Beyond the Biopic

By John W. W. ZeiserJanuary 21, 2016

Red Rosa by Kate Evans

IN THE AFTERWORD to Kate Evans’s excellent new graphic history Red Rosa, editor Paul Buhle (more about him later) tells us that Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy remained for decades in limbo following her 1919 murder. While encouraged by the 1917 Russian Revolution, she had also been critical of it, particularly the Bolshevik decision to disband the democratically elected Constituent Assembly and Lenin’s unwavering support of nationalist self-determination — stances that made fitting Luxemburg into a left pantheon increasingly controlled by Soviet interests awkward. But her prominence and martyrdom also made it necessary. Buhle notes, however, that even as room was being made for her, “her life and writings […] were no longer seen as central, except as appeals to sentiment and no less to a constructed historical narrative.” Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, to name just a few, all manipulated her writing to mesh with their political and personal interests. In the US, on the other hand, Luxemburg was eventually slotted in next to the anarchist Emma Goldman, an odd pairing considering their vastly divergent political views. Determining which system of left thought Luxemburg best fits into is, however, perhaps less important than assessing her overall contributions to the critique of capitalism. Only recently have activists and historians begun such assessment, with a corresponding upswing in her reputation.

But who was Luxemburg as a person, and what were her political ideas and ambitions? Evans attempts to answer this question for us in the form of a graphic biography, a medium that offers advantages that neither the traditional print biography nor the cinematic biopic make available. Graphic biography has the ability to condense large chunks of a person’s writings into a workable narrative in a way that biopics cannot, while remaining more approachable than an academic or even a trade biography. Throughout her book, Evans provides extensive endnotes and italicized direct quotes. At the same time, her occasional caveats and interjections about necessary chronological or character deviations preempt the most predictable criticism laid at the feet of the biopic, that the genre distorts historical facts. We are told early and often that Red Rosa is not the only or even the best resource for understanding the profound contributions Luxemburg has made to political economy and revolutionary politics. But it does have a chance to become an essential jumping off point for initiates interested in exploring Luxemburg’s ideas and legacy in greater detail.

In March 1871, two weeks before the barricades of the Paris Commune went up, Luxemburg was born in the small Polish city of Zamość, then part of the Russian empire. Europe was exploding. Wars, rapid industrialization, and colonialism were the social forces of Luxemburg’s milieu. The large and poor Jewish family of which she was the youngest member moved to Warsaw, then the industrial heart of the empire, when Rosa was three. Most likely she suffered from congenital hip dysplasia: she wore a lower body cast until she was five and walked with a limp for the rest of her life. She was also a slip of a girl, which Evans weighs as evidence of childhood malnutrition.

Luxemburg was, however, incredibly smart and extremely driven, and her physical afflictions seem to have proven only minor obstacles. She earned a scholarship to the Second Gymnasium. (The best schools were reserved for Russians only.) By age 10, she spoke Polish, Hebrew, Russian, and German. Her parents began to fret as her intelligence allowed her to see plainly the pronounced wealth gap created by industrialization and imperialism. Before finishing gymnasium, she had already begun her initiation into socialist activism in earnest. She read the socialist canon voraciously and became a member of the Proletariat Party, cutting her teeth by organizing a general strike whose four leaders subsequently were hanged from the Warsaw Citadel.

This early foray must have had a profound effect on the young Rosa. The essayist Vivian Gornick equates the genesis moment of “professional radicalism” with the feeling an artist derives from her creative efforts, writing in her short biography of Emma Goldman, “That experience is incomparable: to feel not simply alive but expressive. It induces a conviction of inner clarity that quickly becomes the very thing one can no longer do without.” Here Evans, unfortunately to my mind, indulges in an act of biographical condensation, locating Luxemburg’s early foray into radical activism after she is done with her schooling. Perhaps if high schoolers, who should definitely be reading works like this, thought of politics as something that should not be left exclusively to adults or professionals, our own democracy might be more robust. In any case, Evans correctly notes that Luxemburg both made a name for herself and made herself unwelcome in the eyes of the Russian authorities.

When Luxemburg finished gymnasium there was not yet any school in the Russian Empire that would enroll women. She thus had to strike out on her own, matriculating at the University of Zurich in order to continue her study of political economy (after a brief dalliance with the natural sciences). Evans tells us that we must admire Luxemburg for her courage, but that is almost an understatement. She left her home and her family, and because of her political activity had little hope of returning on the up-and-up. She traded everything she knew for a world dominated by men speaking the heady language of international Marxism. Yet, at no point was Luxemburg caught in awe. Quite the opposite: she reveled in her position, prepared to fulfill her promise. A letter from her sister Anna reminded Rosa that “you must never forget mother’s words — that you alone will make our family’s name famous.” After her time at the university she set out to do so, a tiny woman with a doctorate and a limp, publishing radical newspapers and, much to the chagrin of her parents, hacking off her hair.

