Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Review & Discussion: Collectivism and 'Anthem' by Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand has been one of my favourite authors since I read The Fountainhead during my first year at university. Rand's philosophy ever so slightly blew my mind away and I have been on a mission to read her other novels since then. This week it was Anthem's turn! Anthem is one of the books on my 100 Classics list, for Our Classics Club!
Anthem has long been hailed as one of Ayn Rand's classic novels, and a clear predecessor to her later masterpieces, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged
In Anthem, Rand examines a frightening future in which individuals have no name, no independence, and no values. Equality 7-2521 lives in the dark ages of the future where all decisions are made by committee, all people live in collectives, and all traces of individualism have been wiped out. Despite such a restrictive environment, the spark of individual thought and freedom still burns in him - a passion which he has been taught to call sinful.
In a purely egalitarian world, Equality 7-2521 dares to stand apart from the herd- to think and choose for himself, to discover electricity, and to love the woman of his choice. Now he has been marked for death for committing the ultimate sin.
Part of this novel's genius is Rand's dedication to its ideas in her writing. A novel which is so submerged in a philosophy has to portray that very philosophy on every level and in her narration Rand made sure to emphasize the collective nature of Equality 7-2521's society. He refers to himself and his as 'we' and 'our' and to others as 'them' and 'their'. It is an almost off-putting experience since the reader finds himself desperately searching for the narrator's actual identity. Who is he as an independent person, what makes him special? As such, the reader becomes part of Equality 7-2521's experience and growth. Rand draws you in and you can't help but confront yourself with some of her main ideas when reading any of her novels.

The reason why I love reading Ayn Rand's books so much is because they make me question my own thoughts about society and about the self. On the one hand I believe that we should all work together, that the (socially) stronger should help the (socially) weaker etc. On the other hand I am always tempted to agree with Rand that a lot of the world's evil lies in collectivism, the drowning of the self in the larger community. To be alone, in Anthem, is morally wrong and as a consequence the people gladly accept the councils' rules. If the novel seems far-fetched, only think of all the times you have been told not to sit around at home alone but to go out with your friends, to be social, to join in with activities. The journey from the 'we' to the 'I' in Anthem is beautiful and towards the end the prose almost becomes a soaring song of praise towards the ego which the reader cannot help but be swept up in.

There is something beautiful and primal in Equality 7-2521's discovery of self. In many ways he and Liberty 5-3000, the woman he falls in love with, are like a new Adam and Eve who are introduced to themselves after being expelled from Eden. This paradise, created by the councils, is one of no free will and of preordained destinies. In some ways, then, Rand is suggesting that self-awareness can be a damnation as well. As Liberty 5-3000 says:
'"We wish to be damned with you, rather than blessed with our brothers."'
This is something Rand also explores in The Fountainhead, the burden of knowing yourself. In that novel, Howard Roark knows his passion and knows what he wants to do with his life. His struggle to stick with his own dreams and convictions is almost painful at times and recognizable to anyone who has had to fight for something they desperately wanted. To what extent does conforming to the rule benefit you and at which point does it become damaging to you as an independent person?

Rand left Communist Russia in 1926 and went to the United States, where she expected to find in action those laws which had been laid down by the Founding Fathers: that each man has a right to live for himself and has a right to pursue his own happiness. Instead, she found herself surrounded by slogans about collectivism which reminded her of her previous home. I think Rand has been frequently misunderstood in her criticism of socialism and her seeming favouring of capitalism. The way our capitalist societies work now, people disappear into a grey mass of workers who are sent to their nondescript offices each day, hoping to rise a level higher within society. There is no sense of individualism and freedom in capitalism except for those who are rich enough to afford it. If you are poor, you will have to follow the rules and work hard in the hope to one day be the one making the rules, that is how it works unfortunately. I think the socialism that Rand criticized was the one that didn't do anything against these differences and systems.

A question I want to put to you is: do you think selfishness is wrong? And what do you consider as selfishness? Often I see people who consider their own actions as selfless and as self-sacrificing, when really their actions are triggered by a hope for positive outcomes for themselves. I am not saying this is wrong, but how often do you help a friend out in the knowledge that they'll consequently help you out at some point as well? I believe that if people were to acknowledge that a lot of the things they do are for their own benefit, there would be an increase in the kindness people bestow on each other. If I can pursue my own goals and my own dreams I am bound to be a kinder and more passionate person, which would doubtlessly affect the people around me in a positive way.

