NEW YORK — 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 Monday in New York City. He was 81.
His death, at a hospital, was caused by pneumonia and autoimmune encephalitis, his wife, Dee Dee Halleck, said.
Dr. Kovel 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 insufficiently anticapitalist.
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 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 reflexive prescriptions.”
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 self-evident.
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 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, New York, Dr. Kovel 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, Dr. Kovel leaves 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 Halleck; her sons, Ezra, Peter, and Tovey Halleck, from an earlier marriage; his brother, Alex; and nine grandchildren.