by Roderick Long
"In a Leningrad university classroom in the early 1920s, as the professor drones on about orthodox Marxist theory, a young woman with an intense gaze is writing furiously in her notebook. The woman is Alisa Rosenbaum, later to be famous as Ayn Rand, and her jottings do not concern the relationship between dialectical materialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat; they are notes for a play to be called Ego, about the rediscovery of individuality in a totalitarian society based on the worship of the collective. Over a decade later, having escaped to the United States, Rand would complete the story — now a novella rather than a play — and publish it in 1938 under the title "Anthem".
"Anthem" is perhaps the only work of Rand’s in which the influence of Russian symbolism is greater than that of French romanticism. In its stark, formal style, devoid of colloquialism, and minimalist in characterization, plot, and descriptive detail, Anthem is strikingly different (apart from brief passages in longer works) from anything else that she wrote; it represents a vision stripped to the bare essentials, to the sheer power of simplicity. Its cadences are at times biblical (e.g., “I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom”). Indeed, while the book is usually described as a novella, Rand confided to fellow novelist and libertarian theorist Rose Wilder Lane that she thought of "Anthem" as a poem; and the very title suggests a sacred song of praise or devotion, in this case to the unconquered self.
The book’s most striking feature, both stylistically and in the substance of the story, is the absence of the first-person singular. The idea of a totalitarian state suppressing subversive ideas by banning or distorting the language needed to express or even formulate it has been made generally familiar by George Orwell’s "Nineteen Eighty-Four," with its fictional language, “Newspeak”; but Rand’s treatment precedes Orwell’s by more than a decade (and may possibly have influenced it).
In Rand’s dystopia, the first-person singular pronoun — the word “I” — has been abolished in order to prevent people from thinking of themselves as individuals with identities distinct from that of the collective. The struggle of Equality 7-2521 (Rand modeled her characters’ names on telephone exchanges of the “Pennsylvania 6-5000” form) to discover his own individuality is mirrored in his, and the text’s, struggle to move from “we” to “I.” (And Liberty 5-3000’s groping after singular pronouns in her declaration “We are one… alone… and only… and we love you who are one… alone… and only,” while it anticipates the statement in The Fountainhead that “To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I,’” also implicitly raises the question whether the loss of the distinction between singular and plural second-person forms in standard English should be seen as likewise problematic, y’all.)
Again like Orwell, Rand would later go on to analyze the political abuse of language in her nonfiction as well, describing “extremism,” for example, as an illegitimate term, or “anti-concept,” designed to blur the distinction between thoroughgoing advocacy of freedom and thoroughgoing advocacy of violence and authoritarianism.
Another distinctive feature of Anthem is the impoverished, nearly primitive nature of the society it depicts — one where the candle is a relatively recent discovery, the inventors of which (a committee, of course) are immortalized in paint on the walls of the Council of Scholars. In most dystopian novels — whether those that preceded "Anthem", such as Zamyatin’s "We" and Huxley’s "Brave New World", or those that came later, such as "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and Bradbury’s "Fahrenheit 451" — the totalitarian regime is depicted as commanding a vast array of high-tech tools for surveillance and manipulation.
But for Rand, the functioning of industrial civilization requires individual initiative and free exchange; any society that suppresses these as thoroughly as the one in "Anthem" does would pay the price of backwardness, and she depicts this result accordingly. (What relations of influence there might be between Anthem and these other dystopian fictions is a fascinating topic, but one where evidence is elusive.)
If the book’s linguistic center is the first-person pronoun, its imaginal center is light — the guttering candlelight of the collectivist dystopia, contrasted with the electric light that the protagonist reinvents, the latter symbolizing the fire that Prometheus of Greek myth stole to give to the human race, and, consequently, symbolizing as well the creative fire of the unfettered individual mind. (The theme of the gift of fire, and the giver’s punishment therefor, would recur in "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" as well.) The world of "Anthem" is in many ways a reflection, or more precisely an intensification and extrapolation, of the setting in which Rand initially conceived it — the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, with its collectivist ideological conformity, economic stagnation, lack of privacy, and general dreariness (vividly portrayed in more literal terms in Rand’s semiautobiographical novel "We the Living").
Even the universal title of “brothers” in Anthem is an echo of the Soviet “comrades.” By the time Rand completed and published her story, however, she knew all too well that the virus of authoritarian collectivism was not confined to Soviet Russia; fascism and communism, two species of We-worship between which Rand saw little reason to choose, were dividing up Europe between them, while less advanced forms of the same syndrome were well entrenched in her adopted homeland of America. Against these trends Rand held up the vision of Anthem as a warning.
But contemporary ideologies were not Rand’s only target. Rand was a dedicated Aristotelian and a lifelong critic of Plato, and many of the features of Anthem’s dystopia, such as government assignment of professions, state regulation of breeding and reproduction, and abolition of private property and the family, seem drawn from the recommendations in Plato’s Republic. The prohibition of the word “I” in favor of “we” is likewise a natural development of Plato’s dictum in the "Republic" that all citizens should say “mine” and “not mine” about the same things — a proposal criticized by Aristotle, who warns in his "Politics" that the attempt to give a community the same degree of unity as a single individual is doomed to disaster.
