Red Rosa is a graphic biography of the Polish-Jewish Marxist theorist, feminist, philosopher, economist, anti-war activist, and revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxemburg (Róża Luksemburg in Polish), written and drawn by the cartoonist Kate Evans.
It tells the story of Luxemburg’s life from her birth in 1871 (hey, that was the year of the Paris Commune!), her prodigious childhood (by age ten she could write and speak Polish, Russian, Hebrew and German!), her teenage involvement with the Polish Proletariat Party (founded in 1882, it predated the Russian parties by 20 years! She helped organise a general strike aged 15!) and her subsequent flight to Switzerland (published her doctoral thesis!), all before getting into the real meat of her time in Germany (she married her mate’s son to get citizenship! Then had a love affair with a different mate’s son!) in the build up to and aftermath of the German Revolution.
Along the way we are given insights into the key political works written by Rosa: her principle book The Accumulation of Capital (describing how capitalism leads to imperialism, extrapolated through a perceived error in Marx’s Das Kapital); her thoughts on Dialectic of Spontaneity and Organisation (different symbiotic elements of the same political process – with spontaneous acts of class struggle developing into something bigger: organisation is not the result of political theory but the product of working class struggle); and her criticism of the October Revolution in Russia (the Bolsheviks made some strategic errors that threatened its future). Though prolific in her public speaking, activism and articles Luxemburg wasn’t renowned for publishing books in her lifetime, but there is still plenty of revolutionary thought to sink our teeth into.
Evans guides the reader through the deep waters of Luxemburg’s rigorous political discourse with a deft hand, keeping us interested by creatively using household items such as spoons and kettles, the outdoors and dandelions, classroom lessons, cats (communist cat memes, is that a thing yet?) and a literal rich tapestry of the historical causes leading to the 1905 Russian uprising, sewn by our heroine (can you get one of those quilts for your bed? #want).
The development of Rosa’s thought and increased radicalisation is explored through her rise in the hard left of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), her subsequent challenging of reformism and joining the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), and ultimately forming the German Communist Party (KPD). For the more advanced readers querying how her life and writings can be condensed so succinctly into comic form, there are a substantial thirty-four pages of notes detailing every artistic choice and deviation from strict ‘reality’.
All this action is to say nothing of an equally eventful personal life that runs throughout the story, charting Rosa’s mobility problems, her loves and losses, imprisonment, poetry and, it must be said, a rather healthy sex life.
“She’s the person to whom I would apply the epithet indomitable, actually, because she seems to have an ability to completely ignore anything that should be holding her back, you know, she’s got a severe disability, she’s a woman, she’s a refugee, she’s Jewish, she’s facing multiple handicaps and she simply just doesn’t engage with that.”
– Kate Evans
The subject matter is indisputably ripe for biographical account and Evans manages to mix the politics and the poetry in such a way as to make the philosophical thought light and accessible and the human interest resonant. The cartoon style is endearing rather than cute and it does not shy away from the darkness that punctuates so many sombre moments of the era. Indeed the art and the book excel in the big showpiece panels that convey so much with little text: the outbreak of the barbaric war Luxemburg foresaw, the successful revolution in Russia, the betrayal of the German revolution by the Social Democrats, the grim foreshadowing of the country’s descent into fascism and her own brutal murder, not to mention the rather poignant abuse of a water buffalo and the metaphor it becomes. Chin up comrade! It’s not only the bleak that stands out in these pages. Luxemburg’s legacy is touchingly rendered and her incarceration is one of the most inspirational and poetic parts of the book. Plus there are plenty of scenes where she shows the old fuddy-duddy men of the left how it’s done.
The paperback art is monochrome but there are some colourised images floating around online and I hope Old Rope’s card-carrying hardcore won’t hang me for a capitalist for suggesting that some of these definitive and striking pages would make amazing prints. Just so long as they were affordable enough for proles like me to buy, lest an expansionist imperial programme be necessary to sell the surplus commodities to non-capitalist economies (if any still exist).
“You’re very obvious. There’s only one tiny limping Jewish girl spreading the socialist word. It’s only a matter of time before they cart you off to Siberia or worse.”
– Polish Socialist, Red Rosa
It would be disingenuous in the twenty-first century to suggest that the life, writings and work of Rosa Luxemburg are completely overlooked. It is also perhaps inevitable that a person who sought to expand on and ‘correct’ an element of Marxian thought, who criticised (albeit well intentioned) the architects of what remains the biggest and most significant workers’ revolution when it was still relatively nascent, who continually called out liberal social democrats for their inadequacies and had the gall to do all of this as a Jewish immigrant woman with a wonky leg would never attain the attention or historical status of other darlings of the left.
But there are still plenty of people championing Luxemburg’s life and her work and you don’t have to subscribe to any or all of her political affiliations to realise that here was a woman who wanted to change the world for the better and to inspire others to do the same. In being so accessible, enjoyable and affectionate in its telling of her story, Evans’s fabulous book manages to contribute to Rosa’s dream ‘to affect people, to inflame their minds with the breadth of her vision, the strength of her conviction and the power of her experience.’
There is a really nice audio interview with the author and Mitchel Cohen here: https://archive.org/details/KateEvansFINALWithMusicAtEnd
Red Rosa – Kate Evans
Published by Verso Books, 2015
(They also published a book of letters from Rosa Luxemburg from which Evans drew much biographical info. And they published my fab radical 2018 diary!)
‘“Order prevails in Berlin!” You foolish lackeys! Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!’
– Rosa Luxemburg, last words on the night of her murder