Storytelling on the Road to Socialism

An ecosocialist author/activist shares the vision behind her new podcast and the life journey and connections that inspired it.

 The new miniseries podcast Storytelling on the Road to Socialism is a project of the Socialism Is Better collective. Our collective promotes a culture of solidarity and popularizes the ideas of socialism using the arts, such as storytelling, music, poetry, playwriting, and visual media. In our humble way, our work offers a counterweight to the toxic, individualistic bourgeois cultural ecosystem. It is our hope to contribute to the building of a movement towards socialism based around what we call our “principles worth fighting for.” You can read these six principles in the accompanying text box.

The podcast is one of the ways in which we share with listeners the exciting variety of work being undertaken by ecosocialistically minded people in their diverse fields of endeavor in various countries and ecosystems.

The first nineteen episodes of the podcast offer readings from my book, Shifting the Universe: Spoken Histories of Work & Resistance. The book is a collection of testimonials that began to take shape when I traveled around the United States and the world in search of an answer to the following question:

What exactly does resistance look like from the point of view of people who do different kinds of work?

The book features the firsthand narratives of diverse working people — folks who live in the coal fields of West Virginia and the Amazon Rainforest of Ecuador; workers who labor in the cotton mills of the Nile Valley in Egypt and industries in New York City and Los Angeles.

In the podcast series, we hear the voices of factory workers, antiwar puppeteers, antiwar mutineers, strikers, organizers, fishing people, farmers, surgeons, a midwife, a road builder, and many other workers who reveal the ways in which they discovered strategies of resistance that were specifically suited to the material circumstances of their lives and the work they do.

Candace Wolf interviews Nek Chand in Chandigarh, India (2011)

The great assembly of people whose testimony appears on the pages of the book and is heard in the podcast exercise the inalienable right to bear witness — to speak honestly and describe in uniquely personal ways and vivid detail their experiences of work and the methods of resistance they put into practice against the oppression and injustices they live through in their workplaces and societies, participating in the class war against bosses and imperialism.

As a long-time practitioner of oral storytelling — spoken literature — I am an advocate of the Storyteller’s Creed: “Show, Don’t Tell.” We storytellers practice a kind of verbal cinematography that has the spellbinding power to carry listeners and readers deep inside worlds outside their personal experiences. I strive to infuse the podcast with the vitality, the energy, the animated coming to life, and the dramatic intensity of oral storytelling.

For example, on Episode Two, “Forest Defenders Speak,” the folks interviewed share the experience of waking up every morning in the rainforest, the irreplaceable value of the rainforest as a life-sustaining home that has not been commodified and cheapened by the profiteering capitalist brain. They offer us deep insights into why people dedicate themselves and sacrifice so much in their fight to halt the invasion of petroleum companies into the Amazon.

On Episode Fifteen a socialist surgeon in Cuba takes us into the world of the operating room where he wields his scalpel to save the lives of cancer patients. On Episode Fourteen a sailor describes the thrill of standing watch on his ship at night among the stars, even as he contemplates a mutiny to prevent his ship from delivering deadly napalm to Vietnam during the murderous U.S. war on that country.

Genesis and Discovered Themes of the Podcast

I developed the idea for this book and the subsequent podcast as a socialist organizer, following decades performing and teaching storytelling, as well as creating intergenerational oral history programs in schools and communities countrywide. This work experience led me to a profound appreciation of people’s eloquence when they are offered an opportunity to use their own unique, uncensored words to share their life history and speak of their struggles. With that appreciation and my deep innate love for my fellow working people, I set out — not as someone credentialed by an academic institution but rather as an unpretentious “barefoot storyteller” — on a seven-year story-collecting quest. I am honored to have been in the presence of truly salt-of-the-earth people who entrusted me with their words and their thoughts.

A number of themes caught my attention as I listened to folks and collected their spoken histories. One can be expressed as the duty to remember. On Episode Four, for example, a coal miner in West Virginia explains that his commitment to preserving the historical memory of mineworker union organizing is synonymous with the struggle to defend the Appalachian Mountains, mountain communities, and mountain culture itself. On Episode Two, Penti Baihua observes that if the Huaorani — an indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon — do not struggle against the invasion of the petroleum industry, all that will be left of their way of life would likely be distilled into a short video. On Episode Seven, a Road Builder in the Punjab, India, secretly occupies city land to build a forty-acre monument and work of public art to memorialize the massive loss of life during the 1947 Partition in the closing days of British imperialism in India.

