- Marxist professor and writer
- Environmental activist
- Characterizes capitalism as the “enemy of nature”
- Views Israel as an oppressor state
Joel Kovel was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 27, 1936. His parents were Jews who had immigrated to America from Ukraine. “We were living in a neighborhood that was not only Jewish but largely Communist,” Kovel recounts, noting that “my father would rant about the imminent Communist takeover of the U.S.” When Kovel’s beloved Aunt Betty died of cancer in 1952, the boy angrily turned his back on religion and became an atheist. “I basically broke with Judaism at that point,” he says, adding that he later “got involved in Reichianism.”
Kovel earned a B.S. degree from Yale University in 1957 and an M.D. from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1961. He also graduated from the Psychoanalytic Institute in Brooklyn in 1977 and subsequently became a Freudian psychoanalyst.
In the early 1980s Kovel became deeply involved in the anti-nuclear movement, serving on the board and the national executive committee of the War Resisters League. He recalls that the antiwar activism of radical Christians like Philip Berrigan, Daniel Berrigan, and Sister Elizabeth McAlister had “an electric effect” on him during that period. Also during the ’80s, Kovel opposed U.S. efforts to defeat the communist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. He traveled to that country several times, and he even lived there for part of 1986.
In 1985, Kovel’s passion for political activism, coupled with his growing dissatisfaction with the American healthcare system, caused him to terminate his career in medicine and psychiatry.
In 1988, Bard University appointed Kovel as its Alger Hiss Professor of Social Studies, a position that was named after the infamous Soviet spy. That same year, Kovel helped orchestrate a conference at Harvard University that was, as Commentary magazine puts it, “dedicated to the proposition that anti-Communism had deformed American political, cultural, and social life.”
Also by the late 1980s, Kovel became involved with the radical environmental movement. He joined the editorial collective of the quarterly periodical Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, and eventually (in 2003) became its editor-in-chief. In 1990 Kovel joined the Green Party USA.
In 1994 Kovel published Red Hunting in the Promised Land, dedicating the book to Alger Hiss. Characterizing anti-communism not only as a psychiatric disorder, but also as a form of anti-Semitism, Kovel writes: “The Communist became … the archaic blood villain of Western civilization – the Jew who killed Christ, the black Hamitic son of Noah, the howling savage beyond the gates reminding 100 percent Americans of the terrors of the dark.” Further, Kovel likens anti-Communists to racial supremacists by claiming that the “first red scare” was “the encounter between Puritan and Indian,” which saw the Puritans define the Indians as “the Other” – i.e., a group whose members were intellectually and morally inferior to white people, and who thus were expendable.
In Red Hunting as well, Kovel claims that anti-Communism is associated with such things as “ecological destruction,” “worship of the almighty market,” and “unbridled consumerism” that “consigns billions of human beings to brutal poverty.” Portraying the U.S. as a nation that has been unwilling to acknowledge its enormous historical sins, Kovel adds: “Germany can admit the Holocaust and Russia the crimes of Stalinism, but America, the ‘Redeemer Nation,’ has never been able to take responsibility for starting and sustaining the nuclear arms race, or for using the weapon as an instrument of policy.”
In 1998 Kovel ran unsuccessfully as the Green Party candidate for a U.S. Senate seat representing New York. Two years later, he made a failed bid for the Green Party’s presidential nomination. During that 2000 campaign, Kovel stated that he had no interest in “regulating the capitalist system,” but rather, in advancing its “fundamental,” wholesale “transformation.” The best way to address “the ever expanding, ever destructive global reach of the capitalist system,” he argued, would be to replace it with “ecological socialism.”
Acknowledging that “what went under the name of socialism” in times past “was a huge disaster,” Kovel in 2000 claimed that those failures did not represent “socialism by any coherent definition of the term true socialism.” “What passed as socialism within the Soviet world and the Marxist Leninism world,” he explained, “was basically an attempt to rebuild capitalism under conditions of scarcity and low development.” Thus, Kovel concluded, humanity had never yet experienced the fullness of “what socialism could really be.”
