Summary: On the life and work of one of the founding figures of eco-socialism, Joel Kovel, who was a socialist humanist, a psychoanalytic Marxist, and so much more. First published in Capitalism Nature Socialism vol. 29, No. 3, 2018 — Editors
The lives of many of the world’s great intellectuals are tragically bereft of autobiographical accounts of their lives. We are fortunate that this is no longer true in the case of the iconoclastic bellwether of ecosocialism, Joel Kovel. But this is in no way suggesting that the ecosocialist movement is Kovel’s only singular achievement. Far from it. Kovel’s contributions to a critique of psychiatry, of political theory and of the ruination of the biosphere were pathfinding, highly revered, and reviewed and debated in prestigious journals and publications such as The New York Times. His work with revolutionaries around the globe (including sojourns in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution as just one of many examples), and his achievements alongside some of the world’s leading political activists have secured for Kovel a premier place in the history of the left. But what drove Kovel’s work was not notoriety but a relentless struggle for social justice, even if that meant personal vilification and isolation from those who had the power to reward compliance with financial security and academic prestige.
In this short commentary, I seek to reflect the essence of Kovel’s life through a reading of his last published work, his autobiography, The Lost Traveler’s Dream. What makes this autobiography stand out from others of similar genre is Kovel’s own steadfast example of personally demonstrating through his actions those beliefs and political convictions which have cost him mightily in terms of personal friendships, academic colleagues, and a secure academic position. Such personal sacrifice does not lead Kovel to fall into the trap made by less honest writers of mounting a triumphalist defense of one man’s personal victimization as a result of daring to challenge the regnant horrors of capitalism and its hydra-headed tentacles which have reached inside every state institution in the country, savaging everyday life in the process. Kovel is much too sagaciously introspective and searingly self-critical to walk that path. The Lost Traveler’s Dream is as much a form of self-analysis as it is exposition. The honesty of the author can evince at times a jarring response in the reader, no doubt resulting from the infrequency of which one encounters such transparency.
The Lost Traveler’s Dream documents the intellectual, political and spiritual journey of one the world’s most important and iconoclastic intellectuals and a founder of one of the most important social movements of our times—the ecosocialist movement. It is an extraordinary account of a life journey, that at times assumes mythic proportions, an account that is fiercely intimate and freighted with such remarkable nuances of memory that at times it reads like a novel that cannot be put down. Yet it is simultaneously an account that ardently captures the complex interconnections between politics and biography, the material and the spiritual, grace and the soul, history and spirit.
Kovel’s account of his life reveals an intensely vulnerable man, aware at an early age of his percipient intellectual gifts and scientific prowess, while at the same time admitting to deep personal insecurities born of a loving yet fractious family upbringing that painfully haunts the author into the present. The Lost Traveler’s Dream illuminates the extent to which memories of love and security mixed with the trauma and isolation that accompanies growing into adulthood can powerfully impact the production of a writer’s critical knowledge (and dare we say, the production of desire!) and political proclivities that are ever fomenting in the minds of every human being as well as, in the case of Kovel, one of our greatest analysts of capitalism as a (in the literal sense) world ecology.
Kovel was born into a family of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, fleeing Tsarist Ukraine, (with its twenty -year draft for all Jewish recruits!) Kovel’s father, Lou, who eventually managed to secure a job as an accountant, had escaped Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine and make the long trek to Williamsburg, Virginia, working at extinguishing street lamps on his way to high school in order to make ends meet. A leftist in his earlier years, during Joel’s formative years he had already made a violent turn to the right, even to the point of exhibiting a stirring adulation for Francisco Franco. He was a man who could be unpredictably violent towards his family, including young Joel, yet he nevertheless provided stability and some sense of security to the Kovel family, sacrificing financially for his son to be able to attend Yale. Kovel’s mother, Rose, who once blamed Joel for giving her cancer of the breast (which 43 years earlier had apparently begun when Joel was a month old and had to be prematurely weaned), fortunately had a devoted and loving side to her character, and her impact upon the life of the author is one of the running themes of the book.
