Review: Red Rosa – Hester L. Furey

Hester L. Furey

Kate Evans, Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg. Ed. Paul Buhle. NY: Verso, November 2015. ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-099-9

All too often portrayals of important intellectual or political figures focus only on their contributions to the history of ideas, forgetting that they were also someone’s sister, a lover of cats, a roguish joker. Graphic novel fans who have enjoyed Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York or Rutu Modan’s The Property will find Kate Evans’ Red Rosa: a Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg beguiling. Leftists who thought Margarethe von Trotta’s 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg did not do enough educational outreach for mainstream audiences might also be pleased with Evans’ skill at balancing information and art. Evans has made this iconic figure on the left into someone contemporary audiences can understand and might like to know more about, and Evans and Radical Left historian Paul Buhle have provided a short bibliography at the end and an academic but not insufferable foreword and endnotes, so that contemporary readers could learn more if they wish.

Evans integrates Luxemburg’s human and intellectual sides well, not sparing her faults (like her contemporary Virginia Woolf, she had issues with servants, and like many women, she had man problems). Evans uses facial expressions and character action to deliver most of the message here – authorial intrusions are few and well timed. It may seem odd to readers of a century later that many leftists, indeed many writers, of the early 20th century had servants, quite without self-consciousness about it, and Evans highlights some ironic sides of this. She also offers charming vignettes of RL explaining theory to her brothers or of squabbles and competition among leftists at the Internationals. There is a very funny account of “printing at gunpoint.”

Fanciful stylistic touches echoing Chagall’s paintings serve to narrate events too huge and complex to be drawn with journalistic realism. The 1905 Russian Revolution and WWI appear here as spirals and waves, as film footage, or in miniature as Luxemburg’s unruly hair, as seen in the cover image, literally “on her mind.” These huge events that defy realism call for a different mode of portrayal not only because of their epic scale and human cost but because they are flashpoints that cause thinkers to change direction. For example, the 1905 revolution stirred Luxemburg to make major changes to the concept of the mass strike.

Most deliciously, Evans reveals Rosa Luxemburg’s growth: how she learns, then questions Marxian theory, then becomes a theorist in her own right. We see her study of Poland as a grad student counterpointed to her study on the ground, as a public speaker to the miners in 1905-06, the excitement of her life in Zurich among the leftist Russian exiles, her many arrests and periods of incarceration. Intellectual achievements and life events bloom together in a dynamic piece of sequential art (the book is not divided into episodes or chapters). We follow Luxemburg’s development of the concept of imperialism and dramatic innovations to praxis – how she laid the groundwork for using the political trial as an educational performance (copied in the United States by Eugene Debs and Scott Nearing).

Red Rosa is also (I mean this in a good way, of course) a feminist book. Evans touches slightly on tensions – more from her friends than from her own conscience – Luxemburg felt about working for woman suffrage. Like Emma Goldman she considered it a secondary strategy at best. Instead the author develops with more depth and detail the unfortunately ongoing issue of how women in organizations experience pressure to be subservient, to take on clerical “housekeeping” duties rather than leadership roles, and the potential dangers of refusal. Luxemburg’s unconventional relationships with men occupy a still larger place in the story. Evans mentions the fact that Luxemburg must have been practicing some kind of birth control, though we have not been able to document it.

I do have a few quibbles in this area concerning her portrayal of the relationship with Leo Jogiches. First – the issue of their “marriage” and his ongoing financial support: current readers are likely to question where Luxemburg got the money to do the things she did. Given the extremely low wages available even to privileged women one hundred years ago, Luxemburg depended like many upon her parents, Jogiches’ monthly stipend, selling articles to periodicals, occasionally editing newspapers for pay, and a teaching job. Also, as was the case with many American leftists of that generation, wealthier friends undoubtedly made her life easier with small generosities.

Evans chooses to portray the tensions of Luxemburg’s free love arrangements without much remarking upon them. Luxemburg did buy a firearm in response to stalking and abuse by Jogiches but stayed with him because somehow, not in the eyes of the law but in her own mind, she was his wife, and for that same reason he continually sent her monthly funds, himself having arranged her legal marriage to the son of her Swiss landlord so that she could have German citizenship. Evans engineers a clever transition to the teaching job, having Luxemburg herself say, “this is not a soap opera,” but at stake is not just information about one woman’s personal life but the social fabric of an era, reflected also in the complicated friendship with Clara Zetkin, whose son Kostya was Luxemburg’s lover for a few years. I have reservations about Evans’ suggestion that Jogiches might have been on the autism spectrum. (I have the same response at overuse of the term “narcissist.”) Jogiches’ abusive side has its even more sinister reflection in the disloyalty of many of Luxemburg’s closest male associates on the left (personally, by Kautsky et al., when the SPD deputies vote for war, and when her former student, Ebert, hands her over). I have no wish to judge Luxemburg’s personal life or reduce it to platitudes, but these complications are as much a part of her character as her intellectual and political life. They are a part of her charm, a trait that comes through clearly throughout.

The universal side of this story, though, lies in the devastating loss. Fully half of the book covers the years 1913-19, the Great War and its aftermath. In this light Luxemburg appears as another of World War I’s many victims. While in prison for opposing war, she wrote letters to Hans Diefenbach, a friend who served unwillingly and ultimately died at the front. This book reveals – for many Americans, it will be their first awareness – the uprisings at the end of the war and the heady few months when it looked as if the Socialists had won, before the military put bounties on Luxemburg’s head and Liebknecht’s. Her critique of the Bolsheviks also addresses an area in which citizens of the US are undereducated. Finally we see Rosa Luxemburg’s murder at age 47 by an anti-semitic military mob in January 1919.

Interspersed with it all, Evans shows us Luxemburg at some moments when she is just experiencing everyday life, waking in the dawn and noticing how the street looks different, listening to the birds from a prison garden, playing with her cat. She was not a saint or a superhero, but an ordinary human being, and therein lies her appeal. We talk a lot these days about the importance of feeling safe, but manifestly Rosa Luxemburg could not have felt safe for most of her life: born Jewish in the 19th century Russian empire, a woman yet, with mobility issues, an immigrant, a political outsider, a promoter of revolutionary thought, a woman stalked by a male partner, a prisoner. Despite all this she remained a person of conviction, an outspoken woman of action and integrity, unafraid of taking risks.

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