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Accumulating Capital

Dominic Davies

Red Rosa cover

Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle
Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg
Verso Books, 2015
224 pages
ISBN: 9781784780999

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg is the latest contribution from Kate Evans, the author and activist known as ‘cartoon Kate’, and with a little research it is unsurprising that this has been commissioned and published by the self-confessedly radical publishing house Verso Books. Red Rosa is a confluence of two recent trajectories pursued by Verso in recent months. The first is Verso’s ‘Graphic Non-fiction Reading List’, reviewed here earlier this year, which was launched with an accompanying blog post and a whole host of new titles, of which Red Rosa is just one. The other trajectory that Evans’s graphic biography slots neatly into is Verso’s recent response to growing interests in the radical Marxist thinker’s extensive writings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in both academic and leftist circles. This has included Verso’s publication of a three-volume edition of Luxemburg’s Complete Works, broken down into her Letters (2011), and more recently her Economic Writings: Volume 1 and Volume 2 (November 2014 and May 2015 respectively). Indeed, Verso also published Norman Geras’s The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg in June of this year, and organised a collaborative event, along with The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York Office and The New School, called Rosa Remix: New Takes on a Long Time Classic, which took place in August 2015. The extent to which Verso is simply attempting to capitalise on the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Luxemburg’s masterpiece, The Accumulation of Capital, will vary depending on your cynicism and sense of irony. But there can be no doubt that this renewed interested is timely and warranted: in the light of her extensive writings on the globalisation of capital, her advocacy of democratic socialism, her theorising of spontaneous resistance movements, and her anti-war activism, Luxemburg’s work has more to teach us about the world we live in today than ever before.

Red Rosa emphasises throughout the importance of Luxemburg’s legacy. ‘It is fifty years before the word “globalisation” will be coined’, an anonymous narratorial voice informs us: ‘Luxemburg formulates its mathematical proof. She uncovers the engine that drives the process inexorably onward.’ This emphasis on the remarkable prescience and continuing relevance of Luxemburg’s writings continues on the next page: ‘It will also be half a century before we hear the term “military-industrial complex”, yet Luxemburg makes explicit the inextricable tie between capitalism and militarism.’ In between these authorial comments, Luxemburg’s own sentences are quoted sporadically and incompletely in abridged citations that justify the economic and political arguments that the graphic biography is identifying. The differentiation between the voices of biographer and biographical subject are indicated by the font in which the text is written. As a brief preface informs the reader: ‘Italicised passages of text are direct quotes from Luxemburg’s writings; where these have been edited for brevity the quotations have been reproduced in full in the notes at the end of the book.’ Though this is a common and completely reasonable technique employed by comic narrative, the print itself is aesthetically unsatisfactory. The narrator’s voice is, for some reason, printed in bland Times New Roman which sits uncomfortably alongside the particularly curvy, caricatured drawings. The only reason for this font decision that this reviewer can conceive of is haste—it’s much more time-efficient to type out and reprint text in a computer-based font, rather than to pencil out hand-written text. And this haste rekindles the cynical perspective mentioned above: perhaps there was a scramble, during the production process, to make sure that this graphic biography was published in The Accumulation of Capital’s anniversary year, thus coinciding neatly with Verso’s dual marketing campaigns around graphic fiction and Luxemburg reinvigoration, and boosting the sales of both of these collections.

Image 1

The italicised text is used mostly to explain the kernels of Luxemburg’s thought through a series of highly selective quotations that drastically simplify her ideas. Though the original passages from which these words are taken are written out in full at the back of the book (resulting in an appendix of some forty pages of lengthy quotations), this need to include lengthy text to supplement, or even to justify, the graphics, might be seen in fact to undermine them. Comics are able to convey simple ideas, the book seems to say, but to get to the real meat of Luxemburg’s revolutionary thought readers still need the complex theoretical words on the page. This relegates the illustrations to an equivalent of the ‘graphic introductions’ that cover all sorts of thinkers and concepts, from Hegel and Sartre to Psychoanalysis and Artificial Intelligence. Undoubtedly graphic introductions such as these can be very useful for getting a basic sense of complex academic theories and concepts, but because Red Rosa is published and marketed as a ‘graphic biography’ rather than an introduction to Luxemburg’s thought, the work is in danger of infantilising the comics form, a stereotype that so many artists and critics have been trying to deconstruct and dispel in recent decades. Throughout the biography, the graphics function only as visual metaphors that simplify the concepts the narrative is trying to explain. Early on, for example, Rosa sits at a dinner table and uses the table salt, cutlery and a loaf of bread to demonstrate Marx’s notions of use, exchange and surplus value. This is not a book for fans of Luxemburg’s writings who are intrigued by what a graphic representation of her life might add to their reading of her. Rather, it is just another introductory text that serves as a beginner’s guide to her thought. The cynic might even wonder whether the graphic narrative is actually designed to entice readers into purchasing Verso’s other recent Luxemburg-oriented publications, rather than offering a genuine extension of and reflection on them. The problem is perhaps rooted in the comic’s confusion about what exactly it is trying to be. If it really were a ‘graphic biography’, then why does it feel the need to spend so much time actually focusing on Luxemburg’s development of Marxist concepts? As the below excerpt demonstrates, the biographical narrative on occasion even appears to intrude on these explanations, which become the prime subject of the comic’s content.

Red Rosa page 2

However, the comic still has some admirable qualities. The striking central splash page, reproduced below, which is also chosen for the biography’s front cover, superbly visualises the trauma of the First World War and how it weighed on Luxemburg’s revolutionary conscience. The comic also at one point explores the self-reflexive potential that the giants of the form, from Art Spiegelman to Joe Sacco, have pioneered. Roughly midway through, Evans herself, who has thus far remained elusive and omniscient, a blandness signified by the generic Times New Roman font, enters the image sequence on the page (though only for three panels). ‘Please forgive this authorial intrusion into the narrative’, Evans writes, depicting her own face—presumably a self-portrait—peering through a door in the back of the panel, ‘but is any of this still relevant today?’ Curiously enough, when we can see the omniscient biographer on the page, both the Times New Roman font and Luxemburg’s italicised quotations disappear to be replaced with a conventional hand-written comic script that gels more productively with the cartoon-like drawings. Evans points out that ‘it’s still the same […] Luxemburg’s basic proposition remains valid. And if capitalism is mathematically impossible, how come I’m standing here wearing clothes made in China? And how were you able to buy this book?’ In these three panels, the author actually reflects on the reaction of the cynical reader, showing how a comic about a tradition of anti-capitalist thought still relies on capitalism for its production, publication, marketization and circulation. This meta-textual insight into its own paradoxical engagement with its material is the critically richest section of the book and proves that, despite its faults, it’s not entirely unaware of the pitfalls of its own project. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, it’s a great shame that this narrative trajectory lasts just half a page, never to return. The reader is offered a glimpse of how reflexive—if not subversive—the comics form can be, before this is tantalisingly snatched away and we are returned to the bland, Times New Roman advertisement for the other titles in Verso’s ‘Luxemburg’ range.

Red Rosa splash page

Dominic Davies is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in English at the University of Oxford, where he also completed his DPhil in March 2015.