Ayn Rand, who fled the Soviet Union as a young woman to become a screenwriter and novelist in the United States, is remembered for her ultra-individualistic philosophy, a blend of classical liberalism, Nietzcheanism, and materialism that she called Objectivism. Her message about the heroic individual, defying all collective restraint in pursuit of an enlightened selfishness, is tiresomely proclaimed from every page of her lengthy novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Amidst all the atheistic and materialistic dross of her writings, there is a nugget of gold to be found, however, in her early novella Anthem. This short novel, first published in 1938, depicts a future dystopian society in which a collectivist government has banned the word “I” and its cognates as “unspeakable” and rigidly enforced this ban with capital punishment to the point that most of the members of this society can now only think in the collective plural. Her hero is a young man, a Promethean type like all of Rand’s heroes, the individuality of whom, the intense conditioning processes of his society has failed to eliminate.
One gets the impression from Rand’s writings, that she would have preferred a society that is a mirror image of the one she has depicted in Anthem, a society in which the word “we” and the concept it represents, has been eliminated. The dark irony of this, of course, is that such a society would be just as totalitarian as the one in her novel. I suspect this is what Whittaker Chambers picked up on when, in reviewing Atlas Shrugged for National Review in 1957, he said that from almost every page of the novel “a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘ To the gas chambers — go!’”. (1)
Nevertheless, Rand made a very important point. A society in which individuality was ruthlessly stamped out, in which people are forbidden to think and speak of themselves as “I”, would be a horrible society. This Rand knew from her own experience, as she was twelve years old when the Bolsheviks, a revolutionary party of extreme collectivist views, took over her native Russia and turned it into a totalitarian state. The reason such a society would be so horrible is that individuality is an essential and important part of our nature as human beings and it is contrary to our good and to the happiness that is derived from that good to suppress human individuality.
In recognizing this, it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that the word “we” also represents an essential part of our human nature, one that is at least as important as our individuality. Try and imagine a society in which there was only “I” and no “we”. This would eliminate the “we” of marriage in which a man and a woman sacrifice part of their individuality to bind themselves and their lives together as one. It would further eliminate the “we” of family, the basic human collective to which each of us looks for such basic human needs as love and security. It would eliminate the “we” of friendship and any other human bond formed by sharing common interests and activities, needs and wants, likes and dislikes, pleasures and pains, joys and sufferings.
An individualist might interject that he has no objection to collectives, provided that they are voluntary associations that individuals willingly join and from which they can withdraw at any time. Surely, however, the “we” that is the family is more important, more fundamental to the human good and to human happiness, than the business partnership or the social club. Yet while the latter are voluntary associations, the former is not. It is held together by relationships that are permanent, based on blood, and which are not voluntary, relationships such as that of a mother to her daughter, a father to his son, and a brother to a sister.
Those who see only the individual, the “I” and who only recognize the collective, the “we”, when it is a voluntary association of “I”s are as mistaken as those who see only the collective and insist that the good of the “we” requires that the rights and freedoms, the dreams and aspirations, of the “I” be suppressed. Indeed, their mistake is one and the same, a failure to recognize that man is by nature both individual and collective, both “I” and “we”, and that the “I” and the “we” both need each other.
Both versions of this mistake are paths that lead to the same destination – a totalitarian society with a tyrannical government. This type of society and this type of government are the enemies not only of the individual and his freedom, the “I”, but of the plurality of smaller collectives that make up a traditional, organic society, the many different “we”s of family, neighborhood, community, church, guild, and club. The essential, defining, characteristic of a totalitarian society is not merely that it is a collective but that it insists upon being the only collective, the only “we”. A totalitarian society is therefore a mass society, i.e., a society in which most of the population are individuals who have been uprooted and alienated from the many smaller “we’s” of traditional, organic, society and thrown together into one large mass collective that is organized from the top by a large, highly centralized government, that regards itself as the voice of this one big collective “We”. A government with a totalitarian ideology may create a mass society from the top down by striving to eliminate or at least minimize the influence of all the smaller rival “we”s that it looks upon with jealousy and suspicion. Conversely, liberal individualism, by uprooting individuals from the traditional, organic, collectives of family, church, and community, creates the conditions that favour a totalitarian government that is anything but liberal in the best sense of the word.
Plato and Aristotle taught that men could only achieve happiness by attaining the good, i.e., by finding and fulfilling the end for which they were made and fitted. To do so, men must cultivate virtue. The good of the whole society, however, was greater than the individual goods of its members, and it is for the purpose of achieving this higher good that society is organized politically with a government and laws.
As true as this concept of the ancients is it requires balance, otherwise it can be twisted to serve the purposes of totalitarian collectivism. The classical liberal doctrine of the rights and liberties of the individual provides one sort of balance, but it is an insufficient balance. Liberal individualism has the effect of breaking down organic society into alienated individuals who form masses, creating just the sort of conditions that lend themselves to the rise of totalitarian collectivism.
The necessary balance, that harmonizes the Platonic concept of the good of the whole with the liberal defense of the freedom of the individual, is provided by the plurality of small collectives that together make up organic society. It is only in the framework of the organic society of family, friends, and neighbours that the individual can speak his “I” and expect to be heard. In mass society his “I” is lost among thousands, millions, even billions of other “I”s. The diffusion of man’s collective nature through a plurality of “we”s helps keep the big “we” of the society as a whole from being distorted from its good purposes and becoming an instrument of oppression. It is only in traditional, organic society with its plurality of small collectives that both the “we” and “I” of human nature have their fullest expression.
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