From International Socialist Review, Vol.28 No.4, July-August 1967, pp.52-57.
Mark up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker 1920-1933
by Irving Bernstein
Penguin Books, 577 pp., $2.25.
The Lean Years, by Irving Bernstein, deals with the condition of the working class in the United States during the decade of the twenties and the early years of the depression. A history of that period has a certain special interest today because of a number of important similarities between the “golden twenties” and the “affluent sixties.”
The book is also a timely addition to the material available for the new generation of workers, of young union members and of campus militants who are undoubtedly tired of being reminded periodically by their elders that the youth didn’t go through the experience of the depression.
The Lean Years provides an opportunity for the young to share that experience, vicariously; for the depression generation to review the experience in perspective; and for both to consider its significance for today.
Bernstein, who is associate director in charge of the research and publications program of the University of California Institute of Industrial Relations, clearly defines the scope of the book in the preface:
“It begins with the worker rather than with the trade union. I am, of course, concerned about the worker when he is organized and devote considerable attention to the manner in which his union bargains for him. But this is not all. I am also interested in him when he is unorganized, in his legal status, in his political behavior, in his social and cultural activities, and in how the employer and the state treat him. In other words, this book is about the worker in American society at a particular stage of its development.”
In the first part of the book Bernstein describes the economic problems of wage workers in the twenties, the decade in which, for the first time “a majority of the people in the United States lived in urban areas.” In vivid detail he describes the inability or unwillingness of the labor movement to provide leadership in dealing with the problems of unemployment, poverty, discriminatory wage patterns based on sex, race and age.
He reviews the antagonistic interests of the employers and their anti-labor policies and practices, and reports objectively on the role of the state, through its executive, legislative and judicial agencies, in protecting the interests of the employers against the workers. Parallels with the sixties may be seen in all of these areas, but possibly some of the most thought-provoking are to be found in the chapter titled The Paralysis of the Labor Movement.
“A favorite sport of writers at this time was to denounce the American labor movement,” Bernstein notes. “These writers who attacked the AFL pointed repeatedly to the same weaknesses: the emphasis on a craft structure, the ignoring of industrial unionism, jurisdictional disputes, inertia in organizing the unorganized, weak or tyrannical or corrupt leadership, philosophic individualism, fraternization with businessmen, and political impotence.”
Union membership dropped from 5,047,800 in 1920 to 3,622,000 in 1923. For six years there was little change, except down – to 3,442,600 in 1929.
“In the twenties union leaders seemed bereft of ideas to deal with this decline of their movement. They were ideological prisoners of the past,” Bernstein says.
From militancy, the AFL shifted to respectability. It “advertised itself as an enthusiastic admirer of capitalism and a stanch enemy of bolshevism.” A whole series of class-collaborationist and conservative policies followed: union management cooperation to make production more efficient, union concessions in wage rates to make the employer “more competitive,” the linking of wage rates to increases in productivity, labor banking and insurance plans. Labor was going to progress by selling enlightened management on the advantages of unionism, and persuasion would replace struggle.
“Viewed as a whole,” Bernstein observes, “union-management cooperation must be regarded as a failure.” Experiments were few and ineffective. “The movement [labor-management cooperation] can be understood only as a facet of general union decline in the twenties and it did virtually nothing to stem the tide.”
The real test of the policies of the labor leadership, as well as those of management and the state, came in the depression, and here they exhibited complete bankruptcy. Part II, the bulk of the book, deals with this period. Poverty amidst plenty, unemployment, hunger had become familiar features of American society during the golden twenties – just as the hopelessness and destitution of Appalachia and the urban ghettos are undeniable facts of the affluent sixties. President Johnson’s fine speeches about the War on Poverty come to mind in reading Herbert Hoover’s speech accepting the Republican nomination for the presidency:
“We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us ... We shall soon ... be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.”
The American economy reached the high point of production of goods up to that time in the summer of 1929. Then, on October 29, came the stock market crash. The number of jobless went from 492,000 in October to 4,065,000 in January 1930. It reached 5 million in September, 6 million in November, 8 million by January 1931 and passed 9 million in October.
“The President himself issued a steady stream of ... ‘optimistic ballyhoo statements’” which nobody believed. The credibility gap of the depression years could be compared to the credibility gap today regarding the Administration’s statements on the war in Vietnam. Bernstein describes graphically and statistically the collapse of the economy, the breakdown of local resources, the futility of reform programs, “the social price paid by the victims of unemployment.”
