Red Rosa does not aspire to be an authoritative biography but, perhaps as a result, it is a more compelling book. What’s compelling about it? The graphics have a lot to do with it; it’s an extended comic strip (although the author might take offense with that characterization). The events, both intimate and very public, of Luxemburg’s life and the words and deeds of her political activity are portrayed in vivid graphics. When reading the book, it’s impossible to feel detached from them. At the same time, those events, words and deeds are presented seriously, without trivialization. This is no “Rosa Luxemburg for Dummies.”
When I was young more than fifty years ago, I used to devour comic books by the dozens each month. Then I knew how to read them. It is likely true that my Superman and Batman and Justice League of America favorites were not all that demanding. In any case, now, there were times when the graphics in Red Rosa forced me to stop and think about which frame came next. Doubting my judgment about the graphic quality, I asked a friend, who I thought was wise about aspects of graphic design since he had had a graphic novel published, what he thought about the quality of the graphics. He said that he hadn’t seen the book but that he also didn’t really know much about graphic design. Fortuitously enough, a day or so later, his partner (who does illustrations) handed him the book and said she thought it was ugly—leaving me to my own very inexpert opinion about the graphics.
In spite of at least one reasonably expert opinion to the contrary, I’d argue that the graphics are powerful, funny, intimate, revealing and often surrealistic (in ways that enhance the meaning of the text). Perhaps the central example of the last description is the frame from the book that also provides the cover illustration. The graphic is on pages 124–125 (un-numbered in the text). It depicts soldiers marching up into and then almost crawling through the downcast Rosa’s hair, lifted in a bun, and facing certain death as they explode from the top of her head. Most of the two pages are white, focusing our attention on the murderous realities. Two small airplanes fly away in a cloud-filled sky after having dropped their bombs. The age of “modern” warfare had arrived and it tormented Luxemburg’s thoughts and broke her heart.
Rosa Luxemburg’s Life in Brief
Rosa Luxemburg was born in rural Poland in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune. Her family moved to Warsaw when she was a young child. As she grew up, she wanted more than her family could provide her and became involved in political activity. In the early 1890s, she moved to Zurich to pursue both further education and expanded fields of politics. Soon enough, she obtained a doctoral degree—having written a dissertation on “The Industrial Development of Poland.” She then left Poland to go to Germany—where she all but immediately immersed herself into the affairs of the German SPD. More specifically, she became well-known as an active and effective participant in the party’s left-wing. She remained in the left wing of the movement until her assassination on January 15, 1919—at the hands of Freikorps dispatched to do so by an ostensibly socialist government.
Evans’s book illuminates Rosa Luxemburg’s deep commitment to the cause of human liberation and her all but unbelievable courage in the face of the repression of reactionary states (specifically, Russia and Germany) and the miserable betrayals of official Social Democracy. It also shines light on her brilliance as a thinker, her whimsical appreciation of nature and human personalities and, perhaps most specially, her power with words, both spoken and written. Indeed, I’d like to suggest that the author shows that Luxemburg developed a distinctive idiom for the condemnation of capitalist depravity, the articulation of the need for revolt and the expression of a reason for the endurance of hope.
By way of example, here’s an excerpt, included in the book, from an article that she wrote in 1902 about a devastating volcanic eruption in Martinique, in the West Indies. She’s trying to place the hypocrisy of the world powers’ expressions of concern for the victims of the eruption in the context of what those same world powers had done to the peoples of the world:
In Madagascar, French artillery fire swept thousands of flowering human lives from the face of the earth… a free people lay prostrate on the ground… the brown queen of the “savages” was dragged off as a trophy.
The sugar cartel American Senate (sic) sent cannon upon cannon, warship upon warship, golden dollars millions upon millions to Cuba… to sow death and devastation… Far off in the African south, where a tranquil people lived by their labour and in peace, there we saw how the English wreak havoc… we saw them stamp on human bodies, on children’s corpses with brutal soldiers’ boots… wading in pools of blood, death and misery before them and behind…We have seen you Russians on your dusty highways, in ruined villages eye to eye with the ragged, wildly agitated, grumbling mob; gunfire rattled, gasping muzhiks fell to the earth, red peasant blood mixed with the dust of the highway. They must die, doubled up with hunger, because they cried out for bread, for bread.
And all of you—whether French and English, Russian and Germans, Italians and Americans—we have seen you united in a great league of nations. It was in China you forgot all quarrels among yourselves, you made a peace of peoples—for mutual murder and the torch. Ha, how the pigtails fell in rows before your bullets, like a ripe grainfield lashed by the hail! Ha, how the wailing women plunged into the water, their dead in their cold arms.
