PBS documentary on NYC

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Nov 15 08:38:11 MST 1999

Although I missed the first hour of the PBS documentary on NYC (had to find
out whether Agent Mulder would succumb to the virus that was slowly turning
him into a space alien), the second hour was even more impressive than I
possibly could have imagined. In a nutshell, PBS film-maker Ric Burns
(brother of Ken Burns, who directed the Civil War series) is not only
basically pursuing a narrative that is strongly influenced by Marxism, but
is setting an example for other documentarians on how this can be done with

The second hour focused on the period between the revolutionary war and
1825, when Mayor DeWitt Clinton lead NYC into the front ranks of global
commercial urban centers. Clinton and his city planners made a decision
around this time that not only would have guaranteed NYC's success in years
to come, but would define its capitalist essence. They decided to create a
grid on the island that would divide it into 12 avenues ranging from Hudson
River on the West to the East River. From north to south, it would be
divided into 255 streets. By doing this, the city fathers would facilitate
real estate transactions. This would also make things easier for immigrant
laborers who would find such a simple grid structure easy to navigate on
their way to jobs.

In addition, Clinton's planners decided that there would be no place for
nature. Every obstacle to this grid would be removed. Hills would be dug up
and the dirt would fill the island's plentiful ponds. There was to be no
exception, not even parks. Central Park was only conceived years later.
Marxist historian Mike Wallace, senior consultant on the show and co-author
of "Gotham", and who appears frequently as expert on camera, tells us that
NYC is one of the most naked expressions of the revolutionary
transformations capitalism produced in the early 1800s--or words to that
effect. It was a novel experience to hear this kind of analysis on PBS.

Another key figure in the narrative is Alexander Hamilton, who functioned
as Secretary of the Treasury when NYC was still the capital of the United
States. Although most of us know Hamilton from the Federalist Papers as a
foe of democracy, the documentary highlighted another aspect, which is
Hamilton as pro-manufacturing and anti-plantation. Basically, Hamilton
viewed the success of the US as tied up with free labor and manufacturing
and appears as sort of an early Lincolnesque figure. NYC, according to the
documentary, was very much an expression of Hamilton's ideas about economic

With respect to slavery and revolutionary transformations, the film did
raise a number of interesting questions for me, which are thematically
related to those raised by George Comninel in "Rethinking the French
Revolution". In a nutshell, Comninel questions the notion of a
"revolutionary bourgeoisie" and argues--based largely on the prior work of
"revisionist" historians like Furet--that the leadership of 1789 came from
within the court rather than the bourgeoisie proper.

For one, we learn from the film that the British, whose major redoubt in
the colonies was NYC, issued an appeal to slaves: if they found a way to
come to NYC to fight for the King, they would receive automatically be
freed. This sort of blurs the "stagist" schemas put forward on behalf of
Washington and company. If they did represent the revolutionary bourgeoisie
and the Crown represented feudal reaction, their respective attitudes
toward the slaves did not quite jibe with this. The other interesting thing
is that after Washington was driven out of NYC, he worked feverishly to
enlist French support in the anti-colonial struggle. Now mind you, this is
1778, 11 years before the French Revolution, when France was still ruled by
the forces of feudal reaction. My response? Same as it has always been. The
only revolutionary classes in the late 1700s were the farmers and the urban
working class, either in France or in the colonies.

The show continues tonight and I strongly urge people in the US to check it
out. For those in other countries, I advise a trip to the PBS website for
some useful background on the show (http://www.pbs.org).

Louis Proyect

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