Another important theme of the podcast series is the anatomy of organizing, in which the narrators break down the key components of various forms of resistance. In El Mahalla, Egypt, textile workers talk about their particular way of stopping the machines from running and the foundational importance of community solidarity during a labor strike. Indigenous forest defenders in the Amazonian Rainforest speak of the absolute necessity of forging unbreakable collective unity between women and men, young and old — which resulted in a victory against the behemoths of fossil fuel. A transit worker in New York City provides, at a granular level, a look at the comprehensive preparation put into place by his labor union to ensure participation and a strong sense of ownership during a strike by rank-and-file members.

But there is little doubt in my mind that one of the most inspiring aspects of the stories shared with me is the narrators’ personal awakenings. They describe how they began their resistance journeys as objects of oppression by the powerful forces of capital, then grew through the early stages of awareness of their exploitation to the full dawning of a new understanding: “We are no longer victims. From now on we will act as protagonists on the stage of history and in the struggle for social transformation.”

This awakened consciousness was exemplified when the fish workers of Kerala, India, threw off their low-caste status and began to organize for their just rights. Or when domestic workers in New York City talked about their growing awareness of their indispensability to the functioning of the city and of their right to demand dignity and respect.

One of the most thought-provoking questions that many folks pondered during their storytelling sessions with me was the meaning of value. On Episode Seventeen, a midwife reflects on the contradiction between her work assisting the birthing of life — by any measure a feat of limitless value — with the profit-obsessed private hospital’s interest in kicking the mother out of her birthing bed as quickly as possible to make it available for the next birthing “consumer.”

Our precious planet has been transformed by capitalist alchemy into “Marketplace World” where lives, nature — everything and everyone — bears a “For Sale” sign and is rendered disposable once its “exchange value” has been “used up.” A world where, after five centuries of hollowing out of the Web of Life, it is almost a miracle that the farmers we meet in Episode Six still struggle against titanic odds to return the land and the seeds of life into the sphere of common ownership so as to enhance the chances for the survival of future generations.

Speaking of cheapening life: Another important question rears its fearsome head repeatedly throughout this series of spoken histories. That is  the question of War or Peace? Whether it is the mass slaughter that followed the partition of India or the monstrous crime known as the Vietnam War or the threat of nuclear Armageddon, the ensemble of narrators unflinchingly face this question both in words and the deeds of their lives.

Candace Wolf speaking at a May Day event in Washington DC (2017 or 2018)

Another thing these diverse tales have in common is the David and Goliath character of the struggles that dramatically come to life on the podcast. Another connection between the tales is the passionately expressed awareness of the urgent need for radical changesystem change — change beyond the pathetic shortcomings offered by reforms to the bourgeois system. In Episode Thirteen Mike Filippou, a bakery mechanic,  tells the story of the Stella D’Oro cookie factory strike and concludes his testimonial by imagining a world without bosses. This is life after capitalism. Marlon Santi, a forest guardian whose community struggled bravely to put an end to the violence of capitalist plunder, ends his Episode Two conversation with a call to replace private ownership and control of all life by a handful of capitalist financiers with a communal, solidaristic approach to organizing our economies and societies.

Finally, the music that bookends each episode was intentionally chosen to underscore the supreme moral and strategic imperative of internationalism. Hope of combating the pernicious divisiveness of nationalist chauvinism, of racism and bigotry of all stripes, is expressed by introducing each episode with a different version of The Internationale, the anthem of the organized international working class, and ending each episode with an original song, Socialism Is Better, composed by a member of our cultural collective. We want to drive home the point that building an international socialist movement is the preeminent mission for radicals who dream of abolishing a system built on violence toward everything that breathes, moves, feels love, and demands freedom.

Candace Wolf at 2023 Washington Folk Festival
Candace telling stories at the Washington Folk Festival (2023)

Mythic Tales from the Oral Traditions

The last five episodes of the podcast are kind of bonus episodes that honor humanity’s beloved mythic tales from the oral tradition. You will hear a selection of stories that were told to me, and that I have had the great delight and happiness to share over the past three-and-a-half decades with people in many communities large and small, and with audiences young, old, and multigenerational.

Storytelling from the oral tradition is an ideal folk art for socialists and communists like myself because these oral stories can never be legitimately claimed as private property to be exploited for profit by any one individual or capitalist institution. These oral stories can never be bought and sold. These oral stories express people’s hunger and yearning for a better life — and therefore, they will always belong to the entire community. They are meant to be shared with a full generosity of spirit, for they represent our common inheritance.

Candace Wolf is a storyteller, oral historian, creator and director of the intergenerational oral history program Walking with our Elders, and a teaching artist with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Candace is a proud member of two labor unions: Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the National Writers Union (NWU). You can find “Storytelling on the Road to Socialism” podcasts here and on other podcast services. More of Candace’s work can be accessed at her website.

Leave a reply

1 comment

Follow us

We are here to bring the world of ecosocialism to life.

Like Us On Facebook

Facebook Pagelike Widget
What Might An Ecosocialist Society Look Like?
On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission