by Robert Mack
The following essay was a finalist in the 2015 Ayn Rand Institute Anthem Essay Contest.
In the founding of the Soviet Union, men were moved by the cry of collectivism—the subjugation of the individual to the collective, the community, the tribe - and the creation of a state that would “encourage” that doctrine. Touted by leading intellectuals as the greatest utopian premise ever conceived, the collectivist ideology and its movement ultimately led to the slaughter of millions. All this was led to by the idea that man cannot take care of himself and must depend on the community. This idea is propagated by a select group of gun-holders proceeding to create a totalitarian state that results in mass inequality before the law. That’s the concrete. More abstractly, what about everyone simply belonging in a collective? Take away the obvious drawbacks with statist systems, and some may argue that is surely still the ideal. In Anthem, Ayn Rand reveals the literal consequences of the abstract collectivistic ideology—one in which men accept it under the illusion of bringing a higher good to mankind, even if it means the acceptance of suffering as the norm. In her novella, Equality 7-2521 lives in such a society as an outcast, yearning to pursue happiness, and ultimately breaks free of the bonds that hold him there. In the process, Rand displays how the altruist and collectivist doctrine robs man of the self-esteem needed to think for one’s self and pursue their own happiness – and ultimately how it turns men into mindless robots squandering in a love-less society.
In Anthem, men in Equality’s world give up the pursuit of happiness in the name of the altruist/collectivist doctrine, despite its consequences. This philosophy is unearthed in the common chant of men in Equality’s world: “We are nothing. Mankind is all. By the grace of our brothers are we allowed our lives. We exist through, by and for our brothers who are the State” (21). The “We” refers to individual entities universally proclaimed as subservient to the group. According to this chant, it is by the collective’s grace that a man can exist. If men owe their existence to the group, then they are its property and as such must not break away. To think or to behave differently is to rob the group of an achievement that is rightfully theirs. The highest expression of this rule of the collective comes in the form of the state—the moral authority earned from the ability to make concrete disobedience to the altruist/collectivist doctrine punishable as an action of thievery.
The constant implementation of this philosophy in Equality’s world brings a depressed population to cower in low self-esteem. As Rand describes, “The heads of our brothers are bowed. The eyes of our brothers are dull…the shoulders of our brothers are hunched, and their muscles are drawn , as if their bodies were shrinking and wished to be kept out of sight. And a word steals into our mind as we look upon our brothers, and that word is fear” (46). These men’s physiques are contorted in ways that suggest a lifestyle lacking in laughter, joy and achievement. Their bowed heads and “hunched” shoulders suggest a fixation with the ground, as if too ashamed to rise up and soar to the fullest extent of their ability, too ashamed to admit they are not themselves a part of the ground. It is as if they are ashamed to admit that even their bodies are somehow separate human beings. Their eyes “are dull” with fatigue and disinterest in the reality that forms their prison; their sense of life has been zapped with nothing left to light the world for them. Rand shows how holding the collective as the standard of value breeds in men an unhappy, diminished society. If the collective is what an entire life’s effort is targeted towards, natural deep-seeded disappointment will follow. There is no actual “society” as a valuing entity, only the individuals that make it up. If the individual’s interest is not attended to, the picture of society will be bleak. As a result of the collectivist chants telling how individual lives are secondary, men of Equality’s society are devoid of self-esteem – and so don’t even bother to rebel.
Through the lens of Equality, the rational contemplation that individualism requires is over-run by this altruist/collectivist doctrine. In his youth, Equality found that he had a curse - he was better than others. “This is a great sin to be born with a head that is too quick. It is not good to be different than our brothers, but it is evil to be superior to them” (21). Such difference is discouraged as a corollary of the society’s condemnation of superiority. Since all men live for their brothers, the surpassing of one particular man in any way is an act of thievery. Equality says that he is more intelligent than his brothers, which is particularly dangerous. With the mind as the entity that says “I am I,” it is possibly man’s most individualistic attribute because one such mind cannot be replicated. On his vying for knowledge, Equality says, “We think that they are mysteries in the sky and under the water and in the plants which grow. But the Council of Scholars has said that there are no mysteries and the Council of Scholars knows all things” (23). Equality wants to know the nature of things and to determine reality, but "authorities" in his society notably discourage inquiry by on such subjects. If one questions current knowledge about science, one has the capacity to question the ideas of government, which would threaten the entire totalitarian system. But even more fundamentally, the mere act of thinking for yourself clashes with the core of collectivism. Authorities therefore indoctrinate men with collectivist ideas through tribal chants, and strongly discourage any further thinking about the world.
Authorities in Equality’s world indoctrinate men with ideas that discourage self-esteem, and in the process discourage active thinking among men. From the dirty streets of Soviet Russia to the terrifying prison that was East Berlin, humanity has a long and bloodied history of sacrificing the individual to the collective. In Anthem, man was taught that having self-esteem was evil and that one’s life should be rightly sacrificed to the collective. Within the last few hundred years, select societies have made significant strides in sanctifying the sovereignty of the individual. These strides are more important than we sometimes give them credit for, and we should not forget why.