Was Philip Foner Guilty of Plagiarism?


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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 As I discovered when I read Foner's fourth volume on labor, he borrowed wholesale from my then unpublished dissertation.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cites so profusely in his footnotes and found that they bore a remarkable resemblance to similar citations in numerous unpublished dissertations.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.

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Jacqueline R. Braitman - 5/13/2004

While I'm coming late to the party, during my search about determining where the line is drawn concerning having one's work unethically or just sloppily appropriated, I found this page on Phillip Foner's scholarship, or lack thereof. I only regret that I didn't act when I found an entire first page of a Foner work had been lifted word for word from an uncited article that I just happen to have noticed and had possession of so I could compare. Doubting my own eyes, and fearing I would be shot down, I now believe what I saw, and realize that I had an obligation to speak up. I will track down the article and provide it to you if possible, as it was several years ago. Now, if my recent concern could be so black and white. Regardless, where does one go to address such concerns since the AHA no longer mediates? Thanks, JBraitman

Jim Crutchfield - 7/7/2003

I'm interested by FW Hunterbear's account of Chaplin, and would love to read his paper--he can write me at jdcrutch-at-mindspring-dot-com if he'd like to arrange that.

From my recent reading of _Wobbly_ I believe Hunterbear is right in his assessment of Chaplin. Chaplin's bitterness against the Communists seems quite justified to me. They were more organized and more disciplined than the Wobblies, and, being willing to sacrifice truth, honor, justice, and virtually every other virtue to their ideology, were able to evade government persecution in a way that the generally open and honest Wobblies never could. The communists stole the Wobblies' thunder and took the wind out of their sails, and ultimately led the American Left into futility.

I do think Chaplin's assessment of Bill Haywood's book is unfair, but it's certainly understandable. Chaplin calls it "clearly ghostwritten". I'm more inclined to think it essentially authentic, if heavily edited and probably written with the knowledge of what the Soviet censors would and wouldn't allow.

My strongest impression of Chaplin after his release from prison was not exactly that he had gone over to the right, but that he had come to love Big Brother. He saw his beloved industrial unionist movement destroyed by state persecution and communist perfidy (among other things), and saw no realistic forward course for a Left dominated by communists or a labor movement dominated by bureaucrats and place-holders. His battered spirit sought refuge in religion, and who can blame him, at that point?

I don't think he ever lost his love of freedom, or his belief that workers could make the world a better place. I think he just got tired.

Michael Pugliese - 6/26/2003

------- Forwarded message -------
From: Hunter Gray
To: Hunter Gray
Subject: [ASDnet] Philip Foner and Ralph Chaplin [and some other historians
as well]
Date: Thu, 26 Jun 2003 12:37:39 -0600

Note by Hunterbear:

I'm not fond of Communist historian Phil Foner [the late Phil Foner]. Some
of his works -- which I have -- are useful. I do like his classic Fur and
Leather Workers Union,

What I'm quoting here from my long essay, "Reflections on Ralph Chaplin,
Wobblies, and Organizing in the Save the World Business -- Then and Now" --
published as the lead article in the special Voices of Western Labor issue
of The Pacific Historian, Summer, 1986, and also saying other some things
here as well, will likely draw gun shots from many directions, some
congenially and some not. But, with a very thick skull and extremely tough
hide, I stand by every word I say and write -- as I always do. My PH
article is taken from an even longer paper of mine by the same title which
presented in May, 1986, at the annual conference of the Pacific Northwest
Labor History Association, University of Oregon, Eugene.

"You have done a very fine job of rehabilitating Ralph Chaplin," a
Canadian left socialist told me after he'd heard my presentation at Eugene
and read my full and very lengthy paper. [He very kindly gave me a copy of
an excellent book of his own on public sector unionism in Canada.] Long
before that, historian Joe Conlin wound up agreeing with my position on
Chaplin. I don't know if I ever changed Mel Dubofsky's mind on Chaplin but
he was certainly at the 1986 Eugene gathering and we met and talked

A radical friend in Minnesota recently sent me the Chronicle of Higher
Education's article on the late historian Phil Foner's plagiarism -- of
which I've long been aware. The friend is quite cognizant that I am not an
admirer of Foner. This has now been discussed on several lists. But, while
always critical of anyone's plagiarism, my special beef with Phil Foner
started in earnest on the matter of his extremely shabby and lying
concerning Ralph H. Chaplin -- IWW poet, artist, writer, editor -- author
"Solidarity Forever" -- who remained loyally with the IWW as a very
writer and editor especially until 1936, then edited the Voice of the
Federation [ Maritime Federation of the Pacific Coast]; and, later for
years,edited the Tacoma Labor Advocate [ AFL Central Labor Council.]
Chaplin was a very close friend and admirer of Ammon Hennacy and Dorothy
Day [both former Wobblies] and their Catholic Worker Movement -- and was a
long time and very committed advocate for Native Americans and Native

Long before the '60s historians discovered the IWW, I -- just barely 21 at
the beginning of 1955 and then a very brand-new Wobbly -- gathered my
initial material on Chaplin, Haywood, Frank Little, and many more Wobblies
and much, much IWW history indeed from about 40 very old-time veteran
Wobblies at Seattle -- including the very sharp and venerable [almost 90]
C.E. "Stumpy" Payne, who had been present at the founding convention of the
IWW in 1905. [I often accompanied him to all sorts of meetings where he
raised pure, constructive hell.] In the years that followed, as I wandered
the Far West, I picked up much more data from former and present Wobblies,
many of them in the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers
with which I, myself, was very closely associated. The news of Chaplin's
death at Tacoma in 1961, was immediately conveyed to me by Elwood Taub,
Research and Education Director of International Woodworkers of America,
based at Portland. In the early and mid 1980s, I thoroughly researched
Chaplin's Collected Papers at the Washington State Historical Society
[Tacoma] and formally interviewed many of his old-time friends and
associates in the Pacific Northwest. Among other writings on Chaplin that
I've done, is my bio of him for the Encyclopedia of the American Left.

I know damn well what I'm talking about.

Here is the excerpt from my article on Chaplin in the Pacific Historian --
and from my much longer paper.

"But Ralph Chaplin's reputation had evolved unevenly. Although his
departure from the IWW in the late 1930s upset and angered some Wobblies,
Chaplin was viewed with general respect from that quarter. Many years
later, in 1984, Fred Thompson, a quite capable historian in his own right
and one of the last of the IWW old-timers, reiterated his long-standing
perception of Chaplin: "He had an extremely complicated mind, was a very
complicated person. He seemed to be always searching. I respected Ralph
although I often disagreed with him." Thompson said, with his usual and
commendable lack of any rancor, "You do have to make allowances for poets."

Others, dealing with the IWW in history, are not so kind to Chaplin. In
massive study of the movement, We Shall Be All, Melvyn Dubofsky curtly
dismisses Chaplin as someone "who later found salvation in Christianity and
anti-communism, a not uncommon Cold War phenomenon." Even Joseph Conlin,
whose analyses of the IWW and Bill Haywood's career are the best in this
era, views Chaplin as having "swung to the extreme right of the political
spectrum" but readily concedes that Wobbly "is quite unbiased in its
of Haywood and the IWW during the 1910s." Those with an essential
perspective are certainly critical. Philip Foner, who mentions Chaplin
twice in his extensive and detailed treatment of the Wobblies to around
1917, sums him up with brevity: ". . .Imprisoned in 1918, sentenced to a 20
year's term in Leavenworth under the Espionage Act. He emerged from prison
a disillusioned man, regretting his earlier militant activities. This is
reflected in his autobiography, Wobbly . . ." Len DeCaux, a former Wobbly
who joined the communist movement and was active in the CIO in the 30s and
40s, is caustic: "Chaplin developed an emotionally obsessive case of
anti-communism. It drove him further and further to the Right, until he
died in 1961, remote from, and antagonistic to, the cause he once served. .
. ."

In my view, the sharp critics of Chaplin are dead wrong. And that feeling
is reinforced by, among other things, a recent rereading of Wobbly. The
communists aside -- Chaplin was indeed their angry critic -- the much more
even-handed historians should be gently reminded that, in addition to their
mistaken right-wing categorization, the Kansas-born and partially
Kansas-raised Chaplin was, in the last analysis, a westerner: ". . .where
the country opens out instead of in." To understand the IWW and Chaplin,
one has to know and understand the West. The push for libertarian and
economic well-being is universal but, in the American context, the West has
been the strongest and most consistent advocate of good and adequate food
for all and also plenty of room in which to catch the sun."

Again, Chaplin, who with the other Wobblies in Leavenworth, was pardoned by
Harding in 1923, remained actively with the IWW until 1936 -- but continued
to maintain many IWW personal associations for years -- and carried his
efforts forward in the context of other labor thrusts. He was an activist
until the day he died. His great classic, Wobbly: The Rough and Tumble
Story of An American Radical, University of Chicago Press, 1948, is the
companion volume to Bill Haywood's Book, The Autobiography of William D.
Haywood, International Publishers, 1929 -- and many subsequent editions.

Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
Protected by Nashdoibai
and Ohkwari'
with [Toltec] Tezcatlipoca

In our Gray Hole, the ghosts often dance in the junipers and sage, on the
game trails, in the tributary canyons with the thick red maples, and on the
high windy ridges -- and they dance from within the very essence of our own
inner being. They do this especially when the bright night moon shines down
on the clean white snow that covers the valley and its surroundings. Then
it is as bright as day -- but in an always soft and mysterious and
remembering way. [Hunterbear]

People's attention is scarce. Do not abuse it.
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Douglas Downey - 6/24/2003

When I was in graduate school I wrote a lengthy paper on Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night and used the word "expatriate" about 30 times, misspelling it ("expatriot") each time. The professor forgave me, and I forgive Melvyn Dubofsky for using "copywritten" as the past tense for "copyright." (For the record, it's "copyrighted." Cf American Heritage Dictionary.)It's sort of like the tailor who wanted two pieces of equipment but wasn't sure of the plural. He wrote, "Please send me a tailor's goose. P.S. Send me a second one, too."

Richard Henry Morgan - 6/3/2003

Well, I was talking about Foner, and my attempt at humor obviously fell stillborn. Another time perhaps.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/3/2003

Come on, fellahs, give it a break. Whatever Michael's problems were, he wasn't filtching them from other people. Indeed, one could say that it was his very originality which was the problem. And, right, Richard, property rights are a capitalist fetish. But no one's ever claimed that Philip Foner was a first rate historian -- even a first rate Marxist historian.

Richard Henry Morgan - 6/3/2003

Don't you think it's a little naive to expect a Marxist to respect intellectual property rights?

Clayton E. Cramer - 6/3/2003

Perhaps Michael Bellesiles's similar problems are not atypical; it would appear that problems with standards in history go back a long ways.