Red Letter
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Criticism in Russia and Engels On the Importance of the Theoretical Struggle (Part 2 of 2 from the first chapter of What Is To Be Done)
by V.I. Lenin
Estimated Reading Time: 13 min

What Is to be Done? was Lenin's fundamental work on the Party although, as is indicated below, its importance should not be overestimated. The sub-title to Lenin's pamphlet - Burning Questions of our Movement - is particularly important as an indication of the historical context.

So far from being innovatory, Lenin was out to reassert the Plekhanov orthodoxy of the pre-1894 period against later developments, and so far from revealing a break of confidence in the masses, the book was designed to remedy 'the lag of the leaders behind the spontaneous upsurge of the masses'. The first three chapters criticised the 'Economists' and terrorists, and described the disarray of the movement in the late 1890s, and so on. Lenin attacked the Credo of Kuskova and the two Russian workers' newspapers Rabochaia Mysl and Rabochee delo as typical of 'Economism'. His main point was that these groups showed inadequate leadership and inability to articulate the role of the proletariat as leader of all classes in the struggle against the autocracy. Basing himself on his conclusions in The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin declared that they could not produce the initial organisation of the Party necessary to parallel politically the transition from Kustar (handicraft) production to national capitalism. The Economists could only duplicate the proletariat's isolated and local efforts. In subsequent chapters and in line with Plekhanov and Axelrod, Lenin elaborated his ideas on Social Democratic consciousness. This involved an intensive knowledge of the socio-economic situation and prospects of every class. It was therefore impossible for the proletariat, whose 'economic' struggle was too narrow, to achieve this consciousness. (Lenin never talked of 'class consciousness' with regard to the proletariat.) Echoing Plekhanov and Axelrod, Lenin maintained that the proletariat, left to itself, would inevitably follow bourgeois ideology...

Marxism after Marx
by David McLellan

More Lenin ahead.

C. Criticism in Russia

Footnotes mercifully abridged. If anyone asks me if I have ever considered anticommunism, I'm going to reply only when trying to organize Lenin's footnotes. Besides being chock full of petty minutia (Lenin on Twitter would've been pretty funny), the numbering scheme is incoherent.

The chief distinguishing feature of Russia in regard to the point we are examining is that the very beginning of the spontaneous working-class movement, on the one hand, and of the turn of progressive public opinion towards Marxism, on the other, was marked by the combination of manifestly heterogeneous elements under a common flag to fight the common enemy (the obsolete social and political world outlook). We refer to the heyday of “legal Marxism”. Speaking generally, this was an altogether curious phenomenon that no one in the eighties or the beginning of the nineties would have believed possible. In a country ruled by an autocracy, with a completely enslaved press, in a period of desperate political reaction in which even the tiniest outgrowth of political discontent and protest is persecuted, the theory of revolutionary Marxism suddenly forces its way into the censored literature and, though expounded in Aesopian language, is understood by all the “interested”. The government had accustomed itself to regarding only the theory of the (revolutionary) Narodnaya Volya as dangerous, without, as is usual, observing its internal evolution, and rejoicing at any criticism levelled against it. Quite a considerable time elapsed (by our Russian standards) before the government realised what had happened and the unwieldy army of censors and gendarmes discovered the new enemy and flung itself upon him. Meanwhile, Marxist books were published one after another, Marxist journals and newspapers were founded, nearly everyone became a Marxist, Marxists were flattered, Marxists were courted, and the book publishers rejoiced at the extraordinary, ready sale of Marxist literature. It was quite natural, therefore, that among the Marxian neophytes who were caught up in this atmosphere, there should be more than one “author who got a swelled head...”18

18. “The Author Who Got a Swelled Head” —the title of one of Maxim Gorky’s early stories.

We can now speak calmly of this period as of an event of the past. It is no secret that the brief period in which Marxism blossomed on the surface of our literature was called forth by an alliance between people of extreme and of very moderate views. In point of fact, the latter were bourgeois democrats; this conclusion (so markedly confirmed by their subsequent “critical” development) suggested itself to some even when the “alliance” was still intact.

