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Was Philip Foner Guilty of Plagiarism?

On May 23, 2003 Melvyn Dubofsky revealed on H-Labor, a scholarly discussion group, that his dissertation had been plagiarized by the late Philip Foner, author of more than forty books on the history of American labor. Mr. Dubofysky' s post prompted a vigorous exchange over the next few days. Selections follow.

MELVYN DUBOFSKY Mr. Dubofsky is a member of the Department of History, SUNY Binghamton.

Nearly twenty years ago I wrote a review essay for L[abor] H[istory] on [Philip] Foner's multivolume history of labor in USA under the title"Give Us That Old-Time Labor History" in which I did not dis his politics or ideology but only hinted at what really needed to be said.

Now that Steve Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Bellesiles, and others have been outed for their plagiarism and other scholarly sins, one should examine more closely how Foner wrote so many books without the team of researchers that John R. Commons had at his service when he directed and wrote an earlier multivolume history of labor. As I discovered when I read Foner's fourth volume on labor, he borrowed wholesale from my then unpublished dissertation. He footnoted materials drawn from my published and copywritten articles and even placed inverted commas around direct quotations, but he took even larger chunks from my dissertation (which in those good old days was neither automatically microfilmed nor copywritten) without attribution or inverted commas (first brought to my attention by a former grad student who reviewed the volume).

Later, I discovered he did the same with other dissertations too numerous to mention. Then when I did my book on the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] I discovered that Foner had never seen documents cited in his footnotes that were supposedly located in the National Archives (they were classified and unavailable to researchers) and that he had destroyed documents at AFL-CIO headquarters (pre Meany Center and pre SHSW AFL collection, the Federation's records were stored in what amounted to an attic room in the headquarters building and rarely examined by scholars).

Years ago I checked the newspapers that he cites so profusely in his footnotes and found that they bore a remarkable resemblance to similar citations in numerous unpublished dissertations. So, its not the politics and ideology that should be condemned but the shoddy scholarship. And as for politics and ideology, all we labor historians are greatly in debt to E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Royden Harrison, George Rude, all of whom were CPGB [Communist Party, Great Britain] members, and especially Eric Hobsbawm, whose association with the CP was longest and firmest.

JOHN EARL HAYNES Mr. Haynes is co-author with Harvey Klehr of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America.

When I was a beginning graduate student my labor history research seminar received a lesson about scholarship I have never forgotten. The professor had been stressing the importance of precision in documentation for some weeks. Then at one seminar session he came in and said he had just received the galleys for a new volume of Foner’s History of the Labor Movement. He broke the galleys by chapter and handed one to each student and told us our assignment for the next week was, to the extent possibly with the resources at the university library, to verify the accuracy of the footnotes. Obviously, citations to original documents could not be checked, but many to published works could be.

Next week, not all but most of us reported that a portion of Foner’s footnotes were unreliable, a minority of notes but of sufficient proportion to make one wary of relying on any particular one without checking. Material cited could not be found where it was cited or it was there but the dates were wrong, the title of the source incorrect, the author misstated, or some other error that required further tacking down. In a few cases the material actually in the cited source failed to support or contradicted the text. The professor had not made any comments on Foner’s interpretive stance (at least not that I can remember) and that wasn’t part of the assignment. But the point of the exercise was clear: get your documentation right or someday some future set graduate students may become as mistrustful of relying on your footnotes as we had become about Foner’s. In time I departed from Foner’s interpretive stance as well, but that is another matter.

MARK LAUSE Mr. Lause is a member of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Cincinnati.

I have freely criticized Phil Foner's work many times and in many venues, mostly for sloppy mistakes that went unquestioned because of his unexamined assumptions.

However, Phil Foner's record of original scholarship was monumental, and he had the guts to ask the important questions where others remain mute. He often did not fully comprehend the significance of what he was getting into print, and WE are his beneficiaries because we get to follow up. Frankly, anyone on this list would be fortunate if we can leave a legacy with a fraction of the importance of Foner's multi-volume documentary collection on black workers in America--to mention just one of his projects.

Foner doggedly pursued these goals in a profession that did not accord his projects the kind of time or support needed to do even a fraction of them as well as they might have been done. That was--and remains--more a failing of the profession.