Unfortunately, that idiom of condemnation, revolt and hope was all but completely overwhelmed by the triumph of authoritarian state capitalism in the Soviet Union and of fascism in Germany, the country where, for a relatively brief period of time in the first third of the twentieth century, it seemed that the fate of the world would be determined. And indeed it was. Luxemburg’s death in Germany in January of 1919 removed from the political stage one of the few individuals who might, let me stress might, have enabled humanity to avoid the terrible outcomes associated with official communism and fascism. Had she lived, what we came to know as communism could have been entirely different and what we now know as German fascism might have been prevented.
In 1919, the alternative would have been revolution across many different lands. But both the Soviet and the German reaction made sure that revolution would not happen. (Truth be known, we don’t know if revolution would have taken place; we simply know that it didn’t and that events conspired to make that possibility into an impossibility.) We live still with the consequences of those outcomes. Rosa Luxemburg might have been able to stop both reactions—hard claim to make for one individual, but perhaps not such a hard claim to make for one remarkable individual—especially in light of the cataclysmic horrors launched by two other “individuals”—Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler. Insert text about individuals and plutonic forces!
But, for me, the most important parts of this book are not the graphics but the events and texts embodied within those graphics and especially the texts that highlight Luxemburg’s own words.
The essentials of Luxemburg’s life, ideas and work are revealed in her responses to the circumstances of her life and the issues and work of revolutionary politics.
The Circumstances of Her Life
Let me try not to be fancy. What I mean by the circumstances of life are simply the everyday realities within which most of us live out our lives. I’d argue that Rosa was a perceptive observer of and an especially enlightened participant in those circumstances.
She remembered her childhood yearnings:
I used to sneak across to the window—it was strictly forbidden to get up before Father was up—I would open it quietly and peek out at the big courtyard. There was certainly not much to see there. Everything was still asleep … a pair of sparrows were having a fight with a lot of cheeky chirping. A cat crept by on its soft paws … Antoni stood alone, deep reflection etched on his sleepy, unwashed face. The solemn stillness of the morning hour spread above the triviality of the courtyard’s paved surface … the window panes glittered with the early morning gold of the young sun … and way up high swam sweet-smelling clouds with a touch of pink, before dissolving into the grey sky over the metropolis. I firmly believed that “life,” that is, “real life,” was somewhere far away off beyond the rooftops.
We can appreciate some of her most revealing sentiments when she is talking about the men she loved. When she was living in Paris, she wrote to Leo Jogiches, her first lover:
My only one, my Bobo, when will I see you? I miss you so much my soul is simply thirsting. Today I saw the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Opera. I’m deafened by the noise…. and how many beautiful women there are! Really all of them are beautiful, or at least they seem to be … No! Under no circumstances will you come here! You stay in Zurich.
Once, in the graphic version, while Leo was telling her about the ways in which she was being portrayed as a mortal danger to civilization in the mainstream newspapers, she becomes preoccupied with freeing a wasp—a wasp that most of us would have only been concerned about killing. Her reason: “With every fly that one carelessly swats and crushes, the entire world comes to an end. In the refracting eye of the little fly, it is the same as if the end of the world had destroyed all life.”
Years later, writing to Kostya Zetkin (the son of her close friend Clara) and, at the time, her young lover, she wrote:
Oh Dudu, if only I had two years to do nothing but paint—it would absorb me completely. I wouldn’t go to any painter for lessons or instructions, nor would I ask anyone about anything, but just learn on my own by painting, and asking you! But those are crazy dreams. I can’t let myself do it, because there isn’t even a dog who needs my wretched paintings. However, people do need the articles I write.
Upon her realization that Kostya no longer loved her, she wrote: “If you no longer love me, say it to me openly. You can’t help it. It must come out some day.” When he said, “I truly am sorry,” she responded: “No! You needn’t be. You felt trapped when a word could have freed you. In reality, I was the trapped one… my heart was held by a chain of iron.” Still later, reflecting on the moment, she wrote: “I cleave to the idea that a woman’s character doesn’t show itself when love begins but when it ends.”
In a letter from prison during World War I to Hans Diefenbach, a lover whom she had become involved with on the eve of the war then serving as a medic in the German army, she’s alternately needy and determined:
I need company. I’m sad, and I want to make a confession. The last few days I’ve been angry and therefore unhappy and therefore sick. Or was I sick and therefore unhappy and hence angry? I don’t know any more. Now I’m well again, and I vow never, ever again to lend an ear to my inner demons.
Diefenbach’s later death on the front lines weighed heavily on her when she got the news:
I received the dreadful black envelope. My hands and heart were already trembling when I saw the handwriting and the postmark but I still hoped the worst would not be true. How can this be possible? To me it is like a word cut short in mid-sentence.
But not only love inspired her. Birds seemed to have had a special place in her feelings. From prison, she wrote:
Good lord, don’t I have reason enough to feel grateful and joyful, since the sun is shining down on me so and the birds are singing their age-old song.
The one who has done the most to restore me to reason is a small friend whose image I am sending you. This comrade with the jauntily held beak, steeply rising forehead, and eye of a know-it-all is called the arbour bird. You have surely heard him somewhere because he likes to nest in the thickets of gardens or parks everywhere, you simply haven’t noticed him, just as people for the most part pass by the loveliest things in life without paying attention.
And she goes on talking about the bird (but perhaps, she was really talking about the bird watcher):
This bird is quite an oddball. He doesn’t sing just one song, one melody, like other birds, but he is a public speaker, he holds forth, making his speeches to the garden, and does so with a very loud voice full of dramatic excitement, leaping transitions, and passages of heightened pathos. He brings up the most impossible questions, then hurries to answer them himself, with nonsense, makes the most daring assertions, heatedly refuting views that no one has stated, charges through wide open doors, then suddenly exclaims in triumph: “Didn’t I say so? Didn’t I say so?” Immediately after that he solemnly warns everyone who’s willing or not willing to listen: “You’ll see! You’ll see!” (He has the clever habit of repeating each witty remark twice.)
He never grows tired of filling the garden with the most blatant nonsense, and during the stillness that reigns while he’s giving his speeches, one can almost see the other birds exchanging glances and shrugging their shoulders.
I don’t shrug mine. I laugh every time with joy. You see, I know that his foolish chatter is actually the deepest wisdom and that he’s right about everything.
On the Issues and the Work of Politics
Luxemburg was all but always looking for signs that revolt was breaking out and then urging upon all who would listen the urgent need for support and joint action.
At an SPD Congress in Jena on September 17, 1905, she pleaded:
Are we really living in the year of the glorious Russian revolution? Daily, we read news of it, but some of us don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear. The final words of the Communist Manifesto are not merely a pretty phrase. We are in deadly earnest when we say: Workers! We have a world to win!
Later, she wrote more analytically about the mass strike:
The overthrow of absolutism is a long, continuous social process. The mass strike is not one act, one isolated action. It is a whole period of class struggle. Economic and political factors are intertwined. Cause and effect continuously change places. In the revolution, any political class action can arouse in a few hours whole sections of the working class from their passive condition. The mass strike does not produce the revolution: the revolution produces the mass strike. The mass strike cannot be made, planned or decided. So many factors intersect: economic, political and social, general and local, material and psychical.
But, for her, analysis must remain alive:
The mass strike. A bit of pulsating life of flesh and blood…which is connected with all parts of the revolution…with a thousand veins. If sophisticated theory purposes to make a clever dissection of it, it will not perceive the phenomenon in its living essence…but kill it altogether.
These last two comments are somewhat hilariously presented in a series of frames showing Rosa and Leo Jogiches making love.
She was impatient with, if not outraged by, the deeply rooted caution of the German party’s leadership. In 1910, she complained to Louise Kautsky, after her husband, Karl, refused to publish her call for a republic:
It’s “not the party line”—the very idea is banned! Pfui! To quote Marx: our government is “nothing but military despotism embellished with parliamentary forms.” Yet it has the support of Karl Kautsky! Who needs the police to call us into line? Herr Kautsky will police us himself!
All Germany is ready for industrial action yet Karl is not. He says a mass strike is “unthinkable.” Here! We have the strongest socialist movement in the world yet our proletariat is apparently the most powerless.
Kautsky would rewrite the Communist Manifesto itself! “Proletarians of all countries unite in peacetime, but slit one another’s throats in war!”
Luxemburg was no feminist. She told Clara Zetkin: “I’m sorry Clara. You do so much for the fight for women’s emancipation. I couldn’t do it. I can’t pretend to make common cause with the ladies of the capitalist class. They are parasites upon parasites” Just once, she had doubts about her course of action in that regard. In 1914, after all of the SPD representatives voted for war credits in the Reichstag, she told Clara Zetkin: “For once, I wish I’d dedicated my life to getting women the right to vote. Dammit, Clara. I wish we were in there right now.”
