About Anthem


Anthem is an outstanding introduction to Ayn Rand's philosophy of human nature. The novella's theme and central conflict — the individual versus the collective — occurs in all her novels and is an important element of her moral and political philosophy.

The story of Anthem takes place in an unnamed Communist- or Fascist-like dictatorship of the future, where an individual has no rights, existing solely to serve the state. The hero, Equality 7-2521, is a brilliant young man who yearns to be a scientist, but who is commanded to be a Street Sweeper by a government that fears his independence of mind.

The citizens of this society are pawns without rights who exist as wards of the state. They are born in state-controlled hospitals, raised in state-controlled nurseries, educated in state-controlled schools, toil at state-assigned jobs, and sleep in massive barracks organized by the state. Citizens have no personal lives or loves; they cannot choose friends or lovers. Instead, they engage in state-controlled breeding, in which the government decides who sleeps with whom and when. Even their names are variations on collectivist slogans — Unity, Fraternity, International, and so on — followed by numbers, indicating the many "brothers" who share the slogan for a name. Above all, the word "I" has been outlawed; it is the "Unspeakable Word" that has been erased from the language and from the thoughts of citizens. All first-person references have been expunged from individual thought. When individuals speak of themselves, they use the collective "we," there being no individualistic concepts or words available.

The struggle of Equality 7-2521 to think, live, and love on his own terms and in conflict with the oppressive dictatorship forms the heart of Anthem. By means of her character's quest, Ayn Rand defends the right of individuals to a life of their own and sounds a warning against modern society's relentless movement toward collectivism. The novella is informed with a sense of urgency derived from the popularity of various collectivist factions existing at the time of its writing (that continue to exist to this day.) In the 1930s, a number of U.S. intellectuals and politicians praised both the Nazi and Communist systems as "noble experiments" — and support for Communism, as Marxist ideology, continues among many American intellectuals.

Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and raised during the Russian Revolution. She saw firsthand the horrors of Communism in action. She witnessed the confiscation of private property, the persecution (and disappearance) of political dissidents, and through reports from her family that remained in Russia, the extermination of millions by Josef Stalin. Escaping to America — the freest country in history — she was horrified to find present and increasingly popular the very ideas she had fled. Leading up to World War II, American intellectuals and politicians often lauded the Fascist, Nazi, and Communist regimes in Italy, Germany, and Russia as "noble experiments."

Many American leaders admired the Fascists and Communists for their undeviating commitment to the belief that an individual exists solely to serve society. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though certainly not an advocate of totalitarianism, implemented, in the New Deal, a myriad of programs that were loosely based on the premise that moral virtue resides exclusively in selfless service to others. Before the war, moral support existed in the United States for both the Communists and the Nazis; even after the war, support for Communism persisted among the intellectuals, as it does to this day. Ayn Rand wrote Anthem in the 1930s as a warning to Western civilization about the horrors of collectivism, whether of the Nazi or Communist variety.

Without doubt, the most strikingly original feature of the book is its use of language. In the society depicted in the story, the process of collectivization has been completed at a level far deeper than the political. This society has successfully brainwashed its citizens to believe that only toil for others is good, and that they should exist utterly bereft of a personal life. The collectivist masters have also succeeded in radically altering the thought patterns of its citizens. Leaders have obliterated all concepts of individuality from human minds. Concepts such as "I," "me," or any other individualistic, first-person references have been extirpated from language and from human thinking. Only collectivist thought and speech are permitted. Individuals think and speak of themselves only as "we."

The state has succeeded in collectivizing society not only in political practice but also at the deepest level of thought. The situation is reminiscent of Hitler's claim that National Socialism was more effectively collectivist than Communism because, as he put it, "The Communists nationalize banks and industries, whereas we [the Nazis] nationalize bankers and industrialists," that is, humans.

Another memorable aspect of this story is the depiction of a collectivist society as regressing into scientific, technological, and industrial collapse. In Anthem, Ayn Rand portrays a Dark Age of the future. Her vision of a collectivized society stands in sharp contrast to that of George Orwell as presented in his novel, 1984. Orwell and Rand agree about the moral horrors of such a society — the utter lack of individual rights, the slave labor, the indoctrination, the inability to think or speak freely, the terror, and the oppressive sense of futility under these conditions. But Orwell projects a totalitarian state of scientific and technological advance. In 1984, spectacular progress in the hard sciences has created the ability to engage in thought control. Anthem, on the other hand, shows that a prohibition of freedom results in a decline into primitive subsistence. What is the fundamental philosophical conviction that leads Rand to the belief that a collectivist society is doomed to Dark Age backwardness? Her theory that progress and scientific knowledge are products of independent minds.

