Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2017

Gary Cohen: the death of an SWP diehard

Filed under: cults,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

After I transferred to the Boston branch in 1970 to shore up the SWP majority faction, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment on Howard St. in Cambridge, about a fifteen-minute walk from Harvard Square. My first roommate was a closeted gay member who transferred out of Boston to the Portland branch. From time to time, I Google his name to see what has become of him. Like most people I knew from the Trotskyist movement in the early 70s, he seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth.

After he left town, the spare bedroom was taken over by a comrade named Gary Cohen who has just died. Like my mom who used to read the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle long after she had moved to upstate NY with my dad, I read the Militant newspaper mostly to see who has passed on (as well as to see the latest bizarro article).

Like most of the memorial articles that appear in the Militant, instead of getting a sense of the person, you only get the cookie-cutter version of how they functioned as a “Bolshevik”. Unlike most SWP’ers, Gary never “made the turn toward industry”. I myself tried one morning to make the turn as a spot welder (the longest 3 hours of my life) and decided to quit the job after the lunch whistle blew.

The article passed judgment on Gary:

“Gary was a lifer, who joined the party as a young man and remained committed to the SWP and the fight for a better world,” said [Paul] Mailhot. “He didn’t participate in the party’s turn to industry in the late 1970s through the 1990s, when all members of the party were getting jobs in union mines, mills, factories and railroads. He wasn’t in the center of the party’s work then. Later, in 2001, he dropped out of the party and became a supporter.”

Talk about damning with faint praise.

In fact, Gary was a dentist when he moved in with me. The article does give him credit for how he spent his years before joining the sect: “Cohen became involved in protests and sit-ins against racist segregation in the 1950s. He joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan in the early 1960s, where his experiences deepened his opposition to imperialist militarism and war.”

Joining the Trotskyist movement in 1960 and dropping out in 2001,  his tenure in the SWP was a long slog: forty-one years. A real diehard. And after dropping out, Gary became a “sympathizer” for another 16 years, a status roughly equivalent to being in Dante’s limbo. Someone like myself would be seen as dwelling in Hades, if not in the Ninth Circle. (The truth is that I rule the realm of ex-SWP’ers like Lucifer.)

A week or so ago, an ex-member told me that the sect is down to 88 voting members that rely on the support of about 250 sympathizers who are called upon to scan books for the Pathfinder project, contribute money, and take on “Jimmy Higgins” tasks. I would guess that the average age of these people is about 65. As their numbers dwindle, the SWP will someday give up the ghost just like Daniel De Leon’s SLP. What keeps it going for the time being is the slavish devotion of the voting members to cult leader Jack Barnes who has not written a single article for the party press in at least a decade.

When I got up to Boston, Gary and Linda Sheppard (now known as Linda Thompson) were the two most committed supporters of the SWP majority that was trying to purge the branch of Larry Trainor’s tendency that was uneasy with the orientation to the student and antiwar movement. Trainor, like Farrell Dobbs, was always expecting the 1970s to turn into the 1930s. As such, it was necessary for SWP members to be “implanted” in mines, mills, factories, and railroads as Mailhot indicated.

By 1978, the year the turn began, Cohen must have been close to fifty and in the third decade of both a dentistry career and SWP membership. He used to work on the teeth of SWP members for free, including me, in an office near Cambridge’s Central Square. I don’t think he liked dentistry very much but it certainly made for a fairly lucrative career that was reflected in the tens of thousands of dollars he contributed as a member and then as a sympathizer.

Gary probably understood better than the people who were pressuring him to “go into industry” that he could not make the turn. In a normal left party, this would have not been expected from someone who had been a member for over 25 years but this was a cult that was always testing members’ True Faith.

The obit does not give you much sense of Gary’s personality except that he had “a wicked sense of humor”. Well, not exactly. Gary was a compulsive punner (in the clinical psychology sense) who would inevitably take something you said in conversation and turn it into a pun. Afterwards, he’d laugh at his joke—a bit hysterically.

Probably the only thing that anchored this fragile personality was his party duties that the article does not mention. Gary was the Militant Labor Forum director in Boston for many years and very good at it. These were weekly public meetings at headquarters where a party representative would speak alongside someone from the mass movement. In the early 70s, the most common topics for these meetings were the antiwar movement, the woman’s movement that was just taking off, Black nationalism, etc.

