History of Marxist Social Thought Research Paper

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1. Critique of Political Economy

In the twentieth century Marxist social thought has taken many different and opposing forms: revisionist, revolutionary, structural, critical, humanist, New Left, social relations, rational choice, etc. Their common denominator is that they appeal to Marx as their original source.

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Marx himself began with a critique of modern natural law theory; that is, the way of thinking which dominated the Western tradition of political and economic thought. Modern natural law theory took two main forms, empirical natural law which prevailed within political economy and idealist natural law which prevailed in political philosophy. Marx argued that modern natural law theory made vast strides in advancing social thought and in identifying the domain of the social. However, he thought that the discursive framework within which classical political economy and philosophy moved failed to distinguish adequately between what is social and what is natural, or more precisely failed to distinguish the place of the social in nature as a whole (Fine 1984).

Marx saw classical political economy as having made great advances in understanding the social character and historical origins of the economic forms of the modern age—value, exchange value, price, money, capital, interest, rent, profit, etc. It recognized that human labor is the ground of value and that the economic system as a whole only reached fruition in the modern age—at the end of history rather than at its beginning. Marx argued, however, that classical political economy naturalized labor as the source of value and never questioned in what kind of social organization or under what social circumstances labor would take the form of value. The way Marx put this is that in analytical terms political economy was strong: it perceived that the magnitude of value was determined by the average amount of labor time that goes into the production of a commodity. But dialectically political economy was weak: it treated the fact that things take the form of commodities and are bearers of value as a natural fact of life rather than as the product of determinate social relations, and it treated the historical emergence of the modern commercial, commodity-producing economy as the triumph of reason over the manifold forces which constrained its fruition in the past.

Vis-a-vis empirical natural law theory, Marx saw himself as the first to comprehend adequately the social character of the value form and to release it from the naturalistic framework in which it had been captured by natural law. The claim to be the first was true, although he did not recognize that Hegel’s critique of natural law pre-empted and prefigured his own—a fact which has only recently been recognized by Marx–Hegel scholars (Rose 1981). Marx wrote Capital as a critique of political economy: not as an economics text but as a study of a society dominated by the dull compulsion of economic forces; not as an economic determinism but as an analysis of a society in which the economic is determinant. The subject matter of Capital concerned the inhuman, alienated, and exploitative social relations that lie hidden behind the fetishized forms of modern economic rationality. To read Marx as an economic determinist as many of his followers have done, or to accuse him of economism as many of his critics have done, is to miss the mark in as much as Capital was a critique of a social world in which:

(a) The exchange of things is a primary condition of intersubjectivity.

(b) Things appear as bearers of exchange value or prices.

(c) Access to things is primarily mediated by the ability to purchase them.

(d) Human activity is subordinated to the movement of things and the fluctuations of the market (for the more traditional reading of Marx’s economics, see Dobb 1946, Meek 1973, Sweezy 1969, Mandel 1978).

Capital was a critique of a society which actualizes economism. It treated the very idea of ‘the economic’ as a product of definite social relations of production and conceived a truly human, social world in terms of the overcoming of ‘the economic’ as such. Capital was an attempt to understand a social world in which everything has its price, even the capacities of our body and soul, and humanity is a slave to the products of its own labor (for this social reading of Marx’s economics, see Sayer 1979, Clarke 1982).

The key proposition in Marx’s ‘economic’ writings was that economic forms and categories are the visible expression of determinate social relations of production. It is misleading, therefore, to say that Marx called the economy the base on which legal, political, and ideological superstructures rest (Williams 1983). Marx was not consistent in his use of terminology but if we can still speak of a ‘base,’ it is constituted by social relations and not by their economic forms. The imagery that informs Capital is not that of base and superstructure but of form and content—economic form and social content. The approach that Marx adopted was to start by analyzing the forms themselves (commodity, value, use value, price, money, capital, interest, profit, etc.), then uncover the alienated social relations concealed behind these forms, and finally explain why these social relations manifest themselves in the form of material relations between things (Rubin 1972). Marx called this post-enlightenment form of superstition and domination the ‘fetishism of the commodity.’

