I was an ideologically innocent, well, relatively so, 16 year old when an English teacher put the book in my hand. It’s a slim volume and a good read to the dramatic mind of a high school student. Soon that book led to others like “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.”
Like so many unknowing young conservatives before, I had slipped into an objectivist mindset. The initial book, the gateway drug? “Anthem” by Ayn Rand. Just reread it yesterday, though I was cleared of many of my Randian tendencies by the time I was 25.
Rand’s own philosophy, objectivism, is marxism for conservatives, as both are wholly material and promote leadership by an elite vanguard of the ideology. Both reject faith and put their money on the essential wisdom and superior nobility of man rampant. And there’s the rub.
By way of example, Anthem is a book that at once catalogs the destruction by man of a civilized modern world, but then puts all hope in the same creature, devoid of God, for a rebirth of civilization. Somebody hasn’t been reading history. Somebody never took into account what a man like John Paul II could do to a totalitarian system.
Specifically, in the book after a WWIII type of conflict society has been reduced to a preindustrial totalitarian state. The complete emphasis is on the collective and individualism has been abolished. The book’s hero, through love, rediscovers his sense of individual self and proceeds, after escaping from the collectivist society, to begin to rebuild a free world. Heady stuff and just the kind of thing to appeal to the adolescent personality.
Rand wrote it in 1938 when the world was on the brink of possible war with two totalitarian regimes, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Both of whom who, ironically, extolled the kind of ubermen, one racial one prole, that also feature so prominently in Rand’s books.
Anthem is written in a compelling dramatic style and, like any good intellectual reconnaissance, sinks its hooks in deep. At least, in the late 1970s, when the world seemed faced with potential Soviet and Chicom tyranny, it did for me. Rand seemed like a Cassandra. Many who heeded her call became active objectivists and libertarians. A good thing in certain ways. A bad thing in others.
But what Rand never got, and I did by growing up, is that her notion of extolling man as an end in himself not only sunders any relationship between God and man, but robs man of the moral discipline necessary for a successful life. Her libertarian/objectivist views are also short-sighted, as the continuum between generations, bereft of a spiritual dimension, falls by the wayside in an atomistic world. A Burkean she is not. One of the reasons, amongst others, that WFB read her out of the conservative movement in the mid-60s.
But there is still an unalloyed pleasure and thrill in reading Anthem again. Unlike, to a point, The Fountainhead, and also different from the almost unreadable Atlas Shrugged, Anthem is succinct. You can read it in an hour. Which is also an allure. However, all that shines is not gold.
While some of her basic libertarian and objectivist notions of freedom remain true, Anthem and her future books make an inherent mistake. They substitute man for God. The 20th century saw the results of that thinking. They should not be repeated.