The Lean Years
A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933
“Irving Bernstein is preeminent among historians of American labor history.”
—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
The textbook history of the 1920s is a story of Prohibition, flappers, and unbounded prosperity. For millions of industrial workers, however, the “roaring twenties” looked very different. Working-class communities were already in crisis in the years before the stock market crash of 1929. Strikes in the 1920s and attempts to organize the unemployed and fight evictions in the early 1930s often fell victim to police violence and repression.
Here, Irving Bernstein recaptures the social history of the decade leading up to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration, uncovers its widespread inequality, and sheds light on the long-forgotten struggles that form the prelude to the great labor victories of the 1930s.
"[A]s the Great Depression took its toll in rapidly rising unemployment, wage cuts, worsening working conditions, and evictions and foreclosures, and even cases of actual starvation . . . most observers saw little evidence of a spirit of rebellion.
"In other words, viewed from afar, most of the people who were suffering the hardships of the Depression were depressed and even ashamed, ready to blame themselves for their plight. But the train of developments that connects changes in social conditions to a changed consciousness is not simple. People, including ordinary people, harbor somewhere in their memories the building blocks of different and contradictory interpretations of what it is that is happening to them, of who should be blamed, and what can be done about it. Even the hangdog and ashamed unemployed worker who swings his lunch box and strides down the street so the neighbors will think he is going to a job can also have other ideas that only have to be evoked, and when they are make it possible for him on another day to rally with others and rise up in anger at his condition.
—From the new introduction by Frances Fox Piven
"it's a good time to have a new edition of Irving Bernstein's two studies The Lean Years (1960) and The Turbulent Years (1969)…[that] offer, between them, a classic survey of how American workers fared during the 1920s and '30s. SPOILER ALERT: They tended to do best when they had the confidence and the willingness to challenge their employers -- and not just over wages.…What set Bernstein's work apart from the usual run of scholarship on American labor history at mid-century was his strong interest in the life and activity of non-unionized people -- including those working in agriculture, or leaving it behind for new kinds of employment, in the case of African-Americans leaving the South. And Bernstein wrote with grace. He had a knack for the thumbnail biography of ordinary people: There are numerous miniature portraits embedded in the epic. He was sensitive to the changes in mood among workers as they faced the boom of the 1920s (which passed most of them by) and the agony of the Depression (which hit them hardest). In many cases, they blamed themselves for their misery. The possibility of joining forces with others to change anything took a while to sink in." —Scott McClemee, Inside Higher Ed
The Lean Years was published with the support of the Jon Kelley Wright Workers' Memorial Fund. To learn more about this project, visit http://WorkersMemorialFund.org