Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 2, 2018

Joel Kovel (1936-2018): an appreciation

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Going through something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder following my forced exit from the Trotskyist movement after 11 years, I began looking for medical help for what turned out to be a psychosomatic low-grade fever. On the advice of my old friend Nelson Blackstock, who died 3 months ago, I picked up a copy of a book he recommended by Joel Kovel written in 1976 and titled “A complete guide to therapy: From psychoanalysis to behavior modification” as a kind of shopping guide. Nelson was particularly enthusiastic about behavior modification, whether specifically behavioral or cognitive, its offshoot. I only wished that I had looked into behavior modification before I joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1967.

Joel’s book is totally brilliant. Apart from being a shopper’s guide, it is permeated with a certain degree of skepticism about all these therapies since they so often fell short of dealing with the underlying problem, a sick society that could only become healthy through the overthrow of the capitalist system. He would make these ideas more focused in a 1988 book titled “The Radical Spirit” that was an attempt at synthesizing Marx and Freud. By this point, despite my post-Trotskyist depression having lifted, I jumped at the opportunity to register for a class on ecosocialism that Joel was giving at the Brecht Forum in N.Y. To this day, I can remember Joel explaining what the environmental crisis was about and can even see his face in front of me, with the words coming out of his mouth that struck me like a lightning bolt.

He said that capitalist growth is like a metastasizing tumor. Whether it is chemicals used for farming, plastics or aluminum, such highly profitable commodities also have the capability of killing human beings, animals and plants. This was in line with Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle” that I had read shortly before taking the class with Joel and that had also made an indelible impression on me.

Joel’s ideas eventually found their way into print in the 2007 “The Enemy of Nature” that can be read online. On page 39, he elaborates on the cancer metaphor:

We need to examine why we talk of capital as though it has a life of its own, which rapidly surpasses its rational function and consumes ecosystems in order to grow cancerously. Capital is not in itself a living organism, needless to say. It is, rather, a kind of relationship like that set up by a cancer-causing virus that invades living human beings, forces them to violate ecological integrity, sets up self-replicating structures, and polarizes the giant force field. It is humanity living as capital, people who become capital’s personifications, that destroys ecosystems.

After finishing Joel’s class at the Brecht Forum, I became a committed environmentalist and tried to persuade Marxists both on and off the Internet to become Green as well.

Around the same time, Joel and I both became passionately committed to the Sandinista revolution, which was for many of us in the 1980s a sign of hope for socialist renewal. Joel wrote “In Nicaragua” in 1988 as an act of solidarity in much the same way that my involvement with Tecnica was intended. When he lived in Nicaragua in 1986, Joel found himself drawn to the liberation theology wing of the Catholic Church that was a pillar of support for the Sandinistas. In a two-part article explaining his conversion to Christianity that appeared in Mondoweiss, Joel describes the initial and ineluctable attraction the church had for him:

The other thing is, every one of us that’s a leftist, with very few exceptions–we’re fearful. We’re afraid of the cops, afraid of the corporations, the authorities. Well, a common admonition in the New Testament is, Be not afraid, because I am with you. So you have that presence with you, and you’re not afraid. You’re not happy as a pig. You’re happy because you’re in the thick of the universal. I saw that in Nicaragua. I took communion at Casa Jesuitica. I made four trips and on one of them, we’re sitting around with the Jesuits. “Let’s have communion.” I said, “No no, oh no.”But they told me to stay, and we passed the bread and the wine. So I said, Well, ok, I’ll do it. It was the first time I did it. And it came around a table, there was no hierarchy. It was Ok– Ok. So I took communion. Then I said alright, I have to go home, I had to walk a half a mile to the place I was staying. And I was walking– I suddenly had a sense of I wasn’t walking anymore, I was floating through the air. Well how did that happen?

I guess I feel the same way about this sort of thing that I felt when Stan Goff turned to Jesus. Whatever gets you through the night…

In 1988, Joel Kovel was appointed to the Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies at Bard College, my alma mater. A year earlier Leon Botstein, the school’s president for life, also appointed Martin Peretz to Bard’s board of trustees. This led me to write a letter (you remember what they were, right?) to Botstein complaining about the appropriateness of having a supporter of Nicaraguan contras, who were in the habit of burning down schools, to such a post. Leon was so stung by my letter that he took the trouble to write one reprimanding me. As you might expect, he argued that Bard did not apply litmus tests to board members. He was so much for free speech that he defended Bard College inviting a member of the neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany to speak at a conference on “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times”.

