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Kate Evans’ graphic biography, Red Rosa, is an entertaining, innovative and perceptive account of Rosa Luxemburg, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

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Kate Evans, Red Rosa. A graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso 2015), 220pp.

If there were a Top Ten for ‘Ways to belittle revolutionary socialists online’, at number two, (behind that all-time favourite ‘Mention the Judean People’s Front’), would be, ‘Accuse them of defining their politics according to dead Russians’. Faced with this notion that we’re all obsessed with the minutiae of debates that happened a century ago, there can be a temptation to take the works of dead Russians like Lenin and Trotsky, and dead Poles like Rosa Luxemburg, and divorce them from their context. Young activists today should be reading The Mass Strike, for example, but surely the state of Rosa Luxemburg’s relationship with Leo Jogiches while she was formulating it, is only of interest to over-the-hill sectarians? The success of Red Rosa since its publication in late 2015 demonstrates that on the contrary, the details of Rosa Luxemburg’s extraordinary life remain vital and relevant to new generations of activists. More than that, it shows how our understanding of her works is only enriched by an understanding of her life.

At 179 pages, this is a short biography, and Evans notes in the foreword that its brevity necessitated some omissions and elisions to keep the story flowing. Its conciseness, however, means that it avoids the trap to which many biographies succumb, in that it doesn’t get bogged down in the detail. The main themes of Luxemburg’s life, from her birth in Poland in 1871 to her murder by the Freikorps in Germany in 1919, are all here and given space according to their importance, not how long they lasted. Almost half of the book is taken up by the last six years of her life; her campaigning against the approaching First World War, in contrast to the mass socialist party in Germany, the SPD, which ended up supporting it; her imprisonment during the war; and the 1918-1919 German revolution. While there are occasionally points which could have benefited from expansion, (the scenes in which Ebert, one of the SPD leaders, and Luxemburg herself, are shown as benefiting from servant labour while criticising exploitation are one example), in general the brevity is a decided virtue, and not only because it makes Luxemburg’s life accessible to those who might be daunted by a more weighty tome. 

The graphics of course also make the book an easier sell to reluctant readers than a traditional biography would be, but they are not mere pretty pictures to keep the children entertained. Luxemburg’s most important ideas are explained in a series of quite brilliant graphical sequences, spread throughout the work. From the young Luxemburg using cutlery to explain Marx’s Capital to her brothers, to her understanding of the role of imperialism in capitalism shown as her pet cat claws at her globe, these allow Evans to summarise complex ideas in an engaging and memorable way, and to show the dialectical relationship between Luxemburg’s theory and her practical experiences.

This is nowhere more clear than in the opening section, showing Luxemburg’s childhood experiences of growing up in Warsaw under imperialist Russian rule, where ‘absolute wealth and utter destitution jostle in uneasy juxtaposition’ (p.9). As the child of an educated but poor Jewish family, one of only a few Jewish pupils allowed to attend her mostly Russian school, she had first-hand experience of antisemitism. As a woman with ‘a prodigious intellect’ she didn’t fit into the permitted female roles of submissive wife and mother, under a regime where women were kept out of all further education.

Luxemburg did not write a major work on women’s liberation, but Evans reminds us how far she rebelled throughout her life, not just against capitalism but against women’s oppression. From her pursuit of higher education (she obtained her doctorate from the University of Zurich when she was 26) to smaller, personal decisions like cutting her hair short, she consistently pushed the boundaries of what women were allowed to do. She did this also in her personal relationships, having sexual relationships with Leo Jogiches, Kostya Zetkin and others at a time when women were expected to be virgins until marriage and faithful to their husbands after it. Luxemburg’s marriage, in contrast, was with a stranger and arranged only to get her the papers she needed to stay in Germany. The relationships with Jogiches and Zetkin in particular were important in Luxemburg’s life and Evans rightly spends some time on them, but creditably, she is aware of the danger of, and avoids portraying her female subject ‘solely through the tired old trope of romance’. In dealing with Luxemburg as ‘a woman grown to maturity’, Evans wants us to recognise that ‘there are bigger things in her life’ than the men in it (p.102).

Luxemburg was not the only woman involved in the socialist movement; Evans shows the importance to her of her friendships with other socialist women, in particular, Clara Zetkin. She also makes clear, however, how in asserting herself as a leader and theoretician, Luxemburg was breaking into a boys’ club. The image here of a row of bearded, male speakers at the Second International, with the diminutive Luxemburg in the middle, speaks volumes. Luxemburg had profound political disagreements with the old guard of the SPD, but the fact that when the SPD delegates to the Reichstag voted in 1914 to approve the Kaiser’s plans for war, Luxemburg as a woman was not even allowed to be in the building, emphasises how her position was also more difficult because of her sex.

No biography of Rosa Luxemburg can end happily. As Evans says, she lost ‘half a lifetime’ when she was murdered. ‘Do you think that forty-seven is old enough to die?’ Evans asks. ‘If you do, you must be very young’ (p.166). The thought we are left with here, though, is that the struggle continues. Luxemburg wrote that she wanted only the words ‘Tsvee-tsvee’, the bird call heralding the beginning of spring, to appear on her gravestone. Evans turns the ‘Tsvee-tsvee’ into Twitter alerts about new struggles; #thecomingspring. Her final image is of a modern Rosa Luxemburg using a shield made out of The Accumulation of Capital (her major work on economics) as a defence against a riot cop. A brilliant introduction to Luxemburg’s life and thought, Red Rosa is a valuable addition to that armoury of struggle.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.

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