Interview on Red Rosa: Truth Out talk artistic process and economic prescience

[This article by Joe MacarĂ© accompanies Truth Out’s feature of Red Rosa as its Progressive Pick]

Red Rosa‘s author is British cartoonist Kate Evans, hailed by the Guardian’s Steve Bell as “one of the most original talents in comics I’ve seen in a long time.” Truthout spoke with Evans about how the project came to be, how Luxemburg’s prose inspired the book’s art and what lessons we can learn today from the life and works of this extraordinary woman.

Joe Macaré: Where did the idea come from to do a graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg?

Kate Evans: Red Rosa was commissioned by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Verso Books. It was the brainchild of Paul Buhle, who has also initiated graphic biographies of Emma Goldman, Che Guevara and the IWW [International Workers of the World], amongst others. He was looking for a woman to take on the project, and my name was put forward by Seth Tobocman from work I’d done at [left-wing comics anthology magazine] World War 3 Illustrated.

I had very little idea who Rosa Luxemburg was when I got that first email. I thought, “Oh, she’s one of those people I’ve vaguely heard is groovy, like Bakunin or Emma Goldman. I should really get around to reading them.” I agreed to the proposal immediately. And only then did I google her, and discover what an amazing project I’d taken on.

Can you talk a little about how and why Luxemburg’s theoretical understanding of capitalism was so ahead of its time, prefiguring our own understanding of concepts like globalization, imperialism and the military-industrial complex?

To consider how it’s ahead of its time, you have to consider what limited concepts were available to Luxemburg in terms of economic analysis. She was writing at a time when we didn’t yet have concepts such as gross domestic product or national debt. Yet she was able to construct a larger picture, seeing imperial conquest very clearly as an inevitable consequence of capitalism, and militarism as an extension of that. Luxemburg was working from first principles, analyzing how capitalism grows and on what it feeds. She drew links between foreign and domestic policy, which remain relevant and are still unclear to so many people today. Of course we’re not bombing Syria to bring peace!

“Rosa drew links between foreign and domestic policy which remain relevant and are still unclear to so many people today.”

What’s refreshing about Luxemburg is that she never loses sight of the fact that capitalism – exploitation of one human by another, facilitated by the abstractions of the money system – is the root cause of the problem. Although she feels the desperation of the exploited and the oppressed very keenly, she’s clear that it’s only by dismantling capitalism that that oppression can be ended. She gets into trouble with the trades union movement by describing their labors as Sisyphean – they didn’t take too kindly to the idea that they were pointlessly rolling a boulder up a hill. But look! We’ve lost so much that the trades union movement fought for. She had a point.

In a way, the fact that she was a woman freed her to devote herself to this political purity. She couldn’t vote. Nobody could vote for her. So she didn’t have to worry about building a power base or doing what was electable, or pleasing anyone except herself. That’s actually not a bad position to be in.

You use a lot of Rosa Luxemburg’s original writing in the book and, as a result, the reader comes away with a real sense of the flavor of her prose. What kind of impact did her way with words have on your art for the book?

I started by reading Verso’s recent translation of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg. I immediately knew that I had something really special. I like many aspects of her political ideas, but I’m really inspired by the poetry of her personal letters. Who could not love a Victorian heroine who writes to her lover, “I’m already standing here with my carpet beater in my hand, and as soon as I arrive I’m going to start beating the dust out of you.”?

It was a real pleasure to add visual imagery to passages from Luxemburg’s letters. It was also sometimes challenging. For example, she gives a beautiful description of the view from her apartment window, but she describes it from the ground to the skyline – and comics don’t read from the bottom to the top. I used primary sources throughout writing Red Rosa. I read all of Luxemburg’s writings that I could in English translation, and then proceeded to cherry-pick and hone, and refine quotes down into the space available.

The art of Red Rosa includes a lot of disruptions to standard comic formatting, with imagery bursting out of panels, tapestries, panels sliding at odd angles, full-page drawings … Were those techniques that you had wanted to explore anyway, or did most of the inspiration for that come from Luxemburg’s writing and the events of her life?

I always find that the words dictate the artwork, so Luxemburg’s life and writings do shape the way the book is drawn.

Firstly, when I was illustrating her economic theories, I was aware that I needed to pack a load of interesting visual metaphors and motifs in there to carry the reader through such abstract ideas. For example, the quote “each person floats like a piece of dust in the air, and wonders how he will manage” (Luxemburg’s description of the alienation of the modern worker from society) is accompanied by an image of a dandelion clock blowing in the wind. Or when Luxemburg discusses some thorny problem of circular logic, her cat is shown chasing her tail. Wherever I could find a picture that would enhance the ideas, I’d incorporate it.

“What’s refreshing about Luxemburg is that she never loses sight of the fact that capitalism is the root cause of the problem.”

