Red Rosa takes another genre

A beautiful new graphic biography captures some of what we know about Rosa Luxemburg and some of what we don't, all in a unique way, writes Paul Le Blanc.

Rosa LuxemburgRosa Luxemburg

PERHAPS A new comic book superhero is about to take the world by storm--an unlikely Frau Luxemburg, who transforms from a tiny and odd-looking outsider into the almost unstoppable Red Rosa, revolutionary scourge of the oppressors.

Perhaps. But the volume under review is not that. It is a bold graphic ("comic book") representation of the life and ideas--always clever and, in turns, cute, highly informative (the book is incredibly well researched), very funny, inspiring, heartbreaking and very beautiful.

Who was Rosa Luxemburg? In Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, the artist and writer Kate Evans and editor Paul Buhle have produced a magnificent answer. It is by no means the only answer, but it provides, with great originality and flair, distinctive dimensions that, while being true to what we already know about her, help us to see Rosa Luxemburg and imagine the person she was in new ways--a remarkable accomplishment.

It deserves to be understood in a broader context of cultural representations. "Perhaps more than any other Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg has been remembered in various and diverse works of art," as my friend Helen Scott pointed out in our introduction to selected writings from Luxemburg, under the title Socialism or Barbarism. She went on to specify:

lithographs by Conrad Felixmüller and Käthe Kollwitz; poems by Bertolt Brecht and Oskar Kahnel; fiction by Alfred Döblin; film by Margaretha von Trotta; painting by R.B. Kitaj; and more recently in a novel by Jonathan Rabb and music by the British "post-punk" bands Ludus and The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg. Possibly this is because although her life was short--she was only 48 when she was killed--she had a profound impact on world history. In fact, thousands gather in Berlin on the anniversary of her death, bringing red carnations to honor her memory.

Review: Books

Kate Evans, Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. by Paul Buhle. Verso Books, 2015, 220 pages, $16.95.

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AN ARTISTICALLY rendered Rosa Luxemburg is demanded by the dynamics of what she was. Consider the words of her close friend and comrade Clara Zetkin:

In Rosa Luxemburg the socialist idea was a dominating and powerful passion of both heart and brain, a truly creative passion which burned ceaselessly. The great task and the overpowering ambition of this astonishing woman was to prepare the way for social revolution, to clear the path of history for Socialism. To experience the revolution, to fight its battles--that was the highest happiness for her. With a will, determination, selflessness and devotion for which words are too weak, she consecrated her whole life and her whole being to Socialism. She gave herself completely to the cause of Socialism, not only in her tragic death, but throughout her whole life, daily and hourly, through the struggles of many years...She was the sharp sword, the living flame of revolution.

This is someone we must understand, and only creative and artistic exploration can connect with some of the qualities to which Zetkin alludes.

There is obviously something unusual going on here. Great revolutionaries--Karl Marx, for example, or Vladimir Ilyich Lenin--have generally been known by their last names: Marx, Lenin, etc. But when people speak of Rosa Luxemburg, as often as not, it is "Rosa." Some of us at least give her first and last name together, over and over, when we don't do that with Marx or Lenin, so that we can express the intimacy: Rosa.

It is common, too, that she is transformed into what the person who says her name wants her to be. There is more than one Rosa Luxemburg.

I discovered this myself in my late teens, growing up in Cold War America--searching for informative essays in the early 1960s about this woman who (according to my beloved C. Wright Mills) had one foot firmly planted in democracy, the other firmly planted in revolution, and her head very much up in the Marxist clouds of faith in the working class.

Bertram D. Wolfe, a one-time revolutionary turned bitter (and widely published) Cold War anti-Communist, provided an immensely influential interpretation that minimized most of what she stood for to make her the Rosa of Democracy, engaged in mortal combat with the pernicious Totalitarian Lenin.

By contrast, a more knowledgeable and honest--and less widely read--essay by Hannah Arendt (produced by someone who had never presumed to be a revolutionary) sought to be truer to what Luxemburg had actually been about. It also emphasized that, whatever their differences, Luxemburg and Lenin were close, and were in the same revolutionary camp. For Arendt, however, the most important thing about Luxemburg (not surprisingly for Arendt) was her penetrating mind and her intellectual integrity.

When we turn to the two most substantial biographies in English, we can view Luxemburg through the lens of a passionate and well-informed younger comrade (Paul Frölich) and through the very different lens of a dispassionate and critical-minded scholar (J. P. Nettl).

These two Rosas have much in common, of course, although one account is composed by one in thick of the struggle, the other by one very much removed--and so the different accounts give one a somewhat different sense of this woman. It may be, too, that the gender of the two, and also a certain modesty, caused these biographers to miss certain elements in the story--including personal dynamics to which others (the fiery Marxist-Humanist philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya, as well as another biographer, Elzbieta Ettinger) give greater attention.

Maria von Trotta's magnificent 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg, with the striking performance of Barbara Sukowa, powerfully impacted many people's perceptions. Well-researched, splendidly produced, beautifully acted--here was Rosa Luxemburg brought to life.

And yet it wasn't. Every work of art necessarily distorts the realities it seeks to portray or convey. That is true here, even in the most elemental ways. Sukowa's face and body are not those of Luxemburg, although there are many other visual portrayals of Luxemburg that go more in the direction of what von Trotta and Sukowa present. In some drawings and posters, the proportions of her face are re-balanced, blemishes are airbrushed away, her nose is "fixed," and the facts that she is very short, tiny, with a body that is crooked, are not shown.

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IN RED Rosa, we see a Luxemburg closer to the way she looked, with an animated face that can seem, in turn, plain, sometimes even homely, and sometimes luminous, very beautiful. More than once we see her naked body--our own bodies are so essential to our daily existence, and now this is shown to be true of her as well--and the love-making that is so important to many of us is shown to be part of her life as well.

In the course of her life, there appear to have been at least four lovers, including a couple of significantly younger men, and this is simply integrated in Red Rosa into a rich life that includes multiple friendships (including with her cat Mimi), a passionate love of nature, an enjoyment of food, standing on chairs in order to be seen, intensive studies, reading all the time, and writing, writing, writing, the development of theoretical perspectives, working and organizing and debating with comrades in the course of building the revolutionary workers movement in Poland, Russia, especially Germany, and throughout the world, with time teaching in socialist party schools, and time served in prison, rallies and demonstrations and street battles, reaching for socialism--and being brought down by barbarism and death.

Yet even now, the book shows, she is vibrantly alive in all of the struggles against oppression and the destructiveness of capitalism--all of the struggles for a better world of the free and the equal.

This is not Rosa Luxemburg, just as none of the representations of her can be. But this remarkable graphic biography will powerfully impact on many people's perceptions of who she was. One must reach for more--more biographical and historical information, perhaps, but especially more of what Rosa herself had to say.

Some of us who are already engaged with Red Rosa will certainly get much from Kate Evans' achievement. And because there is much truth here, and because it is a fine and entertaining work of art, it is a good place for many to start.