That being the case, are not the revolutionary Social-Democrats who entered into the alliance with the future “Critics” mainly responsible for the subsequent “confusion”? This question, together with a reply in the affirmative, is sometimes heard from people with too rigid a view. But such people are entirely in the wrong. Only those who are not sure of themselves can fear to enter into temporary alliances even with unreliable people; not a single political party could exist without such alliances. The combination with the legal Marxists was in its way the first really political alliance entered into by Russian Social -Democrats. Thanks to this alliance, an astonishingly rapid victory was obtained over Narodism, and Marxist ideas (even though in a vulgarised form) became very widespread. Moreover, the alliance was not concluded altogether without “conditions”. Evidence of this is the burning by the censor, in 1895, of the Marxist collection Material on the Question of the Economic Development of Russia. If the literary agreement with the legal Marxists can be compared with a political alliance, then that book can be compared with a political treaty.

The rupture, of course, did not occur because the “allies” proved to be bourgeois democrats. On the contrary, the representatives of the latter trend are natural and desirable allies of Social-Democracy insofar as its democratic tasks, brought to the fore by the prevailing situation in Russia, are concerned. But an essential condition for such an alliance must be the full opportunity for the socialists to reveal to the working class that its interests are diametrically opposed to the interests of the bourgeoisie. However, the Bernsteinian and “critical” trend, to which the majority of the legal Marxists turned, deprived the socialists of this opportunity and demoralised the socialist consciousness by vulgarising Marxism, by advocating the theory of the blunting of social contradictions, by declaring the idea of the social revolution and of the dictatorship of the proletariat to be absurd, by reducing the working-class movement and the class struggle to narrow trade-unionism and to a “realistic” struggle for petty, gradual reforms. This was synonymous with bourgeois democracy’s denial of socialism’s right to independence and, consequently, of its right to existence; in practice it meant a striving to convert the nascent working-class movement into an appendage of the liberals.

Naturally, under such circumstances the rupture was necessary. But the “peculiar” feature of Russia manifested itself in the fact that this rupture simply meant the elimination of the Social-Democrats from the most accessible and widespread “legal” literature. The “ex-Marxists”, who took up the flag of “criticism” and who obtained almost a monopoly to "demolish Marxism, entrenched themselves in this literature. Catchwords like “Against orthodoxy” and “Long live freedom of criticism” (now repeated by Rabocheye Dyelo) forthwith became the vogue, and the fact that neither the censor nor the gendarmes could resist this vogue is apparent from the publication of three Russian editions of the work of the celebrated Bernstein (celebrated in the Herostratean sense) and from the fact that the works of Bernstein, Mr. Prokopovich, and others were recommended by Zubatov (Iskra, No. 10). A task now devolved upon the Social Democrats that was difficult in itself and was made incredibly more difficult by purely external obstacles – the task of combating the new trend. This trend did not confine itself to the sphere of literature. The turn towards “criticism” was accompanied by an infatuation for Economism among Social-Democratic practical workers.

The manner in which the connection between, and interdependence of, legal criticism and illegal Economism arose and grew is in itself an interesting subject, one that could serve as the theme of a special article. We need only note here that this connection undoubtedly existed. The notoriety deservedly acquired by the Credo was due precisely to the frankness with which it formulated this connection and blurted out the fundamental political tendency of Economism – let the workers carry on the economic struggle (it would be more correct to say the trade unionist struggle, because the latter also embraces specifically working class politics) and let the Marxist intelligentsia merge with the liberals for the political “struggle.” Thus, trade-unionist work “among the people” meant fulfilling the first part of this task, while legal criticism meant fulfilling the second. This statement was such an excellent weapon against Economism that, had there been no Credo, it would have been worth inventing one.

6. The reference is to the Protest of the Seventeen against the Credo. The present writer took part in drawing up this protest (the end of 1899). “A Protest by Russian Social-Democrats” was written by Lenin in 1899, in exile. It was a reply to the Credo of a group of “Economists” (S. N. Prokopovich, Y. D. Kuskova, and others, who subsequently became Cadets). On receiving a copy of the Credo from his sister, A. I. Yelizarova, Lenin wrote a sharp protest in which be exposed the real nature of the declaration.
The Protest was discussed and unanimously endorsed by a meeting of 17 exiled Marxists convened by Lenin in the village of Yermakovskoye, Minusinsk District (Siberia). Exiles in Turukhansk District (Siberia) and Orlovo (Vyatka Gubernia) subsequently associated themselves with the Protest.

7. Confession of Faith: A manifesto setting forth the opportunist views of the Kiev Committee, issued at the end of 1899. It was identical with the “Economist” Credo on many points. Lenin criticised the document in his article “Apropos of the Profession de foi.”

The Credo was not invented, but it was published without the consent and perhaps even against the will of its authors. At all events, the present writer, who took part in dragging this new “programme” into the light of day,6 has heard complaints and reproaches to the effect that copies of the resume of the speakers’ views were distributed, dubbed the Credo, and even published in the press together with the protest! We refer to this episode because it reveals a very peculiar feature of our Economism – fear of publicity. This is a feature of Economism generally, and not of the authors of the Credo alone. It was revealed by that most outspoken and honest advocate of Economism, Rabochaya Mysl, and by Rabocheye Dyelo (which was indignant over the publication of “Economist” documents in the Vademecum), as well as by the Kiev Committee, which two years ago refused to permit the publication of its profession de foi,7 together with a repudiation of it, and by many other individual representatives of Economism.

This fear of criticism displayed by the advocates of freedom of criticism cannot be attributed solely to craftiness (although, on occasion, no doubt craftiness is brought into play: it would be improvident to expose the young and as yet frail shoots of the new trend to attacks by opponents). No, the majority of the Economists look with sincere resentment (as by the very nature of Economism they must) upon all theoretical controversies, factional disagreements, broad political questions, plans for organising revolutionaries, etc. “Leave all that to the people abroad!” said a fairly consistent Economist to me one day, thereby expressing a very widespread (and again purely trade-unionist) view; our concern is the working-class movement, the workers, organisations here, in our localities; all the rest is merely the invention of doctrinaires, “the overrating of ideology”, as the authors of the letter, published in Iskra, No. 12, expressed it, in unison with Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 10.

The question now arises: such being the peculiar features of Russian “criticism” and Russian Bernsteinism, what should have been the task of those who sought to oppose opportunism in deeds and not merely in words? First, they should have made efforts to resume the theoretical work that had barely begun in the period of legal Marxism and that fell anew on the shoulders of the comrades working underground. Without such work the successful growth of the movement was impossible. Secondly, they should have actively combated the legal “criticism” that was perverting people’s minds on a considerable scale. Thirdly, they should have actively opposed confusion and vacillation in the practical movement, exposing and repudiating every conscious or unconscious attempt to degrade our programme and our tactics.

That Rabocheye Dyelo did none of these things is well known; we shall have occasion below to deal with this well-known fact in detail and from various aspects. At the moment, however, we desire merely to show the glaring contradiction that exists between the demand for “freedom of criticism” and the specific features of our native criticism and Russian Economism. It suffices but to glance at the text of the resolution in which the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad endorsed the point of view of Rabocheye Dyelo.

“In the interests of the further ideological development of Social-Democracy, we recognise the freedom of criticism of Social-Democratic theory in Party literature to be absolutely necessary insofar as the criticism does not run counter to the class and revolutionary character of this theory” (Two Conferences, p. 10).

And the motivation? The resolution “in its first part coincides with the resolution of the Lubeck Party Congress on Bernstein”. . . . In the simplicity of their souls the “Unionists” failed to observe what a testimonium paupertatis (attestation of poverty) they betray with this copying. . .. “But ... in its second part, it restricts freedom of criticism much more than did the Lubeck Party Congress.”

