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Anthem | Study Guide

Ayn Rand

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Anthem | Context


Soviet-Era Totalitarianism

Totalitarianism is a term that describes a state in which the government exercises total authority over a society. Collectivism is a term that describes group or government control over economic production and distribution. Rand modeled her collectivist totalitarian regime in Anthem after the Soviet Union under which she came of age. Rand was only 12 in October 1917 when communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks (offshoot of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party) overthrew the ineffective provisional Russian government established during World War I (1914–18) in 1917. The next few years of civil war in Russia were disastrous for Rand's family—the family lost its home, and her father lost his business. Rand came to hate the Marxist ideas at the core of this Bolshevik Revolution. Marxism is a social, political, and economic philosophy developed by German philosopher Karl Marx that advocates against social classes and in favor of the collective ownership of the means of production. Communism and socialism are based on the ideas of Marx. Communism, as Marx defined it, refers to the public ownership of the means of production. Socialism is a transitional period between capitalism (where the means of production are privately owned) and communism, where goods and wages are distributed based on work completed. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed in 1922 and imposed its collectivist economic system across its confederation of socialist republics, Rand was outraged. In fact, the philosophy of Objectivism, or rational individualism, she later developed has been characterized by some as "inverted Marxism."

Soviet-era totalitarianism was successful and long-lived, lasting over 60 years until the fall of communism in 1989, because as an ideology of class struggle Marxism-Leninism appealed to the economically disadvantaged masses. As the official ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Marxism-Leninism was the guiding principle upon which government policies were based. Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union was characterized by a centrally planned economy and political system. In theory the ownership and control of production under the Soviet brand of Marxism-Leninism lie in the hands of the workers themselves. In practice the ruling dictatorship maintained complete control under the guise of safeguarding the process. Rand found such corruption intolerable and moved to the capitalist United States in 1926 to pursue her ideals of individualism and self-determination.

Rand's Philosophy of Objectivism

Rand's brand of radical individualism is known as Objectivism. Although this philosophy was still in its beginning stages when Rand wrote Anthem, Equality 7-2521 could be considered a prototype of the protagonist John Galt in Atlas Shrugged (1957), the novel Rand considered her most complete expression of Objectivism. Both heroes are misunderstood by their societies, both possess highly scientific minds and develop new sources of energy, and both seek to save their fellows from the yoke of oppressive collectivism.

In his ode to the individual in Chapter 11 of Anthem, Equality 7-2521 voices Rand's belief that happiness is its own goal. Happiness as the goal of an individual's life is the basis of Objectivism. One can achieve happiness only when following the moral code Objectivism implies. In her later work she supports the ideas presented in Anthem with metaphysics and epistemology to drive her ethics and politics.

Metaphysics concerns the nature of reality, and Rand believed in an objective reality separated from any subjective perception. Epistemology is the study of how one obtains knowledge, and Rand claims humans perceive reality using reason to evaluate information received from the senses. People's reason should lead them to act in ways that most benefit them. Therefore Rand's ethics of rational self-interest must take precedence over any collective objective undertaken for the common good. In fact, putting the collective "we" before the individual "I" is something Rand considered immoral. As she says via Equality 7-2521 in Anthem, if one puts we first, then "it becomes a monster, the root of all the evils on earth." Rand promotes capitalism as the political and economic system most closely aligned with the principles of rational self-interest and therefore the only moral choice.


Dystopian Literature

Dystopian works present a futuristic world in which leaders maintain a peaceful society by means of oppressive control. Certain aspects of the world are exaggerated as a form of criticism of a real-life issue. In her foreword to Anthem, Rand calls out those who would make policies based on the "common good." Indeed, Rand was a vocal opponent of collectivism, and she used Anthem to depict what she saw as its worst-case scenario: a society so backward and inept that its greatest achievement is the candle.

Anthem is characteristic of dystopian novels in the following ways:

  • Independent thought is prohibited to the point that the word "I" is deleted from the vernacular and replaced with the collective we. Citizens are never allowed to be alone or express preferences.
  • As a unifying concept, the candle is worshipped as a breakthrough accomplished by a collective of scholars working together. The scholars who invented the candle are depicted in a grand painting in the Home of the Scholars.
  • Citizens have an ingrained fear of anything outside the borders of their society. The Uncharted Forest is said to be full of "beasts." Equality 7-2521 expects he will die upon setting foot in it.
  • Uniformity is the rule. Everyone wears white, sleeps in dorms, goes to their assigned jobs and attends a mandatory "social recreation" session every evening.
  • The society is dehumanizing. All freedom of individual choice is taken away. Jobs are selected on the basis of the common good rather than individual aptitude. People are not allowed to have romantic partners, and all children are created in mandatory mating sessions.
  • The protagonist, Equality 7-2521, intuits there is something wrong with his society. He feels stifled by it and questions the leadership and philosophy behind it, especially when he is able to create electricity by himself without any input from a collective. Once enlightened, he makes it his mission to expose the evil of the collective.

Epistolary Works

In an epistolary work an author tells a story using documents such as letters, articles, or diary entries. In Anthem Rand relates protagonist Equality 7-2521's story via his journal. The literary conceit is that he writes in his journal to process his thoughts on his oppressive collectivist society and his place within it and outside it. Anthem is the monologic type of epistolary novella, meaning it includes the diary entries of only one individual. Dialogic (letters between two characters) and polylogic (letters between three or more characters) use the interplay between differing points of view to produce plot.

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