Review of Anthem (1938/1946)


Ayn Rand (writer).

Read in 2022.

In an impoverished post-apocalypse, one man invents the cuboid light bulb and the singular pronoun.

It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth. It is my ears which hear, and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world. It is my mind which thinks, and the judgement of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth. It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect.

Ironically, Anthem itself is not an original work by an elevated individual. It is plagiarized from Zamyatin’s We (1924). Both are presented as personal journals. Both describe post-apocalyptic future societies where reusable codes replace proper nouns, where reproduction is a chore, where children are raised in the care of the state, where privacy is forbidden, where individuality is deprecated, where artifacts of the pre-apocalyptic world (specifically near a tunnel) and the love of a woman both enlighten the male protagonist, where oppression centers on an urban collectivist regime and where a forest outside that city is a place to escape. Pronouns serve a similar symbolic function in both works.

Both Zamyatin and Rand had lived in the Soviet Union. The main difference between We and Anthem can be understood through some remarks that the historian Timothy Snyder made about why the post-Soviet Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was so surprising to Western observers. Snyder claimed that Western governments were operating on a set of indefensible ideas, such as the idea that free markets would safeguard democracy, or the historical inevitability of progress on a broad scale, even if you didn’t work for progress and despite more particular ideas surviving in Russia. “The notion that ideas don’t matter”, Snyder said on The Ezra Klein Show (2022-03-15), “is an idea. It’s just a dumb, banal, inaccurate idea.”

Zamyatin and Rand both believed in ideas. He understood and juxtaposed the individual and the group. He realized that they are not opposites. In We, an individual tyrant could hide his power behind the idea of collectivism, as the Bolsheviks did in reality. Although Rand stole Zamyatin’s other premises, she included no such tyrant. With an even stronger impulse than the Baroness Orczy, Rand asserted instead that selfishness is good, altruism bad. This is a silly idea. Like those Western observers in Snyder’s analysis who could not believe what was really driving the Russian invasion, Rand could not believe what was really driving Russian communism, because she didn’t see the ideas. She essentially took the communist leaders at their word, saw that the consequences were pretty bad, and therefore caricatured collectives—and the common good—as inherently evil.

An interesting detail in the literary implementation of the caricature is that Rand, in her libertarian simplicity and personal egocentricity, veered slightly off the template of the hero’s journey. Rand’s Prometheus suffers like Jesus Christ and is of course—in Rand’s opinion—morally good. Like Gilgamesh, he returns as his final act, but Rand’s idea of individualism is so abnormally simple—indeed so dumb, banal and inaccurate—that Prometheus returns only to recruit his friends to his anti-community. He leaves his community forever. That works out, because he can easily kill more birds than he can eat, by throwing rocks. The latter detail is one of many implausible enough to make the whole thing readable. The kitsch value is so high, in fact, that I wonder whether Rand was trolling or camping it up. She was certainly strawmanning to a creepily dishonest degree. After the Spanish Civil War, there was plenty of anti-communist sentiment in the UK, where this novella was first published, but wholesale dehumanization of collectivism through science fiction was not yet popular. That would came later, in the 1940s and ’50s.

References here: The Hunger Games (2012).

text fiction