Polemics and an "Army of One": Responding to John Womack Jr
Labor Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas
In our original essay, we offered a specific set of criticisms of John Womack's vituperative JHS article that bitterly attacked the field of labor history since the 1960s. We explained that it was our wish to understand the origin of his anger and the impasse in his own research from which it derived. We also stated our conviction that larger scholarly controversies and fundamental epistemological issues were at stake. In particular, we argued that Womack's own work had suffered grievously from
... his failure to engage with the challenge of representation and narration. Basing ourselves on the detailed exegesis of texts, we suggested that his analytical practice -which we called "abstraction by subtraction" -had led to a "world of production shorn of the cultural, social, the political and ideological." More specifically, we offered detailed criticism of the only two articles on Vera Cruz published by Womack after thirty-five years. We concluded that his analytical and methodological approach had yielded little beyond "an imprecise and very humdrum social, political, legal and cultural explanation" of the sort he so vehemently condemned in the JHS. We also noted Womack's conviction that John Dunlop, a founder of industrial and labor relations in the United States, held the key to understanding labor in Vera Cruz, while observing that Dunlop was resolutely skeptical of the sort of academic exercise pursued by Womack for so long. Finally, we pointed to his resort to generalized invective, including "sarcasm, exaggeration and rhetorical overkill," and the frequency of ad hominem attacks couched in typical culture wars rhetoric, including complaints about the newfangled study of race, gender, or sex. In his reply to our essay, Womack chooses to ignore all of our substantive criticisms. He neither cites chapter and verse as to where we have gone wrong, nor does he defend his own work or the positions that we had so forcefully assailed. Having realized that his article cannot be defended on its original terms, he recasts it as a tough-minded polemic aimed at "finding faults, and arguing how and why to go beyond them." In particular, he contrasts his disputatious search for clarity to those who "want diplomacy [and] the negotiation of scholarly and intellectual differences,"