Dear Miss Rand:
The purpose of this letter is to convert you to free market anarchism. As far as I can determine, no one has ever pointed out to you in detail the errors in your political philosophy. That is my intention here. I attempted this task once before, in my essay “The Contradiction in Objectivism,” in the March 1968 issue of the Rampart Journal, but I now think that my argument was ineffective and weak, not emphasizing the essentials of the matter. I will remedy that here.
Why am I making such an attempt to convert you to a point of view which you have, repeatedly, publicly condemned as a floating abstraction? Because you are wrong. I suggest that your political philosophy cannot be maintained without contradiction, that, in fact, you are advocating the maintenance of an institution—the state —which is a moral evil. To a person of self esteem, these are reasons enough.
There is a battle shaping up in the world—a battle between the forces of archy—of statism, of political rule and authority—and its only alternative—anarchy, the absence of political rule. This battle is the necessary and logical consequence of the battle between individualism and collectivism, between liberty and the state, between freedom and slavery. As in ethics there are only two sides to any question—the good and the evil—so too are there only two logical sides to the political question of the state: either you are for it, or you are against it. Any attempt at a middle ground is doomed to failure, and the adherents of any middle course are doomed likewise to failure and frustration—or the blackness of psychological destruction, should they blank out and refuse to identify the causes of such failure, or the nature of reality as it is.
There are, by your framework, three alternatives in political organization: statism, which is a governmental system wherein the government initiates force to attain its ends; limited government, which holds a monopoly on retaliation but does not initiate the use or threat of physical force; and anarchy, a society wherein there is no government, government being defined by you as “an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area.” You support a limited government, one which does not initiate the use or threat of physical force against others.
It is my contention that limited government is a floating abstraction which has never been concretized by anyone; that a limited government must either initiate force or cease being a government; that the very concept of limited government is an unsuccessful attempt to integrate two mutually contradictory elements: statism and voluntarism. Hence, if this can be shown, epistemological clarity and moral consistency demands the rejection of the institution of government totally, resulting in free market anarchism, or a purely voluntary society.
Why is a limited government a floating abstraction? Because it must either initiate force or stop being a government. Let me present a brief proof of this.
Although I do not agree with your definition of government and think that it is epistemologically mistaken (i.e., you are not identifying its fundamental, and hence essential, characteristics), I shall accept it for the purpose of this critique. One of the major characteristics of your conception of government is that it holds a monopoly on the use of retaliatory force in a given geographical area. Now, there are only two possible kinds of monopolies: a coercive monopoly, which initiates force to keep its monopoly, or a non-coercive monopoly, which is always open to competition. In an Objectivist society, the government is not open to competition, and hence is a coercive monopoly.
The quickest way of showing why it must either initiate force or cease being a government is the following. Suppose that I were distraught with the service of a government in an Objectivist society. Suppose that I judged, being as rational as I possibly could, that I could secure the protection of my contracts and the retrieval of stolen goods at a cheaper price and with more efficiency. Suppose I either decide to set up an institution to attain these ends, or patronize one which a friend or business colleague has established. Now, if he succeeds in setting up the agency, which provides all the services of the Objectivist government, and restricts his more efficient activities to the use of retaliation against aggressors, there are only two alternatives as far as the “government” is concerned: (a) It can use force or the threat of it against the new institution, in order to keep its monopoly status in the given territory, thus initiating the use or threat of physical force against one who has not himself initiated force. Obviously, then, if it should choose this alternative, it would have initiated force. Q.E.D. Or: (b) It can refrain from initiating force, and allow the new institution to carry on its activities without interference. If it did this, then the Objectivist “government” would become a truly marketplace institution, and not a “government” at all. There would be competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation—in short, free market anarchism.
If the former should occur, the result would be statism. It is important to remember in this context that statism exists whenever there is a government which initiates force. The degree of statism, once the government has done so, is all that is in question. Once the principle of the initiation of force has been accepted, we have granted the premise of statists of all breeds, and the rest, as you have said so eloquently, is just a matter of time.
If the latter case should occur, we would no longer have a government, properly speaking. This is, again, called free market anarchism. Note that what is in question is not whether or not, in fact, any free market agency of protection, defense or retaliation is more efficient than the former “government.” The point is that whether it is more efficient or not can only be decided by individuals acting according to their rational self-interest and on the basis of their rational judgment. And if they do not initiate force in this pursuit, then they are within their rights. If the Objectivist government, for whatever reason, moves to threaten or physically prevent these individuals from pursuing their rational self-interest, it is, whether you like it or not, initiating the use of physical force against another peaceful, nonaggressive human being. To advocate such a thing is, as you have said, “to evict oneself automatically from the realm of rights, of morality, and of the intellect.” Surely, then, you cannot be guilty of such a thing.
Now, if the new agency should in fact initiate the use of force, then the former “government”-turned-marketplace-agency would of course have the right to retaliate against those individuals who performed the act. But, likewise, so would the new institution be able to use retaliation against the former “government” if that should initiate force.
