Leonard Peikoff introduces the fiftieth anniversary edition of Anthem with a discussion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, objectivism. He discusses Rand’s constancy as a political thinker and philosopher and her persistence in flouting the criticism of those who believed in socialism and responded to her work by saying that she did not understand socialism’s tenets. He points to quotations from several of her letters to support the idea that she believed from a very young age in the primacy of the individual and the danger of collective ideals and social planning.
Peikoff discusses Rand’s decision to change the title of the novel from Ego, its working title, to Anthem, a move he says was motivated by a purely artistic decision not to give away too much of the plot and philosophy before the reader had read the novella. He says Rand believed Anthem did not have a climax or plot in the traditional sense, but was instead a kind of anthem, an exploration of an understanding of the world and a coming to terms with this philosophy’s rejection of general society. Peikoff characterizes objectivism as a way of resolving a conflict between facts and -values—in other words, as a way of seeing the world for what it is while at the same time holding true to a moral ideal. He claims that Rand deliberately uses biblical language, even in the title, in order to turn on its head the idea that profound awe can be experienced only in the face of the supernatural.
Anthem was not immediately accepted by the American literary establishment, according to Peikoff, who chronicles in some detail Rand’s efforts to get the novella published. He says American intellectuals were in the grip of Communist ideas at the time Rand wrote the work, and it took the recognition of two conservative publishing houses for it to gain an American following. Once it was published, however, it gained tremendous popularity. Rand originally conceived Anthem, according to Peikoff, as a play, later as a magazine serial, and finally, at the suggestion of her publisher, as a novella.
Rand herself prefaces Anthem by exhorting collectivists, those who believe in uniting individual labor efforts under the auspices of the single government for the good of the whole, to acknowledge that they are forcing individuals into slavery. She asserts that social goals have become commonplace in society, and that it should be obvious to all people that the world is headed toward a complete disintegration of the kind she portrays in Anthem. She wants those who advocate such goals to be honest about their intentions, and where their intentions may lead, so that in the future, when the world completely yields to the ideals of the collective, and people find themselves slaves, they will not be able to deny that they chose their own paths.
Rand also is careful to emphasize that in this, the American edition of the novel, she has not changed any of Anthem’s substance. She notes that she has only clarified the language and not changed the spirit of the novella. She claims the idea of objectivism has always been clear and does not need any further examination.
Furthermore, Rand responds to criticism that Anthem is unfair to the ideals of collectivism. She points to the state of the world in 1946 to show that forced labor and co-opting the profits of the work of individuals are accepted and advocated practices. She claims that the world does in fact contain councils of the kind she describes in Anthem, and that if her novella seems exaggerated, it is only because the world has not yet totally fallen into collective despair. Nevertheless, she says, the world is headed for just such a collapse, and Anthem is meant to change the minds of those who believe that socialism can exist without leading directly to its logical conclusion. This conclusion, she believes, is the disembodiment of the individual, the boredom and fear of the citizenry, and the inability of society to reap the benefit of individual work and products.
Leonard Peikoff, who worked closely with Ayn Rand for thirty years before her death, is one of the world’s leading Rand scholars, and his introduction is typical of the writing of most objectivist scholars. His intense, clipped style and self-assured tone are characteristic of both Rand herself and those who continue to propagate her ideas. Unlike many authors, Rand saw herself largely as a political figure and philosopher, though she believed the ideas she espoused were universal and eternal. Objectivism, though often spoken of by its followers as anti-religious, is similar to religion in the sense that it is an all-encompassing philosophy that views every fact in the world through a particular lens. Rand embraced this idea wholly, and her tone and style convey an absolute surety and confidence in her ideas that set her apart from many other novelists, especially those in twentieth-century America. Rand does not pose a question about society; she presents the answer. Peikoff and Rand’s emphasis on the similarities of the two editions of Anthem underscore their interest in presenting objectivism and Rand as constant and unwavering in the face of enormous resistance from the intellectual community.
Peikoff’s observations about the lack of traditional structure in Anthem are important to understanding how the novella works as a whole and what Rand was trying to accomplish with publication of the work. Though Anthem is plainly fictional, it is less like a novel and more like a manifesto, or statement of views. It does not, for example, contain detailed descriptions of characters or setting, or have easily identifiable structural components, such as a climax. Rather, it seeks to compel us to fear what Rand considers the error of embracing collectivism and to stave off this future by embracing the tenets of objectivism.