Anthem, by Ayn Rand, a book review
Ayn Rand’s classic novella, Anthem, published in Great Britain in 1938, is an epic tale told in a diary format from a distant point in a dystopian future that celebrates the individual against the collective. This story needs to be read today as America is on the brink of descending into the maelstrom of collectivism.
In the fall of 2008, Senator Barack Obama and the Democratic Party won a substantial victory over Sen. John McCain and the Republicans for the Presidency of the United States. There are many indicators that this changing of power brings more change than merely which political party is occupying the White House. Naturally, there have been many long standing differences between the two political parties in many policies and even in theories of governing. But this time the differences appear to be even more fundamental. Many conservatives fear Obama is a radical and a socialist/Marxist. These fears are not mere name-calling or conjecture; they are based upon his own words.
In this essay I want to do three things: 1) I want to give a faithful review and analysis of Anthem, 2) I want to apply some of the ideas presented by Rand in Anthem to our current economic/political situation, and 3) as a Christian, I want to see what points I have in common with the atheist Rand and her ideas of egoism as presented in Anthem.
Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in Tsarist Russia at St. Petersburg in 1905. Her father was a chemist and pharmaceutical entrepreneur who lost almost everything due to the 1917 Revolution. Rand graduated from the University of Petrograd in 1924 and left for America in 1926. She worked in Hollywood doing everything from waitressing tables, playing an extra in a movie, costume department and script reader. She married the actor Frank O’Connor in 1929 and sold her first screenplay, Red Pawn, in 1932. Her 1934 play, Night of January 16th, was produced on Broadway. Her novels include We the Living (1936), The Fountainhead (1943) which was a worldwide best seller as was Atlas Shrugged (1957).
Anthem was not published in America initially, because during the 1930’s Communism and the Soviet Union were respected in many segments of American society. (In recent times the NYTimes had to admit they ignored the Stalinist atrocities including the planned starvation of millions in the Ukraine.)
Anthem is written as the diary of Equality 7-2521. There are no names in this dystopia, other than slogans with numbers, for example: Union 5-3992, International 4-3992, Liberty 5-3000. Rand uses this formula to show that men have been reduced to being a number; something that many people complain about in our technological age. This shows how impersonal society has become and how much disregard there is for the individual.
The novel opens with an interesting religious twist, “It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil.” Rand was an atheist and despised religion and she correctly demonstrates that if true religion is absent, man will worship the State.The State demands total allegiance from its subjects, the State becomes god. This is not new to human society; the ancient pagan Caesars of Rome made themselves gods. Caligula even made his horse, Incitatus, a Consul and a god. One reason the communists in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, etc. are officially atheistic is to reduce the chances of anyone having any allegiance that rivals their allegiance to the State. Hence the religious language Rand uses. For Equality 7-2521 to write down his thoughts in private is a sin. We shall see that he is indeed a big sinner!
In our society today liberals approach their view of government with religious zeal. Government is assumed to be all knowing and all helpful, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibeneficent and omnipresent. If you disagree with liberal pet theories, like global warming, you are considered a heretic and are persecuted, ostracized and punished. Abortion is like a sacrament or rite of passage in the liberal/collectivist mindset of today. Some believe that the main reason that Governor Palin of Alaska was so despised by the liberals in 2008’s election is that she did not abort her 5th child who was diagnosed early with Downs Syndrome. See the following story”
Another place that Rand shows the religious nature of the Collectivist State is on p.27 “…we walk in a straight column to one of the City Halls, for the Social Meeting….Then visiting Leaders mount the pulpit and they read to us the speeches which were made in the City Council that day…Then we sing hymns, the Hymn of Brotherhood, and the Hymn of Equality, and the Hymn of the Collective Spirit.” I am reminded of a video I have seen of the Obama Youth, marching in and singing praises to their leader.
The media’s fawning over Pres. elect Obama is clearly over the top and into adulation, adoration and worship. When a liberal TV reporter/commentator, Keith Olberman, stated on air that he got a “tingly feeling going up his legs” when Obama was giving his acceptance speech at the DNC Convention, you know that it is a religious experience. In another recent TV interview the TV anchor Chris Matthews stated that he viewed it as his job to make sure that Pres. Barak Obama’s presidency is a success. Reporting the news goes out the window when the reporters worship their Candidate.
Still on the first page, Equality 7-2521 writes, “It is dark here. The flame of the candle stands still in the air. Nothing moves in this tunnel save our hand on the paper. We are alone here under the earth. It isa fearful word, alone. The laws say that none among men may be alone, ever at any time, for this is the great transgression and the root of all evil.” (p.17).
