A Cuban’s Look at the World 100 Years Ago

Erasmo Calzadilla

“(…) because scientific and rational education will have dissolved the blind masses to transform every man and woman into a conscious, responsible and active being, who will determine their will on the basis of their own judgment, assisted by their own knowledge alone, free at last of the passions awakened by those who exploit respect towards the traditional for their own benefit and of the foolish chatter of today’s forgers of political programs.” – Francisco Ferrer Guardia, early 20th century.

Modern Times
Modern Times

HAVANA TIMES — My portable Wikipedia is my personal plane and time machine, and boy do I enjoy using it! The other day, I used it to look up the year 1913, to get a sense of what was happening in the world a hundred years ago. I got sucked in by the article and went on to read a pile of really interesting things. Let me tell you about some of them.

At the beginning of the 20th century, science and technology were gaining momentum. The field of physics was revolutionizing its epistemological foundations and inviting its close relatives to join the revolution.

The electrification of cities continued, the automobile industry consolidated itself and the first heavy air vessels were beginning to take off. Many had set high hopes on this dynamic couple, science and technology, and expected it to put a definitive end to obscurantism and to free society from the tenacious grip of superstition.

Some decades earlier (in 1889), with the aim of coordinating and planning the Revolution, different socialist parties had come together to create the Second International. But a mere year later, in 1914, the workers of civilized Europe would disembowel one another in defense of the flags, and interests, of their exploiters. The slaughter would be facilitated, to a great extent, by new breakthroughs in science and technology.

In 1913, the Mexican Revolution had not yet lost its impetus. During this time, it would begin to lose direction and enter the “Tragic Decade”, doing this several more times before falling into the hands of the national and transnational bourgeoisie altogether. This is also the year in which the Federal Reserve Bank, the locomotive of a fledgling empire of bankers, was founded in the United States.

Literature, Philosophy, Art

The world of literature, philosophy and art had not fallen behind. In 1913, such intellectual heavy-weights as Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Tomas Mann, Miguel de Unamuno, Edmund Husserl, Sigmund Freud, Ernst Jung and others were already being published.

It was a time of great innovators, great wars and even greater hopes – almost all of them unfulfilled. In the article devoted to the year 1913, my Wikipedia makes no mention of the literary movement which was budding in Latin America at the time. A few, short years later, Alfonso Reyes would write his “Vision of Anahuac”.


Things look a lot different a century later. Though science and technology continue to surprise us with new inventions, no one expects them to impel a revolution (not even the evolution) of the human species.

Quite the contrary, science and technology are today at the service of an entrepreneur surnamed Capital, who they continue to fatten at the expense of everything else (people, the environment, democratic institutions, etc.).


What of philosophy? Who are its main figures today? I conducted a quick survey and no one around me was able to name a single contemporary philosopher.

In 1913, the Western world was a breeding ground for ideas: there were positivists engaging vitalists, orthodox Marxists confronting revisionists and the two combatting anarchists, psychoanalysts undermining the very foundations of the human sciences and, watching over this battleground, still combative, the spirit of Helena Blavatski moved about in the ether.

What are, by comparison, today’s theoretical and social debates?

It’s not that these debates have ceased to exist. I know of some novel and interesting ideas with emancipatory potential. The problem is the nearly insignificant impact they have on our general culture and common sense. With the exception of some luminous areas, today’s intellectual world seems to be consumed by darkness, dull and grey. And we have reasons to believe it will only get worse.

To summarize my read, I would say that, a century ago, the Western world faced a fresh, luminous dawn, that it was experiencing the rebirth of marvelous ideals and expectations, in the name of which people were willing to kill or die. By comparison, our times are a kind of twilight, and not exactly of any idols.

And though it is true that the early 20th century was a time of intense creativity, it was also a very violent period, filled with too many fanatics for my taste. If I had the option of choosing, I would choose to live in our times, and to revisit those times from the safety of my favorite couch.

I will write of what Cuba was like a hundred years ago in another post.

Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

2 thoughts on “A Cuban’s Look at the World 100 Years Ago

  • There have been so many false dawns during the past 500 years: the Renaissance, the Scientific revolution, The Enlightenment, the artistic and political revolutions of the early 20th Century, that we should all be quite cynical by now. Stil, historically speaking, especially geologically speaking, these last 500 years have been a mere instant compared to the eons upon eons of ages and epochs which have come before. With a few exceptions, it is too soon to tell who are the great writers, artists and scientists of our own times. Still, like the dream sequence in Werner Herzog’s “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” (a.k.a. “Every Man for Himself and God Against All”) in which Kaspar dreams of an endless line of humanity passing buckets of (water? gold? truth? freedom? bull shit?) up, or down, a mountain, although we do not know the end–or the beginning–of the common task which is before us (did it begin like the apes hurling bones, as in the beginning of “2001, A Space Odyssey”?), still, we recongnize–individually and collectively–that we have the potential within us to become as gods and reshape our environment into a more benevolent, symbiotic, universe.

    Incidentally, I remember a most nightmarish film from my childhood (I don’t know the title, or the director, or his nationality, though I suspect it was European), was one in which, due to some curse, there was a sudden perpetual night (the action took place in the medieval times). The populous was frantic, and utterly terrified (as was I, who was maybe five or six at the time…I still remember it these 65+ years later!). Symbolically, it is terrifying because it means the end of the life force (which one day will happen, when the sun goes out…of course our race will long since be expunged during the sun’s “red giant” stage).

  • Great post, Erasmo! Thanks. If I may, I’d like to add an important point.

    The 1913 enactment of the US Federal Reserve Act–which brought about the privately-owned US Federal Reserve Bank, its purpose being to “poof” into existence fractional-reserve credit for the US government, and en-serf taxpayers thereby with perennial interest debt–is an interesting historical irony.

    The US had just passed through a 35-year, post-Civil War period (1865-1900) in which the largest mass movement in US history had arisen. The small farmers’ Populist Revolt had called for discarding the traditional monetary system based on bank gold, to be replaced by a system which created credit and money on a more sensible, farmer and worker productivity basis. This had been bitterly opposed by the big bankers’ “gold-bug” economic ideology.

    But then, ironically, the big bankers–after they had engineered a long monetary restriction which had caused general recession and enormous hardship and loss of property by the small farmers–now embraced the monetary proposals of the rebel Populists. They hired the same gold-bug theorists of yesterday to fashion a new, fiat-money and credit theory, and a central bank–the fraudulently-labeled Federal Reserve Bank of the United States.

    But the Federal Reserve, together with the World Bank, IMF, and ECB (European Central Bank) is a kind of Ponzi scheme. This scheme has been enormously successful for the profits of monopoly bankers, but appears now to be reaching the limits of the fraud. Its possible setting-fire-to-the-crime-scene resolution–in the desperate minds of monopoly bankers–may be World War III.

    But let’s hope not.

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