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The Cultures of Socialism in the United States

Paul Buhle teaches history at Brown University and is guest editor of this issue. His most recent titles published by Monthly Review Press are Insurgent Images: The Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz, co-authored with Mike Alewitz, and Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor.

The little-understood roots of the left offer us the chance to demonstrate a vital continuity. A bridge just now being rediscovered exists between the nineteenth century Euro-American traditions upon which the modern Marxist movements were founded, and the cultures (i.e., the collective, including artistic, expression) of minority populations old and new to the United States.

At the bottom of the social ladder and increasingly at the heart of blue-collar class life, the latter groups have only in recent decades begun to be studied as potential agents of transformation. Since the 1965 change in immigration law, a new working class, largely but by no means entirely from the Caribbean Basin region (including Mexico and Central America), has taken shape. That new class has served to remind keen observers that the black, Asian, and Latino working populations were never absent. Indeed, large numbers of “Mexicans” along with Indians predated Europeans, afterwards suffering the continuing shocks of colonization. These groups were merely outside the purview of organized labor at large, and—despite often ardent efforts—outside the reach of the political left as well. A grasp of continuity removes the subject from the realm of antiquarianism (or mere sentimental backward-looking) and makes it available for today’s political priorities.

Fifty years ago, two large and prestigious volumes entitled Socialism and American Life treated working people of non-European origin as essentially irrelevant to the subject at hand. As Daniel Bell pronounced in the volumes’ key historical essay, “The Origin and Development of Marxian Socialism in the United States,” political socialism had turned out to be a mere idealistic, transitional movement previewing the modern welfare state. U.S. Communism, whose supporters urgently embraced black liberation, was viewed by Bell and his colleagues as a mere conspiracy with no true national roots. According to this view, capitalism had by mid-century essentially resolved the problems that inspired socialists; the mostly European immigrant working class milieu and the grassroots plains states socialist movement were gone, in any case, once and for all. Nothing would replace them.

In the real-life global context, likewise in the U.S. countryside and cities, nonwhite populations as well as millions of working-class whites faced “problems” that had not been solved and grew worse. But they were off the charts, while sociologists pinpointed the social dilemma of the future as excessive blue-collar leisure and potentially pervasive alienation. Dissident Marxist scholars, then few and mostly scattered (their favorite outlet was usually Monthly Review), sought to reconstruct a different history, an unknown or forgotten story of labor struggle but also of social, economic, and cultural life among racial minorities. The radical discussion of “alienation” and the fresh translation of early Marx meanwhile raised fruitful questions about the very purposes of socialism: Was it mainly about the control and division of property or did the social relations of labor and what had been considered issues of “culture” actually concern the first generation of Marxists as well as the latest one?

But only with the arrival of a generation of historians rooted in certain types of cultural and industrial histories—David Montgomery and the late Herbert Gutman come to mind, as well as E. P. Thompson from Britain—did the subjects of the U.S. past become “cultural” in the anthropological as well as more usual social history sense of “ethnic culture.” All three of these scholars, significantly, were former participants in the Popular Front milieu (and, it might be added, all three were fond of MR). Gutman in particular persuaded a generation of young scholars, themselves awakened by the civil rights and antiwar movements, that “culture” could be understood best as the cultural tools that populations carried along with them, and used to advance themselves in new situations. He chose as his best examples the African-American community and the immigrant communities of successive migrations, i.e., those groups emerging into industrial life, armed with the long memories of a folk past.

The emphasis upon African-American life began to encourage the recuperation of that intellectual, cultural, and political giant banished by the Cold War: W. E. B. Du Bois. No one had played so large a role in assaying the role of race in the United States and no historical volume had so full and concise a statement of radical upsurge from below as Black Reconstruction. Like the essays of C. L. R. James, whose Black Jacobins had introduced the subject of the slave uprising in San Domingo (the only successful slave rebellion since the days of Spartacus), Du Bois gave historical impetus to the appreciation of the struggle in the depths of the masses and its violent repression as a central event in U.S. history.

Gutman and his students of the 1960s and early 1970s could only have guessed how relevant this insight would be for the continuing saga of what that socialistic scholar liked to call the largest population movement in history—the continuing relocation of peasant populations to urban zones all across the planet. These peoples were and are certain to remain the explosive center of agitation against imperialism and against capitalism, not only because they were the most immiserated wage laborers but also because in their numbers and locations, they threaten the stability of the global system at many of its most fragile points.

