Rediscovery of the self amid post-apocalyptic primitivism: Ayn Rand’s dystopian Anthem, the 1987 Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ history, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing an Appreciation series to make clear why each winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom works.
Here’s an Appreciation of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, a 1987 Prometheus Hall of Fame inductee for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg

For those who’ve never read Ayn Rand, Anthem is a good place to start.

Imaginative and inspirational with a tone of reverence and discovery, Anthem ranks as one of the great dystopian works of 20th century literature, but also as the shortest and most poetic.

Its powerful and poignant theme: the rediscovery of the self. In Rand’s mythic and post-apocalyptic future of a primitive and very tribal society, the rediscovery of the self is tantamount to a revolutionary act amid the collectivism of forced servitude, ignorance, fear, stifling conformity and primitivism.

With this spare but resonant work, Rand metaphorically drew some of her first philosophical and psychological links between the healthy emerging self-awareness of a freed mind and the constellation of civilization-nurturing values of reason, science, individualism, integrity, self-reliance and courage in building and sustaining one’s life and civilization itself.

I AND WE

As a novel, Anthem seems more like a novella-length poem. Artistically styled as a confessional, the story in its spirit evokes a prayer of thanksgiving by a human being grateful to discover their own soul, their own new-found self and individuated personhood.

Rand’s innovative use of a maverick point of view for Anthem was intentional and sets the stylized personal and yet formal and almost religious tone: Rather than using “I” in her first-person narrative, she tells the first-person narrative using the words “We” and “Our.” Here is how the novel begins:

“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. It is as if we were speaking alone to no ears but our own. And we know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone. We have broken the laws. The laws say that men may not write unless the Council of Vocations bid them so. May we be forgiven!”

The central character, Equality 7-2521, is intelligent, curious and rebellious – enough to invent (i.e. re-invent) the electric light bulb in a world that only recently approved the new technology, after much conservative suspicion and delay, of candles.

But Equality 7-2521 is also naïve enough, about the ways of tyranny, to innocently bring his invention to the rulers with hopes that they will approve the invention and use it to improve the lot of his fellow citizens. Of course, that’s not what happens.

Set in a timeless present, Anthem can be interpreted as a prophetic warning about a distant future, but also can be understood as a metaphoric parable about our distant past – before the rise of the modern industrial-scientific and (classical) liberal order that advanced our species tremendously over recent centuries, wiping out tyranny, war, slavery, grinding poverty, endemic disease and other ancient ills.

YOU ARE IMPORTANT

Why has Anthem – and Rand’s fiction and philosophy overall – resonated so deeply with so many millions of people for so many decades? Perhaps because the theme she explores is both philosophical and intensely personal as an affirmation of the individual.

Emotionally, her theme couldn’t be more basic or direct: You are important. Your life is important, precious and irreplaceable. You, as an individual, can make a difference – and should strive to do so by being the best person that you can be.

Written after the early dystopian works by Yevgeny Zamyatin (We, written in 1921, published in 1924 and inducted into our Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1994) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, published in 1932), Anthem establishes its own tone, style and distinctive substance within that distinctly 20th-century subgenre of dystopia and its cautionary tales.

Anthem also foreshadowed in some ways several other classic dystopian bestsellers by Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953 and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1948 and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984, and Animal Farm, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.)

Set during an unidentified Dark Age, Anthem also was written during a relatively dark era. The 1930s not only saw the grinding hopelessness of the Great Depression but also the intellectual rise of extreme collectivism and authoritarianism of the Left and the Right, with both extremes widely supported and hailed as the inevitable post-liberal future by the intelligentsia.

Ayn Rand in the 1940s (Creative Commons license)

One might speculate that the psychological struggle of the novel’s central character seems informed and indirectly shaped by Rand’s first-hand experience with indoctrination under Soviet communism, a vicious system of dictatorship that Rand escaped in the 1920s to make her career in America.

TIMELY FOR TODAY

Anthem also can be appreciated as a timely cautionary tale, an implicit commentary on where much of the world was going in the 1930s (indiscriminately toward all forms of statism, collectivism and unchecked government control, with the then-seemingly-inevitable spread of socialism, Leninist-Stalinist communism, Hitler’s national socialism and Mussolini’s Italian brand of socialism dubbed fascism).

Considering the statist extremes and horrors in the 21stcentury of North Korea’s communism and the now-failed state of Venezuela under socialism, Rand’s implicit commentary sadly doesn’t feel dated.

Although Atlas Shrugged is often referenced and quoted as Rand’s most prophetic novel, Anthem offers prophetic insights as well.

How timely is Anthem in 2020?