It was in Zurich that she also met her lifelong love and collaborator Leo Jogiches, a Lithuanian radical. Like Poland, Lithuania was also under Russian domination at that time, and the two bonded over questions of Marxism and national independence, together founding Sprawa Robotnicza (The Workers’ Cause) to address these concerns. While Jogiches is not a household name like Luxemburg is, the pair’s radicalism must be viewed in tandem. Leo was unable to write a single word, which Evans speculates may point to his being dyslexic, but his ideas and organizational skills complemented Rosa’s mastery of Marxist theory. She was also influenced by his level of commitment to the working-class and revolutionary struggle. By the time of their meeting at the university, he had been arrested on several occasions, and although he was born wealthy, he worked a variety of working-class jobs because, as Evans cites him saying, “to truly understand the proletariat one must live as one of them.”

This is a sentiment Rosa herself apparently held in theory but had difficulty following in practice. Evans does not hide the fact, for example, that Rosa kept servants when she moved to Berlin, and was none too patient with them. And when Rosa was thrown in jail (one of three times between 1904 and 1906, for insulting the kaiser), her experience with fellow inmates did not sharpen her admiration for the proletariat to whom she had dedicated her life. However, this did not lessen her willingness to work on the proletariat’s behalf. One might criticize this element of Luxemburg’s biography, but that would perhaps miss the point about her politics. Just as a lawyer doesn’t necessarily have to like her client to provide a vigorous defense, so too does an activist not need to like or identify with those for whom she fights.

At the end of the 19th century, Berlin was the new heart of European industrialization, which meant it was also the center of working-class struggle. Luxemburg disliked the city instantly, a sentiment Evans conveys in a two-page sequence that visualizes the feelings evoked by Rosa’s complaint that the city “makes a most unfavourable impression on me: tasteless, massive, a proper barracks.” Yet it was here, amidst the “cold power” emanating from the city’s neoclassical edifices, that Rosa made her home for the remainder of her life. She became an integral member of the newly legalized Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), making a name for herself quickly and contributing to the group’s identity via her important critique of the revisionist Eduard Bernstein. Rosa’s riposte was the toast of the Berlin socialist world, and she was quickly brought into the fold by the SPD leader Karl Kautsky (sometimes referred to as the Pope of Marxism), though she never convinced Kautsky to expel the reformist elements completely from the SPD ranks.

Luxemburg’s rejoinder to Bernstein provides a good example of how Evans deals with theory in graphic form. She doesn’t shy away from giving theory the spotlight, and she is quite adept at unfolding, panel by panel, some extremely important, sometimes dense Marxian principles. As Evans narrates, Bernstein attempted to mount a defense of capitalism by claiming that credit, and other complex market mechanisms, could compensate for and alleviate the depredations of capitalism. His reformist argument for evolution, not revolution, did not sit well with the much more radical Rosa. In detailing Rosa’s rejoinder, Evans deploys wonderfully literal images to illustrate Luxemburg’s rejection of Bernstein’s naive belief in credit and what we today call “ethical capitalism.” Evans’s drawings give abstractions a living quality that makes them intelligible: an unattended tea kettle represents capitalism’s tendency for booms and busts, a lit candle the dialectical opposite of darkness. But Evans also remains true to Luxemburg’s intellectual weight, quoting essential passages in full in the endnotes and suggesting further reading.

Evans’s book, with its great explanatory power, fits well into Paul Buhle’s graphic history project. Buhle has overseen many graphic biographies and histories of the left, often in collaboration with underground and contemporary comic luminaries. Red Rosa stands out among these works, which include The Beats: A Graphic History, Wobblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, FDR and the New Deal for Beginners, and Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History. Evans imbues her subject with a vividness and drama that engrosses the reader even as she explains and elucidates a political worldview that has become relatively foreign to the American left.

In a recent interview with Salar Mohandesi for Viewpoint Magazine, Buhle discussed the aims of the famed journal Radical America, which he and his wife Mari Jo founded in 1967. He remarked that one of the central reasons for the journal’s founding was to “recuperate what was called by radical historians in those years, a ‘useable past’ […] the problem we faced was an intellectual paucity in the young generation of radicals brought to consciousness by civil rights and antiwar and anti-imperialist impulses.” This paucity remains a problem for the American left, thanks in large part to what Fredric Jameson has referred to as “the American’s shame at the country’s institutional dirty little secret: American anti-intellectualism.” Confusing populist American resentment of ideas or thoughts with a critique of class, would-be intellectuals have too often denied the importance of the intellectual work necessary for radical political transformation.

