We The Living is the first novel by Ayn Rand. It is often overlooked in comparison to her twin juggernauts - The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. And that is a shame. As I get older, I am starting to think that We The Living is her best novel.
One of the reasons that We The Living is a good novel is that it is semi-autobiographical. People tend to be better able to write better about something that they have experienced first hand. In Ayn’s case, she lived the basic plot of We The Living. She was a university student from a bourgeois family. When the Communist revolution occurred, her family was reduced to abject poverty and borderline starvation. This is the setting of We The Living.
Revolutions seem glamorous in textbooks. We think of the heroic battles and the exciting changes to society. Buy Ayn was able to capture the overall greyness and stupidity that was the norm of everyday living. The typical day was spent in long bread lines and then working. There was always the fear of saying something, or doing something, that would lower your social standing. If your social standing was too low, you could not get employment or eat.
The communist society was that of a tedious horror movie in which the death did not come fast and unexpected, but slowly. Typically you would not be arrested and executed. You would just slowly be denied employment, health care and basic items based on your poor social standing. It was a slow and boring death with no hope of a brighter future.
And like the modern day concept of ‘Hate Speech’, what could get you in trouble was ill defined. Buying goods on the black market could lower your social standing, but only if you did not have the proper connections within the Communist Party. Most of the communist officials survived by secretly buying goods on the black market. But if you should be caught doing so, and if you did not have connections, that could be deemed a counter revolutionary activity.
Of course, your social standing was determined not only based on what you did or said, but based on your family and rumors. Instead of the concept of ‘White Privilege’ the Soviets had the concept of being ‘bourgeois’. So if your family ran a small business and had a middle class lifestyle before the Revolution, you were considered to be ‘‘bourgeois’ and subject to punishment based on reduced opportunities for employment, housing, medical treatment and food.
What is also interesting is that Soviet society had their version of “Karens.” The most brainwashed and fanatical enforcers of communist ideology tended to be the women. And such women could destroy lives based on their gossip. You did not look properly enthused and clap long enough during a speech about Trotsky? Well, too bad for you, comrade. Your attitude has been noticed and a Karen will be reporting you to the communist officials. Hope you did not grow too fond of your bread ration.
Ayn also wrote about the stupidity of most people. The communist posters showed the heroic new Communist Man. In reality, people were dirty, stupid, and spent much of the day spitting out sunflower seeds. People spouted the political slogans mindlessly to stay out of trouble. “Proletarians of the world, unite!” was their version of “Diversity is our strength!”
Despite the bleak setting of the novel, the theme is one of hope. The hope that the flowers of life can break through the grey concrete of political oppression.
This book wrote about events in 1920s Russia. Sadly, the events seem similar to 2020s America. We are starting to live under similar political oppression from the same type of people. But as long as we have life, there is still hope.