In the United States, we often celebrate ideals such as equality and democracy. We warn ourselves against greed and selfishness, and we commonly strive to serve the “common good.” However, is there a point when collectivism can violate human rights? Why do some people worship either individualism or collectivism?
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, many stories have explored these questions. Although stories such as 1984 and The Animal Farm often get a lot of credit, there is another classic that people should consider: a novella written by Ayn Rand titled Anthem. As a woman who lived in Russia during the rise of the Soviety Union, Rand wrote Anthem as a warning against totalitarianism and extreme collectivism.
The story of Anthem takes place in the future, in a dystopian community called the City. The City has found itself in another Dark Age: technology and innovation have declined so that the most “advanced” invention in the City is the candle. The City government has erased most records of the “Unmentionable Times” (or what the reader may call “the present”) and forbids its citizens from speaking about the Unmentionable Times. To promote fair treatment among all citizens, the government prohibits citizens from choosing individual friends or getting married. Most importantly, nobody in the City is allowed to use the word “I.” In a City that enforces equality among citizens, there is no such thing as self-identity. Everyone uses the word “we” to describe himself.
However, it is not easy for Equality 7-2521 to fit into the community. As a young man with a sharp mind and tall stature, Equality 7-2521 has always been distinct from other citizens. One day, the young man discovers a dark, underground tunnel and decides to claim it as his own. After retreating from work time and time again, Equality 7-2521 realizes that he enjoys solitude. Eventually, after spending many hours alone in the tunnel, the young man re-creates the light bulb: an invention that can potentially launch the City out of its Dark Age. The young man also falls in love with the Golden One, a peasant girl who also seems discontent with life in the City. With every new discovery, Equality-27521 understands more about his own identity and his self-worth. However, when the City begins to suspect Equality’s disloyalty to the community, the young man must choose either to continue defying the City’s rules or to conform to the City once and for all.
Things to Consider
According to philosophy professor Jack Wheeler, Rand believed that there were “no appeals to God or a cosmic supernatural power” when understanding the ethics of the universe (84). Therefore, Rand’s novella Anthem does not portray Christianity or religion as essential to society. However, the story does contain some wisdom about self-worth and the fallibility of the government. The story challenges the conflation of “sin” with defiance against the City. It also raises questions about whether individualism or collectivism can be “worshipped.”
The word “anthem” describes a song celebrating a communal or national identity. However, in the story Anthem, Rand reveals a hauntingly ironic warning to readers: when a man celebrates his country, he risks forgetting his own identity. The man who celebrates his country without restraint makes his country like a god, and in return, the country makes the man less than human. Rand reminds her readers that every human has personal dignity and self-identity. No government or community can deny or suppress these things forever.
You can read Rand’s novella Anthem at the Regent Library or purchase a copy of the book here. Jack Wheeler’s quote comes from the book chapter “Rand and Aristotle: A Comparison of Objectivist and Aristotelian Ethics” (written by Jack Wheeler) in the book The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand (edited by Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen). You can read the book at the Regent Library or purchase a copy of the book here.