Living in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, populated mainly by Jewish immigrants, Kovel attended public school, PS 99 on East 10th Street, some of whose students grew up to be household names, and who Kovel remembers. They included Allan “Red” Konigsberg, the future Woody Allen. There are few writers that can match Kovel’s style. The Lost Traveler’s Dream, rife with poetic metaphors, is a recollection that percolates through a wide filter of memories, allowing him to develop strong characterizations of personalities who shaped his life and various vocations, most notably his parents, aunts (especially his favorite aunt Betty), uncles and other relatives who simultaneously seem both familiar and distant—some, in fact, not unlike characters from a Woody Allen movie.
How did the precocious son of immigrant parents, a young man with prodigious math and science skills, living in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, who graduated from Yale, received his M.D. from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and a graduate of the Psychoanalytic Institute, Downstate Medical Center Institute, Brooklyn, become a lost traveler who armed himself with a biocentric ethic and love of humanity (as in Paulo Freire’s notion of “armed love”) to explore his dream of a better world, eventually to achieve worldwide recognition as the major architect of the revolutionary ecosocialist movement? This is the central theme of The Lost Traveler’s Dream but there are also many competing themes, equally as intriguing, including Kovel’s developmental journey from what Paulo Freire calls “naïve consciousness” to critical consciousness (or conscientização to use Freire’s original word), despite a bourgeois upbringing and Ivy League education. Another compelling theme is the spiritual conversion of the author, a Jew, to Christianity, a conversion which in no way blunted Kovel’s appreciation for manifold aspects of Jewish culture and history. And, of course, the entire memoir is devoted to an unmasking of transnational capitalism as a form of imperialism accompanied by an unrelenting critique of its administrative sentinels which, for Kovel, includes to varying degrees all institutions within the capitalist state, including the medical institutions, the military industrial complex, and, of course, academic institutions, all of which feature in Kovel’s “ruthless criticism of all that exists”. And it is no overstatement to say that Kovel could be sharp-tongued when castigating those whom he feels have abandoned the struggle for social justice in the service of personal gain, including former friends and colleagues.
Apart from the young Kovel’s studies in the sciences, in which he excelled, he developed an interest in Athenian drama (as a result of auditing a class with the magisterial Bernard Knox), the plays of Shakespearean drama (after having played the liminal character of Sir Toby Belch during a university production), works by Chaucer, and a compelling if not devotional interest in William Blake, Kovel’s “guiding star” whose work remained one of the most dominant influences in his life. As the reader moves from chapter to chapter, literary, pol- itical, religious and scientific references abound, woven into a tapestry of personal disclosure that illustrates the staggering breadth of Kovel’s polymath intellect. And yet, the author is at the same time able to make complex ideas, if not acces- sible, then at the very least evocative to the reader who is not necessarily an aficio- nado of Freud, Marx, Weber, Blake or the dozens of other thinkers whose work Kovel engages throughout his tale. What gives this book an irresistible edge is the intricately intimate way in which Kovel juxtaposes elements of his personal life with those of his various theoretical and political trajectories.
I would be remiss if I left out this emblematic event from Kovel’s life at Yale (under a strictly enforced quota for Jews it need be said), a lecture by Richard Sewall, congregational minister and Professor of English, that piqued Kovel’s interest. It so happened that during that lecture Professor Sewall’s evocation of the worlds of St. Paul let to a profound moment of revelation for the young Kovel, leading him to a discovery of what Kovel refers to as the selfless love vouchsafed to humans by grace or agape.
By the age of 20 Kovel had turned from physical and mathematical science to medicine. From 1977 until 1983 he was Director of Residency Training, Department of Psychiatry, Albert Einstein College of Medicine where he was also Professor of Psychiatry from 1979 to 1986. While a resident at Albert Einstein College, Kovel described a fascinating account of the time he spent with the Reichian analytic movement (sometimes clandestinely after his shift was over) and his work with Dr. Simeon Tropp, formerly a surgeon and one of Wilhelm Reich’s closest friends. But fascinating historical accounts frequently turn to horror in brief descriptions such as the author’s experience of wheeling patients through the dank corridors of the infamous Bellevue Hospital to sounds of scurrying rats. Kovel eventually abandoned a career as a psychiatrist in 1986. It was during this time that he began engaging seriously in Christian thought, although not without serious doubt and struggle, not to mention repercussions in his personal life as would be expected of someone having been raised a Jew in a Jewish household. Kovel was eventually called into service within the Presbyterian Church.