2. Critique of Political Philosophy

One potential weakness of this social approach to Marx’s ‘economic’ writings is that it might give the impression that the economic forms of capitalist social relations are its only forms, or at least that they are its essential forms. Other noneconomic forms of modern social life—moral, legal, political, cultural, etc.— might thus be perceived as being in some sense epiphenomenal or inessential. Even when it was recognized that Marx offered a social critique of political economy rather than an economics, there still remained something rather arbitrary in the way in which he treated the economic as a privileged sphere of social life. Within traditional Marxism this led to a number of possible solutions. At one pole, that of revisionist Marxism, legal, political, and cultural forms usually appeared to be entirely dissociated from and independent of capitalist social relations (as in Eduard Bernstein’s E olutionary Socialism). At the other pole, that of revolutionary Marxism, they usually appeared to be entirely determined by capitalist social relations (as in Lenin’s State and Re olution). In the middle they have often appeared in the manner of structuralist Marxism to be ‘determined in the last instance’ by economic forces or to be ‘relatively autonomous’ and have their own efficacy (Althusser 1965, Poulantzas 1980). Within most forms of contemporary Marxism, it still seems that there are immediate internal connections between capitalist social relations and economic forms that are not shared between capitalist social relations and the moral, legal, political, and cultural forms of the modern age.

For some Marxists, particularly those confronted by the rise of fascism in the 1930s, there was a need to rescue Marxism from the grip of economists and revive it as a theory of the whole social totality. The key to achieving this was to reconsider the relations between Marx and the tradition of German idealism out of which he emerged, and in particular the relation between Marx and Hegel. This was characteristic of those Hegelian Marxists who belonged to or were influenced by the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. They argued that, if economic determinism is one aspect of our social world (the aspect which Marx analyzed in detail), the other is that which Hegel called the ‘right of subjective freedom’ which he analyzed in its various legal, moral, political, and aesthetic dimensions (e.g., Hegel, Philosophy of Right). The basic insight of Hegelian Marxism in all its forms was that there is more to capitalism than the circuits of capital: there is Kant as well as Bentham, political philosophy as well as political economy, the fetish of the subject as well as the fetish of the commodity, free will, morality, and personification as well as determination, instrumental rationality, and reification (Lukacs 1971, Lukacs 1975, Marcuse 1989, Adorno 1973). However, the most characteristic gesture of critical theory was to treat the forms of right, law, and morality either in terms of the logic of illusion (the illusions of liberal individualism) or a logic of anachronism (treating aspects of bourgeois society in the period of its ascendancy as if they were still operative in its period of decline; see Critical Theory: Frankfurt School ).

The one-sided, economic view of capitalist social relations has also been unconvincing to non-Marxists who have recognized that the modern age conveys ideas of personality, free will, moral agency, individual rights, legal equality, collective self-regulation, etc. as well as material relations between things (Kolakowski 1978, Lichtheim 1964). In response, Marxists of various stripes have wanted Marxism to acknowledge that the individual is a juridical, moral, political, and cultural subject as well as a ‘bearer’ of economic forces and that bourgeois society produces ‘high’ moral, political, and cultural values as well as the bare cash nexus. If it is inadequate to say that the language of individual right and moral agency is merely an illusion, or that it is an anachronism inappropriate to our own age, then the difficulty is how to understand the place of this language within the totality of social life and how to move, as it were, from the circuits of capital to capitalism as a whole.

3. Humanist Marxism and Stalinism

In the latter half of the 1950s, a new wind was beginning to blow. In the East it was marked by mounting dissidence partly in reaction to the revelations made at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, the 1956 Hungarian uprising and its suppression by Soviet troops. In the West it was marked by the birth of the New Left and of the new social movements (antiwar, antinuclear, shop stewards, etc.), which fought against the moral myopia characteristic of the Cold War and for a perspective capable of looking beyond existing social forms and comprehending new social forces. In the Colonies it was marked by anticolonial and anti-imperialist revolts whose main aim was national self-determination (Fanon 1965). Within all of these movements there were residues, often strong, of a more traditional Marxism. However, there was also growing evidence of a Marxism which put human needs before dogma, and social relations before institutional arrangements, which recognized that choices can and must be made along the way to socialism and that conscious human agency plays a part in the making of history. It was a Marxism which rejected the coupling of socialism and barbarism that was the mark of Stalinist rule and which sought to reconnect Marxism to the idea of humanity.

