Anthem is one of Ayn Rand's earlier works, and presages the fears of collectivism that characterize Objectivism and her later work, such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The novel is set in the future and has a universal, timeless feel in its characterization of an ideal character's struggle against a monolithic state. Over the course of this relatively short novella, Rand sets the individual against the collective and concludes that the rational celebration of self is the only avenue through which technological and societal progress can occur without the suppression of free will.
Rand wrote Anthem in 1937, as a break in her composition of The Fountainhead, and she published it in 1938, with a revised and more commonly read version appearing in 1946. As in the case of many contemporary writers of dystopian fiction, such as George Orwell with Animal Farm, Rand initially wrote her novel as a warning against Soviet Communism before the end of World War II, but did not receive a popular audience until the Russians were no longer wartime allies of Western Europe and the United States. At the time, some contemporary philosophers still supported the Soviet Union, and even those who saw problems with the regime such as George Orwell believed that less extreme versions such as socialism might still have legitimate value. Rand, on the other hand, rejected all forms of collectivism as inherently flawed, a conclusion that undoubtedly had roots in her experiences in early twentieth-century Russia.
Rand was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, the year which marked the defeat of the Russians by the rising military power of the Japanese. In the same year, domestic troubles combined with increasingly bad news abroad sparked a minor revolution -- which proved in many ways a practice run for the future Communist leaders. Twelve years after Rand's birth, the February Revolution caused the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, and eight months later, Lenin led the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and wrested power away from the more moderate elements. In the upheaval, Rand's family lost their prosperous business and descended into poverty. Rand became increasingly disgusted with the ill effects of Communism and immigrated to the United States in 1926 after the rise of Stalin in the early 1920s -- but shortly before the purges of the Communist Party and the mass collectivization of agriculture which led to much conflict among the kulaks, or rich peasants.
Unsurprisingly, given her background, Rand was a staunch opponent of Communism before and during the Cold War, and she undoubtedly had the pro-socialist elements of the West in mind as well as some of the more socialist elements of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal when she wrote Anthem. In her view, collectivism led inevitably to the persecution of people with original ideas, as well as to the punishment of the able by forcing them to serve the state. As demonstrated in Anthem, Rand believed that too much focus on the state led only to the erasure of human rights, and through Equality 7-2521's search for the Unspeakable Word "I", and through the collectivist naming system, she also echoes the Soviet use of propaganda, particularly via the Agitprop department of the Communist Party. Unlike Orwell, who portrayed the Soviet future of 1984 as suppressive through the use of technology, Rand believed that a collectivist society would regress into a repetition of the Dark Ages, further adding to the dystopian nature of her collectivist state.
In Anthem, Equality 7-2521 is the embodiment of many Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution values of individualism and progress. Part of the reason why Ayn Rand's writings have become so popular in American society is because she implicitly celebrates American progress in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century as the result of the thirst for knowledge and of the drive of individuals, as well as of the emphasis on the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" declared in the American Revolution. Equality 7-2521 battles in a mental struggle against the tyranny of the group, and he eventually succeeds against those individuals -- such as the Scholars -- who take the path of least resistance and uphold the collectivist status quo. He is a typical Randian hero, with a hard, strong body and a fearless, proud, and active mind to match, and in the end, he affirms the right to individually driven production.