Kovel’s precociousness in science and medicine, in addition to a commitment to a radical politics that had been fomenting since those tumultuous political times in U.S. politics surrounding the Vietnam War, led him to meet some of the leading scientists (including social scientists) and political activists of his day. During an overseas excursion as a medical student, Kovel’s early contact with the riverine people of Suriname led to his interest in dialectical anthropology, which in turn led to a relationship with iconoclastic figures such as Stanley Diamond. Fortuitously this expanded into an Adjunct Professorship of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research which lasted from 1980 to 1985.
Throughout his political formation, Kovel eschewed ideologically rigid sectarian organizations—Maoist, Stalinist, Trotskyist and what he felt to be their pettifogging offshoots—one exception was a short-lived relationship with the Telos group before they became, as he would put it, aligned with the capitalist state. Finding unsurpassable limitations in the work of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory—including one of his most respected luminaries, Herbert Marcuse— Kovel found renewed inspiration in war-torn Managua through his contributions to the Sandinista revolution and while serving in Nicaragua was drawn to praxisoriented work emerging from Christian base communities as well as liberation theology which at the time was being ruthlessly persecuted by John Paul II’s Vatican and by the Reagan administration.
As a young man working as steward on the ocean liner, SS United States, Kovel had a chance encounter with Sigmund Freud who was to become one of his idols for a period of time until Kovel’s reading of Marx came into unresolvable conflict with Freud’s theories. His engagement with the vast corpus of Marx’s work helped inspire Kovel’s political revelations on the early formation of the national security state at a time when John Foster Dulles and Joe McCarthy were wreaking their worst political havoc. Reading through Lost Traveler’s Dream, it is difficult not to be impressed by the vast array of well-known intellectuals, political figures and artists that at one time or another became Kovel’s personal friends and collaborators. For example, Kovel recounts anecdotes—modest and unembellished —of being invited by the Kennedy administration to attend a speech by John F. Kennedy (on his support of psychiatry) only days before the Cuban Missile Crisis, of listening to a lecture by Fidel Castro, and of meeting some of the most important leftist philosophers of the day, including Raya Dunayevskaya. These appear commonplace throughout the book. During key political events of the time, Kovel appeared omnipresent. Thus, I was hardly surprised to learn that Kovel served as a courtroom defendant of minimalist sculptor, Richard Serra, during a lawsuit involving his Tilted Arc sculpture that the government was trying to remove from the grounds of Federal Plaza.
While holding short-term positions as a Visiting Lecturer at San Diego State in the spring of 1990 and another Visiting Professor position at UCSD in Winter 1993, Kovel’s political life had become marinated in the messy world of realpolitik, as he ran for US Senate with the Green Party in 1988. Later, in 2000, he sought the party’s presidential nomination in Denver, losing to Ralph Nader.
On June 20, 2009, a decade after being appointed Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies at Bard College, Kovel’s academic world came to an abrupt end, one that Kovel anticipated would be hastened by the publication of his 2007 book, Overcoming Zionism. Kovel favored a one-state solution to the bloody conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians and, unsurprisingly, his acerbic critique of Zionism and the state of Israel was seamlessly conflated with anti-Semitism, a conundrum that often marked the end of the careers of dissenting professors, even scholars as distinguished as Kovel. Kovel’s autobiography unsparingly unearths the hypocrisy of free speech in the academy and the complicity of academic institutions in the crimes of the transnational capitalist state.
Lost Traveler’s Dream is a story with colorful and enigmatic characters, many of whom will be recognizable to us regardless of what stage we are at in our journey throughout life. Through every page, Kovel is taking us to the Tabard Inn in preparation for a pilgrimage to the heart of capitalism so that we can better understand how our relationship to nature under the capitalist mode of production will continue to wreak havoc on all the intrinsic relationships we will develop in the process of making our way in the world: familial, institutional, spiritual. Such an understanding is of ultimate importance not only for the life of planet earth but for our own redemption as a species.
Kovel recognized that nature proceeds through negation, and its complex, interrelated and enmeshed temporalities cannot be brought into line by the valorization process of capital, whose violent attempts to synchronize natural time and workplace time ultimately disarticulates human beings and nature, resulting in ecosystemic disintegration. Throughout his life, Kovel developed an ecopolitics that enabled him to struggle against the integration of all modes of domination —racial, sexual, gender, class—into human life. His dream of an ecosocialist future has the potential to be realized but requires a praxis of deep ecology based on the intrinsic value of what we find of most worth in our relationship to reality, a value that we must continue to nurture in all aspects of our lives, especially in terms of how we interact in freely associated ways—that is, eco-centrically—with our environment.