The accelerated political turn of events after the tragedy of September 11 drives home the message. As immigrants of color (and temporary residents) are demonized, faced with new restrictions and threats on all sides, and as the global environment faces an avowed enemy in the White House, the movement against right-wing political leadership more and more takes on the character of a global movement, even within the United States. The recent awakening of the AFL-CIO to the central relevance of the immigrant—-including a drastic shift of labor policy, from urging the government to expel illegals, to urging their legalization—reminds us that major institutions can also sometimes be moved toward (if not fully into) the progressive camp on issues of their own survival.

Where, beyond a politically shaky AFL-CIO, are the allies and fellow participants in a new movement to be found? To answer this burning question, we need to return to culture. In a society where open political expressions of minorities were as much as forbidden for centuries, and left-wing political parties overwhelmed by assorted obstacles, visions of liberation have often taken cultural form. Indeed, minorities and immigrants (or their children and grandchildren) have very often supplied the idealistic and popular-artistic or avant-garde expressions that appeal to the semiconscious but widespread wish for another possible U.S. society.

Here, therefore, we find the vital similarities at many different levels, points of commonality among constituencies otherwise seemingly far apart. If there is a single theme of left-leaning popular drama, from nineteenth century theater to twentieth and twenty-first century films and television, from abolitionist tunes, black spirituals, and Chicano corridosthrough counter-culture rock, peacenik folk, feminist music, and politicized hip hop as well, it is the “outsideness” of the protagonist. In optimistic moments, the central character can break with the dreadful fate inscribed so clearly in art since the Greek classics. C. L. R. James was fond of saying that the modern character must choose, and that dilemma exactly makes him or her modern. In pessimistic moments of these artistic expressions, personal escape is impossible—but the vision of human dignity survives, and often the hope of another, more communal tomorrow.

Race, ethnicity, language, and other particulars naturally play a crucial role in the political implications of the cultural equation. The essays and interviews in the following pages cannot be regarded as anything like comprehensive in their treatment of the subject. But seen together, they offer a beginning.

The cultures of cooperative society are old in North America. In the estimated ten millennia after the Siberian trek from Asia and before the appearance of Europeans, thousands of roughly autonomous societies of many types flourished. Some were strictly hierarchical. But most (to risk an overgeneralization) were roughly communal, limited in the possible acquisition of hereditary power, if often rigid in their sex and gender roles.

Consider, for instance, our current understanding of daily life in the accommodating climate of what was to become Central California. Among an estimated ten thousand coastal people, living in tribes of 250 or so, speaking up to a dozen languages and surprisingly little in touch with each other, dwelt the Ohlones, from present day San Francisco, south through Santa Cruz (another city with a tradition of socialistic local officials) and Watsonville (since the 1930s, a frequent site of Mexican-American labor protests) to Monterrey, where John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row once flourished. By available accounts, the Ohlone were fisher-people and hunter-gatherers, with acorns their most basic year-round food source. They moved frequently, and acquired little individual property as such. Individuals advanced themselves in the eyes of their neighbors through personal generosity and otherwise living the Ohlone ideals of proper behavior. Only the greedy and hyperaggressive did not fit in. Meanwhile, it was forbidden even to speak of the dead: thus, in a sense, life began again with each generation, and its purpose was to continue as in the past. Their invaders, Spaniards and English speakers who practically finished them off, made special note of the Ohlones’ frequent dancing, singing, and, given their limited means, surprisingly colorful clothing.1

Hardly a better example could be found for the popular nineteenth century socialist assumptions of a sort of chain-of-social-evolution. From collective “primitive” culture, society passed through various stages of class systems and finally, toward a future socialism. This scheme, borrowed and adapted by Engels and others from American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (and highly visible in Marx’s ethnological notebooks), offered “proof” that socialism was “scientific” and no mere will-of-the-wisp utopian fancy. But in North America, by contrast to the hope that Marx held for the Russian mir (and as other thinkers were later to suggest possible for various third world societies), the hope that the collective village life might leap over historical stages to become modern socialism had all but vanished. The North American villagers were gone, or seemed to be (socialists took too little account of them, but American Indians proved surprisingly resilient). The populations who replaced them were, by and large, steeped in commercial capitalism.

Actually, the societies that conquered and brutalized the inhabitants of the New World also possessed their own communalist traditions. The Spanish and the Portuguese of the Counter Reformation, the English-American descendants of the English Revolution, but above all the Central European successors to the Radical Reformation carried with them traditions lost almost, but not quite entirely, in the conquering process.

It is one of the fascinating and enduring ironies of socialism that Liberation Theology, a leading revolutionary ideology of the 1980s with a strong presence today, has its distant origins in the resistance of backward-minded clerics to the spirit of capitalism. The Church hierarchy notoriously joined the invaders in the plunder of the New World, but elements of the grassroots clergy and laity refused, lodging protests, and sometimes saving the remnants of indigenous and downtrodden peoples from extermination. From the 1960s on, the privatization of economic development and the simultaneous abandonment of the protective role toward many indigenous peoples were forcefully rejected by priests and their flocks, if not successfully, and a distinctly new vision of socialism was articulated in the process.