Although this is largely a discussion, I'm still going to rate this novella and give it:

5 Universes!

So, what do you think about Anthem? It is only a short novella and yet it gives plenty of food for thought! Should people maybe allow themselves to be a little bit more selfish rather than always putting other people's wishes before their own? I would recommend this novella to everyone since everyone should be made to face themselves every once in a while!


  1. Great post. Rand’s philosophy is usually a little too extreme for me, but I love the stories she tells to illustrate that philosophy. They’re very thought-provoking. I think Atlas Shrugged is the longest book I’ve ever read. Out of all her books, Anthem is my favorite.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. She definitely is quite extreme but I think she has to be in order to get people to think about her ideas! I still haven't read Atlas Shrugged but that is the next one on the list! Thanks for commenting :)
      Juli @ Universe in Words

  2. I've been reading your blog a little after finding a post from a couple of years ago, and just stumbled across this. Interesting comments and questions!

    I wonder, though, if it is really right to ask 'Should people maybe allow themselves to be a little bit more selfish rather than always putting other people's wishes before their own'?

    I would say - and I suspect Rand would say also - that to put one's interest first is both inevitable and what is best for everyone else. Firstly, if everybody was entirely self-sacrificing, there would not really be anybody to sacrifice for, because nobody would ever desire anything from anybody else, other than that they would help someone else, who in turn would not want to be helped but in helping others for the same reason. Secondly, as we know not to expect everyone to perfectly cooperate, we may as well adopt a political system that functions with individuals of diverse interests and ends in mind, because that will be able to extract the most good from the realities of self-interest.

    So, essentially, I'm not so sure that self-interest and helping others are as mutually exclusive as that quotation suggests. It is an interesting question, though - and an interesting book!

    1. Thank you so much for this interesting comment! You have put some of my own thoughts in better words than I did myself! I definitely agree that pursuing your own interests and passions doesn't make it impossible to help others. In fact, I think it might actually make it more likely that you'd want to help others. I wanted to pose the question to see how people thought about the issue and I'm glad to see it worked!
      Thanks for this comment and for taking the time!

  3. Well, I've heard of Ayn Rand before, but I definitely was one of the people who misunderstood her as someone standing for ultra-capitalism, which per your post doesn't seem quite so.

    As you said "The way our capitalist societies work now, people disappear into a grey mass of workers who are sent to their nondescript offices each day, hoping to rise a level higher within society. There is no sense of individualism and freedom in capitalism except for those who are rich enough to afford it."

    The problem I have with the idea of 'free capitalism' and letting people pursue their individuality without concerning themselves with others or 'the greater good' is exactly that, that only those who are rich enough can do that, be who they want to be and pursue their dreams, while the rest of us are limited by our resources and social environment we come from.

    I think society needs to find a balance, and that would be a delicate one, between individualism and caring for other people. I like the saying that one person's freedom ends where the other person's begins. I think it is okay to follow one's dreams and shape your own self as you want, but not at the expense of limiting other people to do the same. Unfortunately that's what happens in the capitalist system we have now, people who get rich not just enough but beyond enough to be and do whatever they want, take that away from other people who can't earn the same no matter how hard they work.

    Oops, I got carried away, sorry.

    As for selfishness, I don't think doing good things for 'selfish' reasons is a bad thing. I've often heard people saying that ultimately everything we do is to an extent selfish and I've been thinking on it a lot and found that I am okay with that. After all, if you help someone to make yourself feel good, for example, the person you helped still benefited from it, so it was still an act of goodness.

    Anyway, this was such a thought-provoking post. And I think I'll add some of Rand's work on my to-read list.

    1. I completely agree that a balance needs to be found. Although I'd love the idea of everyone doing whatever they want, that is no way to run a civilised society! But then the idea that others could dictate that someone else does is also wrong. It's exactly these kinds of dilemmas that I love Ayn Rand for. She makes me question what I think.

      And I agree on the selfish/selfless balance. As long as your aim is that someone else profits, it doesn't really matter if you also profit from it in a way. I'm really glad you enjoyed the post and definitely give Rand a try! :)

  4. Capitalism means the absence of government interference in the economy. This hasn't been the case for over one hundred years. Wake up.

    1. I'm sorry but I don't agree. Capitalism means a free market economy, which requires government to indeed provide the rules to keep the economy free. On the other hand, there has been less and less government interference in the last few decades and the economic market spun out of control, ending with a massive crash in 2009 at which point the governments could do nothing but jump at the banks' beck and call. Nothing has changed since then.