The symbolism of living in a dark age is overpowering. He is the lone point of light in his society and he is but a candle that a breath of wind could snuff out. How fragile is liberty! When all around support slavery, the voice of freedom can be as small as a candle.
In Bradbury’s classic, Fahrenheit 451, one of the themes was the loneliness that modern society produced. Surrounded by people yet lonely because everyone was wearing a false mask. Now with Rand, we see that the Collectivist State criminalizes people being alone and promotes group activities, even during the time of mating. It is a sin to be alone. Society, the State seeks to stamp out individuality from Socrates to Thoreau. Individualism is one of the values of Western Civilization and one strand of that comes from the Bible where God creates an individual, He saves individuals, not groups, he relates to us as individuals.
In Rand’s discussion of the friendship between International 4-8818 and Equality 7-2521we see that, again, the State forbids the preference of making friends, “…it is a transgression, the great Transgression of Preference, to love any among men better than the others, since we must love all men and all men are our friends.” At the end of the book, Prometheus is planning on returning to the city to bring his friend out to freedom.
I have a friend at work whose daughter is in the 3rd grade. She wanted to have a birthday party for her girl a few weeks ago, but in planning it discovered that the government school requires her to either invite all the kids in the class or none. She could not show preference to any of her daughter’s friends. Rands’ work is indeed eerily prescient.
In today’s politics of interest groups we see the Balkanization of Amerika in that we have, Black-Amerikans, Hispanic-Amerikans, Arab-Amerikans, Muslim-Amerikans, etc. Our current politics lumps us into separate groups and this has the effect of splitting us apart as a country and trading individual rights for collective group rights.
On p.19 Equality 7-2521 writes, “But we must never speak of the times before the Great Rebirth…They whisper many strange things, of towers which rose to the sky, in those Unmentionable Times, and of the wagons which moved without horses, and of the lights which burned without flame. But those times were evil.” History has been banned.
Eliminating the teaching of history, or drastically altering the historical record, is a very effective means of controlling the present. To separate people from their roots makes them easily malleable so that the Collective can mold them into whatever is needed. Forsaking history can be convenient when the state does not want its citizens/slaves to see that times used to be better, thus exposing their failures of today.
In Amerika today the public schools have dumbed down the history curriculum and there is a move towards more multiculturalism in social studies rather than American History or a history of Western Civilization. Even at the colleges and universities, it is possible now to get a BA/BS without taking any history, it is not required in a lot of schools. And, that history which is taught is taught from a leftists/marxist perspective.
Equality 7-2521 describes his education and how he was punished for being an excellent student. Eventually he is made a street sweeper when he finishes school, instead of being sent to the Home of Scholars. The Council of Vocations is not impressed with his merits, they fear his intelligence. Quality is punished. This too goes on in our school system in that every child’s self esteem is valued above achievement. The core curriculum is dumbed down and in contets everyone is declared a winner and given a blue ribbon. I have told young students of how we used to have arithmetic contests on the blackboard in the front of the class and the best student was left standing. They were shocked by that story. Today’s No Child Left Behind usually means that you bring down the standards and ignore the talented kids.
The Council of Vocations shows what the old Soviet state was like with Councils for everything. It shows that the State knows best and will assign vocations as it sees fit. There is no room for personal preference, or what Rand writes as the great Transgression of Preference. What the Free Market does is maximizes personal choice and preference. Statists detest that because frequently people choose what is not the best for themselve in th elong term. Today there are so many anti-smoking laws that it makes this non-smoker want to blaze up. There are laws coming into the system against certain kinds of foods that, when eaten in too great a quantity over the long haul, have bad health consequences. Funny how personal sexual preference or abortion preference is ok, but food and smoking are not! This is being extended into the automobile industry as well. People in America like big cars and trucks, but the tree-huggers are making the government force automakers to manufacture more cars that people do not want.
On p.31 we see the core of Collectivist Legal theory, “Since the Council does not know of this hole, there can be no low permitting to enter. And everything which is not permitted by law is forbidden.” This is exactly the mindset of legalists in religion or politics. This is, sadly, a common mis-interpretation of the US Constitution which was designed to enumerate the powers of the State, thus limiting the State. The objections of the anti-federalist to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was that people might consider the liberties in the Bill of Rights as being granted by the government instead of being acknowledged as being pre-existent. Today, the anit-federalist fears have been realized.
The State has turned evil into good and good into evil. On p.34 we read that International 4-8818 proclaims his friendship with and loyalty to Equality 7-2521 after they discover the tunnel. He says, “Rather shall we be evil you than good with all our brothers. May the Council have mercy upon both our hearts!” When the State becomes god, they determine what is good and evil, more often confusing the two than not.