But she was an indisputable champion of women’s liberation in action. She faced a rogues’ gallery of male supremacists. At one point, Dr. Wurm, the husband of Rosa’s friend Mathilde, is quoted as saying:
The poisonous bitch will yet do a lot of damage. She is as clever as a monkey, yet her sense of responsibility is totally lacking. Her only motive is an almost perverse desire for self-justification.
That inspired August Bebel to tell Kautsky:
It’s an odd thing about women. If their partialities or passions or vanities come into question, then even the most intelligent of them flies off the handle and becomes hostile to the point of absurdity. Love and hate lie side by side; a regulating reason does not exist.
Evans follows the war graphic described above with the only pages of non-graphic text in the book—an extended excerpt from The Junius Pamphlet, authored by Luxemburg in 1916, in the midst of the slaughter. She pulls no punches: “Mass murder has become a monotonous task, and yet the final solution is not one step nearer. Capitalist rule is caught in its own trap, and cannot ban the spirit it has invoked.”
But capital was not alone:
Gone is the first mad delirium. Gone are the private street demonstrations, the singing throngs, the violent mobs. The show is over. The curtain has fallen on trains filled with reservists, as they pull out amidst the joyous cries of enthusiastic maidens. We no longer see their laughing faces, smiling cheerily from the train windows, upon a war-mad population. Quietly, they trot through the streets, with their sacks upon their shoulders. And the public, with a fretful face, goes about its daily task.
Who else has captured the grim consequences of dumb support for war so well?
In that same pamphlet, she wrote in some precise detail about she had in mind when she invoked the possibility of barbarism:
What does a ‘‘reversion to barbarism’’ mean at the present stage of European civilisation? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the destruction of culture, sporadically during a modern war, and forever, if the period of world wars that has just begun is allowed to take its damnable course to the last ultimate consequence. Thus we stand today, as Friedrich Engels prophesied more than a generation ago, before the awful proposition: the destruction of all culture and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or the victory of socialism, that is, the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism, against its methods, against war. This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance.
Luxemburg was both an innovative analyst and determined opponent of imperialism—the domination of the world by a handful of powerful or would-be powerful nations, but she had no sympathy for national self-determination as a political strategy—even, and perhaps especially when it concerned Poland, the country of her birth. She succinctly explained why: “Why speak of national self-determination? Under capitalism the nation does not exist! Instead we have classes with antagonistic interests and rights. The ruling class and the enlightened proletariat can never form one undifferentiated national whole.”
Perhaps her most original theoretical work concerned what she saw as an unresolved issue in Karl Marx’s arguments regarding the accumulation of capital. She formulated the challenge this way: “In a world formed purely of capitalists and workers there is just no way that the capitalists, viewed in their entirety, can get rid of the surplus goods, change the surplus value into money, and accumulate capital.”
Earlier, she had anticipated the essential role that the expansion of credit would play in the perpetuation of accumulation and in the return of inevitable crisis:
When the tendency of capitalist production to expand limitlessly strikes against the limited size of private capital, credit steps in to surmount those limits.… Credit aggravates the inevitable crisis.… It accelerates the exchange of commodities.…it provokes overproduction…and then, at the first symptom of stagnation, credit melts away. It abandons the exchange process just when it is indispensable. Credit stimulates bold and unscrupulous utilization of the property of others…it leads to reckless speculation… It helps to bring on and extend the crisis by transforming all exchange into an extremely complex and artificial mechanism which, having a minimum of metallic money as a real base, is easily disarranged at the slightest occasion.
Not so bad as an analysis of what happened in 2008—except that Luxemburg wrote it more than a hundred years earlier.
For Luxemburg, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was one of the great events of world history and she desired nothing as much as its success and insisted on the need for German workers to defend it and defend it most of all by launching their own assault against capitalist despotism. At the same time, she was severely critical of her Bolshevik comrades. Early in 1919, indeed in her last public speech, Luxemburg warned:
The proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing. It does not need these weapons because it does not combat individuals, but institutions, because it does not enter the arena with naïve illusions whose disappointment it would seek to revenge. It is not the desperate attempt of a minority to mold the world forcibly according to its ideal, but the action of the great massive millions of the people, destined to fulfill a historic mission and to transform historical necessity into reality.
Evans incorporates an appreciation of Luxemburg’s intense commitments to the development of her skills and talents. By way of example, soon after arriving in Zurich, barely more than twenty years old, she mounted a public stage. Emil Vandervelde recalled her 1893 speech:
Rosa, 23 years old at the time, was quite unknown outside one or two socialist groups in Germany and Poland…but her opponents had their hands full to hold their ground against her… She rose from the delegates at the back and stood on a chair to make herself better heard. Small and looking very frail in a summer dress…she advocated her cause with such magnetism and such appealing words…
It seems evident that she had great natural talents but she worked hard to become as good as she could. Truth be known, she also enjoyed it:
The time when I was writing the Accumulation of Capital is the happiest of my life. Really I was loving as though in euphoria, “on a high,” saw and heard nothing else, day or night, but this one question, which unfolded before me so beautifully, and I don’t know what to say about which gave me the greater pleasure: the process of thinking, when I was turning a complicated problem over and over in my mind, pacing slowly back and forth, through the room, under the close and attentive observation of Mimi [her cat], who lay on the red plush tablecloth with her little paws curled under her and kept turning her wise head back and forth to follow my movements; or the process of giving shape and literary form to my thoughts with pen in hand. Do you know, at that time I wrote the whole 30 signatures [sections of the manuscript] all at one go in four months’ time—an unprecedented event!—and without rereading the brouillon [the first draft], not even once, I sent it off to be printed.
She had great advice for those who want to write to convince: “The secret is to live the subject-matter fully in one’s heart. Then one finds words that are fresh, rather than the old familiar phrases.”
Luxemburg was freed from prison in the middle of November of 1918. In spite of serious misgivings about the wisdom of the Spartacist Uprising, she threw herself into supporting it. She would have only two months to live before her murder.
She had thought about her death and made clear how she wanted to be remembered. Not surprisingly, it involves a bird singing:
On my grave, as in my life, there will be no pompous phrases. Only two syllables will be allowed to appear on my gravestone: “Tsvee-tsvee.” That is the call made by the large blue titmouse, which I can imitate so well that they all immediately come running. And just think, in this call, which is usually quite clear and thin, sparkling like a steel needle, in the last few days there has been quite a low, little trill, a tiny chesty sound. And do you know what that means, Miss Jacob? That is the first soft stirring of the coming spring.
We are still waiting for the coming of that spring. There is no need for us to turn Rosa Luxemburg into a source of all wisdom. Nonetheless, although she has been dead for almost a century, much that she wrote and argued for remains of great value. I hope that Red Rosa attracts many readers into a deep encounter with her ideas and her inspiration.
-  The author describes her approach as follows: “The following is a fictional representation of factual events. Photographic source material has been used to create the characters and settings. …[M]any of the conversations between the characters have been created using Luxemburg’s actual words.… In order to compress a life as rich as Rosa’s into 179 pages, minor events have been omitted, some peripheral characters have been conflated, and in a few cases the chronology of events has been reversed for dramatic effect.” ↩
-  One of the few errors about matters of history in the text comes at the very beginning. In an illustration on the first page, intended to capture the moment of the Paris Commune, a banner is inscribed with the slogan of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” But that was not the rallying cry of the Commune. Instead, it was the “Universal Republic.” For much more about that matter, see Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury. ↩
-  Evans, pp. 59–60. The number(s) within parentheses indicate the page in the graphic text; those page numbers have been used by the author to organize the materials in the Notes section at the end of the book, which provides source information, additional details about the context and explanations of any liberties the author has taken with the source materials. In some cases, the Note also includes fuller excerpts from the original text. In a few instances, I have drawn on the Notes for Luxemburg’s words that were not included in the graphic text. The full article on Martinique is worth reading in its entirety. ↩
-  Evans, pp. 24–25. ↩
-  Evans, p. 39. ↩
-  Evans, p. 86. ↩
-  Evans, p. 102. ↩
-  Evans, p. 128. ↩
-  Evans, p. 138. ↩
-  Evans, pp. 128–9. ↩
-  Evans, p. 74. ↩
-  Evans, p. 75. ↩
-  Evans, p. 104. ↩
-  Evans, p. 64. ↩
-  Evans, p. 153. ↩
-  The words attributed to Wurm were really from Victor Adler. This is one of the occasions when Evans changes facts for dramatic purposes. ↩
-  Evans, p. 106. ↩
-  Evans, p. 126. ↩
-  Evans, p. 106. ↩
-  These sentences from The Junius Pamphlet are not cited by Evans. It was not Engels who coined the phrase “socialism or barbarism.” ↩
-  Evans, pp. 107–9. ↩
-  Evans, p. 56. ↩
-  Evans, p. 126–7. ↩
-  Evans, p. 41. ↩
-  Evans, p. 108. ↩
-  Evans, p. 59. ↩