The resolution of the Union Abroad, then, is directed against the Russian Bernsteinians? If it is not, then the reference to Lubeck would be utterly absurd. But it is not true to say that it “restricts freedom of criticism”. In adopting their Hanover resolution, the Germans, point by point, rejected precisely the amendments proposed by Bernstein, while in their Lubeck resolution they cautioned Bernstein personally, by naming him. Our “free” imitators, however, make not a single allusion to a single manifestation of specifically Russian “criticism” and Russian Economism. In view of this omission, the bare reference to the class and revolutionary character of the theory leaves far wider scope for misinterpretation, particularly when the Union Abroad refuses to identify “so-called Economism” with opportunism (Two Conferences, p. 8, Paragraph 1). But all this, in passing. The main thing to note is that the positions of the opportunists in relation to the revolutionary Social-Democrats in Russia are diametrically opposed to those in Germany. In that country, as we know, the revolutionary Social-Democrats are in favour of preserving that which exists – the old programme and the tactics, which are universally known and have been elucidated in all their details by many decades of experience. But the “Critics” desire to introduce changes, and since these Critics represent an insignificant minority, and since they are very timid in their revisionist efforts, one can understand the motives of the majority in confining themselves to the dry rejection of “innovations”. In Russia, however, it is the Critics and the Economists who are in favour of preserving that which exists: the “Critics” want us to go on regarding them as Marxists and to guarantee them the “freedom of criticism” they enjoyed to the full (for, in fact, they never recognised any kind of party ties,9 9. The fact alone of the absence of public party ties and party traditions, representing as it does a cardinal difference between Russia and Germany, should have warned all sensible socialists against blind imitation. But here is an instance of the lengths to which “freedom of criticism” goes in Russia. Mr. Bulgakov, the Russian Critic, utters the following reprimand to the Austrian Critic, Hertz: “Notwithstanding the independence of his conclusions, Hertz on this point on the question of co-operative societies) apparently remains excessively bound by the opinions of his party, and although he disagrees with it in details, he dare not reject the common principle” (Capitalism and Agriculture, Vol. II, p. 287). The subject of a politically enslaved state, in which nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand of the population are corrupted to the marrow by political subservience and completely lack the conception of party honour and party ties, superciliously reproves a citizen of a constitutional state for being excessively “bound by the opinions of his party”! Our illegal organisations have nothing else to do, of course, but draw up resolutions on freedom of criticism.... —Lenin and, moreover, we never had a generally recognised party body that could “restrict” freedom of criticism, if only by counsel); the Economists want the revolutionaries to recognise the sovereign character of the present movement" (Rabocheye Dyelo, No. 10, p. 25), i.e., to recognise the “legitimacy” of that which exists; they want the “ideologists” not to try to “divert” the movement from the path that “is determined by the interaction of material. elements and material environment” (“Letter” in Iskra, No. 12); they want to have that struggle recognised as desirable “which it is possible for the workers to wage under the present conditions”, and as the only possible struggle, that “which they are actually waging at the present time” (“Separate Supplement” to Rabochaya Mysl, p. 14). We revolutionary Social-Democrats, on the contrary, are dissatisfied with this worship of spontaneity, i.e., of that which exists “at the present moment”. We demand that the tactics that have prevailed in recent years he changed; we declare that “before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation” (see announcement of the publication of Iskra). In a word, the Germans stand for that which exists and reject changes; we demand a change of that which exists, and reject subservience thereto and reconciliation to it.

This “slight” difference our “free” copyists of German resolutions failed to notice.

D. Engels On the Importance of the Theoretical Struggle

“Dogmatism, doctrinairism”, “ossification of the party – the inevitable retribution that follows the violent strait-lacing of thought” – these are the enemies against which the knightly champions of “freedom of criticism” in Rabocheye Dyelo rise up in arms. We are very glad that this question has been placed on the order of the day and we would only propose to add to it one other:

And who are the judges?

We have before us two publishers’ announcements. One, “The Programme of the Periodical Organ of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad – Rabocheye Dyelo” (reprint from No. 1 of Rabocheye Dyelo), and the other, the “Announcement of the Resumption of the Publications of the Emancipation of Labour Group”. Both are dated 1899, when the “crisis of Marxism” had long been under discussion. And what do we find? We would seek in vain in the first announcement for any reference to this phenomenon, or a definite statement of the position the new organ intends to adopt on this question. Not a word is said about theoretical work and the urgent tasks that now confront it, either in this programme or in the supplements to it that were adopted by the Third Congress of the Union Abroad in 1901 (Two Conferences, pp. 15-18). During this entire time the Editorial Board of Rabocheye Dyelo ignored theoretical questions, in spite of the fact that these were questions that disturbed the minds of all Social-Democrats the world over.