In chapter II the theme is love for Liberty 5-3000, a golden haired beauty that Equality 7-2521 finds while sweeping the roads out by the fields. The attraction is mutual and unspoken. Rand is a master at using their looks and actions and minimal conversation to describe their love when conversation between the sexes and even between different Trades is forbidden. He names her his Golden One. Here is the first discussion of sex, p.41, “And we take no heed of the law which says that men may not think of women, save at the Time of Mating. This is the time each spring when all the men older than twenty and all the women older than eighteen are sent for one night to the City Palace of Mating. And each of the men have one of the women assigned to them by the Council of Eugenics. Children are born each winter, but women never see their children and children never know their parents. Twice have we been sent to the Palace of Mating, but it is an ugly and shameful matter…”
I can imagine the Council of Eugenics looking at Equality 7-2521 and reading his dossier, and mating him with a fat ugly woman who is not very bright at all. We can’t allow his strength, height and brains to spread now can we? Eugenics was an up and coming science when Rand was writing this book. It was being experimented with here in America and the Nazis would certainly use it in the later 1930’s-40’s. Interestingly, just this past summer in Putin’s Russia there was a youth festival put on by the state to promote sex and pregnancy, even among the unwed. Russia has the worst birth rate in Europe and has failed to replace its population for two generations now.
In one of the most moving passages, pp.45-47, Equality 7-2521 discusses happiness. “It is forbidden, not to be happy.” And yet there is no happiness in his brothers in his barracks where they stay. “The heads of our brothers are bowed. The eyes of our brothers are dull, and never do they look one another in the eyes. …And a word steals into our mind, as we look upon our brothers, and that word is fear.” This is the effect of slavery to the state. Men cease to be men, they are cowed, submissive, fearful; not happy. This is indeed a joyless existence and is the fate of all who submit to the Collective.
In ch.III Rand has her hero discover electricity and eventually a light bulb. She probably has this great discovery because of Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin being the epitome of the American inventors. To this day the light bulb is used as a sign of a creative idea. It symbolizes a turning back of the darkness, the end of the long night and the beginning of the Dawn of technology and science.
In ch. VII he takes his invention to the World Council of Scholars to show that he has created artificial light. They reject him and his light. He is condemned for working outside his assigned area of sweeping streets and the light is condemned because it will put the candle makers out of business. Innovation and creativity are thrown out to the bitter cold and dark. We still hear the newsmedia and unions crying about innovation in the workplace reducing jobs. It seems to be a group trait that we resist innovation when we are in a group.
Equality 7-2521, previously whipped and imprisoned for missing formation and coming back from his tunnel alone at night is now threatened with execution and his invention is to be destroyed. He flees to the uncharted forest where even the State is too timid to follow.
Chapter IX brings the Golden One to the forest where the two are able to consummate their love. This is a romantic chapter that deals with sex and romance in a respectful way. In this dystopia there is no room for romance. Rand here shows the ideal romance to be between two kindred souls, both are daring and both are set against the State. This is a theme in all of her novels.
Chapter X the couple discover the house that remains standing from the past with all the ancient books. The education of Equality 7-2521 begins, and in ch. XI we see the fruit of this education with the very first words, “I AM. I THINK. I WILL. My hands…My spirit…My sky…My forest…This earth of mine…” I cannot fail to notice the religious nature of this language that hearkens back to th ename of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3, “I AM” and of the creation story. Rand the atheist here deifies her man. This is the essence of her philosophy, Objectivism, man is his own god. Man is the measure of all things. P.97, “And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: I.”
As a Christian I am conflicted by Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Understanding that she was writing against Collectivism, Statism, the Soviet Union from where she escaped, she has a visceral hatred of tyranny. This book is vital for our day, and I do heartily recommend it, but as a Christian I must say her worship of man is misplaced. Man makes a pretty small god. She sees the abuses of religion that have always been with us.
It is her observations of the effect of the worship of the state that are on target. The state makes just as bad of a god as man.
In conclusion, this is a book for our time, for Statism is once again on the prowl looking for whom it may devour. We live in perilous times. We are a country at war, and experiencing the worst economic disaster since the the 1929 Crash and the resulting Great Depression. The hue and cry is for more State control of the economy, more power to the State. With the election of B Hussein Obama to the Presidency and the Demoncrat reign of Congress, with the fawning media and Hollywood elites, it looks like freedom is receding rapidly. America is now Amerika and freedom may take a long hiatus.
Live free or die.
The above link is the best analysis of Anthem available. Dr. Stephen Cox (Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego) is writing for the The Atlas Society.
Here is a very good article from Christianity Today about spirituality and Sci Fi: