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Foner, Philip Sheldon

Foner, Philip Sheldon

(b. 14 December 1910 in New York City; d. 13 December 1994 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Marxist labor historian and prolific author of works on the underclasses in U.S. history.

Foner (with his twin brother, Jack) was the first of four children born to Abraham and Mary Smith Foner. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia; his mother emigrated from Poland. During Foner’s youth his father was a deliveryman (later a garage owner) and was interested in left-wing causes. Philip worked at odd jobs from an early age and was educated in the New York City public schools. From 1928 to 1932 he attended City College in New York and earned a B.A. degree. In 1933 he was awarded an M.A. degree in history from Columbia University, where he was a student of the noted Civil War historian Allan Nevins. In 1941 Foner earned his Ph.D. at Columbia with a dissertation on the connections between northern businessmen and slavery in the Civil War era.

While working on the doctorate, Foner was an instructor in history at City College, where he was instrumental in founding the college teachers union in 1935. In 1941 the Rapp-Coudert Committee of the New York legislature conducted hearings into possible communist infiltration into the teaching profession. Foner, along with two of his brothers, was among the more than forty teachers and others who were fired for their leftist sympathies. Blacklisted as a result, Foner would not return to the academic world until 1967.

At a May Day demonstration in 1938 Foner became reacquainted with Roslyn Held, a member of the nursery school teachers union. They were married on May Day the following year and had two daughters. Roslyn, who developed a reputation as a book designer, died in 1983. Foner later married Rhoda Lischtash; that marriage ended in divorce in early 1991.

Following his blacklisting, Foner threw himself enthusiastically into liberal causes. He was a founder of the Jefferson School of Social Science, a workers college, in 1942. He also taught classes for a number of labor unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations. From 1941 to 1945 he served as educational director of the Fur and Leather Workers’ Union and regularly contributed a column on labor history to Tempo, the union magazine. He also became chief editor and part owner of Citadel Press, which specialized in publishing works that mainstream publishers considered too liberal.

In 1967 Foner returned to academia when he was hired to teach history at Lincoln University (a primarily African American school) near Philadelphia. He retired from Lincoln in 1979. Two years later he was finally vindicated when the Board of Trustees of the City College passed a resolution apologizing for his firing, admitted that his academic freedom had been violated, and vowed that it would not happen again.

Throughout his life Foner was a prolific writer. By the end of his career he had authored or edited more than 110 volumes, as well as several score scholarly articles. Above all else, Foner was a labor historian. In his work on labor history he challenged the position of John R. Commons that organized labor was primarily accommodative and conservative in adapting to conditions in the United States. Based solely on his The History of the Labor Movement in the United States (of which ten volumes were published in 1947–1994), Foner’s reputation as the outstanding labor historian of the twentieth century is secure.

Foner’s legacy is far more extensive, however. He was also the historian of those left out of the American mainstream. He published a number of volumes on African American history, including the three-volume History of Black Americans (1975–1983), and dealt with gender issues in the three-volume Women and the American Labor Movement (1979–1982) and other works. Foner’s interests reached beyond the United States; he published volumes on British workers; on Karl Marx, Karl Liebknecht, and José Martí; and on U.S. imperialism in Latin America. In addition to the numerous works that he wrote, he edited a host of important collections of writings by such figures as Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, and Mother Jones. He also edited The Factory Girls: A Collection of Writings on Life and Struggles in the New England Factories of the 1840s (1977). While many of his early works found publication only with radical publishers, the mainstream press was anxious to produce his works as his career blossomed.

Politically committed his entire life, Foner often published relevant and timely major works during periods of controversy. Examples of such are The Black Panthers Speak in 1970 and American Labor and the Indochina War the following year. He averaged two books and a number of articles and speeches each year for more than a half century. This productivity was possible because of his unusual ability to work on numerous projects at the same time. Moreover, these were not superficial works; professional scholars were impressed by his careful mining of the traditional sources and his talent for uncovering hitherto unused materials. In 1976 he received the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers for his American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century (1975). Along with his three brothers, he was given the Tom Paine Award by the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1986.

Foner remained a radical to the end of his life. He was always ready to attend a demonstration or a political rally and to lend his voice to an unpopular cause. He was a Marxist, but he saw Marxism as a philosophy and method of analysis rather than as rigid dogma. He also challenged some of the interpretations of the New Left, including its Maoism.

Throughout his life he enjoyed watching tennis, listening to classical music (he played the alto saxophone as a young man), attending the theater, and spending time at his cottage in Maine. He also became a world traveler and was a popular visitor in Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China.

Following his retirement Foner continued to write, publish, and lecture. After a long illness he died of heart failure in 1994, just one day short of his eighty-fourth birthday. His body was cremated.

Generally categorized as a labor historian, Foner was far more. Few writers have produced a corpus of work as extensive as his. Even scholars who criticize Foner’s conclusions find little fault with his thorough research and his penchant for allowing the sources to carry his narrative. Foner combined the instincts of a fighter, a lasting commitment to the forgotten in American life, and a dedication to research and scholarship with a deep and lasting humanitarian outlook.

The papers of Philip Foner are in the Tamiment Institute Library in New York City. Those interested in his complete bibliography should consult the pamphlet by Roger Keeran, Philip Sheldon Foner: A Bibliography, published by Empire State College/SUNY (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times (15 Dec. 1994).

Art Barbeau

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