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  From the issue dated June 27, 2003

  Seeing Red


   It all started on a friendly enough note, as an online chat
  among labor historians about the definitive books in their
  field. Late last month, in the course of a few rounds of
  e-mail messages, subscribers to H-Labor listed a wide range of
  titles that they would recommend to their students. The tone
  was collegial; some scholars even had the pleasure of seeing
  their own work nominated. Then somebody asked about the late
  Philip S. Foner -- and the mood changed fast.

  The author or editor of more than a hundred volumes, Foner
  published studies on a broad range of topics involving the
  American labor movement, as well as pioneering work on
  African-American history. His interpretations were
  unmistakably Marxist, which made his life difficult, even
  before Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy came along. But by the 1960s,
  his intransigence, as well as his superhuman energy, made him
  a hero to some younger scholars. Just a few months before his
  death in 1994, Foner received a lifetime achievement award
  from the New York Labor History Association.

  The mention of his name sent a jolt through the e-mail list.
  Someone called him a left-wing hack, but that was before
  things started getting really harsh. His footnotes were
  notoriously unreliable, critics said. He cited archival
  documents he could not have actually seen, including some that
  may never have existed. And worse, he was a serial plagiarist
  on a vast scale -- with substantial parts of his work lifted
  from unpublished research by other scholars.

  His defenders say the accusations are just a continuation of
  an anti-communist witch hunt that drove Foner out of academic
  life for much of his career. Eric Foner, a professor of
  history at Columbia University, says that his uncle's radical
  politics are the crux of the recent debate. "Obviously, any
  charge of plagiarism needs to be taken seriously," he says.
  "But I think that this controversy is being muddied up with
  powerful ideological issues that ought to be kept quite

  The situation was politicized long before the online
  discussion began, according to John Earl Haynes, the co-editor
  of a series of volumes on the American Communist Party drawn
  from Soviet archives. "Phil Foner is immune. He was a repeated
  plagiarist, but it doesn't make any difference, because he's a
  hero to radical historians," says Mr. Haynes. Concerns about
  Foner's "sloppy scholarship" and questionable practices first
  emerged in the early 1970s, he notes. That Foner continued to
  be a role model suggests to Mr. Haynes that labor history is
  "not among the healthy sections of the profession."

  Old Complaints Revisited

  Suspicions about Philip Foner may have circulated quietly
  among his peers for decades, but the current discussion is far
  more heated, and considerably more public. In late May, the
  volume of traffic on H-Labor reached 50 messages a day, a
  record for the normally quiet list. Then the exchange began to
  spill over to people outside the field. Mr. Haynes posted
  excerpts on H-HOAC, a list on the history of American
  communism that he moderates.

  A condensed version of the debate then appeared on the History
  News Network, which has a large readership among laypeople.
  The accusations of plagiarism and professional malfeasance
  sounded all too familiar to readers who had only recently
  heard similar stories about Stephen Ambrose, Michael
  Bellesiles, and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

  The debate also opens old wounds from political conflicts in
  decades past. In 1941, Philip Foner was one of dozens of
  faculty members at the City College of New York to be fired
  for membership in the Communist Party. His three brothers also
  lost their jobs in the city's educational system. In 1981, the
  Board of Trustees of the City University of New York issued a
  formal apology to those dismissed, declaring the purge a
  violation of academic freedom.

  In the meantime, Foner spent many years working as an editor
  for a commercial press. He also published a steady stream of
  work in labor and African-American history. In 1967, he became
  a professor of history at Lincoln University, a historically
  black institution near Philadelphia, where he remained until
  his retirement in 1979. He continued to be prolific throughout
  the remaining years of his life -- with the 11th and 12th
  volumes of his History of the Labor Movement in the United
  States in progress when he died.

  That series, Foner's magnum opus, may be his most
  characteristic work. When he began the project in the 1940s,
  he meant it as a rebuttal to the four-volume History of Labor
  in the United States prepared by John R. Commons and other
  scholars at the University of Wisconsin in the early decades
  of the 20th century. For "the Wisconsin school," labor
  organizations did not challenge the fundamental values of
  industrial capitalism. Rather, workers used unions to improve
  their position within the existing order. For Foner, by
  contrast, unions were part of a broader movement for
  democratization -- a means of struggling for political and
  social goals such as equality and power, as well as better
  wages, hours, and working conditions.

  "He was a pioneer in the development of labor history as a
  discipline, in moving it out of the economics department,"
  says Nelson N. Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the
  University of California at Santa Barbara. He notes that Foner
  chronicled the struggles of black and female workers at a time
  when the constituency of unions was assumed, by default, to be
  white and male. By the late 1960s -- despite his marginality,
  or perhaps because of it -- Foner was an acknowledged
  influence on the younger generation of historians studying the
  labor movement.

  Strangely Familiar

  Meanwhile, Foner was in turn being influenced by lesser-known
  scholars, to put it as kindly as possible.

  The first sign of trouble came in 1971, when James O. Morris
  published an article in Labor History charging that Foner's
  book The Case of Joe Hill (International Publishers, 1965)
  contained extensive plagiarism from an unpublished master's
  thesis that Mr. Morris wrote in the 1950s. "About one quarter
  of the Foner text is a verbatim or nearly verbatim
  reproduction of the Morris manuscript," he wrote. That was a
  low estimate, because Mr. Morris also noted that many of the
  primary sources quoted in his thesis also appeared in Foner's
  book -- passages that "begin at the same word in a broken
  sentence, involve the same pattern of dots for omitted
  material, end at the same point. ..."

  In his reply, published along with Mr. Morris's article, Foner
  listed the archives and sources he had consulted. He
  acknowledged reading the thesis, but said he did so only
  toward the end of his research. He did not respond to Mr.
  Morris's documentation, in side-by-side columns, that compared
  Foner's book to the thesis and showed extensive borrowing,
  much of it word for word.

  It was not to be the only time. Melvyn Dubofsky, a professor
  of history and sociology at the State University of New York
  at Binghamton, found "large chunks" of his dissertation
  incorporated, without attribution, into the fourth volume of
  Foner's History of the Labor Movement. "Later, I discovered he
  did the same with other dissertations too numerous to
  mention," he told H-Labor. Without noting the parallel with
  Mr. Morris's complaint, Mr. Dubofsky likewise points out that
  citations from primary sources in Foner's work tend to be
  exactly the same as those found in unpublished work by
  graduate students.

  Other questions about Foner's documentation prove even more
  troubling. "I had a student working on the fur and leather
  workers' union, which Foner had written a book about," says
  Mr. Dubofsky. "She could not find the materials" in union
  records that Foner cited in his notes. "What happened? Did
  they exist?" In a book on the Industrial Workers of the World,
  a radical union, Foner claimed to have consulted government
  records that Mr. Dubofsky says he could never have actually
  examined, because they were classified and unavailable to

  'Processing Error'

  Such allegations were well known within labor history during
  the 1970s and 1980s, according to scholars in the field,
  including some who remain sympathetic to Foner.

  "The tragedies of his life were multiple," says Santa
  Barbara's Mr. Lichtenstein. "He was on the margins of academic
  life, and even when he got back in, he didn't interact much
  with the mainstream. So I don't think he ever really held
  himself to academic standards."

  Mr. Lichtenstein recalls hearing Foner lecture on the Molly
  Maguires -- the Irish-American labor organization that emerged
  in Pennsylvania's coalfields in the 1870s. "It felt like I was
  in the presence of someone who was from the 19th century
  himself, when being a historian meant, first of all, just
  assembling tremendous amounts of documents. So yes, we knew
  there were various problems in his own writing. You knew you
  wouldn't want to rely on him as a source, but would need to
  check it. On the other hand, I take the collections of
  documents that he edited at face value. Once you get past the
  'gotcha' plagiarism stuff, he still has an important place in
  the development of labor history."

  Another scholar, David R. Roediger, a professor of history at
  the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, worked with
  Foner more directly -- collaborating with him on Our Own Time:
  A History of American Labor and the Working Day, published by
  Greenwood Press in 1989. "The nature of our collaboration was
  that he gave me boxes with all sorts of material in it, almost
  all primary sources." Foner himself drafted one chapter of the
  book. "I felt like I needed to check to make sure that
  everything in it was original," Mr. Roediger says, "because I
  knew the work would be scrutinized."

  Foner shrugged off the charges of impropriety, Mr. Roediger
  recalls. "He basically said the same things that Ambrose later
  did: 'I write a lot of books, I have research help' -- mostly
  the women in his life -- 'I have a mountain of notes, and
  sometimes can't tell what's what.' That was his reasoning --
  it was just a processing error that crept in every once in a
  while. He also had a photographic memory, so that may have
  been a factor."

  Mr. Roediger also makes a point that Foner's ideological
  opponents might well pounce on with glee. "There's a sense in
  which Communist culture could have been part of it," he says.
  Some works attributed to the Communist Party leader William Z.
  Foster were actually written by Foner, notes Mr. Roediger. The
  historian may have taken for granted that the norms of a
  "professional revolutionary" (in Lenin's phrase) applied to
  professional historians. In short: Labor is collective, but
  final authority belongs to the senior comrade.

  Closing Ranks

  The question remains: Why did his colleagues put up with it?

  Younger labor historians in the 1970s and '80s "tended to be
  people with left sympathies, who felt the man had suffered
  enough," says Mr. Dubofsky. "So even the people whose work he
  had borrowed from freely did not want to say anything."

  Mr. Dubofsky also points out that their options were limited.
  Any scholar asking for legal advice would, says Mr. Dubofsky,
  have been warned against seeking remedies -- for an author
  whose work does not generate a revenue stream can win only
  symbolic damages, a token amount as low as one penny.

  Finding their research pillaged may have become a rite of
  passage for graduate students in labor history; it could also
  be a painful experience that left younger scholars feeling
  helpless. Steven Rosswurm is not eager to revisit the memory
  of reading Labor and the American Revolution (Greenwood
  Press), one of several titles Foner turned out in 1976 for the
  bicentennial. He recalls the deja vu of encountering long
  passages from sources unearthed while working on his master's
  thesis, later incorporated into Mr. Rosswurm's book Arms,
  Country and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and "Lower Sort"
  During the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (Rutgers, 1987).

  "At the time, I was certain, about 150 percent certain, that
  they had been plagiarized from my work," recalls Mr. Rosswurm.
  While quoting primary materials cited by another scholar may
  not be plagiarism in the strictest sense, digging materials
  out of an archive does tend to leave a historian feeling
  proprietary about them. He later learned that Foner had
  borrowed his thesis through an interlibrary loan.

  When asked how he felt at the time, Mr. Rosswurm uses colorful
  language connoting violent anger. But he also sounds unhappy
  at speaking ill of the dead. "It's been almost 30 years, so I
  put it out of my mind a long time ago," he says. "I'm not so
  sure it was a matter of leftist sympathies as it was just
  being a graduate student. When you're a graduate student, you
  get used to being screwed."

  Check Your Footnotes

  "If you look at the whole of his body of work, a lot of
  historians think that my uncle's most important contributions
  are things that aren't being discussed at all in this," says
  Eric Foner. "He edited the writings of Frederick Douglass at a
  time when, believe it or not, nobody remembered him. He edited
  seven volumes of documents on the history of black labor in
  the United States, and collections of material from black
  political conventions in the 19th century. And he did all of
  it without research assistants or grants. This debate is not
  doing justice to his contributions to scholarship."

  The New York Labor History Association has no plans to revoke
  the lifetime-achievement award it gave Foner in 1994,
  according to the group's president, Irwin Yellowitz, a
  professor emeritus of history at CUNY's City College. "I was
  on the board, and there was a discussion about the rumors that
  he had been cutting corners," he says. "But the decision was
  finally made that the award would be given in recognition of
  the body of work as a whole, even if it was not always of the
  very highest quality all throughout."

  And it may be that Foner has made a contribution of a
  different sort, over the years, albeit quietly. John Haynes
  recalls a seminar in graduate school, sometime in the early
  1970s, when a professor handed out chapters from Foner's
  latest book, still in galleys. The assignment for each
  student: to check up on the footnotes, as much as possible. By
  the following week, Mr. Haynes recalls, a number of people
  reported large discrepancies between what the text said about
  the sources and the sources themselves.

  "The professor didn't say very much. He knew Foner. In fact,
  he was very fond of Foner, but I think he knew very well what
  we were going to find," says Mr. Haynes. "This was, in part,
  an object lesson. He was telling us, 'Here's a big name. But
  just because he's a big name, don't assume that he does things
  right. And you'd better learn from this example, unless you
  want to have a classroom full of graduate students make the
  same kind of discovery about you someday.'"


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