Moreover, Equality 7-2521’s journey down into an abandoned subway tunnel to discover an artificial light source turns on its head Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which the wise man ascends from the cave of physical reality, lit by the artificial light of the senses, to discover the “real” world of abstract Forms, lit by a sun of pure ineffable intellect. By reversing Plato’s parable, Rand, in Aristotelian fashion, reorients the pursuit of knowledge away from the supernatural and back to this world, to empirical reality.
There are also passages in "Anthem", however, that seem potentially at odds with the Aristotelian orientation of Rand’s mature philosophy. The protagonist’s courage, integrity, and intellectual curiosity are described in terms that imply that they are innate; for example, he describes himself as having been “born with a curse” that has “always driven us to thoughts which are forbidden.” Such a suggestion clashes with Rand’s later insistence on the decisive role of choice and habituation in determining one’s character.
Moreover, Equality 7-2521, after rediscovering the concept of the ego, declares that “the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect” — a stance that the later Rand would denounce as “whim-worship,” insisting on the normative primacy of reason over will. Likewise, Equality 7-2521’s declaration, quoted earlier, that among “my thought, my will, [and] my freedom,” the “greatest of these is freedom” parts company with the mature Rand, who would surely have said that the greatest of these is thought; after all, in her later years, she would explain: “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason.”
"Anthem’s" differences from Rand’s later positions may just be nonliteral simplifications for artistic effect, or they may reflect the greater influence of Nietzsche on Rand’s early work. Her full diagnosis and repudiation of Nietzsche’s version of individualism would come in her next novel, "The Fountainhead". But already in Anthem we see a firm rejection of the glorification of domination that represents at least one strand in Nietzsche’s thought, a strand that had found a degree of aesthetic affirmation in some of Rand’s earlier work such as We the Living and Night of January 16th. “I shall choose friends among men,” Equality 7-2521 tells us, “but neither slaves nor masters.”
Clearly, by this point at least, Rand was conceiving of self-interest in Aristotelian terms, as requiring respect for the rights of others.
One aspect of Anthem that seems jarring and distracting, given the book’s overall theme of independence, is the heroine’s attitude of submissiveness toward the hero. It would seem that for Rand, saying “I” does not mean the same thing for women as for men. Indeed, Rand can be found championing women’s independence and women’s submissiveness alternately throughout her career; this is an inconsistency she never seems to have satisfactorily resolved.
Despite the dissimilarities in style and complexity between the two works, Anthem points forward to Rand’s best-known work, "Atlas Shrugged".
The hero of "Atlas", John Galt, is also an inventor of something electrical that is unappreciated by a collectivist society, and his invention likewise doubles as a symbol of the power of the individual mind. Like "Anthem’s" protagonist, Galt is explicitly compared to Prometheus; and like "Anthem’s" protagonist, Galt sets out to undermine the ruling order by leading a covert exodus of individualists from it. Equality 7-2521’s promise to protect his citadel of individualism with a “barrier light as a cobweb” prefigures the “screen of light” that hides Galt’s Gulch from the outside world; and Equality 7-2521’s final vow — “I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others” — is a first draft of the vow that unites the Gulch’s inhabitants.
When Rand, in "Anthem", has Equality 7-2521 say that “this wire is a part of our body, as a vein torn from us, glowing with our blood,” so that there is no “line to divide this thread of metal” from “our hands which made it,” she is laying the groundwork for her later defense in Atlas of the producers’ right to own what they produce; Dagny Taggart in "Atlas" completes Equality 7-2521’s thought when she comes to the realization that engines and motors “are alive… because they are the physical shape of the action of a living power.”
Throughout "Atlas Shrugged", the specter of "Anthem’s" world is a perpetual threat; without “the power of thought and choice and purpose,” Dagny muses, the “motors would stop,” and “steel cylinders… would become stains of rust on the walls of the caves of shivering savages.” When Dagny feels “sudden, blinding hatred” against a weed she finds growing through a crack in the steps of an abandoned factory and uproots it “in rebellion against the weed’s impertinence, knowing of what enemy this was the scout,” or when the ordinarily mild-mannered Eddie Willers, at the end of Atlas, lunges with “murderous fury” toward the “small gray shape of a rabbit” sniffing at Eddie’s abandoned locomotive “as if he could defeat the advance of the enemy in the person of that tiny gray form,” the world of "Anthem"— the collapse of civilization, through the betrayal of the values on which it rests — is the advancing enemy that they seek to combat.
Even “Directive 10-289,” the regulation in "Atlas" that completes the conversion of the United States into a rigid authoritarian collective well on its way to becoming Anthem’s dystopia, can be converted to the format of the names in Anthem simply by shifting the hyphen one space to the left. Anthem is essentially the future that awaits the world of Atlas Shrugged if its protagonists fail in their struggle — and, Rand suggests, it is the future that awaits all of us if the sacred value of individuality is rejected or suppressed.
Freely download “Anthem”, by Ayn Rand here: