This volume includes more than 100 articles and letters. They cover topics ranging from the economic depression and the rising inter-imperialist tensions leading to World War II, to the Stalinist frame-up trials in the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, and detailed leadership questions posed in workers movements in different countries at the time. These volumes are lively, pointed and have extensive notes and chronologies to aid the reader today.
I'd also recommend some other titles written by Trotsky at this time, including The History of the Russian Revolution, The Fight Against Fascism in Germany, Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, and The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, all available from the same publisher, Pathfinder Press.
The workers movement of that time was misled by parties - social democratic and fake communist -- which preferred imperialist "democracy" over workers revolution. This allowed fascism to triumph and, together with "democratic" imperialism, brought us the second world war which slaughtered tens of millions and included the U.S. - supposedly the most "democratic" imperialists - initiating the threat of human extinction with the nuclear bombing of Japan.
Trotsky explains how Lenin's program could have resulted in workers victories over capitalism all over Europe, as well as the overthrow of the murderous Stalin regime and the regeneration of the Soviet Union on a course of world revolution and workers democracy.
Studying Trotsky's writings today is timely as imperialism is again on the march toward fascism and war.
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My favorite section is the anonymous "Memoirs of a Bolshevik-Leninist", written by a veteran of Lenin's Bolshevik Party and member of Leon Trotsky's Left Opposition, imprisoned by the regime until the 1950s.
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"George Saunders participated in many great cattle drives from 1871 to 1886; later, he spent years collecting and setting down his aging comrades' reminiscences. His career makes a thrilling tale, full of danger and hardship, stampedes, hostile Native Americans, rough country, and bad weather. Lightfoot also depicts Saunders's life between drives as a rancher and businessman, a solid citizen who rode with a vigilante group but also stepped forward to prevent a local massacre of Mexicans, at a time when racial tensions ran high. ...readers will get a clear idea of a cowhand's work, and of Saunders's important role in preserving the lore of a vanished era. Bibliography. (Biography. 10-12)"
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In the short story that gives the book its title, Pastoralia is the sort of theme park that would give Disney executives a heart attack. Visitors see people as they lived in past epochs, such as the couple who play Neanderthal cave dwellers, daubing prehistoric paintings on walls, making unintelligible grunting noises and roasting goats. But, there are few visitors to the park and the "cavewoman" Janet is cracking up under the pressure of mounting debts and a drug-addicted son.
She downs a bottle of Jack Daniels bourbon and starts using the sort of expletives no Neanderthal man would know.
In the best and funniest story, Sea Oak, a down-at-heel, bickering family tries to make ends meet in a housing estate that gives new meaning to the term concrete jungle. They spend most of their time mindlessly watching television. The stations have run out of Worst Accidents or When Animals Attack videos and have to resort to The Worst That Could Happen, a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never happened but theoretically could. A child hit by a train is catapulted into a zoo, where he's eaten by wolves. A man cuts off his hand chopping wood and while staggering screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.
Sea Oak is a modern parable. The family's dead granny comes back from the grave to tell them to get their act together but, unlike the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, she just won't go away, but sits putrefying in her favourite armchair.
"In the morning she's still there, shaking and swearing.
" 'Take the blanket off!' she screams. 'It's time to get this show on the road.'
"I take the blanket off. The smell is not good. One ear is now in her lap. She keeps absentmindedly sticking it back on her head."
Sea Oak is like one long-running sick joke, where you know you shouldn't laugh, but can't help yourself.
Saunders sees humour in misfortune, loneliness and deformity, but it is a cruel humour laced with compassion and that makes his stories not just palatable, but at times moving and wickedly funny.
The misfits he describes are not outcasts to him. The sky may be a different colour on their planet, but the space they inhabit is as real to them as the lives so-called normal people lead.
Not all the stories are consistently good. I read The End of FIRPO In The World three times and still haven't the faintest idea what it's about. But at his best, the arrows that he fires at the alienating culture of urban America hit their mark.
The stories are constructed so that the reader spends the first couple of pages trying to squint at the new world we've been thrown into. There are things that look familiar--self-help mantras, frustration, common corporate names--but what on earth is with the roast goat? The pilot-themed male strippers? The barber's fantasies of love-making in a hacienda? Slowly, as we work at it, it all comes into focus, and then it's even funnier. Saunders times this increased clarity (this readerly struggle for clarity) so that it generates an increasing identification with the emotional situation of the protagonists, who are frustrated, limited by their own decisions and by the obligations imposed on them by their loved ones, and doing their best to cope in a civil and civilized way.
Saunders is merciless in his parodic cultural contacts: corporate culture, self-help culture, the overly-picky standards of the American male, Jerry Springer culture, the self-consciousness and self-doubt of aging academics, all of them get lampooned to no end. The collection is well-constructed, though, as most of the pessimism is weighted toward the beginning. What comes through in the end, then, in the later stories in the collection, is the rare and satisfying moment at which we rise above the ridiculous, at which our humanity trumps our absurdity. The final story is the best example of this; lost in reveries and longing for a chance at real heroism, a strolling academic is presented with a real, in-process life-or-death situation on the banks of a river. He can run away, or he can help. The fate of our worth--of the worth of humanity in general--rests in his hands, and he just might do us proud.
"Pastoralia" tells both sides of the story. As a collection, though, it builds nicely towards its defining moment. Saunders leaves us perched there, painfully aware of our failures but with the highest of hopes for what we might still do. It's a quick read, and a great collection of stories, and I highly recommend it.