As an alternative to the deformed socialism of the post-Stalinist states, there was posited a humanist Marxism which reaffirmed faith in the revolutionary potential not of the human race or of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but of real men and women. Such dissidents were denounced by the official communist press, and sometimes by the more orthodox Trotskyist opposition, for the sins of idealism, subjectivism, romanticism, clericalism, and humanism. But they represented the rediscovery of the ‘social’ in socialism that had been squeezed out of existence once the latter was turned into a ruling abstraction (see Dunayavskeya 1964, Draper 1977, James 1992).

Marxist humanism emphasized Marx’s own awareness of the limitations of a critique in which ‘the connection of political economy with the state, law, morality, civil life, etc. is only dealt with insofar as political economy itself professes to deal with these subjects,’ as well as his ambitious life-project: to ‘present one after another a critique of law, of morality, politics, etc. … and then finally … to show the connection of the whole.’ However, as the Marxist historian Edward Thompson put it, there was also a growing sense that Marx himself was ‘trapped within the circuits of capital’ and ‘only partly sprung that trap in Capital’ (Thompson 1978). It seemed that Marx was increasingly sucked into the theoretical whirlpool of political economy whose categories were interrogated and re-interrogated but whose main premise, the possibility of isolating the economic from other fields of social study, was left intact. The structure of Capital appeared to be dominated by the categories of its antagonist, namely the economic sphere itself, and to remain fixed within this order of things.

It was widely argued that, although Marx could not be blamed for the deformations of traditional Marxism, neither could he be simply exonerated. There was no ‘virgin untouchable purity of original Marxism to which Stalinism owes no kinship’ (Thompson 1978). If Marx’s one-sidedness appeared, like Antigone’s commitment to family love, wrong only because it was one-sided and to be valid within its own terrain, the ideology of Stalinism was seen to justify the exercise of totalitarian terror against both its ‘own’ people and subject nations, and to conceal the social relations (within the workplace, within the party, within the trade unions, within everyday life) which lie beneath absurdly idealized conceptions of state property and workers government.

Affirming the unity of human experience, humanist Marxism treated Marx’s failure to explore other subjects systematically as symptomatic of a certain imprisonment within the very economic categories whose social content he dedicated himself to understanding. It argued that law, morality, culture, etc. belonged to a different logic from that of capital and that the influence of the latter should be conceived as one of corruption rather than constitution. This attitude might be exemplified in Thompson’s assertion at the end of his study of class law in eighteenthcentury England that the rule of law itself is an ‘unqualified human good’ (Thompson 1977). Most important, Marxist humanism maintained that the philistine character of official Communist ideology lay in its denial of the creative agency of people. When people are considered merely as units in a chain of determined circumstances, what disappears is the fact that we are moral and intellectual beings capable of making our own history, confronting adversity, and surmounting the limitations imposed by circumstances. It was this denial of human agency that Thompson called a ‘heresy against man’ and which destroyed from within the social dimension of Marxism. In the Communist world this heresy against people took the shape of a pseudo-Marxist ideology which served only to buttress the ruling bureaucracy.

4. New Left Marxism

The rise of nontraditional forms of Marxism—critical theory in the 1930s, humanist Marxism in the 1950s, and then New Left Marxism in the 1960s—was accompanied by the discovery, translation, and dissemination of the young Marx’s early writings. These included his analysis of alienated labor as the key to understanding private property (in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts), his attack on the latent authoritarianism of the modern state that he (wrongly) attributed to Hegel’s philosophy of right (Critique of Hegel’s doctrine of the state), and his revolt against the anti-Semitism he detected within some sections of the German socialist movement (On The Jewish Question). The recovery of Marx’s analysis of the modern social division between the self-interested atomism of civil society and the abstract community of the political state—and its manifestation as a split within every individual between the bourgeois and citoyen—helped rescue the social character of Marx’s critique from both the stagnant depths of economic determinism and the giddy heights of political philosophy. In practice this meant the renewal of the critique of the cultural, legal, and political forms of modern society. This included state property as well as private property, collectivity as well as individual personality, bureaucracy and the Party as well as representative government, and the endeavor to overcome the bourgeois and socialist mystifications which surrounded these forms of cultural, legal, and political life (Colletti 1974, McLelland 1969).