It is just as curious to ascertain the roles that a parallel communalism played in the European invasion of what would become the United States. Pietistic colonies, mostly German, spread across eighteenth century Pennsylvania, practicing social equality (including gender equality), seeking reconciliation with Indian tribes, themselves the living versions of the roughly cooperative life today still practiced by the Amish and others. Likewise, Shakers of British origin, celibate and “soft” technology-minded, scattered their colonies, leaving behind distinctive songs, dances, and practical efforts to use intelligently rather than using up natural resources. Down to the present day, “co-ops” and various experiments at communal living have kept alive the vision of engaging in social practices outside the logic of the market economy.

A converse paradox of American radicalism has found groups of the dispossessed moving in what appears to be the other direction: claiming their right to live as modern citizens in a bourgeois republic. Women’s rights, as a global mass movement, first took shape in North America of the mid-nineteenth century. Abolitionists and early black nationalists frequently made similar claims, by contrast to Mexican nationals and Indians who understandably sought to escape their captivity and recover their stolen semicommunal holdings.

For a historical moment, shortly after what historian Charles Beard dubbed the “Second American Revolution” (i.e., the Civil War), the paradox seemed on the verge of potential resolution. The forces of women’s rights joined hands with the veterans of Abolitionism with deep sympathies for Indians and Mexican-Americans, black activists, early labor leaders and the representatives of the German immigrant radical communities in a grand coalition, a coalition partly given its shape by the arrival of the First International of Karl Marx to American shores. The coalition quickly and tragically fell apart. The actors were too distant in their cultural origins, even more distant than in their class, race, or gender interests.

The movements of U.S.-born radicals for generations thereafter—one might say up to the present day—have intermittently proved volatile but have also been unstable or short-lived as milieux. Their movements, from Populism and the Socialist Party to the civil rights movement and the rise of the New Left and Black Power have spectacularly threatened the establishment, and then collapsed under the shadow of repression and disappointment. The foreign-born radicals’ movements, on the other hand, often managed to survive and flourish, under various political and cultural labels, for generations until dissolution.

This contrast has been a factor of great importance, perhaps the largest single factor, within the U.S. social movements calling themselves “socialist” or “communist.” From the 1870s to the 1950s, Marxist parties were almost always dominated numerically by the foreign-born. Why? Membership secretaries down to the local level were certain to answer in circular logic, that these members proved the most doggedly loyal within radical organizations whose membership fluctuations often reached 80 percent each year. The foreign-born were willing (observers also frequently suggested) to sit through long and dull educational meetings that others could not tolerate; or to accept top-down discipline that seemed, for many others, simply unacceptable. Especially for those immigrants and their children with homelands surrounding the Soviet Union, the vision of socialism far away counteracted the feeling of bourgeois triumph in the United States around them.

Beneath such commonsense reasons, a deeper logic of culture also reigned. Immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe (also Finland), especially Germans along with Jews of various origins, brought along traditions of sharing and also traditions of expectation that capitalism would only be an interruption in the eons-long, collective climb upward. In these cultures, during the second half of the nineteenth century and first two decades of the twentieth, secularists typically broke off from conservative, religious-based institutions and formed self-educational circles that served as the basis for socialist organizations. At the same time, workers and small businessmen formed sickness-and-death benefit societies (providing a collective fund but also a circle of psychological support for moments of life’s crises) that quickly became the locus of cultural activity. The clubhouses of the German immigrant Vereins (societies) or the (Jewish) Workmen’s Circle thus doubled as centers for political meetings, exercise, and cultural expression, especially the chorus, in which both words and music conveyed the message of socialism’s redemptive certainty. Ethnic workers in various trades naturally became pioneer unionists, often creating the forerunners of today’s unions in the same clubhouses.

The contemporary spread of populist farm groups with cooperative practices during the 1870s–1890s was numerically larger, the moments of black-and-white unity in rural and urban movements from the 1890s to 1910s were more dramatic, and strikes and socialist electoral campaigns often more impressive than the quiet movements of immigrants. But nothing had the holding power of the ethnic entities. Only the Industrial Workers of the World, with their distinctive cultures of itinerant workingmen, singing Wobbly songs, and even using Wobbly cards to establish their identity to fellow box-car riders, had anything nearly so elaborate and avowedly left-wing. And only Garveyism, quick to rise and fall (or be suppressed) in organized form during the 1910s and 1920s, had a similar social depth. When repression had silenced all the earlier movements, the immigrant communities remained at the center of the left—the Communist Party.