More than one might think, at first – that is, if one can think beyond the range of the moment, and seriously consider the long-term consequences of a variety of dangerous trends, including a resurgence of statism, collectivism, mob rule, Orwellian groupthink, ignorance, fear, power-lust, deception, self-delusion, declining educational standards and authoritarianism on the Left and Right.

An essay by Caroline Brasiers (published July 27, 2020) in The Foundation for Economic Education’s online website (fee.org), intelligently draws the parallels. Here’s how her article begins:

“Recent legislators, activists, and education reformers have promised to lead us into a new world of equity. No longer will some groups have a different lifestyle from others. No longer will some groups have a different education from others. There will be reform or else, Hawk Newsome warns, “we will burn down this system and replace it.”

“For a preview of these glories, we have only to open Ayn Rand’s Anthem. In this dystopian novella, collectivists achieve their ideal by burning cities and books, then implementing central planning. Now everyone is equal: equally poor, equally housed, equally limited in what they can say and do and think…

…”For the collective, the goal is control of outcomes, not freedom or human flourishing. And to maintain that control, they make sure that no one can see the truth, much less say it. In the Home of the Street Sweepers at night, the men undress silently in the dim candlelight: “For all must agree with all, and they cannot know if their thoughts are thoughts of all, and so they fear to speak.”

…”Over the last few months, we have come closer to Rand’s dystopia of fear, silencing, and distorted “equity.” In a recent survey at the University of North Carolina, students across the political spectrum reported that they (like the Street Sweepers) engaged in self-censorship in classrooms, remaining silent even when their opinions related to topics in class. They are afraid. They are not alone. Online mobs are destroying careers and lives, as John Stossel observes in “Cancel Culture is Out of Control.” He urges those of us who can speak to do so.

Yet embracing free speech and other rights becomes increasingly difficult as governments push to eliminate them.’

“…If, as Jen Maffessanti observes, dystopian fiction helps us understand the dangers we face, then none is more relevant to this moment than Rand’s novella. What Anthem clarifies is the real significance of collectivist ideals and language, which undermine not only our rights but our ability to articulate them.”

A final tip for parents and families: At only 59 to 105 pages (based on different printed editions over the decades), Anthem is an excellent book to give to an older child or young teenager, especially those who have demonstrated some affinity for literature, poetry, fantasy or science fiction.

READING RAND’S NOVELS

Of the four novels that Rand wrote during her life, Anthem was the second – and by far, her shortest. For broader perspective on Anthem and Rand’s overall work as a novelist, a brief overview of her other works might be relevant:

Published in 1938 in England in 1938 and re-edited in 1946 for publication in the United States in 1946, Anthem was Rand’s second novel following We the Living (1936, 528 pages).

Although not eligible for a Prometheus Award because it’s historical fiction but not sf/fantasy, We the Living offers a heartfelt romantic tragedy. Beyond that, the novel ranks among the best pro-liberty and anti-authoritarian works of fiction because of its semi-autobiographical (but fictional) realism about post-revolutionary Soviet Russia from 1922 to 1925 and its devastating expose of the evils of communism.  (I might add that, in several ways, Rand’s debut novel can be compared in artistry and impact to Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Both authors are best known for another, more famous and more epic novel, but if they hadn’t written those magnum opuses, these novels would be far more widely recognized as first-rate romantic and historical dramas.)

Rand’s third novel, and the one that finally catapulted her to bestseller status and international renown, was The Fountainhead (1943, 720 pages).

Although also not eligible for a Prometheus award because it’s not sf/fantasy, this enduring bestseller offers a stirring affirmation of Promethean individualism that centers on the uphill struggle of a modern architect of talent and integrity.

Rand’s fourth and final novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957, 1088 pages), is widely recognized as her magnum opus in its epic saga about a civilization-wide crisis that illuminates the role of the free mind in creating and sustaining a fully human society.

Perhaps the best order to introduce yourself or others to Rand’s novels, in my opinion, is to read Anthem first, followed by either We the Living (which some skip) or The Fountainhead (a must-read) but always culminating with Atlas Shrugged.

 

Note: In addition to Anthem, inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 1987, the Libertarian Futurist Society recognized Rand for her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, one of the first two works co-inducted into the Hall of Fame when it was established in 1983.

Besides her four novels, three plays, screenplays and short fiction, Rand (1905-1982) wrote many non-fiction essays and columns later published in more than half a dozen non-fiction books.

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution are probably of greatest interest to libertarians, classical liberals (for Rand was more truly a liberal than an “arch-conservative”) and other freedom-lovers.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, the 1988 winner of the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

* Other Prometheus winners:   For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society(LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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