The exposure of Marx’s early writings to public discussion was accompanied by the publication (in German in 1953 and translated into English in 1973), of Marx’s rough draft of Capital, known as the Grundrisse and written in a rush of revolutionary expectation in 1857–8 (Nicolaus 1973, Rosdolsky 1977). This made Marx’s debt to Hegel in his later ‘scientific’ writings far clearer than it had been. There was interplay between the revelation of previously unknown, untranslated, or obscure writings by Marx and what contemporary Marxists themselves wanted to find in Marx’s work. It brought to the fore a thematic present on the margins of Capital but more evident in the Grundrisse, namely Marx’s critique of the alienated social forms of modern ‘subjectivity’: the forms taken not by the products of human labor but by the producers themselves, the subjects of human labor who produce goods, bring their commodities to the market, interact with one another, express their creativity and take their leisure.

New Left Marxism, with its very strong spirit of rebellion, discovered an implicit hypothesis in Marx’s work: that the fetishism of the commodity (the product of human labor) is accompanied by the fetishism of the subject (the producer or laborer) as the split halves of an original unity. Now everything was conceived as a ‘social relation’—money, capital, the law, the state, abstract right, etc.—and the times looked promising for Marxist social thought. There was a revival or resurgence of Marxist writings on the critique of law (Pashukanis 1983, Fine 1984), the critique of the capitalist and socialist state (Holloway and Picciotto 1978, Clarke 1991), the critique of bourgeois culture (Jameson 2000), the critique of alienation (Meszaros 1970, Ollman 1973), the conditions of radical democracy (Miliband 1988, Habermas 1974), etc.

In post-1968 politics, Marx’s early writings were often cited in order to dismiss the whole complex, differentiated edifice of bourgeois authority and democracy as a sham and to put in its place an alternative conception of ‘true democracy.’ New Left Marxism distinguished between two traditions: that of formal democracy aligned to representation, and that of true democracy aligned to an anti-representational tradition of natural law indebted to Rousseau. The idea was taken from the young Marx, that the socalled democratic state allows the people to appear only as ‘fantasy, illusion, representation,’ that it offers no more than a ‘ceremony’ or ‘spice’ of popular existence, that it expresses ‘the lie that the state is in the interest of the people,’ and that the existing world has to be ‘turned on its head’ if the people are to enter the political stage as they should, in person rather than through representation, in flesh and blood rather than in name alone, in actuality rather than in mere form.

This was the thread that Lucio Colletti picked up in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Marx’s Early Writings (1974). He argued that the revolutionary tradition From Rousseau to Lenin (1972) had as its center the critical analysis of parliamentarism and of the modern representative principle itself, and the conviction that sovereignty must no longer be transferred to government by the people but be retained by the people themselves. The idea of revolution was represented not as a transfer of power from one class to another but a transition from one form of power to another—from the alien form of the political state in which the people are only ideally present, to a power that is ‘directly into the hands of the people.’

This spirit of radicalism was caught, for example, in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1977). He directed the critique of representation east and west: at a Leninism where the representation of the working class radically opposes itself to the working class, and at a parliamentarism where the people in miniature opposes itself to the people themselves. He depicted the representative principle as ‘the quintessence of modern domination … the concrete inversion of life … the heart of the unrealism of the real society.’ The Commune/ Council, by contrast, was shown as the form in which all prior divisions between rulers and ruled are finally overcome and where specialization, hierarchy, and separation end. Debord construed the latter as an institution that is fundamentally antiinstitutional, a form of representation which only actuates the generalization of communication, a form of organization which recognizes its own dissolution as a separate organization, a power which can no longer combat alienation with alienated forms.