Gary also had a weekly radio program on some university radio station that followed the same format. He was known to the listening public as Gary Kane and very good at what he did.

Gary and Linda Sheppard were the scourges of Larry Trainor’s followers. Gary took every opportunity at branch meetings to denounce “workerism”. The irony is that within 5 years, the SWP had adopted Trainor’s perspective—or more accurately, taken that perspective to the extreme. I am quite sure that if Larry had lived to see the party he built dwindle down to less than 90 members because of driving people like Gary Cohen out of the movement, he would curse Jack Barnes the same way he did in the early 70s.

As the SWP grew weirder and weirder, it must have had an effect on Gary psychologically. I heard through the grapevine that he had a nervous breakdown in the 1980s but responded well to electroconvulsive therapy (ie., shock treatments), so much so that he ditched the dentistry career and became an ECT technician.

Looking back at the days I spent in the SWP, I can see how most of us—including me—were psychological misfits. What saved me from becoming a 57-year combined member and sympathizer of the SWP was my highly developed passive-aggressive tendencies. The first inkling I got that someone like Jack Barnes was trying to screw me, that’s when I bared my fangs.

The crowning irony is that the memorial meeting for Gary was held in Boston, where the SWP folded shop two years ago. You can read my obit for the Boston branch here.


  1. I’m so sorry Gary passed away. I always liked him, whatever his faults. I still remember him cutting a rug in the 50’s style.

    Funny thing is, it didn’t register that it was THE Gary Cohen until you mentioned his compulsive punning. It got him in trouble a few times. Once, during internal discussion, the chair said that “Gary, followed by xxx” (don’t recall the name) would speak. xxx was a member of a minority tendency, who got huffy in her remarks after he said, “I’m more used to being followed by the FBI.” Ahhhh, dueling neuroses. The spice of internal SWP life.

    More seriously, he wrote an internal discussion piece on the Clamshell Alliance called “Digging Clams”. They were not amused.

    Good-bye, Gary. You were good to know and the world’s a bit less colorful without you.

    Comment by Evan Siegel — October 1, 2017 @ 3:07 am

  2. What a piece! Dripping with more than the usual vindictive. With bared fangs at your cursed enemy! No less. It leaves me hanging, imagining how it unfolded after that! (Or better, leave me to fantasize).

    Comment by seaspan — October 1, 2017 @ 3:25 am

  3. Accurate portrait. Gary Cohen was sincere. You couldn’t hate him even when you disagreed with his ideas and his acceptance of the undemocratic maneuvers of his faction. I didn’t know that he had a nervous breakdown in the 1980s and I’m horrified to hear that electro-shcok “tehrapy” was stil used then. Poor Gary. John Barzman.

    Comment by journeesjulesdurand — October 1, 2017 @ 6:42 am

  4. Am I right in remembering that Gary also provided dental services to residents of public housing near South Boston or Dorchester? If not, that would have been in character for him — very generous with his time and money while living a fairly Spartan existence. He was also one of the few people in the Boston branch who had a car and served as chauffer not only for party business but also for pleasure on the weekends. (I remember skinny dipping late at night in the Mystic Lakes, all night dance parties with Puerto Rican sympathizers, and a trip to Mt. Manadnock). I also remember Gary’s schtick as MC for party banquets where he would enjoy inflicting those puns on the audience as well as singing his “Three Cohens in the Fointainbleau” parody of the corny Hollywood hit “Three Coins in the Fountain”. Still and all, an odd quirky guy to be sure — what Freud meant by “neurotic” (whatever he really meant…). I’m sorry to hear that he had a breakdown in the 80’s. John B., you may be horrified that ECT (electro convulsive therapy) was still used in the 80’s but it still is now, very sparingly. The idea of it is, of course, appalling, but the fact is that it does work for some, especially those who do not respond to meds or talk therapy. Gary wouldn’t have become a trained ECT technician if he didn’t believe that it had helped him and could help others. RIP.

    Comment by Dick O. — October 2, 2017 @ 8:51 pm

  5. I remember Gary. Selfless and a dedicated socialist who subsidized and helped the movement as he saw it. Noble really. Now I know that Paul Mailhot is still a member – I recall I was removed from the YSA for being too old when Paul was kept – he was one day younger or older, I don’t recall…. so sad these people that hang on despite it all. Claudette Begin

    Comment by Claudette Begin — October 10, 2017 @ 10:38 pm

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