I shall cover some of your major “justifications” for government, pointing out your logical flaws, but first let us get one thing very clear: as far as I can determine, I have absolutely and irrefutably shown that government cannot exist without initiating force, or at least threatening to do so, against dissenters. If this is true, and if sanctioning any institution which initiates force is a moral evil, then you should morally withdraw all sanction from the U.S. government, in fact, from the very concept of government itself. One does not have an obligation to oppose all evils in the world, since life rationally consists of a pursuit of positives, not merely a negation of negatives. But one does, I submit, have a moral obligation to oppose a major evil such as government, especially when one had previously come out in favor of such an evil.
Note also that the question of how free market anarchism would work is secondary to establishing the evil of government. If a limited government, i.e., a non-statist government, is a contradiction in terms, then it cannot be advocated—period. But since there is no conflict between the moral and the practical, I am obliged to briefly sketch how your objections to free market anarchism are in error.
I do not intend to undertake a full “model” of a free market anarchist society, since I, like yourself, truly cannot discuss things that way. I am not a social planner and again, like yourself, do not spend my time inventing Utopias. I am talking about principles whose practical applications should be clear. In any case, a much fuller discussion of the technical aspects of the operation of a fully voluntary, nonstatist society is forthcoming, in the opening chapter of Murray N. Rothbard’s follow-up volume to his masterly two-volume economic treatise, Man, Economy and State, to be entitled Power and Market, and in Morris and Linda Tannehill’s book, which will hopefully be published soon, to be entitled The Market for Liberty. The latter takes up the problem where Murray Rothbard leaves off, and discusses the possibilities in detail. A chapter from this book, incidently, entitled “Warring Defense Agencies and Organized Crime,” will appear in the Libertarian Connection #5, and a short statement of the authors’ position is presented in their pamphlet “Liberty via the Market.”
To make consideration of your errors easier, I shall number them and present the outline of possible replies to your major, and hence essential, points, as presented in your essay “The Nature of Government.”
1. “If a society provided no organized protection against force, it would compel every citizen to go about armed, to turn his home into a fortress, to shoot any strangers approaching his door,” etc.
This is a bad argument. One could just as easily assert that if “society”(subsuming whom?) provided no organized way of raising food, it would compel every citizen to go out and raise vegetables in his own backyard, or to starve. This is illogical. The alternative is most emphatically not EITHER we have a single, monopolistic, governmental food-growing program OR we have each man growing his own food, or starving. There is such a thing as the division of labor, the free market—and that can provide all the food man needs. So too with protection against aggression.
2. “The use of physical force—even its retaliatory use—cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens.”
This contradicts your epistemological and ethical position. Man’s mind—which means: the mind of the individual human being—is capable of knowing reality, and man is capable of coming to conclusions on the basis of his rational judgment and acting on the basis of his rational self-interest. You imply, without stating it, that if an individual decides to use retaliation, that that decision is somehow subjective and arbitrary. Rather, supposedly, the individual should leave such a decision up to government, which is—what? Collective and therefore objective? This is illogical. If man is not capable of making these decisions, then he isn’t capable of making them, and no government made up of men is capable of making them either. By what epistemological criterion is an individual’s action classified as “arbitrary,” while that of a group of individuals is somehow “objective”?
Rather, I assert that an individual must judge, and evaluate the facts of reality in accordance with logic and by the standard of his own rational self-interest. Are you here claiming that man’s mind is not capable of knowing reality? That men must not judge, or act on the basis of their rational self-interest and perception of the facts of reality? To claim this is to smash the root of the Objectivist philosophy: the validity of reason, and the ability and right of man to think and judge for himself.
I am not, of course, claiming that a man must always personally use retaliation against those who initiate such against him—he has the right, though not the obligation, to delegate that right to any legitimate agency. I am merely criticizing your faulty logic.
3. “The retaliatory use of force requires objective rules of evidence to establish that a crime has been committed and to prove who committed it, as well as objective rules to define punishments and enforcement procedures.”
There is indeed a need for such objective rules. But look at the problem this way: there is also a need for objective rules in order to produce a ton of steel, an automobile, an acre of wheat. Must these activities, too, therefore be made into a coercive monopoly? I think not. By what twist of logic are you suggesting that a free market would not be able to provide such objective rules, while a coercive government would? It seems obvious that man needs objective rules in every activity of his life, not merely in relation to the use of retaliation. But, strange as it may seem, the free market is capable of providing such rules. You are, it seems to me, blithely assuming that free market agencies would not have objective rules, etc., and this without proof. If you believe this to be the case, yet have no rational grounds for believing such, what epistemological practice have you smuggled into your consciousness?
4. “All laws must be objective (and objectively justifiable): men must know clearly, and in advance of taking an action, what the law forbids them to do (and why), what constitutes a crime and what penalty they will incur if they commit it.”
