Dense, devotional, didactic: Kate Evans’ graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg can be described using words that aren’t necessarily compliments. But there is a tradition, and it is an honourable one, of books aiming to popularise the life and work of great philosophers and revolutionaries. Red Rosa moves within that tradition, and affectionately recycles some of the methods and tropes of those old and sometimes naive illustrated introductions. The result is a fascinating book, as much a personal and political history of Luxemburg as it is an object lesson into how to weave past lives into the fabric of the present, in order to make them feel newly relevant.
Beginning at the end, where a young female protester bearing a striking resemblance to Luxemburg faces up to a riot policeman while brandishing a shield painted with the cover of Die Akkumulation Des Kapitals. This is the last of a series of snapshots from what Evans calls – quoting Luxemburg – ‘the coming spring’. Before these images, showing confrontations and lines of protesters from around the world, the same young woman is shown sitting at Luxemburg’s graveside, her smartphone buzzing with tweets from other activists bearing hashtags such as #uprising and #occupation. It’s a picture that may or may not excite you (it’s certainly one that could age the book prematurely), but I appreciated the attempt to place Luxemburg’s legacy within a new sociotechnical context, one that is contemporary to the time of Red Rosa’s production.
Before that, naturally, are the scenes from Luxemburg’s brutal murder, and the throwing of her body into the Landwehr Canal. Everything is shown, from the cradle to the grave, because everything needs to be seen: Luxemburg’s sexual life (‘How did she learn to control her own fertility? How was this secret women’s wisdom transmitted from prostitutes to university graduates?’) as much as her intellectual life and her militant life; always to highlight the radical nature of her choices, as well as to place the personal not alongside but rather within the political. It’s a fine narrative balance, which Evans navigates also by informing the readers of the reasons for her decisions. For instance, upon resolving to no longer keep track of Luxemburg’s lovers, she explains: ‘To pay her due credit as a woman grown to maturity, we could cease constructing her identity solely through the tired old trope of romance.’
The book is full of these editorial asides, which fit in with the express didactic intent. Red Rosa tells the life story of one of history’s foremost revolutionary socialists, and it is towards the careful illustration of these terms – ‘life’, ‘revolution’ and ‘socialism’ – that Evans devotes her craft. From the early domestic scene in which the young Rosa explains to her family the basic term of Marxian economic theory using cutlery, to the one in which she summarises her own theory of imperialism to her cat Mimi, Red Rosa looks above all for ways to convey ideas. Here the book towers over the old illustrated introductions because of Evans’ artwork, which is stunning, as well as to her dramatic choices. The events of the Great War playing out on a reel of film; the daydream sequence while writing letters from Luxemburg’s imprisonment at Wronke; the heart-rending and pictorially beautiful sequences from her final days. I doubt that even those who are very familiar with Luxemburg’s life and work will ever find the book static, banal or boring.
The story of Rosa Luxemburg still commands reading and warrants popularising, as was done in 1986 by German director Margarethe von Trotta. And of course all of these popular versions need updating, too, to reflect the latest scholarship (Red Rosa has 33 pages of endnotes that do just that) and to remain aesthetically fresh, but also so that new political connections be made. This accounts for the epilogue described above, but also for the irruption in the story at one point of the author herself, to argue directly for the persistent validity of Luxemburg’s theory of consumption in the late capitalist present.
What shouldn’t need arguing for is why we need books like Red Rosa, and why now, at these crossroads – aren’t we always at a crossroads? – to fortify our defences against the barbarism to come or that is already here. Think of the Great War. Evans depicts a column of soldiers walking up Luxemburg’s naked spine, and the battle raging on her hair – it’s the panel reproduced in colour on the cover of the book. Then comes a long excerpt from the Junius Pamphlet of 1916, in which Luxemburg depicts the conflict as a monstrous profit-making machine. But we could just as easily set the last paragraph against images playing in your head of the ruins of Aleppo, and find that it hits home just as hard.
Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of righteousness, of order, of ethics–but as a roaring beast, as an orgy of chaos, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity–so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.
Kate Evans: Red Rosa. Verso Books, 2016.
If you’re interested in Evans’ work she has put all of her exceptional Calais Cartoon online.