“(…) 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.
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.