This is not, properly speaking, an objection to anarchism. The answer to this problem of “objective laws” is quite easy: all that would be forbidden in any voluntary society would be the initiation of physical force, or the gaining of a value by any substitute thereof, such as fraud. If a person chooses to initiate force in order to gain a value, then by his act of aggression, he creates a debt which he must repay to the victim, plus damages. There is nothing particularly difficult about this, and no reason why the free market could not evolve institutions around this concept of justice.
5. We come to the main thrust of your attack on free market anarchism on pages 112-113 of the paperback edition of The Virtue of Selfishness, and I will not quote the relevant paragraph here.
Suffice it to say that you have not proven that anarchy is a naive floating abstraction, that a society without government would be at the mercy of the first criminal to appear—(which is false, since market protection agencies could perform more efficiently the same service as is supposedly provided by “government”), and that objective rules could not be observed by such agencies. You would not argue that since there are needs for objective laws in the production of steel, therefore the government should take over that activity. Why do you argue it in the case of protection, defense and retaliation? And if it is the need for objective laws which necessitates government, and that alone, we can conclude that if a marketplace agency can observe objective laws, as can, say, marketplace steel producers, then there is, in fact, really no need for government at all.
We “younger advocates of freedom,” incidentally, are not “befuddled” by our anarchist theory. The theory which we advocate is not called “competing governments,” of course, since a government is a coercive monopoly. We advocate competing agencies of protection, defense and retaliation; in short, we claim that the free market can supply all of man’s needs—including the protection and defense of his values. We most emphatically do not accept the basic premise of modern statists, and do not confuse force and production. We merely recognize protection, defense and retaliation for what they are: namely, scarce services which, because they are scarce, can be offered on a market at a price. We see it as immoral to initiate force against another to prevent him from patronizing his own court system, etc. The remainder of your remarks in this area are unworthy of you. You misrepresent the arguments of Murray Rothbard and others, without even identifying them by name so that those who are interested can judge the arguments by going to their source. Since we understand the nature of government, we advocate no such thing as competing governments; rather, we advocate the destruction or abolition of the state, which, since it regularly initiates force, is a criminal organization. And, incidently, the case for competing courts and police has been concretized—by the individualist anarchist Benjamin R. Tucker, over 80 years ago, by Murray Rothbard, and by a host of other less prominent theorists.
Let us take up your example of why competing courts and police supposedly cannot function.
Suppose Mr. Smith, a customer of Government A, suspects that his next-door neighbor, Mr. Jones, a customer of Government B, has robbed him; a squad of Police A proceeds to Mr. Jones’ house and is met at the door by a squad of Police B, who declare that they do not accept the validity of Mr. Smith’s complaint and do not recognize the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there.
Unfortunately, though this poses as a convincing argument, it is a straw man, and is about as accurate a picture of the institutions pictured by free market anarchists as would be my setting up Nazi Germany as an historical example of an Objectivist society.
The main question to ask at this point is this: do you think that it would be in the rational self-interest of either agency to allow this to happen, this fighting out conflicts in the streets, which is what you imply? No? Then what view of human nature does it presuppose to assume that such would happen anyway?
One legitimate answer to your allegations is this: since you are, in effect, asking “what happens when the agencies decide to act irrationally?” allow me to ask the far more potent question: “what happens when your government acts irrationally?”—which is at least possible. And which is more likely, in addition, to occur: the violation of rights by a bureaucrat or politician who got his job by fooling people in elections, which are nothing but community-wide opinion mongering contests (which are, presumably, a rational and objective manner of selecting the best people for a job), or the violation of rights by a hard-nosed businessman, who has had to earn his position? So your objection against competing agencies is even more effective against your own “limited government.”
Obviously, there are a number of ways in which such ferocious confrontations can be avoided by rational businessmen: there could be contracts or “treaties” between the competing agencies providing for the peaceful ironing out of disputes, etc., just to mention one simplistic way. Do you see people as being so blind that this would not occur to them?
Another interesting argument against your position is this: there is now anarchy between citizens of different countries, i.e., between, say, a Canadian citizen on one side of the Canadian-American border and an American citizen on the other. There is, to be more precise, no single government which presides over both of them. If there is a need for government to settle disputes among individuals, as you state, then you should look at the logical implications of your argument: is there not then a need for a super-government to resolve disputes among governments? Of course the implications of this are obvious: theoretically, the ultimate end of this process of piling government on top of government is a government for the entire universe. And the practical end, for the moment, is at the very least world government.
Also, you should be aware of the fact that just as conflicts could conceivably arise between such market agencies, so could they arise between governments—which is called WAR, and is a thousand times more terrible. Making a defense agency a monopoly in a certain area doesn’t do anything to eliminate such conflicts, of course. It merely makes them more awesome, more destructive, and increases the number of innocent bystanders who are harmed immensely. Is this desirable?
Suffice it to say that all of your arguments against free market anarchism are invalid; and hence, you are under the moral obligation, since it has been shown that government cannot exist without initiating force, to adopt it. Questions of how competing courts could function are technical questions, not specifically moral ones. Hence, I refer you to Murray Rothbard and Morris G. Tannehill, who have both solved the problem.