This vision of the Commune Council was vulnerable to the criticism that it was as abstract as the power against which it protested. It encountered the realist criticism that, viewed as an institutional system and bared of its revolutionary mystique, the Commune Council manifests its own tendency toward hierarchy and alienation. The rationalist criticism argued that, judged in terms of its capacity for rational decisionmaking, the face-to-face structures of the Commune Council fall victim to the vagaries of public opinion or the contingencies of the loudest voice. The modernist criticism argued that the idea of a true democracy echoed an old European tradition of natural law theory, eventually going back to Aristotle, which conceived the political state and civil society as an undifferentiated unity.

5. Contemporary Marxism

Marx often defined himself through his opposition to Hegel. He praised Hegel for having discovered the ‘correct laws of the dialectic’ but indicted him for mystifying the dialectic. He argued that in Hegel the dialectic was ‘standing on its head’ because it transformed the process of thinking into an independent subject; while he, Marx, recognized that ‘the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man and translated into forms of thought’ (Postface to Capital 1). He argued that Hegel’s mystical dialectic served as a philosophy of the state to ‘glorify what exists,’ while his own dialectic was by contrast ‘a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie’ because it ‘included in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction.’ Hegel was Marx’s Doppelganger: the ghostly double that allowed Marx to be Marx. By making Hegel logical and conceptual, Marx constructed himself as historical and material.

This account was deceptive both in respect of Hegel and Marx himself. In fact, Marx’s analysis of the value-form was no less logical and no more historical than Hegel’s analysis of the form of abstract right. Their respective methodologies were almost identical (Fine 2001). Within contemporary Marxism the relation between Marx and Hegel continued to confound scholars who echoed Marx’s own conviction that Hegel got everything upside down and that Marx was the one who put the world and Hegel back on their feet. There was a tendency within Marxism to treat what Marx said about Hegel as the truth of Hegel without any independent judgement, and to fixate on the logic of inversion which overshadowed Marx’s own writings. One result of this was an increasing stress on the historical specificity not only of the objects of Marx’s analysis (such as the economic forms of value, money, capital, etc.) but also of the critical consciousness that attempts to grasp them.

For example, in his critique of traditional Marxism and revival of critical theory, Moshe Postone (1996) radicalizes Marx by pushing the idea of historical specificity to its limit. He argues that not only are the economic categories of Marx’s theory historically specific but also the categories Marx employs to analyze these economic forms, especially that of labor. Postone’s charge against traditional Marxism is that it does not historicise enough, that it treats certain aspect of Marx’s theory, say the mode of production in contrast to the mode of distribution, as transhistorical. Postone pushes to the fore the historical specificity not only of the commodity form, but also of industrial production, the working class, the category of labor as a tool of analysis, and even the epistemological opposition between subject and object. He looks to the transformation, abolition, supersession, destruction and or transcendence not only of the historically specific forms of social life characteristic of our age, but also of the historically specific critical consciousness whose aim is to abolish both these forms.

This type of Marxism takes to the limit Marx’s critique of bourgeois ideology: that is, the tendency to universalize the particular and to eternize what are in fact historically specific values, including those of science and critique themselves. Its conception of history has in turn opened up new areas of debate. The idea that a relation is historically specific, however, tells us little about the nature of the relation itself or about whether it ought to be abolished. It reflects rather the culture of a historically self-conscious age that declares that both knowledge and reality are transitory and surpassable and that what seems unquestionably true to one age differs from what seems unquestionably true to another. It is a culture that discloses a variety of conflicting historical ‘truths’ with no transhistorical criteria for judging between them. It opens the door to a variety of ‘post-Marxist’ outcomes: a skeptical paralysis which abandons all faith in knowledge and enlightenment; a pragmatic make-believe which hopes that a pretended faith might do the work of an actual faith; a new faith in democracy and democratization which offers a singular political solution to all the alienated forms of social life; or even a new kind of ideological fanaticism which seeks to achieve certainty only by making itself true.