Had these immigrants and their grown children only provided the logistical backup for the rise of industrial unionism, they would have made an incomparable contribution. But they were also the central element, both creators and audience, of the Popular Front, whose cultural orientation and methods of organizing among communities remains influential upon the left three generations later.

With the rise of Nazism and the global threat of fascism, Communist leaders shifted strategies in 1935 from early revolution to antifascist alliance through the formation of strategic “fronts.” They also knew that the pronouncement of the Popular Front essentially recognized a change already underway in the United States, of reformers and radicals moving away from revolutionary rhetoric and toward the New Deal, its social ameliorative programs and its cultural initiatives. Here, in the leftward edges of the New Deal during the 1930s and the war years, it could be said that the seeds of the future Monthly Review were planted.

Second-generation immigrant Jews in particular grasped the moment for an emerging public theater, the creation of murals, music, dance, and film aimed at discovering the democratic and radical potential buried deep within U.S. society. Their example and leadership, and the enthusiasm of their audience, proved decisive in reshaping the ideal of what the United States might become if its various folk cultures could be recovered, shared and made the common coin of a socialism scarcely envisioned by immigrant-radical predecessors. They were not alone. In the face of an apparently collapsing capitalism and then a global war in which capitalist social relations appeared smashed and probably beyond reconstructing, the hopes for such a new culture grew widespread.

It was difficult, even a half-dozen years after the Second World War, to remember the progressive charisma of Paul Robeson or Woody Guthrie, Katharine Hepburn or John Garfield, to say nothing of Henry Wallace, the rather mystic Iowan whose evocation of “the common man” and stance of peaceful coexistence toward the Soviet Union were bitterly attacked by Republicans (and conservative Democrats) as subversion of free enterprise. If Franklin D. Roosevelt had died only two years earlier, Wallace would have been president, facing the 1944 election with the power of incumbency. The shape of the postwar world might have been very different.

But it has become nearly as difficult since the 1980s, perhaps, for outsiders and younger folks to grasp what the founders of Monthly Review found in the anticolonial movements abroad and their counterparts in Pan-Africanism at home, in the emerging Chicano movement of the 1950s–1970s, in the expressions of Puerto Rican nationalism and so on. On a world scale, the mobilization of nonwhite peoples within the United States (especially before 1965) might seem small and not particularly socialistic. But veterans of the 1930s–1940s movements, and many young folks of the time (including this writer) found in the civil rights movement vastly more than the promise of an improved civil society. “Freedom Now!” rang of the warmth and collectivity that we experienced in black churches, jazz clubs, and circles of friends, all distinctly outside capitalistic social relations.

In those optimistic moments, the “color line” that W. E. B. Du Bois had described as definitive of the century seemed elastic enough to encompass large chunks of nonblack society. Critics, from conservatives to middle of the road liberals like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, charged this vision with romanticizing poverty, race consciousness, and blind rage. This charge, a faithful echo of Cold War liberalism (Moynihan himself had a background in 1950s psychological warfare) was slanderous as well as flatly untrue. Listen to a particularly vivid speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the utopian becomes actual even all these years later. The title of a 1960 pamphlet by C. L. R. James’s small Detroit following, Negro Americans Take the Lead, expresses it all. The promise was crushed in a repression more intense than any seen in the history of the U.S. left from the 1880s to the 1910s and through the 1950s. But the fruition of centuries of culture into the concentrated politics of the 1960s leaves an indelible memory.

The cultures of U.S. socialism had thereby been redefined. It was no longer a question of cultures shaped self-consciously by the socialist ideal, but rather the prospect of liberation, however ill-defined, from the demands of the market for some richer human prospect. It would be undeniable that many elements of the “counterculture,” or the cultural expressions of the peace movement, women’s liberation, or the antiglobalist environmental movement (to mention only the culturally richest of the newer movements) were not self-consciously socialistic. Some never did move beyond righteous rage and protest. But the underlying sense of an endgame, of the choice between a more cooperative society and barbarism (annihilating war) was stark and resonant among many people but especially young people, far and wide.