In the future, if you are interested, I will take up several other issues surrounding your political philosophy, such as a discussion of the epistemological problems of definition and concept formation in issues concerning the state, a discussion of the nature of the U.S. Constitution, both ethically and historically, and a discussion of the nature of the Cold War. I believe that your historical misunderstanding of these last two is responsible for many errors in judgment, and is increasingly expressed in your commentaries on contemporary events.
Finally, I want to take up a major question: why should you adopt free market anarchism after having endorsed the political state for so many years? Fundamentally, for the same reason you gave for withdrawing your sanction from Nathaniel Branden in an issue of The Objectivist: namely, you do not fake reality and never have. If your reputation should suffer with you becoming a total voluntarist, a free market anarchist, what is that compared with the pride of being consistent—of knowing that you have correctly identified the facts of reality, and are acting accordingly? A path of expedience taken by a person of self-esteem is psychologically destructive, and such a person will find himself either losing his pride or committing that act of philosophical treason and psychological suicide which is blanking out, the willful refusal to consider an issue, or to integrate one’s knowledge. Objectivism is a completely consistent philosophical system, you say—and I agree that it is potentially such. But it will be an Objectivism without the state.
And there is the major issue of the destructiveness of the state itself. No one can evade the fact that, historically, the state is a blood-thirsty monster, which has been responsible for more violence, bloodshed and hatred than any other institution known to man. Your approach to the matter is not yet radical, not yet fundamental: it is the existence of the state itself which must be challenged by the new radicals. It must be understood that the state is an unnecessary evil, that it regularly initiates force, and in fact attempts to gain what must rationally be called a monopoly of crime in a given territory. Hence, government is little more, and has never been more, than a gang of professional criminals. If, then, government has been the most tangible cause of most of man’s inhumanity to man, let us, as Morris Tannehill has said, “identify it for what it is instead of attempting to clean it up, thus helping the statists to keep it by preventing the idea that government is inherently evil from becoming known… . The ‘sacred cow’ regard for government (which most people have) must be broken! That instrument of sophisticated savagery has no redeeming qualities. The free market does; let’s redeem it by identifying its greatest enemy—the idea of government (and its ramifications).”
This is the only alternative to continuing centuries of statism, with all quibbling only over the degree of the evil we will tolerate. I believe that evils should not be tolerated—period. There are only two alternatives, in reality: political rule, or archy, which means: the condition of social existence wherein some men use aggression to dominate or rule another, and anarchy, which is the absence of the initiation of force, the absence of political rule, the absence of the state. We shall replace the state with the free market, and men shall for the first time in their history be able to walk and live without fear of destruction being unleashed upon them at any moment—especially the obscenity of such destruction being unleashed by a looter armed with nuclear weapons and nerve gases. We shall replace statism with voluntarism: a society wherein all man’s relationships with others are voluntary and uncoerced. Where men are free to act according to their rational self-interest, even if it means the establishment of competing agencies of defense.
Let me then halt this letter by repeating to you those glorious words with which you had John Gait address his collapsing world: “Such is the future you are capable of winning. It requires a struggle; so does any human value. All life is a purposeful struggle, and your only choice is the choice of a goal. Do you wish to continue the battle of your present, or do you wish to fight for my world? … Such is the choice before you. Let your mind and your love of existence decide.”
Let us walk forward into the sunlight, Miss Rand. You belong with us.
Yours in liberty,
R. A. Childs, Jr.
cc: Nathaniel Branden
Murray N. Rothbard
P.S. I would like to thank Murray Morris and Joe Hofman for their advice and suggestions.—R. A. C., Jr.
“Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand” was sent to Miss Rand on July 4, 1969, and published in The Rational Individualist, vol. I, no. 10 (August 1969). Reprinted with the permission of the International Society for Individual Liberty.
Equality 7-2521, the hero of Anthem, is twenty-one years old when he escapes to freedom from a totalitarian state. The author of Anthem made the same escape, at the same age. Then, like her hero, she proceeded to rename herself.
Alissa Rosenbaum, who became Ayn Rand , was born on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was the daughter of a middle-class family. After communism came to power in 1917, her father's small business was confiscated, and the family endured years of suffering and danger. Alyssa, whose ambition was to become a writer, knew that she could not survive in a country where free expression was prohibited. She escaped from Russia and, two weeks after her twenty-first birthday, arrived in the United States. To free her writing from all traceable associations with her former life, she invented for herself the name Ayn Rand and set out, like the hero of her story, to make a new life for herself, in freedom.
The values at stake in Anthem are not merely those of the central character; they are the professed values of an entire civilization—our own.
It wasn't easy. Hoping to write for film, she traveled to Hollywood, where she found that the studios had little interest in her work. She supported herself as a waitress, a movie extra, a clerk in a studio wardrobe department. She gradually perfected her English, making herself one of a small handful of creative writers who have mastered the language in their adulthood. In 1935 she enjoyed her first success: her play, Night of January 16th, was produced on the New York stage. Her first novel, We The Living, appeared in 1936.