Twenty-one years after his appointment, Joel learned that Botstein’s free speech absolutism did not include the right to attack the state of Israel. Two years before his firing, Joel wrote a book titled “Overcoming Zionism” that had become the target of the Israel lobby. The U. of Michigan Press came under so much pressure from its major donors that they dropped the book. (Eventually, counter-pressure forced them to reinstate it.) Do you think that Leon Botstein came to Joel’s right to academic freedom? Don’t be foolish. In an article on his firing, Joel recounts the circumstances:

  • 2007. Overcoming Zionism was now on the market, arguing for a One-State solution (and sharply criticizing, among others, Martin Peretz for a scurrilous op-ed piece against Rachel Corrie in the Los Angeles Times. Peretz is an official in AIPAC’s foreign policy think-tank, and at the time a Bard Trustee — though this latter fact was not pointed out in the book).  In August, Overcoming Zionism was attacked by a watchdog Zionist group, StandWithUs/Michigan, which succeeded in pressuring the book’s United States distributor, the University of Michigan Press, to remove it from circulation.  An extraordinary outpouring of support (650 letters to U of M) succeeded in reversing this frank episode of book-burning.  I was disturbed, however, by the fact that, with the exception of two non-tenure track faculty, there was no support from Bard in response to this egregious violation of the speech rights of a professor.  When I asked President Botstein in an email why this was so, he replied that he felt I was doing quite well at taking care of myself.

This was irrelevant to the obligation of a college to protect its faculty from violation of their rights of free expression — all the more so, a college such as Bard with a carefully honed reputation as a bastion of academic freedom, and which indeed defines such freedom in its Faculty Handbook as a “right . . . to search for truth and understanding without interference and to disseminate his [sic] findings without intimidation.”

I am eagerly awaiting Joel’s final book, a memoir titled “The Lost Traveller’s Dream”, especially for its caustic take on his time at Bard that I browsed in Book Culture near Columbia University.

I had my political differences with Joel, especially when he was on the editorial board of “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”. CNS had trouble with basing ecosocialism on Marx’s writings as Foster had done in “Marx’s Ecology”. To this day, I support Foster’s approach no matter how wrongheaded he has been about Syria. I summarized the debate between Monthly Review and CNS here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/ecology/foster-o’connor.htm.

Joel was a true public intellectual, in the same league as Cornel West or David Harvey. He was also a friend. Not long after I moved into the Studebaker Building on in 2007 that was the initial outpost of Columbia University’s expansion into Manhattanville, I bumped into Joel a few blocks from my office. I was surprised and pleased to see him there. He explained that he had just moved into a co-op close by. From that point on, we used to have lunch together 2 or 3 times a year. I loved to draw him out on his experience at Bard as well as exchange ideas on the wretched American political situation. He was like me, incorporating pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

At one point, I asked him to do a video interview that except for the crappy lighting was one of my better efforts. I will close with that.

3 Comments »

  1. Nicely written and very informative, as usual. On the matter of the attempt to blacklist Joel’s OVERCOMING ZIONISM, there was yet another chapter after public protest forced the Regents and U-M press to resume distribution. That decision was predicated on having a complete review of the scholarly qualifications of Pluto Press, with which U-M had a relation as the US distributor. The result of that full review was the decision to sever ties completely with Pluto on the grounds that its scholarly vetting process did not meet U-M standards. Today Pluto (and Joel’s book) is distributed in the US by the University of Chicago Press, which, ironically, has higher scholarly reputation than U-M Press and a much greater profile. Some of the staff members and editorial board members of U-M press were completely disgusted by this episode, which they felt was orchestrated by Regents under pressure. What happened with Joel’s book and Pluto should be seen as part of the shameful behavior of US universities when it comes to the academic freedom of critics hostile to Israeli state policy and Zionism.

    Comment by Alan Wald — May 2, 2018 @ 10:17 pm

  2. I much appreciated your appreciation of Joel Kovel. I’m politically isolated and only recently discovered that the persons and entities considered ecosocialist were feuding. Trotskyism redux.

    I have carefully read and re-read my copies of Marx’s Ecology and The Enemy of Nature over the years, and I find it sad and rather irresponsible that Monthly Review and CNS and others would fight over small differences of interpretation as regards Marx’s and Engels’s ecological bona fides.. I call b.s., and suspect James O’Connor and John Bellamy Foster got under each other’s skin a good while ago, and Joel Kovel inherited a rash. There is also the major factor of a vanishing, entropic left that is unable to energize itself through praxis.

    The left has never been able to enduringly organize. Doing so would require effectively engaging the new sciences of living organization that were unavailable to Marx and Engels and have been almost shunned by Marxism since. The left must learn to consciously organize in life’s pattern, which is “communist.”

    As Engels declared at Marx’s graveside, “Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force.”

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — May 4, 2018 @ 1:31 am

  3. I last saw Joel sitting in the audience with a few old friends at the Anthology Film Archive 2016 restoration of Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames. Why was Joel there? Then I saw that he had a cameo role in the film where he played an evil psychiatrist.

    It struck me as a very Joel thing to do.

    I also first met him at Brecht Forum on 19th Street. He was giving a talk in the early 1980s on eco-socialism, which was very influenced by the Greens. There was an American named Phil (Hill?) who spent time in Germany and he was also spreading the Eco-Green gospel via the Brecht Forum events.

    I lost track of Joel but I would see him at Socialist Scholars Conferences and say hello.

    Comment by HH — May 4, 2018 @ 12:36 pm


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