Doomed revolutionary, a sexual renegade, a dynamo with a limp, and a prescient critic of both capitalism and Bolshevism, Rosa Luxemburg’s extraordinary life has always deserved a wider audience. Full of travel, political drama, sexual freedom and intellectual feuds — Luxemburg’s journey out of Poland to becoming a leader of the German Communist uprising certainly contains enough excitement to fill the pages of a graphic novel.
Thankfully, Kate Evans—a jovial, pink-haired British cartoonist—was commissioned to write and illustrate a biography of Luxemburg by The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The result is Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, a lively history of Luxemberg’s life and fine blend of Evans’ other areas of thematic interests of feminism, class tensions and womanhood.
Broadly spoke with Evans about Red Rosa, capitalism, body hair, and, of course, cats.
For people who don’t know, who was Rosa Luxemburg, and why did you decide to write a graphic novel about her?
Rosa Luxemburg was a tiny Jewish refugee revolutionary socialist limping woman who was born in 1871. She was a woman who faced multiple oppressions and completely vaulted over them to become an economics lecturer at a time when there was only one country in Europe that women could graduate from university. I got commissioned to write the book. I was 70 pages into a 300 page book about pregnancy and birth at the time. And I still said yes.
In what way is Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy relevant today?
She’s a Marxist, and I think Marx provided the most coherent critique of capitalism. Capitalism has been up against the wall at the moment. We’ve got rampant neoliberalism leading to the consolidation of power and influence and money in the hands of the 1%. We’ve got an increasingly disenfranchised, unstable situation around the rest of the world as the middle class is disenfranchised and slowly bled dry by the top. We’re actually seeing a return to Victorian values in the worst possible way in terms of the dismantling of welfare provisions for people around the globe. So any critique of capitalism is very useful in those terms.
The other thing that she did was that she went to the 1905 Russian revolution and she examined what happens when people take to the streets. And you can draw direct parallels between the writings that Luxemburg was writing about the 1905 revolution and recent events in the Arab Spring. She called her writings The Mass Strike, and she looks at the interplay between mass strikes and popular unrest. The uprising in Egypt included a mass strike as part of what happened.
Was Rosa Luxemburg a feminist?
That’s a really good question. She was working within the German Social Democratic party, who wanted to give her leadership of the women’s section of the party. And she quite consciously distanced herself from that. She was extremely good friends with Clara Zetkin, who was self-professedly a feminist and editing the feminist newspaper Die Gleichheit [German for “equality”]. But Rosa distanced herself from being in charge of the women’s section because she quite rightly saw that she would be sidelined out of being able to comment on policies of economics, and that was actually her strong point.
The other problem she avowedly had with feminism was that a lot of the women’s movements at the time were not particularly class-conscious, were quite apolitical, and really quite conservative in their aims. If you look at what the women’s suffrage movement achieved in Britain, it started out first with the vote being given to property owning women over the age of thirty. A lot of contemporary feminism in Luxemburg’s time was in no real sense critical of capitalism. I think what we’ve benefitted from these days is an understanding of intersectionality, that you can talk about classism and you can talk about sexism and then you can see how they intersect. And that really isn’t present in Luxemburg’s writings. It’s very either/or. There really isn’t any understanding that upper-class women are disempowered by patriarchy. She sees it as class versus gender oppression, whereas nowadays we can see that the two intersect.
There’s a part in the book where Rosa disagrees with Clara Zetkin, who supported voting rights in Germany for property-owning women. Do you see echoes of contemporary feminist rifts in this event?
I can see parallels, actually. The brand of feminism that simply talks about aspiration, that talks about giving girls good aspirational role models. People shouldn’t have to be a success so that other people can be a failure. What we could be arguing for is more genuine equality, and to do that you need to end the inequalities caused by unequal distribution of wealth.
It’s worth pointing out that that’s a fictionalized encounter. I think Clara Zetkin would probably have been quite scathing about that particular aspect of feminism. I’m sort of using those two characters to tease out the problem. That isn’t based specifically on a conversation between the two of them.
On the other hand, if you’re going to talk about inspirational women, what you do have in Luxemburg is an inspirational woman.
The book has several sex scenes, and several nonsexual depictions of Rosa Luxemburg’s nude body. Why did you feel sex and nudity were important to include when telling her story?
Because sex was important to her. She had lovers, and she was very proactive in choosing the lovers that she had. In fact, some of the rifts she ends up with with SPD members seem to be because they wanted to go out with her and she wasn’t interested.
It’s such a misrepresentation to show women in corsets unless you show those corsets coming off! People have a physicality that was being physically constrained, and I wanted to show that kind of torture that people were laced into, cause it’s so extreme. And, also, authentically, she would have had hairy legs, and she would have had hairy armpits, and she would have had pubes. The way that porn has shaped modern allowable depictions of the female body is something that I relished the opportunity to challenge in print.
The book talks about Rosa’s longtime partner, Leo Jogiches, a fellow political radical, who abused, stalked and threatened her. Tell me more about this, and why you felt it was so important to bring to light.
You’ve got other Jogiches biographers and they just don’t get the fact that she was in danger after they split up. He very single-mindedly pursued her for a couple years, and he still had a key to the flat that they rented. It was illegal for single women to rent property in Kaiserreich Germany, so he officially rented the flat. He was stalking her, he was physically threatening her. I’ve carried my own experiences of having been in abusive relationships into the depiction of the love affair.
A lot of the dialogue and text in the book is taken directly from their letters.
What was your research process like?
Excruciating! Literally, my research process was trying to read revolutionary socialism while looking after two children who had scarlet fever at the time and living in a two-bedroom house with four of us.
I started with her letters, which are a great introduction. It’s a 500-page volume of her collected letters. She just sparkles in her personal correspondence. You can tell straightaway that you’re dealing with someone who’s witty and ambitious, and just bouncy and fun. I picked out different paragraphs that seemed to be relevant to different subjects. I pulled them all together into word documents and they formed the backbone for creating the plot. And then I read all her writings, and I went through with a highlighter trying to find bits that will compress down small enough into the comic format.
Rosa really loved her cat. Would you describe her as a cat lady?
Definitely. She refers to herself as her cat’s mother. I didn’t put enough of the cat into the book. I could have just done a whole companion volume on her cat, really.