Buhle’s graphic histories and biographies, then, can be seen as primers for those unaccustomed to or afraid of theory. They are translations of intellectual history into one of the most American of forms: the comic book. The works in Buhle’s series straddle the line between entertainment and explanation and often make a point of showing how their subjects fit into a larger historical framework. This is no “great man” project, another advantage the form has over biopics, which, with their bombastic, larger-than-life characters, so often hide the centrality of the many people who make up movements and moments.

Evans is keenly aware of the tension between Luxemburg’s exemplary role and the collective project in which she participated, and she several times reminds the reader that Luxemburg’s personal life, into which the book provides plenty of insight, is in no way the crux of the story. There is much more to Luxemburg than, for example, the drama of her rocky relationship with Jogiches, with whom Luxemburg continued to work even as he threatened her with violence. (Rosa acquired a revolver and soldiered on in the struggle.)

Consider, for instance, the weight that Evans gives World War I, and the events leading up to it, in her account of Luxemburg’s life. Evans provides rich detail of how tense and frenetic and how inevitable conflict was in this period at whose center Luxemburg found herself. As just one example, in January 1905, Rosa was shocked into action by the events of Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg, even as these events were met with only a lukewarm response from her fellow socialists in the West. She returned to Poland to bear witness to railway strikes in Warsaw, after which she and Leo were imprisoned. Her brothers saved her from the fate of the four socialist leaders she saw hanging from the Warsaw Citadel when she was still a teenager. Leo, while he too escaped a death sentence, remained in prison.

Rosa continued to strongly denounce the kaiser and agitate for suffrage. This was not women’s suffrage, a movement whose bourgeois underpinnings she was skeptical of, but true universal suffrage for the proletariat as a whole. Since its inception the Reichstag had been purely ornamental, a rubber stamp for the kaiser’s capitalist budget. The most the SPD members could do was symbolically vote down the budget, which they dutifully did every year. Luxemburg’s frustration with this sham system and her agitation for full representation led to a very public falling out with Kautsky over his refusal to publish Rosa’s call for a German Republic.

Rosa read the writing on the wall. There would be war. This inevitability, however, underwrote her crowning theoretical achievement: identifying Europe’s imperialism as a method not only of expanding capitalist modes of production but also, importantly, of dividing the nationalist and the internationalist factions of the proletariat. Evans’s account of the unfolding of this insight entertainingly focuses on Luxemburg’s cat Mimi, who watched her develop the entirety of The Accumulation of Capital, her most lasting contribution to the field.

This book grew out of Luxemburg’s central problem with Das Kapital, her dislike of Marx’s description of capital accumulation. Marx died before he could elaborate this concept, so what we are left with is the tautology that markets grow bigger because they grow bigger. (Mimi chases her tail around and around, but can never catch it.) If, as Marx theorized, the realization of profit comes through ever-increasing sales of commodities, a problem arises. To whom are those commodities being sold? They cannot be sold only to capitalists because then the market would remain small and there would be no profits. A closed system of capitalism is a contradiction, and because capitalism clearly exists, there must be something outside of it which capital can then exploit. Luxemburg’s solution to this problem was to insert imperialism into Marx’s equation, an idea that Lenin would more famously make central to his own theories of capitalism. Today, this concept is referred to as “primary accumulation,” and here it is worth quoting Luxemburg’s account of it at length:

Capitalism needs non-capitalist social strata as a market for its surplus value, as a source of supply for its means of production and as a resevoir [sic] of labour power for its wage system. […] Capitalism must therefore always and everywhere fight a battle of annihilation against every [other] economy that it encounters, whether this is slave economy, feudalism, primitive communism, or patriarchal peasant economy. The principal methods in this struggle are political force (revolution, war), oppressive taxation by the state, and cheap goods; they are partly applied simultaneously, and partly they succeed and complement one another.

If that’s a bit too heavy, imagine Mimi, claws and fangs ripping apart the globe that sits on Rosa’s desk.

For those ready to note “but capitalism won,” Evans is quick to point out two things. First, she reminds us that just because some of Marx’s predictions have not yet come to pass does not invalidate them, for we are still not yet at the “end of history.” Second, and more importantly, capital is still finding many non-capitalist entities to exploit: think of the privatization of healthcare or education, the liberalization of markets under the auspices of the IMF, ubiquitous military interventionism, or profound environmental degradation (the last of which is fast becoming a central site of contemporary Marxist critique). “Force,” Luxemburg wrote, “is the only solution available to capitalism.” It’s not hard to see why anarchists, socialists, and communists alike have seen Luxemburg as speaking for them.

