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NY Times, May 4, 2018
Dr. Joel Kovel, a Founder of Ecosocialism, Is Dead at 81
By SAM ROBERTS
Joel Kovel, a former Freudian psychiatrist who evolved into an apostle
of what he called ecosocialism, a so-called green-and-red agenda against
the environmental evils of globalization and in favor of the nonviolent
eradication of capitalism, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 81.
His death, at a hospital, was caused by pneumonia and autoimmune
encephalitis, his wife, Dee Dee Halleck, said.
Dr. Kovel (pronounced ko-VEL) courted controversy early in his career
with his book “White Racism: A Psychohistory,” published in 1970.
Racism, he wrote — whether overt bigotry in the South or cold aversion
in the North — is built into the very character of Western civilization.
“Far from being the simple delusion of a bigoted and ignorant minority,”
he wrote, racism is “a set of beliefs whose structure arises from the
deepest levels of our lives.”
“White Racism,” which was nominated for a National Book Award, publicly
heralded his radicalization.
Dr. Kovel metamorphosed from a conventional therapist into a Marxist who
abandoned the medical profession as too corporate and commercial. He
became a fierce critic of the Vietnam War, imperialists, Zionists and
gas guzzlers, together with neoliberals and environmentalists who were
Dr. Kovel was an intellectual father of ecosocialism. A Brooklyn-born
son of Jewish immigrants, he also experienced in his later years what he
called a Christian spiritual conversion.
When he published his autobiography last year, after so many
metaphysical meanderings, he titled it “The Lost Traveller’s Dream,” a
nod to the poet William Blake’s reference to wanderers in the wilderness
seeking to distinguish between good and evil.
Dr. Kovel rarely defined his positions in shades of gray.
He renounced psychiatry because, he said, he was fed up with “the
pernicious system of diagnosis” dictated by professional associations
and their manuals, and by insurance companies driven by statistics and
Whenever he launched an ideological crusade, he did so zealously — even
if, as in the case of ecosocialism, its very definition and the
collateral demand for an appealing alternative to capitalism were not
Under ecosocialist theory, income would be guaranteed, most property and
means of production would be commonly owned, and the abolition of
capitalism, globalism and imperialism would unleash environmentalists to
vastly curtail industrialization and development whose pollution would
otherwise cause catastrophic global warming.
“Capitalist production, in its endless search for profit, seeks to turn
everything into a commodity,” Dr. Kovel wrote in 2007 on the socialist
website Climate and Capitalism. “It is plain that production will have
to shift from being dominated by exchange — the path of the commodity —
to that which is for use, that is for the direct meeting of human needs.”
Joel Stephen Kovel was born on Aug. 27, 1936, in Brooklyn to Louis and
Rose (Farber) Kovel. His father was an accountant and the namesake of
the Kovel Rule, a legal doctrine that extended the lawyer-client
confidentiality privilege to other professionals and experts. It arose
when a federal appeals court voided the elder Mr. Kovel’s one-year
sentence for contempt after he had refused to answer questions about a
client in a case.
After graduating from Baldwin High School in Baldwin, N.Y., Joel
received a bachelor’s from Yale in 1957 and a medical degree from
Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. While in medical
school, he was first exposed to extreme poverty during field study in
Suriname. He trained at Downstate Psychoanalytic Institute in Brooklyn.
In addition to his wife, a filmmaker, Mr. Kovel is survived by two
children, Jonathan Kovel and Erin Fitzsimmons, from his marriage to
Virginia Ryan, which ended in divorce; a daughter, Molly Kovel, from his
marriage to Ms. Halleck; her sons, Ezra, Peter and Tovey Halleck, from
an earlier marriage; his brother, Alex; and nine grandchildren.
Dr. Kovel was director of resident training in psychiatry at Albert
Einstein Medical School in the Bronx from 1977 to 1983. He was also a
professor of psychiatry there until 1986, when he left to teach courses
in Marx and Freud at the New School in Manhattan. He taught at Bard
College from 1988 to 2009.
He was also editor emeritus of the journal Capitalism, Nature,
Socialism; wrote for The New York Times Book Review; and, with Michel
Lowy, drafted the Ecosocialist Manifesto in 2001, on which the movement
Among his other books is “A Complete Guide to Therapy” (1976), which, a
Times reviewer wrote, “can be recommended to everyone — from people
looking for help with emotional problems to those with serious questions
about the entire business of emotional help.” Another is “Overcoming
Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine” (2007).
Dr. Kovel was the Green Party candidate for the United States Senate
from New York in 1998. (He finished fourth, with about 15,000 votes;
Chuck Schumer won, with about 2.4 million.)
He unsuccessfully challenged Ralph Nader for the Green Party’s
presidential nomination in 2000. Mr. Nader was nominated at a convention
with 295 votes. Two other candidates were tied for second place with 10
each. Dr. Kovel came in last with three.
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