...and, by the way, people in the professions tend to clone themselves, so I really don't think it's changed all that much generationationally. For this reason, I am not surprised to find that the ritual denunciations of radicalism accompany the questing of academic labor history's striving for respectability.

Mark Lause

ANDERS LEWISMr. Lewis received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Florida.

I am very happy to see that our recent debate on Philip Foner and labor history has set a one day record for posts to H-Labor. The hornet's nest has been shaken! Now, my three point response.

First, I am amazed that anyone would still bother to come to Foner's defense after Melvyn Dubofsky's and John Haynes's recent posts. Both Dubofsky and Haynes raise deeply troubling questions about Foner's scholarship. Not only has Foner plagiarized vast amounts of material but, as Dubofsky writes, he apparently also destroyed research materials at the AFL-CIO headquarters. One would think that those who would defend Foner would now duck and cover. But no! Instead, several individuals have come to his defense and attacked me for my supposedly conservative politics. Michelle Kilbourne writes that "Foner's work continues to be relevant to working people despite the errors." Lawrence McDonnell writes that Foner "was no stylist, but he deserves reading by the rising generation for his guts alone" (a curious standard of scholarship). Alan Singer writes that "I frequently use his [Foner's] work as a starting point for research." Finally (admittedly before Dubofsky's post on Foner's "scholarship") Norman Markowitz wrote of Foner's "enormous contribution to labor history." In his more recent post, Markowitz backed away from any discussion of Foner. Perhaps he is embarrassed by his initially vigorous defense? Markowitz also seems quite interested in noting his contemporary political views, including his concerns with "flag waving, tax cuts, [and] a federal government committed to Reagan redux at home and something far worse than Reagan abroad.." Many H-Labor readers will nod in agreement when reading these statements but I submit that such political grandstanding has no place in serious scholarly discussion.

Just as interesting are those who responded to my criticisms of Foner by arguing that objectivity is a hopeless goal. Kilbourne writes that "to write history is to bring baggage - your time, your place, your gender, your politics, and so forth - to the table." Similarly, Albert Lannon provides a quote from Dylan: "You're right from your side, and I'm right from mine...." Lannon adds, "with different perspectives we get to see that, in fact, there are no truths, only stories."

So why have any standards for scholarship? Why write history? Why not simply deliver papers by declaring the following: "My name is John Smith and I am 50 years old. I am a socialist and am opposed to capitalism and the American political system. As such, the paper I present to you today on union politics in the 1930s praises the efforts of communist led unions to challenge both." Or, even better, one could simply flash a card that displays one's politics. The crowd would see the card and either nod in agreement or become quite agitated. Boring indeed, not to mention that honest history mandates more than this, and much more than a defense of a writer (Foner) who fails every basic test of scholarship. But this points to a very real problem that confronts labor historians, the support of an "historian" such as Foner because of his political views. Support the revolution first, and we will worry ourselves with the scholarship much, much later (if at all).


[Philip Foner] was an exciting teacher, a wonderful speaker, and innovative in the many and varied subjects which he dealt with. He was the first to do so but was not always the best. There were problems not in terms of objectivity, who can not agree with his strictures against exploitation of workers, his display of the racism which has marred the history of the working class in the U.S., his emotional arguments with regard to the second class status of women.

BUT, and this is a big BUT. There were always comments about his productivity and plagerism, In the late 1960s when he taught at what was called The Free University in New York City, it was charged that some of the material that appeared in the students' papers also became part of his narratives but unacknowledged. Perhaps so, perhaps not. That was a long time ago and who can know for sure.

But Labor History, before I became editor, did prove his plagerism: I would refer you to"Philip Foner and the Writing of the Joe Hill Case: an exchange" (Labor History, 12:1, Winter 1971, pp. 81-114). This took place between James O, Morris whose Master's Essay was compared to Foner's book on a line by line basis.

In most of the postings dealing with Foner there is reference to Mel Dubofsky. He penned a detailed analysis of the Foner volumes of labor history in"Give us that Old Time Labor History: Philip S. Foner and the American Worker" (Labor History, 26:1, Winter 1985, pp. 118-137). I would not argue with the interpretations set forth by most of those who have participated but perhaps a look at these articles might clear away some of the unnecessary verbiage.