Kovel argued that “certain forms of what’s called wealth” – things like “sports utility vehicles” and “Barbie dolls” – amounted to nothing more than pieces of “cultural junk” that were inevitable by-products of “overproduction,” “one of the hallmarks of capitalism.” “A sane society,” said Kovel, “whether you call it Green or Eco-socialist, would be free of that … reckless growth compulsion, that really cancerous growth compulsion, that’s causing the ecological crisis, that’s making our society unsustainable.”
Kovel revisited this theme in a September 2001 essay titled “A Socialism for the Next Epoch,” which describes “capital” as a “pathogen” whose “endlessly invasive and expansive force” is “gnawing away at the threads of ecological integrity, and exceeding, with its inexorable pressure to expand, the earth’s capacity to buffer ecological destabilization.”
In his 2001 “Ecosocialist Manifesto” – co-authored with anthropologist Michael Löwy, a member of the Trotskyist Fourth International – Kovel argues that “the capitalist world system” is a “historically bankrupt” entity wherein “rampant industrialization” and a “global mass culture of consumerism” have caused “an unprecedented degree of ecological breakdown,” all manner of “societal breakdown,” “a chaotic world order,” and “disparities in wealth and power” whose magnitudes are “unprecedented in human history.” To combat this “new and malignant variation of fascism,” says Kovel, “we need to build a ‘socialism’ capable of overcoming the crises capital has set going. And if socialisms past have failed to do so, then it is our obligation … to struggle for one that succeeds.”
In his 2002 book The Enemy of Nature, Kovel emphasizes “the need for fundamental change” that could “bring down the capitalist system” which, by his telling, is inherently destructive of the natural world. He also identifies “oil imperialism” – i.e., the capitalist quest to gain control over sources of petroleum to fuel the engines of industry – as a major cause of Western military conflicts with oil-rich, predominantly Muslim nations of the Middle East. Moreover, Kovel urges his readers to “ruthlessly criticize the capitalist system” so as to “deligitimate” it and thereby “release people into struggle” against it. “Radical criticism of the given,” he says, can be a potent “material force” to promote change.
Kovel’s contempt for America is mirrored by his equally low regard for Israel. He has referred to the Jewish state as an “abomination” and “a historical mistake” whose politics are “grounded in the domination, oppression, and expulsion of others”; accused Israel of trying “to destroy everything that is not Jewish in the land of Palestine”; asserted that he well understands “the desire to smash Zionism”; described the West Bank as “a huge concentration camp” populated by Palestinian Arabs; and said that several Israeli prime ministers in recent decades were “openly recognized to have been world-class terrorists and mass murderers.”
In his 2007 book, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel-Palestine, Kovel argues that Zionism has caused Israel to become a nation replete with racism, injustice, a lack of democracy, and ecological degeneration. “What is wrong with the Jewish state is the fact of being a Jewish state,” he writes, adding that the only viable means for bringing peace to the region would be a one-state solution whereby Jews and Arabs could live side-by-side in a secular, Arab-majority state.
In February 2009, Bard College chose not to renew Kovel’s contract to teach there, though it conferred emeritus status upon him as an honorific. Administrators cited financial constraints as well as poor evaluations from students, as the reasons behind their decision. Kovel, however, charged that his termination of active service was motivated “by political values, principally stemming from differences between myself and the Bard administration on the issue of Zionism.” “The evidence,” he added, “shows a pattern of conflict over Zionism only too reminiscent of innumerable instances in this country in which critics of Israel have been made to pay, often with their careers, for speaking out.”
In March 2015, Kovel praised President Barack Obama‘s effort “to normalize relations with Iran,” most notably by means of the highly controversial nuclear-arms agreement that was being negotiated with the regime in Tehran at the time. Asserting that such an agreement would be Obama’s “great legacy in foreign policy,” Kovel lamented that there were “certain elements in the United States … who would love to destroy that wish of Obama, would love to destroy Iran, who really promote war against Iran.”
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