After Ferdinand’s assassination, World War I did indeed become an inevitability. Rosa was visibly agitated at the Socialist International in Brussels on July 30, 1914, and when she was invited to the stage, for once she had no words, no witty rejoinder to her fellow socialists with whom she often argued. Instead, she simply stood there, dumbfounded, then returned to her seat, head in hands. Her only word was “no.” Back in Germany a week later came one of the greatest sell-outs of all time and the final nail in the coffin of peace. On August 4, 1914, the Reichstag convened to approve the kaiser’s war budget. Although the SPD had never before approved a capitalist budget, all 110 socialist deputies assented, in a cowardly manner, “for the Fatherland.” In an incredible about-face, Kautsky himself wrote, “The International is not an effective weapon in wartime. It is essentially an instrument of peace.” Similar jingoism blanketed Europe as workers and capitalists filled the streets with glee, a spectacle that Wilfred Owen would describe in 1917 as “children ardent for some desperate glory.”

As war came so too did the Spartacist League, formed in 1915 by Rosa, Leo, and close friends including Karl Liebknecht, Rosa’s lawyer Paul Levi, and Clara Zetkin. The cracks in socialist unity in Germany were spreading, and the Spartacists were scathing in their denunciation of pro-war SPD members and the war in general. Naturally, Rosa was tossed in jail, to remain imprisoned for most of the war. Her friends, and especially Mathilde Jacob, smuggled out her writings and printed them. As the war progressed, however, Europe awakened to what its governments had authorized: the wholesale murder of a generation. It was probably of little consolation to Rosa that she was so quickly proven right.

By 1917, mass strikes ground St. Petersburg to a halt and Tsar Nicholas abdicated. In May on the Western front, 54 French divisions engaged in open rebellion, engineering workers struck in England, and in Germany the SPD split between pro- and anti-war factions. Kautsky and Luxemburg’s old nemesis Bernstein, seeing the error of their ways, helped the Spartacists to form the UPSD. In October, Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and disbanded the Russian government. The Spartacists were heartened by this, having agitated for a similar government of workers councils in Germany. The chance for revolutionary change was within their reach.

At the war’s end, Rosa was released and Germany seemed on the brink of following Russia down the path of socialist revolution. The Spartacist League, which had become the KPD and would serve as a major political party until it was made illegal by Hitler in 1933, was at the center of this shift. In January 1919 the kaiser abdicated and there was a real chance that the Spartacists would get their wish for Soviet-style workers councils. There were pitched battles, the streets were packed with striking workers, and Liebknecht stood on the kaiser’s balcony declaring Germany a Free Socialist Republic. Sadly, however, the German authority, headed by the pro-war SPD member Friedrich Ebert, was stronger (and more willing to spill the blood of its citizens), and the Spartacist Uprising was crushed by Ebert, the German military, and the Freikorps, a paramilitary organization of demobilized soldiers.

Rosa, now a marked woman, was arrested by the Freikorps on January 15, 1919. The end of the Uprising foreshadowed the violence and insanity that would befall Germany in the following decade, and it should come as no surprise that many early Nazi officials, including Himmler, Höss, and Röhm, were all Freikorps members. Rosa was shot and unceremoniously dumped into the Landwehr Canal, while her friend Liebknecht was shot in the Tiergarten. Her final piece of writing extols the masses to adopt this defeat as “one of the historical defeats which are the pride and strength of international socialism.” She assures them that “the future victory will bloom from this defeat” and ends, in typical fashion, “I was, I am, I shall be!” Evans masterfully relates Rosa’s death in long, deeply detailed panels.

In an age where every other movie seems to be based on a “true” story or on the life of some revered leader, Red Rosa stands out as a way to do biography right. The graphic biography can do everything a biopic can do, only better. A weighty yet accessible way into the life of a person who contributed to public life and historical events, it may condense for the sake of narrative or story, but it does so in a manner that empowers the reader to make her way into deeper intellectual waters. If it were a movie, you might call Red Rosa a tour de force, but that would be short-changing it. Red Rosa is a gripping, wonderfully illustrated account of Rosa Luxemburg the person, but more importantly a straightforward and intellectually honest introduction to her politics and her theoretical contributions. It embodies everything implied by the phrase “Marxismus theorie und praxis.”


John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, journalist, and critic. He lives in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, journalist, and critic, currently living in Maine.


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