“Joblessness sapped the little remaining strength of the labor movement,” he reports. “Union membership and dues fell off, forcing the organizations to curtail their activities. Racketeers took the occasion to penetrate the unions on a hitherto unknown scale. The unions were incapable of calling strikes except in desperation. Thus they were powerless to improve the wages and working conditions of their members and had little ability even to hold the line on wages. That once mightiest of the unions, the United Mine Workers of America, disintegrated.”
The national policy of local responsibility for unemployment relief had broken down completely by the fall of 1931. Private charitable agencies and many municipalities, particularly the large cities, were completely incapable of handling the load. The unemployed turned to their own experiments and their own leaders. The first self-help organization in the United States, according to Bernstein, was formed by the jobless in Seattle in 1931. The Unemployed Citizens League was initiated by Hulet M. Wells and Carl Brannis of the Seattle Labor College, “an offshoot of A.J. Muste’s Brookwood Labor College.” Self-help (including production for use and barter), relief and employment were the first objectives of the organization, with political action added later. By the end of 1931 the League had 12,000 members, and a year later 80,000 in the state of Washington.
Other forms of protest organization and action are described, many led by socialists and communists. And other forms of self-help developed, ranging from the “rent party” which originated in Harlem in the twenties, to the Utopian Borsodi experiment in production for use in Dayton, Ohio, to various back-to-the-land movements.
1932 was the high-water mark of mass protests and demonstrations of the unemployed. Marches on Washington, on city halls and state capitals, and on the Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn involved millions of Americans. The most massive national demonstration around the most minimal demand – immediate payment of the veterans bonus that had been voted by Congress for future payment – was the gathering of veterans from all over the country in Washington, D.C. After weeks of “sitting-in” hi the nation’s capital, the unemployed veterans and their families were evacuated by the Army and their camp at Anacostia demolished. The President ordered the War Department to send in the Army, and on July 28, 1932, General Douglas MacArthur, aided by Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton Jr., four troops of cavalry, four companies of infantry, a mounted machine gun squadron and six whippet tanks, swiftly and efficiently defeated the unarmed, unemployed “Bonus Expeditionary Force.”
“It is probable that no act of Hoover’s proved so unpopular as his decision to drive out the BEF,” Bernstein observes. The use of armed force against jobless veterans undoubtedly contributed to the massive reaction of the American workers on the 1932 presidential election. But the Roosevelt landslide (22,809,638 votes to Hoover’s 15,758,901) represented a much broader protest against unemployment and the administration’s failure to deal with it.
Within the framework of the existing two-party system the labor vote had already begun to shift in the 1928 election, in which the Democratic Party standard bearer, Al Smith, appealed to the city workers. By 1932 “the labor vote, because of its great size and strategic location in the big states, now made the Democratic Party the majority party and established a new pattern that was to dominate American politics for almost a generation.”
In historic perspective two major lessons of The Lean Years emerge clearly: The philosophy and institutions of American capitalism and its supporters in the labor movement proved incompetent to deal with the problems of economic collapse. The efforts of political reformers proved completely ineffective until the unemployed working class acted on its own behalf to win the minimal relief necessary for self-preservation.
The book is strong, as a history, in its description, in its vivid presentation of relevant facts with a high degree of objectivity. But it must be remembered that it deals only with a brief period of labor history, a period of decline. It tells nothing of the period of rise of the labor movement from between the Civil War and World War I, nor the dramatic rise of the CIO described by Art Preis in Labor’s Giant Step.
It would be incorrect to attempt to draw conclusions about fundamental questions from an observation of superficial similarities between the twenties and the sixties. For example, such questions as: What was the cause of the depression, and could it happen again? Is there a working class in the United States in the Marxist sense, and does it have an independent role to play in reorganizing society on a more rational basis for satisfying human needs? Why did the American labor movement which seemed at the end of its rope in the twenties, revive, become reinvigorated and play a major role on the national scene in the thirties and forties – only to degenerate again by the sixties to an apparently socially irrelevant role? Do the unions have a future, and what is it?
The Lean Years does not attempt to answer these questions but it does provide essential material for such analysis about a most revealing period in the development of American society.
Irving Bernstein’s next book, the history of American labor from the inception of the New Deal to World War II, will provide him with an opportunity to make a major contribution to education on labor history. In The Lean Years he “sought to break with the tradition that has dominated the writing of American labor history” by focusing on the worker rather than the institution, the trade union. Hopefully, in his next volume he will break with the Roosevelt myth which has dominated the writing of American labor history since the depression, and continue to make the working class his point of departure and return.
Last updated on 19 June 2009