Review: Red Rosa

A revolutionary ahead of her time

By Ivy Garlitz, January 7, 2016
A page from Red Rosa depicting the occupation of the Reichstag

A page from Red Rosa depicting the occupation of the Reichstag

By Kate Evans (Ed: Paul Buhle)
Verso, £9.99

Kate Evans's Red Rosa is a graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, socialist theorist and revolutionary leader. Born into a Jewish family in Zamosc, Poland, in 1871, Luxemburg struggled throughout her life to overcome prejudice and physical disabilities: a childhood hip ailment caused her to limp.

As a gymnasium student in Warsaw, she became involved with underground political activities and in 1889 she fled to Switzerland to escape police arrest and attend the University of Zurich.

During the First World War, Luxemburg played a leading role in the pacifist Spartacus League, and was one of the founders of the Communist Party of Germany. After the 1919 uprising was crushed, she was executed by government forces.

Red Rosa is extensively researched and presents the public and private Luxemburg in her own words, taken from her works and letters. It highlights how her thinking on economics was far ahead of its time. Long before the terms "military industrial complex" and "globalisation" were coined, Luxemburg talked about a tie between capitalism and militarism, arguing that capitalism expands by forcing its way into non-capitalistic markets.

Her cultural legacy is written on the features of her face

Evans portrays herself entering Luxemburg's classroom, describing how modern Western consumers, indoctrinated into conspicuous consumption, devour the products of overseas exploited workers, products such as the book the reader holds.

Luxemburg focused on activism, believing that socialism would bring justice and true freedom. She also was passionate about nature and art, and expressed joy in life itself.

The sequences dramatising her close friendships and her unconventional partnership with fellow exile Leo Jogiches illuminate how her dedication to social reform extended to her personal life. They openly reveal their intimacy and intensity.

The text foreshadows that one of Luxemburg's students, Frederick Ebert, will become president of Germany, but does not introduce other characters clearly or indicate how some will also play key roles in the future.

It touches on how Luxemburg faced misogyny even from her own party - at one point, a rival leader calls her a "poisonous bitch". The teenaged Luxemburg is depicted quoting Marx, stating that gods are all productions of "the mist-enveloped human brain" and exclaiming, "I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears".

While the book comments that "Rosa's lack of religious faith cannot buy her freedom. Her cultural legacy is written on the features of her face. She will always be seen as a Jew", it scarcely addresses how antisemitism affects Luxemburg as an adult.

Yet, even though Red Rosa leaves some issues unexplored, it is an undeniably engaging portrait that conveys Luxemburg's life and thought with warmth and humour, and shows how she continues to inspire new generations.

Ivy Garlitz is a poet and critic

Last updated: 12:57pm, January 7 2016