This post joins a time-honored tradition here at the post calvin of millennial writers sharing podcasts that bring them joy. But it’s also trying to do something else. Intended as a kind of syllabus for your ears, the list of recommended podcasts below is aimed at helping people who are curious about the political and economic left but who don’t know where to start. What does “the left” actually refer to? How is it different from liberalism, or from the US Democratic Party, or from whatever Tucker Carlson thinks it means? What is its history? Finally, what about all those intimidating and often scary words associated with it—words like decolonization, Marxism, settler colonialism, socialism, racial capitalism, and bourgeoisie?
For those interested in learning, the podcasts below should begin to answer these questions. Some of the answers you might even find compelling.
And if your impulse is in the opposite direction—to dismiss this post and these podcasts immediately as off-putting, wrongheaded, or alarming—no worries. I have a different invitation. Please just sit with your reaction. Examine it. Where does it come from? A lot of times, I think, the answer is straightforward. In the US, opposition to the left is, to mix clichés, both as American as apple pie and as invisible as water is to a fish. From both sides of the mainstream political aisle, a vast amount of rhetorical and political energy has gone into making the left basically unthinkable, either by smearing it or, more charitably but to the same effect, by dismissing its goals as unrealistic. Thus it’s not surprising that our first instinct may be to bristle.
Yet if we’ve been trained in this response, at least one question follows: Why? Who benefits from that knee-jerk reaction? Who reaps the rewards when many of us are primed to reject out of hand a body of thought and practice that, in other parts of the world, is less controversial and has helped people imagine and organize for better worlds—worlds that refuse white supremacy, capitalist profit-seeking, and imperial aggression on principle?
Throughline: The first two podcasts on this list are cheats. They aren’t from the left. Still, because jumping into the deep end might be frightening, these podcasts are a good starting point. Throughline in particular is an accessible and extremely well-produced history podcast from NPR. It focuses on topics that many Americans probably missed (or were never taught) in history class, and many of its episodes spotlight animating concerns on the left, like capitalism and empire.
Where to start: “American Socialist,” on Eugene V. Debs—a recent re-release and good chaser to the preceding (but still very interesting) episode on Ayn Rand
Revolutions: Another history podcast! Now in its final season, Revolutions documents major revolutions in world history. An excellent choice if you’re looking for a podcast that’s well-written and has a slower burn.
The Magnificast: A Christian leftist podcast that started up in the wake of the 2016 election, The Magnificast is where to go if you’re interested in the relation between Christianity and leftist politics.
Where to start: “Why Christianity and Socialism?”
Pairs well with: The Liberation Theology Podcast
For the Wild: Billed as “an anthology of the Anthropocene,” For the Wild is an environmentalist podcast that takes seriously the principle that human flourishing and justice are inseparable from ecological flourishing and justice. It is an edifying listen in its own right, and its emphasis on Indigenous, grassroots, and anticapitalist perspectives are only going to become more necessary as we press deeper into the climate chaos of a warming planet.
The Red Nation: I highly recommend this podcast, period. But I doubly recommend it if you, like me, don’t know much about Indigenous history and ongoing Indigenous resistance. Part of creating a better world, especially in the US, means reckoning with 500 years of genocide and land theft, and The Red Nation offers tools for doing exactly that.
Revolutionary Left Radio: Rev Left is one of the big dogs in the world of contemporary left podcasting. While wide-ranging, it’s a great place for learning the basics of left theory and history. And its host, who often brings on professors and activists to talk, is a generous-minded thinker and effective teacher.
Pairs well with: The obvious pairings here are Rev Left’s “sister podcasts,” Red Menace and Guerrilla History. But I’ll also take a moment to shout out the Probably Canceled podcast. Although it’s a newcomer to the scene and sometimes shows it, and although a name change might soon be in the offing, the podcast, like Rev Left, covers a variety of topics, often with a focus on how class, gender, and sexuality relate. Content warning for many of the early episodes, which focus on the sex trade.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.