But there was a problem. The story, set in Russia, was highly critical of the socialist system of enforced "equality"; and the book was published at the height of Russian socialism's popularity among leaders of American opinion. It failed to attract an audience. In 1937, when Anthem was written, no one could possibly have predicted that Ayn Rand would become one of the most popular authors of the twentieth century.
The summer of that year found her living temporarily in Stony Creek, Connecticut. Her husband, Frank O'Connor, was working as an actor in summer stock, and she was planning her next novel. It was an elaborate project. She decided to take some time off and write a story that she had long had in mind—the story of Anthem.
It is a story of the individual's struggle against collectivism, against the idea that s ociety has the right to direct each person's life for the benefit of all. Rand's story carries the collectivist program to its logical conclusion: a society in which people are simply numbered units, completely subject to state control and planning. The origins of the story lie in Rand's own experience of Soviet communism, but its significance is far more than autobiographical. It is a critique of many of the world's most influential books, ideas, and intellectual movements.
The idea of a planned society goes back as far as the militarist communism of ancient Sparta and the philosophical communism of Plato's Republic. It reappears in Thomas More's Utopia and in virtually all succeeding visions of an "ideal" world. In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided an important extension of collectivist thought when he argued that a society cannot be truly democratic unless its citizens possess substantially similar values, convictions, and degrees of wealth. Realizing that people might not choose to make themselves politically "free" by making themselves materially and intellectually "equal," Rousseau predicted that "it may be necessary to compel a man to be free." His prediction would be fulfilled. As in the communist society of Anthem, so in every real-life collectivist state: "freedom" is regarded as inseparable from "equality," and "equality" is enforced by government action.
Rousseau believed that democracy cannot exist without an equalization of property; later collectivists insisted that the problem was private property itself. They saw the capitalist system as "heartless," "wasteful," and "undisciplined" because it allows people to compete for and acquire private property. Most political movements of the twentieth century, whether communist or noncommunist, called for a system of "social" planning, either to keep capitalism in check or to abolish it completely. Social planning was intended to be systematic, rational, and scientific, an immense improvement on "anarchic" capitalism. Theorists anticipated that the price of a planned economy would be nothing more than the individual's ability to do what he or she wished to do. To many twentieth-century intellectuals, that seemed an easy price to pay, at least for other people. This is the intellectual tendency to which Rand refers in her Foreword to the novel.
She was working from a different premise. She saw progress as dependent on the freedom of the individual mind. She knew that it is individuals, not social forces, who learn, create, discover. When one thinks of great scientific and technological accomplishment, one thinks of Franklin and Edison, Galileo and Pasteur, not the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the collectivist society described in Anthem, the pace of progress is indicated by the fact that the newest invention is the humble candle, which was developed "a hundred years ago." Perhaps the candle took so long to invent because "twenty illustrious men," instead of one real scientist, were assigned to the project. A society in which education is focused on sharing and brotherhood, and "the history of all the Councils elected since the Great Rebirth," is not likely to have a history that is worth remembering.
Rand was not the only anticollectivist writer of her generation. She distinguished herself from most of them, however, by her realization that collectivism wasn't just an offense to human rights; it didn't even work. Before leaving Russia, she may have read Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1920), an anticollectivist novel that circulated in manuscript. We, like Anthem, is the story of a totalitarian society in which personal names have been replaced by numbers. As several scholars have pointed out, however, the strange thing about this society, and about the totalitarian society in George Orwell's more famous novel 1984 (1949), is that it somehow survives with its technology intact. Throughout the existence of the Soviet Union, Western "experts" insisted that the communist experiment might still be considered successful, in some sense, because of its supposed advances in the economic sphere. They believed it was possible (though not, perhaps, desirable) to trade personal liberty for economic efficiency.
How do you plan for the welfare of everyone when you cannot decide what is right for any particular person?
Rand knew that they were wrong. She knew that no person or group of persons can ever know enough to be successful in planning other people's lives. In Anthem, a council of state-appointed experts decides on the lifework of Equality 7-2521, who has a brilliant scientific mind. It sentences him to a career of street sweeping. This is Rand's way of asking, How do you plan for the welfare of everyone when you cannot decide what is right for any particular person? For the collectivist, however, the Plan itself is what's important. Faced with Equality 7-2521's unexpected discovery of the electric light, the planners try to forbid its use:
"Should it be what they claim of it," said Harmony 9-2642, "then it would bring ruin to the Department of Candles." . . .
"This would wreck the Plans of the World Council," said Unanimity 2-9913.
No one who appreciated the value of the electric light, or any other unforeseen discovery of the individual mind (and all discoveries are unforeseen), would willingly suppress the invention simply because a collective of self-styled authorities disapproved of it. The planners must therefore respond with force. That is what happens in every collectivist society, and that is what happens in Anthem.
The intellectual friends of collectivism regard it as an expression of egalitarian principles, but collectivism can never arrive at the "equality" it seeks. The name of Rand's hero, Equality 7-2521, is a satire of that idea. Nothing is more egalitarian, more "democratic," than the word "equality," followed by a serial number. And sure enough, when Equality 7-2521 tries to give his great invention to the collective, it is rejected in the name of democracy as well as the name of planning. Nothing can be done, he is told, without the approval of the Councils, and "it took fifty years to secure the approval of all the Councils" when the last invention came along.
But the biggest joke is this: despite all the talk about equality and brotherhood, the collectivist society of Anthem is ruled by a tiny class of people. Why?
If "equality" means equal obedience to a social plan, then Rousseau was right: the plan has to be imposed by force.
Rand shows the reason. If "equality" means equal obedience to a social plan, then Rousseau was right: the plan has to be imposed by force. And certain people will have to enforce it. These people will constitute a separate class, superior to everyone else. Such a class will consist, not of the best, but of the worst elements of society—people who are willing to enslave, torture, and kill their "brothers" in order to maintain a lie, the lie of their version of equality. These are the people who are willing to say things like, "Take our brother Equality 7-2521 to the Palace of Corrective Detention. Lash them until they tell."
Anthem can be seen as a house of mirrors, a gallery in which brotherhood and equality, as they are understood in a free society, are parodied by the distorted image of "brotherhood" and "equality," as they appear in a collectivist state. And Anthem is more than that. It is a gallery in which mirrors come alive, in which a society devoted to the repression of the self is finally confronted by an individual who manages to reflect upon himself.
Equality 7-2521 has been taught to refer to himself as "we" and "us," as if the self were a mere reflection of the group. As he pursues his own thoughts, however, a world opens within him, a world much richer and more interesting than the world he sees outside. He becomes aware of himself for the first time, as if he were surprised by the first sight of his face in a mirror. He has not yet discovered a literal mirror, a physical substance that allows him to behold his own form. That discovery comes later. It is not primary but secondary; it results from his earlier discovery of the mirror of self-consciousness.
For the collectivists, what is primary lies on the outside—society, authority, physical labor. For Rand the individualist, everything starts from the inside, with a thought in an individual mind. All the discoveries that Equality 7-2521 makes in the exterior world are made possible by his prior discovery of himself.
This discovery does not come without error and pain. Rand knows that no story exists without conflict, and that conflict brings pain. Equality 7-2521 is in conflict with society; before that, he is in conflict with himself, a self that he does not yet completely realize he possesses. His realization of what lies inside him is actually intensified by his conflict with himself about whether it is right to look inside. The recognition that when he does so he is sinning against the collective sharpens his awareness of himself. Even the moment when he accepts his socially-decreed Life Mandate as a street sweeper constitutes an important stage in the process of self-awareness. He submits to his Life Mandate willingly, exercising precisely the quality of choice that his collectivist bosses are trying to destroy. Ironically, his ability to see, analyze, and approve of himself is confirmed by the pride he feels in gaining a "victory" over himself by accepting the assignment. Later, his assessment of collectivism will change, but his pride in himself will endure.
Words are mirrors of the self. For Ayn Rand , a woman who left her homeland, learned a new language, and suffered years of privation in order to write her thoughts freely, words were always the primary means of understanding both the world and the self. Appropriately, Anthem's story of self-discovery starts and ends with the written word. In the beginning, Equality 7-2521 "must" write, even though he believes that writing his own thoughts is sinful, because he wants "to speak for once to no ears but [his] own." By "speaking" to himself by means of the written word, he sees the evidence that he has a self, a self that he can identify, analyze, and name, that he can make fully his own property. His quest for himself concludes when he discovers the ancient word for the self as single, individual, and independent: "the sacred word: EGO."
In Latin, "ego" simply means "I." In English, it has more extensive associations. It is the root of such words as "egoism" and "egotism." "Egoism" suggests the idea that the self is, indeed, primary, that everything starts from the self. Rand, like her hero, was a proud egoist, but she knew that egoism is often confused with what is sometimes called "egotism"—the arrogant desire to dominate others. That is why her hero emphasizes the idea that respect for the self and its freedom requires a similar respect for the freedom of other selves.
The hero of Anthem is determined neither to obey nor to command; he is determined, instead, to create. The ego, the "I," is the creative thing in man. When Equality 7-2521 discovers the nature of selfhood, he creates for himself a real, individual name—Prometheus. He chooses the name of a god, but not the king of the gods. The name he selects is that of the god who taught men arts and sciences, and gave them fire, and was tortured by the king of the gods in retaliation. Prometheus is a mythic name for the independent mind, suffering yet ultimately victorious.
Anthem is a crystallized epic.
Every culture has mythic stories that identify its values and dramatize its idea of the way things happen in the world. One of the defining stories of Western culture is the myth of Prometheus. Another is the Bible's account of the world as the creation of a God who is "the Word" and who works his will by means of words: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." Rand combines the two stories, Greek and Judeo-Christian, making her hero both a Promethean scientist and a worker with words.
An Anthem is a solemn hymn—ordinarily, a hymn to God. Rand did not believe in God; yet, as her title suggests, she is trying to project the secular correlative of intense religious feeling. Like the Greek poets, she feels free to remake traditional stories to suit her own ideas. When a new world comes to life in Anthem, it is created not by a literal god but by a godlike human being.
Rand also departs from the traditional names for the world's founding father and mother. In her story, they are not Adam and Eve, as they are in the Bible; nor are they Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaea (Earth), as they are in Greek mythology. "Gaea" survives as the female figure who, earthlike, will nurture "a new kind of gods"; but Rand has no use for Ouranos. He was a god, but he was no one's idea of an intellectual. He was a force of nature. By replacing him with Prometheus, the god of intellect, Rand emphasizes her distinctive view of the way things happen. In her world, the riches of earth are called forth by intellect; "environment" alone creates nothing new and beneficial.
America has its myths, and Rand exploits them, too; but here, nothing essential has to be changed. Myths are sometimes based on fact; American myths are often nearly identical to American realities. Thus, Equality 7-2521 is a creator in the same way as Franklin and Edison and the Wright brothers were creators. The American parallels run still farther. Like Franklin, who "snatched the lightning from the heavens and the sceptre from the tyrant," Rand's hero is a revolutionary as well as a scientist. Like millions of Americans who journeyed to new lands and created a new civilization, he is both explorer and pioneer.
There is a word for the type of literature that embraces such mythic stories, gives them the widest possible meaning, and raises them to the highest level of intensity. That word is "epic."
An epic is a narrative that embodies, in the life story of an heroic character, the life and ideal values of a civilization. It does not attempt to tell everything about that civilization; it selects what is most significant. It does not begin at the very beginning of the story; it begins in the middle, at a crucial episode in which essential values are at stake. It then moves backward and forward, using flashbacks to explain the origin of the central conflict and forward action to show its ultimate resolution. It distinguishes, indeed, between right and wrong ways of resolving conflicts, offering a means by which readers can both affirm their values and test how well they understand and practice them.
Anthem is a crystallized epic. Shorter than many "short stories," it is nevertheless constructed on an epic frame. The values at stake in Anthem are not merely those of the central character; they are the professed values of an entire civilization—our own. Our civilization is built on a conception of individual rights, and its existence cannot be conceived on any other basis. If you wonder about that, try to imagine what would happen if individualist values were no longer in place. The result would be the world that Equality 7-2521 inhabits. What is at issue in Anthem's opening scenes is not simply the decision of Equality 7-2521 to begin a process of self-discovery and self-fulfillment; it is our own understanding of the difference between a collectivist society and a society that maintains a defining emphasis on the individual self, its rights and powers. Anthem is about us, and about what will happen to us if we do not follow Equality 7-2521 in his rediscovery of the importance of individualism.
In the epic poetry of Homer, Virgil, and Milton, in the epic novels of the past two centuries, in America's epic histories of its own development, the central story is a complex union of many stories. Usually it is a union of apparent opposites—a myth of both separation and unification, discovery and recovery, adventure and return. Homer's Odyssey is the story of a man who leaves his home and then returns to it with newly assured self-mastery and power. Virgil's Aeneid is the story of a man who flees his home, then recreates it in a distant country. The history of America's pioneers and inventors is the story of men and women who set themselves apart from other people and, in so doing, create the means to a better life for everyone.
So it is in Anthem. By separating himself from his "brothers," Equality 7-2521 becomes their greatest benefactor. Not only does he invent a device that can immeasurably enrich their lives, but he discovers the real basis of brotherhood, which is recognition of the sanctity of the self. He separates himself from humanity as it is and embraces what it may become; he flees into the wilderness and discovers a new home; he recovers knowledge of the world of the distant past, destroyed by the flood waters of collectivism, and he uses it as the foundation of the free world of the future.
As Equality 7-2521 is driven by his "sin" from the purported paradise of collectivism and regains the true paradise of individualism, one hears a distinct echo of the Christian story of fall and redemption. In Anthem the original paradise is false, and the sin is in fact a virtue, but the outlines of the story remain. It makes sense for Rand to use this story, because she, like the writers of the Bible, or Milton in Paradise Lost, is trying to grasp the largest and loftiest of all literary themes—the theme of the eternal things.
By separating himself from his "brothers," Equality 7-2521 becomes their greatest benefactor.
The theme appears in Anthem's story about the Saint of the Unspeakable Word. Notice: not "words" but "the Word." Denied the ability to communicate with literal words, the Saint communicates with his whole being; and Prometheus at last understands his message, which is the eternal reality of the "I" in man. The Saint—like Prometheus and all other people who have awakened to a consciousness of themselves and, therefore, to the nature of human consciousness—demonstrates by his very existence and intent to speak that individualism can never be extinguished, that it will always reassert itself. The martyrs of individualism may die, but their cause will never be defeated:
[T]he battle they lost can never be lost. For that which they died to save can never perish. Through all the darkness, through all the shame of which men are capable, the spirit of man will remain alive on this earth. It may sleep, but it will awaken. It may wear chains, but it will break through. And man will go on. Man, not men.
