The life and politics of Red Rosa

Submitted by Matthew on 4 February, 2016 - 12:00 Author: Gemma Short

“I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”

In her graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Kate Evans skillfully portrays not only the woman of great intellect and fighting spirit, but one of great emotion. Heavily drawing on Luxemburg’s letters as source material, Evans gives us insight into the personal thoughts and struggles that lay behind Rosa Luxemburg′s theories, books and speeches.

Yet Evans does not leave the politics out; it is carefully woven into the biographical content. We see the evolution of Luxemburg′s ideas, as well as expositions of some of her key debates with other socialists and explanations of her key theories.

There could always be more politics in a biography of Rosa Luxemburg, but augmenting the politics would have taken away human elements of this biography. Instead the biography hinges around key turning points in Rosa′s life, which are matched with key evolutions in her politics. Going to University in Zurich, meeting exiled Russian socialists, her relationship with Leo Jogiches, are shown beside the development of her politics on Poland and the national question. Her move to Berlin coincides with her debate with Bernstein on reform or revolution (with Rosa shown spitting out her tea in shock and disgust as she reads an article by Bernstein). Returning to Poland during the 1905 Russian Revolution — her work on the mass strike. Working at the school of the German Social Democratic Party — her work on The Accumulation of Capital. The First World War — the Junius Pamphlet. Instead of treating Rosa′s time in prison during the war as an aside, where nothing happens, Evans uses the many letters Rosa wrote in prison to show how acutely she felt pain for what was happening in the world. Evans makes Rosa human to the reader, rather than some abstract historical figure.

This is the overriding theme of the biography; that Rosa not only loved and found beauty in many things in the world, but felt the burden of the world and of the suffering of millions. This is summed up in a moving double-page spread, which is also the cover image of the book, of Rosa′s head, with the battles and deaths of the First World War happening on her bowed head above her pained expression.

The events of the German revolution are unfortunately not given the prominence they deserve; this may be due to a lack of source material, a lack of Rosa′s actual thoughts and movements in the revolution. Evans does however manage to make the reader feel the great waste of opportunity when the revolution fails, and hints at some of the reasons for this. The graphics are very well drawn, and the points where Evans focusses on Rosa′s emotions or thoughts, through the use of her letters, are very moving. It is a very good introduction to the politics of Rosa Luxemburg, and the extensive reference section at the back of the book provides further context, for the narrative and references for further reading about this towering figure of revolutionary politics. “I am ready at my post at all times, and at the first opportunity will begin striking the keys of world history’s piano with all ten fingers so that it will really boom”