SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 198 May 2016

Rosa’s legacy

Red Rosa: A graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg

By Kate Evans

Published by Verso, 2015, £9.99

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

While there have been many biographies of the important Polish-German Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, none are as evocative as Red Rosa by Kate Evans.

The visual format assists in exploring aspects of Luxemburg’s life that other biographies have not touched on, combined with the excellent use of her own words drawn from recently published letters. Luxemburg’s early life, and the formative influences on her, particularly benefit from this format. This includes such things as the juxtaposition of rich and poor in the Polish capital, Warsaw, where her family moved when she was young, as well as her move to Zurich to continue her studies for both personal and political reasons.

Another theme is Luxemburg’s relationships. Most biographers only comment on this insofar as it explains other aspects of her life, such as her marriage of convenience to gain German citizenship. Evans instead uses this to humanise Luxemburg’s life, to portray the obstacles faced even by great revolutionary women, but also to give glimpses into her character. Yet this is not done at the expense of portraying the power of her ideas, and is perhaps one of the best achievements of the biography.

Immediately before moving to Germany, Luxemburg had been catapulted to one of the leading figures of the Socialist International and its main party, the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). At this moment, one of its leaders, Eduard Bernstein, was arguing that, given the ongoing boom, capitalism was finding ways of overcoming its contradictions.

Therefore, socialism could evolve out of capitalism – a reformist theory – rather than developing through its revolutionary overthrow. Luxemburg took up the debate, publishing her famous ‘Reform or Revolution’, which restated the basic contradictions of capitalism, and its instability, and reaffirmed the necessity of overthrowing it.

Clear examples of the developing mass struggles that could lead to this overthrow were to be found in the Russian empire, including Luxemburg’s native Poland. And Luxemburg strove to draw the lessons with her pamphlet on the mass strike.

Yet, as the shadows of the first world war loomed, reformist ideas and methods dominated the SPD. As the SPD became the largest party in the Reichstag, it was paralysed from using its strength to oppose the coming conflict, shamefully voting for the Kaiser’s war credits.

Luxemburg was jailed for her anti-war agitation. Alongside Reichtag deputy, Karl Liebknecht – the first to vote against war credits – and other SPD left-wingers, Luxemburg established the Spartacist League to continue the genuine traditions of Marxism and oppose the war. In prison, she wrote its manifesto under the pseudonym ‘Junius’.

Although this was an incredibly dark period for those like Luxemburg, the light at the end of the tunnel appeared with the Russian revolution in 1917 and the sailors’ revolts in Germany in 1918. The revolutionary upheavals in Germany were not to see the same success as Russia, however. SPD leaders played a counter-revolutionary role, stifling the workers’ councils. The government’s actions provoked a backlash from the masses who saw the gains of the revolution slipping away. The newly-formed Communist Party of German (KPD) failed to channel this revolt, which the SPD ministers drowned in the blood of the KPD, including its leaders Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

In telling Luxemburg’s story, Kate Evans takes some liberties with the course of events and conflates certain characters, but the notes explain where this is the case and provide important further information.

The biggest weakness in the book is that it struggles with Luxemburg’s important legacy. Her criticisms of Russia are presented in a one-sided fashion, neglecting her overall support for the revolutionary gains won by the Bolsheviks. The relationship between Luxemburg’s supporters in the KPD and Lenin and the Bolsheviks falls into the camp of far too many books by tracing top-down Stalinist authoritarian rule back to the Bolshevik party, rather than the Russian revolution’s isolation in an economically impoverished country.

Even so, all readers will enjoy this excellent book and it should serve to introduce a wider audience to the life and ideas of this key Marxist.

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