Summary: In memoriam article examining the late Joel Kovel in relation to Marx and Freud, Marx and ecology, and Marxist-Humanism — Editors
The sad death of ecosocialist and Marxist psychologist Joel Kovel leaves a terrible void in both theory and practice, especially for Marxist-Humanists. A lifelong social justice activist, Kovel also made major theoretical contributions. Less known is his direct relationship to our founder Raya Dunayevskaya and to Marxist-Humanism more generally, which also needs to be considered if we are to understand the full scope of our loss.
Kovel’s first theoretical contributions included his 1970 book, White Racism: A Psychohistory, which probed the pervasive depths of what he termed the “corrosive racism” of US society. During this period, he drew on Frankfurt School theorists Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse and was one of the early editorial board members of the important radical philosophical journal Telos. He left Telos when it turned sharply to the right in the 1980s, during which time Kovel strongly supported the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. It was during the 1980s that he also corresponded with Dunayevskaya about Nicaragua and other issues, but what underlay that dialogue was a shared commitment to Marx’s humanism. Later, when Kovel wrote the introduction to the 1994 Erich Fromm Reader, he stressed that what distinguished Fromm from other neo-Freudians was “the introduction of Marx’s humanism — the humanism of the 1844 Manuscripts — in place of Freudian instinct theory,” something that also “distinguished him from other psychoanalytic Marxists of the time, notably Wilhelm Reich” (p. xi).
Kovel had moved into the environmental movement and ecosocialist theory by this time, as seen in his major 2002 book, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? Here, Kovel was among the first to theorize that without the complete abolition of capitalism, the planet would be destroyed in the near future. Crucial here was the key difference between capitalism and all previous modes of production, its “limitless drive to go beyond its limiting barrier” in the quest for surplus value, as Marx wrote in the Grundrisse (p. 41). This meant going beyond all barriers to gobble up and destroy even what sustained the system’s own ability to reproduce itself for the future — the water, the land, the air. While precapitalist societies damaged the environment by destroying forests and by hunting animals to extinction, these societies were “capable of a whole range of ecological relations, creative as well as wanton” (p. 108). Not so with modern capitalism, which broke with all barriers. Yet he does not idealize these premodern social forms, pointing to the gendered aspects of the rise of social class and of warfare in early “civilizations”: “It follows that domination and property are gendered from the beginning” (p. 121).
Adapting the Frankfurt School critique of modern science and technology, Kovel also attacked merely technological solutions to the environmental crisis that still operated within a capitalist framework. The very sinews of the system, its production for production’s sake, ground down not only the workers but also the very earth upon which they stood. Kovel’s ecosocialism therefore differed from those today like Naomi Klein, who attack only the private property and profit aspect of capitalism, rather than its deep structure even when it exists alongside state control of the economy, or portions of it: “There is no compromising with capital, no schema of reformism that will clean up its act by making it act more greenly or efficiently” (p. 142). At the same time, Kovel at times minimizes Marx’s own directly ecological insights, in part because he was unaware of unpublished Marx texts like the ecological notebooks discussed in Kohei Saito’s Marx’s Ecosocialism (2017).
Kovel’s relationship to the Marxist-Humanism of Raya Dunayevskaya can be seen in his foreword to the posthumous 2000 edition of her Marxism and Freedom, a book whose sixtieth anniversary is being celebrated this year. As with his introduction to Fromm’s book, Kovel here identified with Marx’s humanism: “As Marx stated very dramatically in the  Manuscripts, workers revolt for food and working conditions, to be sure, but most fundamentally of all, because their vital species activity, the way of their own development as humans, has been estranged or alienated from them” (p. xvii). He also evoked Dunayevskaya’s notion of revolutionary subjectivity, a subjectivity that is not voluntarist, but one that has absorbed objectivity. Writing that this is something that “anchors the struggle for freedom,” Kovel adds, “Once this is grasped, no bureaucratization, no recycling of domination, can stain the radical project” (p. xvii). While admiring such a revolutionary perspective, Kovel also distances himself a bit from it, arguing that while this can help orient the struggle, it can also lapse into a type of “dogmatism, and a vanguardism in spite of itself” (p. xviii). Here, he disagreed with, among other things, Dunayevskaya’s unrelenting critique of Mao’s China as a state-capitalist dictatorship over the working people.
But these are good arguments to have among genuine revolutionaries committed to the total uprooting of the system and its replacement by a new human society. I should add that I am honored also to have had some of those kinds dialogues with Kovel over the last twenty years, in which I always admired, among so many other things, his principled stance against critiques of Marxism emerging out of poststructuralism and the politics of difference. Such discussions will continue, now and in the future, but without the corporeal presence of this clear, probing, and original thinker-activist. That is very sad indeed, but a sadness somewhat mitigated by the fact that we still have at our disposal Kovel’s large and important body of writings.