothers, and innovative architect Frank Lloyd Wright, merely face opposition from private citizens who follow tradition, but are not confronted with an all-powerful dictator who demands obedience. Such innovators are often mocked and ostracized, but not put to death. But Equality 7-2521 faces a collectivist state in which freethinking has been outlawed — much like an independent person in Nazi Germany or in Soviet Russia — and pursuit of new truths will result in his execution if apprehended. This risk is the fate of an innovator in a Fascist or Communist society. All who do not kneel and obey shall be imprisoned or executed.
World Council a global government that rules the entire world. In this world of the future, individuals possess no rights. The World Council is the highest governing body, the ultimate set of rulers who dictate policy to the rest of the world.
Unmentionable Times the days of the past when humans still possessed individual rights and political freedom. The dictators regard those past days as evil, because humans were living for themselves, not for others. It is unlawful to speak of these days when individuals were free to pursue their own happiness.
Great Truth the belief that human beings are not individuals but mere fragments of the whole. This society has been indoctrinated with the view that individuality is unreal, that the human race is like an ant colony in which each person is not a single, separate whole but an appendage of a larger social unity.
Great Rebirth the period in which the Unmentionable Times end and the one Great Truth is taught. During this time, political freedom is wiped out and belief in living for one's own happiness is eradicated. This is the beginning of the dictatorship in which humans must exist exclusively to serve their brothers and sisters.
Council of the Home the leaders of the particular barracks where a group of persons reside. Because this society supposedly has no individuals, all decisions are made by a sub-group that controls the larger group.
Council of Vocations the group of rulers whose specific function is to decide an individual's occupation. By forcing the best young minds into manual labor, the leaders hope to quell any potential intellectual dissent to their regime.
Home of the Scholars the residence of intellectuals and scientists whose task is to gain knowledge and discover new truths
Science of Things research into the phenomena of nature. This primitive society has only the most rudimentary of scientific knowledge, and it has. regressed into a second Dark Age in which most knowledge of freer periods has been lost. This society believes the earth is flat, the sun revolves around it, and bleeding is a method of curing ailments.
The Transgression of Preference the "sin" of choice, which occurs when a person favors an activity or person based on independent judgment. Any exercise of independent evaluation is banned by this society.
Home of the Useless where the elderly of this society are sent at 40 years of age. They are thought to be too worn with toil to be of further use to society. This society is so lacking in knowledge of nutrition, medicine and science that the life expectancy has shrunk back into the early 40s.