Observe the unflagging curiosity of Equality 7-2521's intellect. Though forbidden, he dissects animals, melts metals, mixes acids, and raises a lightning rod. He explores and experiments, until finally, he discovers the "power of the sky." Although he explicitly accepts the social judgment that to think and act alone is evil — and though he realizes that, if caught, he will be executed — his desire to understand the laws of nature supersedes all of this. "[It] was our curse," he says, "which drove us to our crime. We had been a good Street Sweeper and like all our brother Street Sweepers, save for our cursed wish to know. We looked too long at the stars at night, and at the trees and the earth." Despite everything a hostile society might do to him, Equality 7-2521 is driven by one all-consuming passion: He must know. He possesses the soul, as well as the intellect, of a great scientist.

By virtue of this kind of unshakeable independence, Rand argues, humankind forges ahead, moving from ignorance to enlightenment. Many of society's great thinkers and innovators were persecuted in much the same way that Equality 7-2521 is. For example, Socrates was executed for the originality of his moral principles. Galileo was threatened with torture by the Inquisition for daring to defend Copernicus, and his contemporary, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake. Charles Darwin was damned for originating, and John Scopes jailed for teaching, the theory of evolution. Robert Fulton was scorned, Henry Ford mocked, and Louis Pasteur reviled because of their inventions or new ideas.

The court of social opinion has generally convicted freethinkers. But by being freethinkers, the Equality 7-2521s of the world are unconcerned about the evaluations of others. Free thought and action continue. But when an innovator like Equality 7-2521 is caught in a political dictatorship that physically prevents him from researching, experimenting, or studying, then the creative mind is stifled.

But the mind must be left free to think and to act on its findings, which is the deepest principle lying at the heart of this story. In a free society, an original thinker like Equality 7-2521 is free to experiment and research, to invent and innovate, and to make scientific breakthroughs and technological advances. This concept is why the world's freest countries have made so many discoveries and have achieved such a high standard of living. Science and progress require intellectual freedom. A totalitarian state stifles the freedom of mind that such progress depends on. A worldwide totalitarian state, as depicted in Anthem, leaves the mind with no refuge. Thinkers like Equality 7-2521 have no place to go. They are trapped in a system that stifles freethinking. Rand argues that a society in which the mind is stifled will not merely fail to progress, it will regress, losing all the advances that .freer men have achieved, just as accomplishments of ancient Greek society were lost in the Dark Ages.

In defending the freedom of the mind as a necessity of human survival and prosperity, Anthem is a precursor to Ayn Rand's major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. All of these works feature some aspect of this theme. Anthem shows the collapse into Dark-Age barbarism that results when the mind is stifled. The Fountainhead shows that the independent minds responsible for progress and prosperity are generally opposed by their societies, those most likely to benefit from innovation. Atlas Shrugged shows that the rational mind is humankind's survival instrument, as well as what happens to the world when its best thinkers go on strike. All of her subsequent fiction presents heroes such as Equality 7-2521, persons of unswerving loyalty to their independent judgment.

One final point is necessary to help us understand Anthem: The characters depicted — both those who think and those who unquestioningly obey — have free will, that is, they make choices. This free will is clearest in the heroic characters. Equality 7-2521 has a choice to go into the ancient subway tunnel or not, to report it or not, to steal away and study science or not, to flee into the Uncharted Forest or accept his fate, and so on. International 4-8818 similarly has a choice to report Equality 7-2521's actions or stand by his friend. The Golden One (Liberty 5-3000) has the choice to follow her heart or the dictates of society, which prohibit her from speaking to Equality 7-2521. The Saint of the Pyre chooses not to repent his "crime" of uttering the Unspeakable Word, but instead picks out of the crowd the young Equality 7-2521 as his heir.

Further, the more passive characters also make choices; mindless obedience is not forced on them. The Council of Scholars, for example, must choose when Equality 7-2521 places before them the newly rediscovered electric light and pleads for its ability to rid human habitations of darkness. Much earlier, the Council of Vocations choose a profession for the clear-eyed young man who stands before it, and the members choose Street Sweeper. Finally, Equality 7-2521's fellow citizens — unlike him — do not choose to challenge the propaganda meted out by society, but simply accept passively. This choice is not forced on them. The citizens are not lashed into submission with whips. They are not brainwashed by means of drugs, deprivation, and torture. The streets do not crawl with secret police to report on those who question the state. Rather, the citizens voluntarily obey, because to do so is much easier than to face the wracking questions that a thinker like Equality 7-2521 confronts.

Students often think that the citizens of Anthem are mindless puppets, brainwashed and controlled by the state. This is not so. The citizens retain their capacity to think and to choose. Equality 7-2521's plan, at the end, depends on this free will — for when he creates a different kind of society, he fully expects the best among humankind to recognize the society's merit and flock to its banner. They will choose freedom over tyranny. The mind may lie dormant, but never extinct; no dictatorship can kill the human capacity to choose liberty.