Anthem is a novella written by the controversial novelist and popular philosopher Ayn Rand in 1937. Like Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World, it's a work of dystopian literature that depicts an oppressive society you'd never want to live in. In the society Rand portrays in Anthem, individuality has been completely erased right down to the first-person singular (the characters say "we" instead of "I").
Rand intended Anthem to be a scathing critique of collectivism, which can be defined as any philosophy that subordinates the individual to the well being of the community, or collective. It's no big surprise Rand hated collectivism so much – the real life version of it that she experienced scarred her for life. Rand was born in Russia in 1905, to a fairly well-off, intellectual Jewish family (her father was a chemist and pharmacist). At age twelve, she witnessed the Russian Revolution, in which the communists (most definitely "collectivists") took over the county and began to "expropriate" (forcefully take away) property from the well-off in the name of "the people" and "the proletariat" (the poor, working class). Rand's family lost almost everything to the government, including their pharmacy, and Rand herself was later almost expelled from the university for not being "proletarian" enough (that is, not enough like your average member of the working class).
As a result, Rand developed her own unique brand of philosophy called egoism, centered on the idea that an individual should act "selfishly" – that is, act mostly, or only, to promote her own happiness. The last pages of Anthem constitute an egoist tract. And if you're interested in more of where that came from, both egoism and collectivism are central to Rand's two later (and vastly longer) novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, as well as her many non-fiction works on philosophy.
Because of her distinctive ideas, particularly her commitment to radical egoism, Rand's fictional and philosophical works have always been controversial. Anthem is no exception. Although Rand got it published in Britain the year after she wrote it (1938), in the United States she couldn't find a publisher willing to take it. It had to wait until 1945 for its for public release in the U.S. in the form of a pamphlet issued by a small-scale conservative publishing house in Los Angeles. And it wasn't until 1961 that Anthem was actually released as a mass market paperback with a major press. On the bright side, however, the delay did give Rand an opportunity to edit the book. The edition that came out in 1961 (which is the edition you'll get today) is a revised version.
Imagine yourself in a future where individuality has been eliminated. Every human being exists only to serve the greater collective of mankind: the "great WE." You have no say over how you live, who you spend time with, what you study, or what job you get. You can't smile or laugh without reason. Every hour of the day is scheduled, managed, and policed by society. You're never allowed to be alone. And you're never, ever allowed to use the word "I," which means that you're always stuck using the royal "we."
Yes, this is the world you'll find yourself in if you read Anthem. Does it sound like a nightmare? It's meant to be. But the frightening thing is that, according to Ayn Rand, we're getting closer to that world every day.
Intrigued? Excited? Concerned? All of the above? Then check out Anthem, and find out why Ayn Rand remains one of the most controversial authors read today.
There's also a practical side to all of this, too. At some point in your life we can almost guarantee you're going to run into someone who calls himself or herself an "Objectivist." (If you haven't heard the word before, "Objectivism" is the name for Ayn Rand's philosophy). You might have already. You might be an Objectivist yourself, and might want to have more exposure to the philosophy.
Regardless of how you feel about Rand's philosophy, her books really are popular. So don't you want to see what all the fuss is about for yourself? If you do, then we recommend Anthem as a good place to start.
Annotated Anthem Online
Read the full text of the story, with some very helpful notes.
Objectivist Reference Center
A major resource for learning more about Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. Lots of links, articles, and info.
The Ayn Rand Institute
The website of the ARI, an organization devoted to promoting Objectivism. Lots of resources, including lectures, videos, essays, as well as an essay contest.
Facets of Ayn Rand
A collection of reminiscences from personal friends of Ayn Rand. See what the controversial author was actually like personally.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
A great resource for biographical information and info on Rand's ideas.
The "New Intellectual"
See a half-hour long interview from 1961, centering on Rand's idea of the role of the intellectual.
"The Objectivist Ethics"
Hear Ayn Rand lecture on her system of ethics.
"Philosophy: Who Needs It?"
Hear Ayn Rand lecture on her idea of philosophy and its importance.
The Ayn Rand Multimedia Library
If you liked the audio lectures above, there are a whole lot more available here.
A famous photo of Ayn Rand.
Rand at her typewriter
A photo of Ayn Rand at work.