Then there is the fact that Luxemburg’s work is so ideologically dense, and her life is so interesting, that there are places where there is simply too much text to fit on the page. I tried editing it down heavily – I managed to reduce Das Kapital to an eight-page conversation at the dinner table, which is a bloody miracle of compression – but I didn’t want to lose any more words than I had to. I discovered when laying it out that if I deleted the panel borders on some of the frames, I could squeeze a little more text in. So some of those images bursting out of panels had to happen because I’d run out of space! The book was initially meant to be 120 pages. The least I could manage was 179!

Finally, there are the pages drawn from Luxemburg’s personal letters, the pages where she describes her childhood apartment building, or reminisces about her first love. Most powerfully and poignantly, there are her letters from prison in 1917. These passages of poetry were an absolute joy to illustrate and I dedicate time and space to them in the narrative. I spent a whole day just working out the angles of the panels of the prison letter that forms the heart of the book.

There was one page that I couldn’t illustrate though. When I tried to add illustrations to Luxemburg’s Junius pamphlet, I found the excoriating, emotive writing was simply too powerful. Making a picture on the page actually detracted from the incredible power of the images that those words paint in your mind’s eye. Rosa Luxemburg defeated me. She was too good to add drawings to!

Rosa Luxemburg has so many elements to her revealed in your book: feminist trailblazer, economic theorist, Marxist heretic, socialist organizer, antiwar campaigner, irrepressible troublemaker … Which aspect of her did you find most exciting and inspiring as you were creating the book?

She’s indomitable! She really is. She simply refuses to engage with all the multiple oppressions that should have held her back, and bounces through life with an unshakeable faith in her own intellectual ability. This can make her quite unsympathetic to the troubles of others – since she doesn’t regard her own suffering as anything to make a fuss about, she doesn’t see why others should, but I still love her for it.

I also like the fact that she was effortlessly brilliant at painting – it’s a point of connection with my life. I like to think that she’d have made a good cartoonist.

Rosa’s struggles with the reformist German Socialist Party (SPD) struck me as highly relevant for today, most notable the devastating page where the deputies file out of the Reichstag after voting to authorize war. What’s the biggest lesson you’d like readers on the left to take from reading Red Rosa?

Rosa Luxemburg was one of only four prominent people in the SPD to openly oppose the outbreak of World War I. Given that the SPD had just become the largest party in the Reichstag, elected on a firmly antiwar ticket, it was an absolute travesty that the majority of the party fell for the old tired patriotic tropes and voted for war. It’s a situation I’ve seen repeated in my lifetime, such as when Tony Blair persuaded the British Labour Party to follow George W. Bush into Iraq.

“Rosa Luxemburg never compromised. I’d like readers to join her in imagining a new and better world.”

Luxemburg scathingly rephrases Marx’sCommunist Manifesto in protest: “Workers of the world, unite in peacetime, but slit one another’s throats in war!” She knew that it was a war of imperial conquest, and she knew that there would be no winners among working people.

That’s not actually the biggest lesson that I’d like readers to take away from the book though.

I got annoyed by the infighting among 19th century socialists. I wanted to bash their heads together and tell them to sort it out, maybe work on some conflict resolution on a more personal level, then they could have dismantled capitalism and saved us from the horrors that the 20th century unleashed on the world.

I hope that by explaining Marxism in an accessible way, and by producing something readable and engaging, and beautiful, I’ll show people not to be scared of socialism, anarchism or anti-capitalism. Rosa Luxemburg never compromised. I’d like readers to join her in imagining a new and better world.

The final pages of the book strike an optimistic tone, with the promise that Rosa’s spirit lives on in movements and activism. Where do you see that spirit manifesting itself today?

Luxemburg was a theorist of revolutions, so anywhere mass uprisings occur, Luxemburg’s spirit is out on the streets. I visually reference the Occupy movement in the final pages of the book. But I also show African schoolgirls taking back their playing fields from developers, and indigenous Canadians fighting fracking and tar sands. Wherever people resist the ravages of capitalist accumulation, Luxemburg is there.

“Wherever people resist the ravages of capitalist accumulation, Luxemburg is there.”

She was also a writer, a journalist and editor. It was so much harder to communicate ideas a hundred years ago. When reading the glossary of her correspondents at the end of her Letters, I was struck by how many of them were typesetters. It gives some indication of how you had to be able to physically create a newspaper in order to disseminate ideas. I like to imagine what Rosa Luxemburg would have made of modern social media. I think she would have loved it for its immediacy, for its revolutionary potential and for its ability to create genuine democracy.

Luxemburg was a democrat: She vowed to “never take over governmental power except with the clear and explicit will of the great majority of the proletarian masses.” She critiqued her old friend Lenin for shutting down the press in Russia after the revolution. Her most famous quote is “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for those who think differently.” Wherever people think differently, whenever we imagine how to make this world better than capitalism allows, we’re carrying on her ideas. She wrote her own epitaph: “I was, I am, I shall be!”

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