The Gang Lawyer

November 29, 2010
New on the Marxists Internet Archive: Dunayevskaya’s analysis of McCarthyist lawyer Roy Cohn (who also featured as a character in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America).  He might remind you of some of the totalitarian wannabes on today’s political scene.

The Gang Lawyer


Source: Correspondence, Feb. 20, 1954. This piece appeared as Dunayevskaya’s regular unsigned column, “Two Worlds.” It is included in The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, microfilm numbers 9341 and 9342;
Transcribed: by Kevin Michaels.

I remember when I first saw the announcement in the paper that Roy Cohn would be McCarthy’s attorney on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. It sent a shudder through me. Without even reading the story of his life, the picture revealed the type. The worldly young man endowed with brains and wealth, through no effort of his own, believing that he can, with no roots in any civilization, do anything and everything; believing only in his own personality and using it unashamedly to breeze through any opposition.

He was only 25 then, the son of an old-line Democrat, a New York judge. Too young to be in the second World War, he had whizzed through Columbia University and law school during the post-war period in three and a half years, graduating so young that he had to wait a year and a half before he could take his bar exam. Every college student knows the type, the opportunist with brains and connections who develops them as fast as possible in order to put them at the disposal of the highest bidder. Cohn didn’t have to wait long. The moment he passed his bar exam, a job was waiting for him as Confidential Assistant to the United States Attorney in New York.

Outside the Law

The Government gave Cohn the opportunity he needed. The Communists were being prosecuted for conspiracy. While the legal forms were being maintained in Court, a special department was set up by the Attorney General to deal with all radicals. The boy who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth was now worth his weight in gold. While other government attorneys hesitated to bring in anti-Communist radicals under the same law which prosecuted Communists, Cohn was uninhibited by any democratic tradition. The end justified the means, legal or not. The older, more respectable attorneys protested, but in the end they always capitulated. Cohn knew that he could always sweep them along. All they wanted to do was go more slowly but their ends were no different than his. Cohn gathered around him a gang of younger men, as rootless and ruthless as he, anxious to put their highly-trained brains at the service of the most powerful bidder.

Now that his ability to bully his more liberal colleagues into illegal short-cuts had been proven, Cohn did not stay long with the U.S. Attorney. He was looking for more fertile fields. The new U.S. Attorney was anxious to move more slowly, to stay within the law. McCarthy needed a lawyer on his staff, as unscrupulous and as brazen and as shameless as he.

McCarthy and Cohn joined forces. McCarthy’s smears are as unscrupulous as Cohn’s, but his manner is shifty, sneering. Cohn brings to the proceedings the vigorous brassiness which paralyzes the opposition with its offensiveness.

Informers’ Best Friend

The whole tradition of the American people fills them with horror and distaste for stool pigeons. But everything the Administration, Democratic and Republican, had done drives them towards identifying the informer with a patriot. When Louis Budenz, Elizabeth Bentley[1], Whittaker Chambers and the whole army of lesser fry stool pigeons take the stand to finger people, they are aware of the revulsion of the whole community. Cohn is there to give them the immoral courage to continue. Without any ifs, ands, or buts he stands for the philosophy of glorifying informers. When he is present, they feel that it takes guts to be an informer. He bathes their dirty work in the aura of being with the elite. His very presence reassures them that if they lie, he will find the means legal or illegal to protect them. The American public knows the gang lawyer, the legal brain who puts his skills, experience and connections at the disposal of the gangsters and fixes everything for them. It also knows the prosecutor who uses the state’s witnesses against criminals. But the type who is both prosecutor and gang lawyer is a product of a world in which all society is in such total crisis that the gangsters have taken over the government.

At Your Service

Cohn served as a cloak for McCarthy’s anti-Semitic attacks. At one televised hearing, Cohn shouted, “I am a Jew and that has nothing to do with the case.” Every minority has its upper crust, exceptional individuals who see in their special qualifications a way to overcome the disadvantages which official society imposed upon the majority. They are the ones who buy acceptance with special services. Among the Negroes are the Talented Tenth leaders. Cohn is a Talented Tenth Jew. The way he puts it is that the Jew has a special obligation to repay American society for the advantages it has given him. The Jew should show his special gratitude by out-patrioting the patriots. He takes a special pride in prosecuting Jews and doesn’t even wince at being called an anti-Semite. Hitler had Jews like that in his party.

The exceptional individuals in a minority very often anticipate the next stage of a society. Their own people are seeking assimilation and integration in a way that demands the reorganization of society on a more democratic basis. When they turn their backs on their own people, and seek assimilation for themselves as exceptional individuals, they take the most reactionary features of the existing system to their conclusion. Very often a woman who want to be up there with the men will be more venomous against other women than any man.

Liberals Are Helpless

Cohn totally disregards and demolishes all civilized values. Respect for the individual, respect for the truth, respect for freedom; he has none of this and he prosecutes any dissenters, not to protect democracy but to destroy one gang in behalf of another. The only question he is concerned with is this: whose side are you on? Anybody who is not in his gang, ready to go to the limit with him, is on Moscow’s side, to be mowed down.

In the face of this totalitarian philosophy, the liberal is completely helpless. The liberal press shouts against Cohn, but all it could do when Cohn and Schine [2] made their 17-day book-burning junket abroad was ridicule them as spoiled brats and wail at the cost to American prestige abroad. The liberals are genuinely anxious to preserve democratic rights. They despise, loathe and fear Cohn as a menace to everything valuable in the American tradition. But in their minds also the only two worlds are Russian Communism and American Democracy. They cannot put up a resistance to Cohn’s totalitarian gangsterism here any more than the liberal intellectual abroad can put up a resistance to the totalitarian gangsterism of Communism. They feel the crisis but they have no total opposition to the system in the concept of a new society built by the workers.

1. Elizabeth Bentley (1908-1963) was a Communist Party member in the 1930s. She began cooperating with the FBI in the 1940s and went on to become a frequent government witness in efforts to prosecute Communists. She published a memoir, Out Of Bondage, in 1951. [Transcriber]

2. Though not a lawyer David Schine (1927-1996), was a staff member of Joseph McCarthy’s Senate committee. Cohn’s efforts to win Schine a discharge from the U.S. army played a large role in the events in 1954 that led to McCarthy’s downfall. [Transcriber]

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