Red Rosa: A Revolutionary Biography

“It is in the tiny struggles of individual people that the great movements of history are most truly revealed.”

-Rosa Luxemburg

Born in Poland in 1871, Rosa Luxemburg faced, in the words of Vivian Gornick, a “triple historical whammy”: she was a woman, she was Jewish, and she had a birth defect that left her with a permanent limp. Any one of these might have been enough to prohibit her career. And they certainly made things difficult. But Rosa[1], a revolutionary above all else, refused to let anything dissuade her from her mission: to guide Europe to a socialist society in which the working class would be treated fairly. From her first experience with Marxism until she was murdered at 47, Rosa wrote, fought, and inspired without rest in pursuit of the cause.

Kate Evans’ biography Red Rosa, a beautifully illustrated graphic novel with excerpts from Rosa’s writing, is enough to influence even the most dedicated capitalist. Rather than include a steady stream of Rosa’s views (which Evans, a social activist herself, largely shares), Evans shows us the world through Rosa’s eyes. By combining the human aspect of the story with Luxemburg’s powerful writing, Evans transforms an ongoing global issue into a meaningful part of our lives.

When Rosa was a child, her evident intellectual talent was seen as “wasted on a girl,” as one of her brothers allegedly put it. Nonetheless, she learned to speak several languages and was accepted to a top school, which only offered spots to a few Jewish students. But Evans makes sure we see that Rosa was never like her classmates, largely the children of wealthy Russian families: in one telling anecdote, when assigned to compose a poem for the German Kaiser, Rosa wrote blatantly defiant lines such as, “Don’t go pretending I’m coming to pay tribute / Because I don’t give a fig about getting honours from people like you.” Warsaw was the industrial capital of the Russian empire, and young Rosa, watching the richest of the rich walk the streets with the poorest of the poor, was enraged.

Evans tails Rosa throughout her adolescence, showing us, rather than plainly narrating, the struggles she faced due to her sex, social class, and religion. All Rosa wanted was to pursue her studies and affect change, but scenes of Rosa’s mother trying to force her into a corset or Rosa’s brothers repeating that it was “too bad” she was a girl, make it clear how difficult this goal was. On one particularly evocative page, Evans depicts the three kinds of attributes that a woman of Rosa’s time was expected to have: wealth, submissiveness, or a strong body for labor and childbearing. Feminism necessarily pervades the biography — not because Rosa identified as a feminist but because of the nature of the obstacles she faced.

After much pleading with her parents, Rosa left for the University of Zurich, one of the few schools that accepted women, in 1889. As we watch her study Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto, we become enthralled; we, too, feel the injustice that affected her so profoundly. The personal intrigue is not abandoned, however; we learn that through her growing political activism, Rosa met and fell in love with fellow activist Leo Jogiches. Here, Evans might have let Rosa’s passion for Leo eclipse her political career. Instead, she masterfully balances the two stories, showing how deeply intertwined they were. Evans also makes the decision to portray Rosa’s sex life in full detail, drawing bodies honestly rather than falsely round, smooth, or hairless. Startling as these scenes may seem, they are among the novel’s most moving pages.

As she began to get recognition for her work, Rosa became a critical figure in the socialist movement. Against staggering constraints, she rose in the ranks of the SPD (German Social Democrats) and continued to advance her economic theories, which were read and respected even by sexist members of the party. Many captivating pages depict Rosa, alone, thinking carefully through theoretical economic issues.“Capitalism can never peacefully coexist with other forms of existence,” she realized in one such moment. “It is a rampaging tiger committed to the destruction or absorption of all other ways of life except its own.” These scenes, often spanning a whole two-page spread, provide a powerful link between Rosa, the passionate person, and Luxemburg, the brilliant thinker. In moments like these, we clearly see the inseparable nature of Rosa’s sides: without caring, she wouldn’t have had the motivation to analyze; without analysis, she wouldn’t have had the same ability to stimulate change.

Indeed, perhaps Evans’ greatest strength in Red Rosa is her ability to depict how inextricable Rosa’s lives as a woman and activist truly were. Specifically, Rosa’s relationship with Leo was both personal and political; their couplehood was as much defined by their complicated, shifting feelings for each other as it was by the complicated, shifting environment in which they worked and lived. In one scene near the end of their relationship, Evans draws a bold comparison between the pair’s sexual experience and their revolutionary plans. As she sketches them having sex for the last time, she displays Rosa’s theoretical musings overhead: “The mass strike. A bit of pulsating life of flesh and blood.” Still more overtly, she switches to direct narration in the final panel, informing us “Rosa and Leo are exhausted yet invigorated. This is the consummation of their life’s work.” The metaphor, as unexpected as it is touching, is one of the book’s most effective attempts to connect Rosa’s physical and intellectual lives.

When Rosa was captured — not for the first time, but for the last — after helping spearhead the German Revolution of 1918-19, she wasn’t upset at her situation, but glad to see change finally taking place (although it wasn’t ultimately the change she had wanted). This was what she had fought for her entire life: not her own personal achievement, not for women to worship her as a feminist idol, but the advancement of the socialist movement. In the final scenes of the novel, leading up to Rosa’s brutal murder, Evans takes over and openly gives us her opinion of the tragedy, writing “Do you think forty-seven is old enough to die? If you do, you must be very young… If she had lived, what more could she have achieved?”

Following Rosa’s death, Evans sets a lovely stage, black and moonlit, with ghosts of some of the book’s critical scenes: Rosa’s birth, her parents, her studies, her first time making love with Leo, her speeches, her final moment. There are no words. The reader is left with nothing but the emotion of the text, moving in a way that a regular, picture-less biography would not have been able to accomplish. Rosa’s life is laid out — girlhood, academia, love, politics, theory, work, battle — as Evans pays one last tribute to this remarkable woman, activist, and person.

[1] I refer to Rosa Luxemburg as “Rosa” instead of “Luxemburg” to emphasize the human aspect of the biography. In her work and professional life, she is known as Luxemburg.


Illustration by Isabela Lovelace.

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