I just finished reading Red Rosa, a graphic biography of the revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg. (The novel is graphic in both senses of the word.) You probably never read about her in high school, and maybe not in college either, unless you followed things Marxist, but she was an incredibly influential figure in the period leading up to and during World War I. At a time when women’s roles were severely constricted in Western society, Rosa was living the life of a free, committed revolutionary woman. She traveled from Poland (where as a child, she wrote, for a school contest that was supposed to praise him, an essay excoriating the Kaiser ) and on to Germany where she became a key figure in the Social Democratic Party of Germany. She forged her own political views, and produced some trenchant analyses of capitalism. She was suspicious of the anti-democratic line of the Soviet Marxists, but also contemptuous of the socialist-in-name-only leaders of the Social Democratic Party who led the party into war and the arms of the bourgeoisie on the eve of World War One.
The author and illustrator Kate Evans does a very good job of packing in a large life in 179 pages, and one gets a sense of what an extraordinary woman Rosa was. But I’m not really here to talk about politics but rather to fixate on one particular aspect of the times that Rosa lived in. And it is this. The Speed of Thought. How was it that revolutionary thought spread so quickly, and so far in that time? The whole of Russia, England, and Germany were in an uproar, and revolutionaries like Rosa spread Marx’s ideas across large swaths of land with little but words: smuggled in handbills, street corner lectures, and newspapers laboriously set in type in secret. It seems in today’s world an almost impossible feat. No Facebook, Twitter, Internet, Social Media, cellphones. And I don’t mean this in a jocular way. It just seems amazing to me that ideas could have spread so quickly.
I suppose one can say, look at the rapid spread of Darwin and Freud’s ideas in roughly the same period; true, but those were ideas that were circulating in small scientific and psychoanalytic communities, specialized formations. But ideas that actually resulted in the material re-organization of society—well, that seems more impressive to me.
My wife is doing a literacy training, and the teacher said something very interesting to her class: People who can’t read have trouble listening. If you want to teach people to read, you must teach them to listen first. And the flip side of that is that writing is talking. In order to write you must find your voice.
Simple and remarkable I think. And one step more. How do you get people who don’t listen to listen? This: By listening to them. When people feel heard, they can in turn start listening to others. and then they can begin to understand what reading is all about. And after that, they can find their own voices.
Revolutionaries like Rosa arise at certain times in history. They have listened to themselves and the masses who at key moments in history desperately need to be heard. The masses in turn are ready to listen because they have been listened to. The sound of a book is about unchaining oneself. How fast from seeing the words on the page to the lips? How quick is it from the thought to the action? How far from a book to a new society?
These are the questions that came up for me when I thought about the vast stretches of the Earth that were on fire in 1917. I wonder if there could be a comparable experience again today. Because with social media, that experience of worldwide sharing has become both common but also commodified as the most banal mass culture, and hence, unremarkable, and certainly not revolutionary. Can we still be moved in a deep, societal-changing way by a few profound ideas?