I will emphasize one abiding lesson that Kovel has bequeathed to humanity: how to confront and transform capital’s enmity to nature, to comprehend it not just as an economic system but in relation to humanity’s unfinishedness, to our species’ ontological vocation of becoming more fully human in the face of political repression.
As William I. Robinson has noted, a major difference between 20th century fascism and 21st century fascism involves the emergence over past decades of the transnational capitalist class. For Robinson, 20th century fascism involves the fusion of national capital with reactionary and repressive political power. But 21st century fascism involves the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power. Today’s recomposition of the political forces within capitalist globalization reflects our current state. In order to unload the trillions of dollars it has accumulated, the transnational capitalist class has turned to mind-numbing practices of financial speculation, from the pillaging of public budgets, to what Robinson refers to as militarized accumulation—that is, to endless cycles of war, destruction and reconstruction, to “accumulation by repression” (private prisons and immigrant detention centers, border walls, homeland security technologies, etc.), the structural necessity of endless surplus value and profit, and the construction of surveillance state.
Rather than abandon the socialist project in the face of such daunting forces, Kovel sought to transform socialism into ecological socialism, a socialism for our ecologically-fraught times. How the white working class understands its economic entrapment, and how the political class is feeding the turn to the extreme right is one of the major challenges for critical pedagogy but the larger challenge, as Kovel warns, is to foster a more critical understanding of how the economic conditions for all groups is systemically linked to the crisis of transnational capitalism with its ecosystemic breakdowns, its endless cycles of war and its commodification of living labor which has left in its tremulous wake millions of ecological refugees strung across the planet.
Kovel began the task of unraveling how overproduction and overconsumption are functionally tied to ecocide, genocide, and epistemicide (the destruction of cosmovisions of indigenous peoples) and how all of these social relations violate the internal relations of sustainable ecosystems, thus irrevocably cleaving humanity from nature, from what Marx called our species-being. This knotty challenge is one that must be taken up, if we are to survive the coming decades. It is first and foremost a pedagogical challenge and it fortunate for us that Kovel is first and foremost a teacher, one of those special critical pedagogues that have traversed the world-historical stage of history and in so doing “troubled the world’s sleep” through following his lost traveler’s dream. The vision embodied in this pathfinding work has become, to use Kovel’s own term, a “prefiguration” of a world-in-the-making, one “scrubbed of dross”. And I would add, a vision that tantalizes us towards a rearticulation of our humanness and nature.
As the reader moves from chapter to chapter, scientific literary, and political, references abound, woven into a tapestry of personal disclosure with an increasingly religious theme that falls away from his Jewish upbringing and toward a Christian calling that represents, for him, the destination of The Lost Traveler’s Dream. Throughout, Kovel is able to make complex ideas accessible and evocative to readers regardless of their familiarity with Freud, Marx, Blake or the dozens of other thinkers he engages throughout his tale. In so doing, he models Paulo Freire’s notion of “armed love,” carefully, and often humorously, teaching what it means to be dedicated to the relentless struggle for social justice, even when that means personal vilification and isolation from those who have the power to reward compliance in the form of financial security, political victory, and academic prestige.
What stands out is Kovel’s steadfast example of personally demonstrating through his actions his beliefs and political convictions, at great cost incurred twice at the top of the academic ladder. Such personal sacrifice does not lead him to fall into the trap of mounting a triumphalist defense: one man’s personal victimization as a result of daring to challenge the regnant horrors of capitalism and its hydra-headed tentacles that reach inside every state institution in the country, savaging everyday life in the process. Kovel is much too sagaciously introspective and searingly self-critical to walk that path. Instead, The Lost Traveler’s Dream is as much a form of self-analysis as it is fearless and courageous exposition, rife with jarring honesty.
Any path-breaking journey entails the risk of getting lost, even as in the process one finds oneself learning a great deal from those one never expects to meet. Like Chaucer, Kovel details the panorama of his society—late, disintegrating capitalism—with inspiring hopefulness.
Kovel’s achievements have secured for him an honorable place in the history of resistance to corrupt power, while his memoirs open the possibility for others to chart their own path toward the same destination.
Editor’s note: This is an expanded commentary that first appeared as the preface to The Lost Traveler’s Dream by Joel Kovel.