ORWELL: The Road to Airstrip One by Ian Slater

ORWELL: The Road to Airstrip One

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Orwell's year is ending and it can't be said that the celebrations have added much to our understanding of the man or his work. Univ. of British Columbia political scientist Slater's offering is intended to bring together Orwell's two audiences--those who know him as the author of Animal Farm and 1984 versus those who know him as a political journalist, which is to say his North American versus his British audiences. That would be a laudable undertaking if it hadn't already been done (most recently by Bernard Crick). It's no longer necessary to trace Orwell's thought from his Eric Blair youth at St. Cyprian's to his sudden fame as author of 1984 in order to establish that the famous novel enshrined a pessimistic criticism of centralized power that was nonetheless grounded in a social democratic sensibility. In his criticism of Orwell--this is not intended as biography--Slater charges him with an impoverished positive vision of a socialist future; Orwell, he says, got hung up on criticizing the inherent evils of state power and didn't see that state power was needed to effect the transition to the society of equals that Orwell longed for. Of course, Slater observes, that would mean giving up a society of equals, since state power entails a technocratic, administrative class. So Slater winds up criticizing Orwell, in this particular, for holding the views he holds. To say that Orwell's critical stance is flawed because it is only critical is to miss a very large point, especially if one also argues, as Slater does, that the only hope Orwell sees against totalitarianism is the cultivation of a critical individual intelligence. The central problem Slater identifies in Orwell's political theory--that there are good and positive reasons for people to form collectivities, but that these collectivities then become threatening for the individual--is itself not very profound, and Slater doesn't do much to enchance it. In general, Orwell is probably a better subject for biography or literary criticism than for political theory.

Pub Date: Jan. 21st, 1984
Publisher: Norton