Marx argued in The Communist Manifesto that the fleeting transitoriness of all values, relations, forms, and types of knowledge was an expression of a practical nihilism inherent in bourgeois society: ‘All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.’ Bourgeois society, Marx wrote, drowns religious fervor, chivalrous enthusiasm, and philistine sentimentalism in the icy water of egotistical calculation; it resolves personal worth into exchange value; it strips of its halo every occupation hitherto honored; it reduces the family to a mere money relation; it profanes all that is holy; it substitutes expansion, convulsion, uncertainty, motion, smoke for everything that was permanent, fixed and certain. The bourgeois in this account sees only the transitoriness of things in a world where nothing lasts, nothing has value. Marx emphasized the revolutionary character of the modern bourgeoisie in confronting traditional philosophy and in devaluing all eternal values and timeless ideas. Yet to the extent that Marxism turns the idea of historical specificity into a doctrine of movement, transitoriness, and surpassability, rather than into an investigation of the burden of history bearing down on the present, it begins to mimic the destructive aspect of bourgeois consciousness. It sees the historicity of things only in the sense that every existing social form is equally deprived of value.

In the face of these difficulties within contemporary critical theory, Jurgen Habermas (1996) and the New German School of Critical Theory have reaffirmed the rational aspect of Marxism by appealing to the rational structures of an ideal speech situation. Habermas launched a major critique of the attachment of Marxist social thought to what he reads as the nihilistic ways of thinking characteristic of postmodernism and has endeavored to reconnect Marxism with a republican tradition as indebted to Kant as to Rousseau. In pursuit of a postmetaphysical theory of right, he draws heavily on Kant’s Metaphysics of Justice in reconceptualizing radical democracy as a differentiated, complex, lawful, and representative system of right, buttressed by an active civil society and open public sphere. Habermas achieves this re-appropriation of Kant by proceduralizing natural right and by thus overcoming what he sees as Hegel’s emphatic statisation of right and Marx’s equally emphatic socialization of right. Hegel and Marx’s radical critiques of natural right theory are both viewed with suspicion.

6. Conclusion

The problem of what Marxist social thought is, is not resolved. One wing of contemporary Marxism, sometimes called the Social Relations School, has perhaps protested too much that x and y and z are ‘social relations’ and has thereby lost sight of the natural world of things and people, use values, and human beings, which inhabit these social relations. Social relations are turned into a subject in their own right and everything else appears by comparison inessential and derivative. The reification of ‘the social’ as the foundation of all cultural, political, and economic forms has in turn sparked either antifoundationalist critiques of Marxism or attempts to reconstruct Marxism as a form of antifoundationalism (Nancy 1991, Derrida 1994). The other wing of contemporary Marxism is known as analytic or rational choice Marxism. It has been characterized not only by its respect for traditional canons of argumentation to which it subjects Marxist propositions, but also by a methodological and normative individualism which seeks to reinstate the individual in Marxist thought, both in terms of historical explanation of existing society and the formulation of a just society. Rational choice Marxism may be seen as reflecting the rationalization and individualization of contemporary Western society. However, the proposition that it is possible to analyze social life as if its basic units were rational individuals is a statement of social ontology which takes the perceived weakening of social bonds within the modern age as its starting point (Cohen 1978, Elster 1985).

Marxist social thought is now considered ‘dead’ by many commentators. This perception is due partly to external reasons, such as the decline and fall of official Communism, but also to internal deficiencies within contemporary Marxism itself. Thus the sociology of Erving Goffman and the discourse theory of Michel Foucault seem to have more to say about power relations in the prison, asylum, factory, family, army, school, police, everyday life, etc. than Marxist statetheorists. Yet Marxism remains a crucial resource if the drive to dissociate power from social life or to subordinate social life to the unidimension of power is not to be entrenched.

Marxist social theory is an international phenomenon with strong roots in the West, the East and the Colonies. It has now entered into a new era. It has lost the state support it received from the Soviet Union and its satellites. It has lost the ideological closure with which it was once associated. Its attachment to social movements has also declined. It is now part of a postCommunist age and has to respond to new problems of globalization. In this transition, the history of Marxist social thought is itself being reviewed. Marx’s relation both to the natural law tradition and to the other nineteenth century rebels against the tradition, from Hegel to Nietzsche, has been revisited in more open and critical ways. The distinction between Marxism and other forms of twentieth century social thought has been made less sharp and severe. What comes to mind is the thought that Marxist social thought does not have its own history and that what we call its history is a manifold of stories each construing itself as the narrative heir to Marx’s writings. The potentiality this opens up is of a new wave of social thought which will draw inspiration from Marx’s writings without all the old demarcations and dependencies.


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