The other announcement, on the contrary, points first of all to the declining interest in theory in recent years, imperatively demands “vigilant attention to the theoretical aspect of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat”, and calls for “ruthless criticism of the Bernsteinian and other anti-revolutionary tendencies” in our movement. The issues of Zarya to date show how this programme has been carried out.

22. The Gotha Programme—the programme adopted by the German Social-Democratic Party at the Gotha Congress in 1875 when the Eisenachers and Lassalleans united. The programme suffered from eclecticism and opportunism, since the Eisenachers made concessions to the Lassalleans on the most important points and accepted their formulations. Marx and Engels subjected the Gotha Programme to scathing criticism and characterised it as a retrograde step as compared with the Eisenach Programme of 1869 (See Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

Thus, we see that high-sounding phrases against the ossification of thought, etc., conceal unconcern and helplessness with regard to the development of theoretical thought. The case of the Russian Social-Democrats manifestly illustrates the general European phenomenon (long ago noted also by the German Marxists) that the much vaunted freedom of criticism does not imply substitution of one theory for another, but freedom from all integral and pondered theory; it implies eclecticism and lack of principle. Those who have the slightest acquaintance with the actual state of our movement cannot but see that the wide spread of Marxism was accompanied by a certain lowering of the theoretical level. Quite a number of people with very little, and even a total lack of theoretical training joined the movement because of its practical significance and its practical successes. We can judge from that how tactless Rabocheye Dyelo is when, with an air of triumph, it quotes Marx’s statement: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” To repeat these words in a period of theoretical disorder is like wishing mourners at a funeral many happy returns of the day. Moreover, these words of Marx are taken from his letter on the Gotha Programme,22 in which he sharply condemns eclecticism in the formulation of principles. If you must unite, Marx wrote to the party leaders, then enter into agreements to satisfy the practical aims of the movement, but do not allow any bargaining over principles, do not make theoretical “concessions”. This was Marx’s idea, and yet there are people among us who seek-in his name to belittle the significance of theory!

Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity. Yet, for Russian Social-Democrats the importance of theory is enhanced by three other circumstances, which are often forgotten: first, by the fact that our Party is only in process of formation, its features are only just becoming defined, and it has as yet far from settled accounts with the other trends of revolutionary thought that threaten to divert the movement from the correct path. On the contrary, precisely the very recent past was marked by a revival of non-Social-Democratic revolutionary trends (an eventuation regarding which Axelrod long ago warned the Economists). Under these circumstances, what at first sight appears to be an “unimportant” error may lead to most deplorable consequences, and only short-sighted people can consider factional disputes and a strict differentiation between shades of opinion inopportune or superfluous. The fate of Russian Social-Democracy for very many years to come may depend on the strengthening of one or the other “shade”.

Secondly, the Social-Democratic movement is in its very essence an international movement. This means, not only that we must combat national chauvinism, but that an incipient movement in a young country can be successful only if it makes use of the experiences of other countries. In order to make use of these experiences it is not enough merely to be acquainted with them, or simply to copy out the latest resolutions. What is required is the ability to treat these experiences critically and to test them independently. He who realises how enormously the modern working-class movement has grown and branched out will understand what a reserve of theoretical forces and political (as well as revolutionary) experience is required to carry out this task.

Thirdly, the national tasks of Russian Social-Democracy are such as have never confronted any other socialist party in the world. We shall have occasion further on to deal with the political and organisational duties which the task of emancipating the whole people from the yoke of autocracy imposes upon us. At this point, we wish to state only that the role of vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory. To have a concrete understanding of what this means, let the reader recall such predecessors of Russian Social Democracy as Herzen, Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, and the brilliant galaxy of revolutionaries of the seventies; let him ponder over the world significance which Russian literature is now acquiring; let him. . . but be that enough!

