Marx and/or Freud: Joel Kovel and psychoanalytic theory

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Author: Paul Buhle
Date: May 1990
From: Monthly Review(Vol. 42, Issue 1)
Publisher: Monthly Review Foundation, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,617 words

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Monthly Review readers already know something about Joel Kovel from his writings on the Catholic Church and other subjects. But if they are not lucky enough to catch him on the Bard College campus, or hear him at a lecture appearance, they have not likely experienced, up close, one of the most unique socialist intellectuals of North America.

In The Radical Spirit, he relishes the irony of his own story, from his celebrity-tinged rise as a formidable Freudian critic to his fall from grace as an avowedly revolutionary intellectual.(n1) Kovel began his analytic training in 1967, amid the escalation of the Vietnam war. His two worlds lived side by side: learning what he calls the "esoteric science" of Freudianism from archly anti-political physicians and embracing the political enthusiasm of the New Left. He brought the two together in his early volume, White Racism: A Psychohistory (1970), a psychoanalytic inquiry into the mechanisms that prompted racist responses to the Third World and fixed them into place as defining characteristics of "the West." It was the right idea at the right time, the evidence at times perhaps overinterpreted, but nevertheless establishing a real basis for valuable discussions of deeply embedded, deeply destructive values.

Kovel now recalls with amusement his invitations to the New York Times Book Review and the fashion magazines, among others. He had a bright future. But he had the bad luck or indiscretion to discover Marxism. He began to think along the lines by which he has proceeded since, the blind spots of Freudianism that could be illuminated by Marxism, and vice versa. This tilt cost him the potential prestige of the intellectual star-system, it provoked personal fissures (finally prompting him to leave the editorial board of the journal Telos, whose leading figures attacked feminism and embraced Euromissiles). And it cut him off from the big publishers, making his works difficult to obtain in the United States. These disadvantages seem only to have deepened his commitment. The dialogue between himself and many of his readers or listeners has simultaneously intensified. And he has had more and more to say about the perplexing issues of our time, like the arms race and the open question of a radical spirituality.

To appreciate just how much he has to say, we need to stop for a moment, take a deep intellectual breath, and outline some of the problems he confronts. Then we can consider how he has chosen to confront them.

Marxist theory is currently in an odd situation, and not only because the massive internal dislocation within the ostensibly socialist world seems to mirror in some strange way the dwindling of the Western industrial working class. Basic philosophical assumptions, more or less constant since Lenin's or Marx's time, have been thrown in serious doubt. Pluck a recent issue of Soviet Psychology or Praxis International (from Belgrade, via London), New Left Review, or New York's left-modish Voice Literary Supplement from a library shelf or...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A8490784