This may seem paradoxical: a battle that is lost but not lost, a humanity that transcends individual failures because of the spirit that manifests itself in individual attempts. But Rand's myth does what myths ought to do: it offers a change of perspective. It allows the reader to make sharp distinctions between things that are superficially the same. It shows that "man" is at the opposite end of the spectrum from "men" in their collective groups—the crowd, the mob, the "council." It shows that the spirit of individualism, spontaneously regenerating itself in the nature of man, can be "lost" a thousand times without ever being truly lost.
To move her readers to this lofty vantage-point, Rand uses the plain, even abrupt language appropriate to a sudden intellectual ascent. She keeps action simple and description spare. She uses first-person narration, not simply because it emphasizes the importance of the "I," but also because a person writing for and to himself will feel no need to provide long descriptions of familiar objects. Since Equality 7-2521 at first knows nothing of history, philosophy, politics, or economics, no one will expect him to start with a comprehensive explanation of the world. He can begin in the midst of things. Nothing will stand between the reader and the intense crystallization of the story.
To sharpen the focus still further, Rand provides the intensely evocative imagery traditionally associated with epic and myth. Most of her imagery insists on the contrast between the two great competing views of life, collectivist and individualist. In the collectivist world, every vista is short, every space is confined, every object is cheap and drab and clumsy. This is a world of predictability and "security." The individualist world, by contrast, is a world of choices and risks, a world of depths and heights, tunnels and stars and forests and mountains, startling new inventions (the "glass box" enclosing electric fire) and mysterious ancient artifacts (the house that seems, paradoxically, to be supported by glass; those strange soft, ancient clothes; those curious things called "books").
The individualist world is a world of choices and risks.
To this contrastive imagery Rand adds the kind of images that connect the two worlds and emphasize their conflict. Perhaps the most vivid image is the execution of the Saint of the Word, punished for his Promethean pride with the fire that is the very emblem of the Promethean spirit. Rand's argument is in the image itself: the slave society lives by exploiting the Promethean figure's own attributes—his pride, his energy, his intellect—and turning them against him; yet even in these circumstances there is something about the Promethean mind that can never really "lose," can never cease to live and try to communicate itself.
Rand's smaller, subtler effects should also be noticed. Consider the scene in which Equality 7-2521 enters the House of the Scholars:
We saw nothing as we entered, save the sky in the great windows, blue and glowing. Then we saw the Scholars who sat around a long table; they were as shapeless clouds huddled at the rise of the great sky.
This is not simple description. It is part of a system of images representing man's relationship to nature. Like the ancient epic writers, Rand poetically personifies natural forces. Electricity, the "power of the sky," is like a friend who will "grant us anything if we but choose to ask." As Equality 7-2521 sees it, the sky is not threatening but welcoming—"blue and glowing." Because he is a scientist, he also sees it as rational and orderly: it "rise[s]" before him as the sun and the stars rise each day. What obscures it like "clouds" are the collectivist intellectuals who are about to betray and persecute the man who has come to grant them more than they could ever choose to ask. They are "shapeless" as all irrational things are shapeless; they obstruct as tyranny and irrationality always obstruct. But they do not succeed in blocking the sky. The sky remains as "great" as the hero's aspirations.
All of Anthem is in every part of it, even in such apparently insignificant parts as the one just cited. To achieve this intensity of effect was undoubtedly Rand's goal in choosing to write an epic story, and in choosing to write it in so few words. And intensity was certainly the goal of the revision she made almost a decade after Anthem first appeared.
In 1938, Cassell and Company published the book in Britain, but it did not find an American publisher. It remained virtually unknown in this country until 1946, when one of Rand's friends, Leonard E. Read, creator of the Foundation for Economic Education, arranged for it to be republished in a series of pamphlets advocating individualism. Rand took the occasion to edit the work. She repudiated none of its essentials, but she subjected every sentence to close analysis, and she eliminated every expression she considered unnecessary. She made the intense yet more intense.
By the time Anthem appeared for the second time, it was not so easy to ignore. Rand's novel The Fountainhead (1943) had achieved great—and, as it turned out, perennial—popularity. Its success was followed by that of Rand's next novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957). The two books repeated Anthem's ideas, and enormously extended them. By the time she completed Atlas Shrugged, Rand had developed her own philosophical system, which she called Objectivism , a name signifying her conviction that the individual mind is fully competent to understand the objective features of the world. She continued exploring the implications of her philosophy until her death in 1982.
Looking back on her life, she might have said what Equality 7-2521 says near the beginning of his story: "We have come to see how great is the unexplored, and many lifetimes will not bring us to the end of our quest. But we wish no end." And she might have remembered those moments, many years before, when she watched while the insight of Equality 7-2521 grew "sharper than the hawk's and clearer than rock crystal." Anthem is the crystalline product of that crystalline vision.
Dr. Stephen Cox is Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. Among his works are Love and Logic: The Evolution of Blake's Thought (University of Michigan Press), The Titanic Story (Open Court Publishing Company), and many articles and essays, such as the biographical introduction to Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine (Transaction Publishers).