Let us quote what Engels said in 1874 concerning the significance of theory in the Social-Democratic movement. Engels recognizes, not two forms of the great struggle of Social Democracy (political and economic), as is the fashion among us, but three, placing the theoretical struggle on a par with the first two. His recommendations to the German working-class movement, which had become strong, practically and politically, are so instructive from the standpoint of present-day problems and controversies, that we hope the reader will not be vexed with us for quoting a long passage from his prefatory note to Der deutsche Bauernkrieg, which has long become a great bibliographical rarity:

“The German workers have two important advantages over those of the rest of Europe. First, they belong to the most theoretical people of Europe; and they have retained that sense of theory which the so-called ’educated’ classes of Germany have almost completely lost. Without German philosophy, which preceded it, particularly that of Hegel, German scientific socialism – the only scientific socialism that has ever existed – would never have come into being. Without a sense of theory among the workers, this scientific socialism would never have entered their flesh and blood as much as is the case. What an immeasurable advantage this is may be seen, on the one hand, from the indifference towards all theory, which is one of the main reasons why the English working-class movement crawls along so slowly in spite of the splendid organisation of the individual unions; on the other hand, from the mischief and confusion wrought by Proudhonism, in its original form, among the French and Belgians, and, in the form further caricatured by Bakunin, among the Spaniards and Italians.

“The second advantage is that, chronologically speaking, the Germans were about the last to come into the workers’ movement. Just as German theoretical socialism will never forget that it rests on the shoulders of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen – three men who, in spite of all their fantastic notions and all their utopianism, have their place among the most eminent thinkers of all times, and whose genius anticipated innumerable things, the correctness of which is now being scientifically proved by us – so the practical workers’ movement in Germany ought never to forget that it has developed on the shoulders of the English and French movements, that it was able simply to utilise their dearly bought experience, and could now avoid their mistakes, which in their time were mostly unavoidable. Without the precedent of the English trade unions and French workers’ political struggles, without the gigantic impulse given especially by the Paris Commune, where would we be now?

“It must be said to the credit of the German workers that they have exploited the advantages of their situation with rare understanding. For the first time since a workers’ movement has existed, the struggle is being conducted pursuant to its three sides – the. theoretical, the political, and the practical-economic (resistance to the capitalists) – in harmony and in its interconnections, and in a systematic way. It is precisely in this, as it were, concentric attack, that the strength and invincibility of the German movement lies.

“Due to this advantageous situation, on the one hand, and to the insular peculiarities of the English and the forcible suppression of the French movement, on the other, the German workers have for the moment been placed in the vanguard of the proletarian struggle. How long events will allow them to occupy this post of honour cannot be foretold. But let us hope that as long as they occupy it, they will fill it fittingly. This demands redoubled efforts in every field of struggle and agitation. In particular, it will be the duty of the leaders to gain an ever clearer insight into all theoretical questions, to free themselves more and more from the influence of traditional phrases inherited from the old world outlook, and constantly to keep in mind that socialism, since it has become a science, demands that it be pursued as a science, i.e., that it be studied. The task will be to spread with increased zeal among the masses of the workers the ever more clarified understanding thus acquired, to knit together ever more firmly the organisation both of the party and of the trade unions....

“If the German workers progress in this way, they will not be marching exactly at the head of the movement – it is not at all in the interest of this movement that the workers of any particular country should march at its head – but they will occupy an honourable place in the battle line; and they will stand armed for battle when either unexpectedly grave trials or momentous events demand of them increased courage, increased determination and energy.”

Engels’s words proved prophetic. Within a few years the German workers were subjected to unexpectedly grave trials in the form of the Exceptional Law Against the Socialists. And they met those trials armed for battle and succeeded in emerging from them victorious.

The Russian proletariat will have to undergo trials immeasurably graver; it will have to fight a monster compared with which an antisocialist law in a constitutional country seems but a dwarf. History has now confronted us with an immediate task which is the most revolutionary of all the immediate tasks confronting the proletariat of any country. The fulfilment of this task, the destruction of the most powerful bulwark, not only of European, but (it may now be said) of Asiatic reaction, would make the Russian proletariat the vanguard of the international revolutionary proletariat. And we have the right to count upon acquiring this honourable title, already earned by our predecessors, the revolutionaries of the seventies, if we succeed in inspiring our movement, which is a thousand times broader and deeper, with the same devoted determination and vigour.

What is to be Done
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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