That possibility took on a new shape as the post-1965 immigrant populations struggled to take root in the adopted society. The scholarship is recent and thus far inadequate.2 But the anecdotal evidence, much of it from labor movement and political activists at the local level, is rich and revealing. Often, traces of what we would call radical or revolutionary memories from homelands have been carefully hidden out of fear of persecution. But any community organizer of “faith-based” (i.e., religion-connected) movements among the new Latino populations has come across survivors of Liberation Theology’s “base communities” forced northward by poverty and repression. Anyone active in the labor and community projects around immigrants from the Dominican Republic—along the East Coast, the most active and aggressive of the newer groups—will learn about the island’s political past, including the invasion of U.S. Marines in 1965. Puerto Ricans mobilized by the need to end the bombing of Vieques are retracing the nationalist and socialistic impulses of a long struggle, and so on.

If other political traces (for instance, of Caribbean Pan-Africanism, “Arab socialism,” and “African socialism,” real movements in decades past) are more difficult for any outsider to detect, we can go to culture. Consider, for the moment, the proliferation of Carnival and the music of the West Indies. Since the middle 1980s, the annual August event in Brooklyn has become the largest cultural event of Greater New York. Its participants and its performers come from across the Caribbean and parts of Latin America; but it retains the historic social-protest function of Carnival in the Caribbean calypso tents, the articulation of grievances but also at certain moments of utopian collectivity (in the West Indian expression, “All ah we is one!”).

Steelband music, derived from the reuse of oil drums in Trinidad, offers one of the ultimate symbols of redemption from the depths of the most exploitative and destructive technology deployed across the developing world. As Caribbean left leader Tim Hector, editor of the widely-read Outlet published in Antigua, has often explained to readers: to appreciate the beautiful sounds of Caribbean cultural origin through these musical means, is to appreciate the political meaning of the calypso, so as to redefine the possible.3

Likewise, with more immediate political intensity, we today enjoy the rare privilege of seeing new colors of resistance on display at any major demonstration, including the signs, costumes and flags of Arab-Americans, also those from the newest generations of Asian-Americans, and those who might rightly be called Pan-Americans, the descendants of groups so mixed that any description would be inaccurate. In such demonstrations and otherwise, we have an overwhelming need, right now, to note very carefully the emergence of forms and possibilities that neither Old nor New Lefts anticipated.

Among the most curious and fascinating is surely the “indie” network of investigative journalism and commentary available on the Net. Most obviously: mainstream newspaper and television coverage within the United States, covering the Middle East conflict has set levels of deception and truth-twisting unseen since the Cold War, while practically any youngster with Internet access can easily hear the up-to-the-minute information from the West Bank “aired” by another, brave youngster (or oldster) on the scene, risking life and limb to make the truth available. Acting on the technological possibilities, mostly young radicals have made the Net a culture of its own, an unparalleled means for communication and for a new kind of internationalism.

There are other, more familiar, but just as hopeful signs. To take a very particular case in point: the rebirth of an antiwar political milieu around the Bay Area-based tabloid War Times surely qualifies as one of these, and directly or indirectly involves several of the contributors to this issue. Peace veteran David McReynolds, sending an Internet dispatch from the April demonstration in Washington, noted its appearance as a sign of renewed radical coherence about global issues, and of hope.

Not that War Times or anyone else has “the answer.” Today’s free-swinging demonstrations, whatever the organizational sponsors and the inclination of the official speakers, remain appropriately eclectic in the extreme. The politics of the youngest cohorts might better be described as “anarchist” than anything else—as clumsy and inexact as any label will be. Yet especially from the “Left Coast” (an old term for Washington, Oregon, and above all California), the political roots of a multicultural left can be traced to the “Third World Marxism” (as Max Elbaum has called it in his important volume, Revolution In the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che) of individuals and groupings descended, with many changes, from the Marxist-Leninist impulse of the 1970s.

The path from a narrow, leadership-heavy and sectarian past has been a tortuous one, leaving many of the specifics (fervent attachment to Chinese leadership and the idea of building a new communist party “vanguard” in the United States, etc.) well behind in the political wreckage. Doubtless a newer New Left would have arrived anyway, carrying forward the feminist, gay and lesbian rights, ecological, and other messages that the Marxist-Leninist movements downgraded and sometimes scorned. But the vision of a U.S. Marxism reshaped around the global movements of empire’s victims, and consequently also around the newest immigrants to the United States, was a genuine contribution and in the end a saving grace.

A newspaper (in this case, a monthly tabloid intent on becoming bi-weekly) is not a movement. But a new kind of New Left has been gestating in the Bay Area for several years, based mainly among older and younger folks rooted in racial justice, immigrant rights, anti-prison-industrial-complex work. They provide the base for War Times as a nationwide voice of the antiwar movement, giving it a multicultural face and in turn strengthening the milieu that gave rise to it. A dynamic process of political interaction and dialogue involving hundreds of activists of all generations offers a glimpse at something beyond demonstrations. What will happen next, one cannot say. But when, in April, 2002, San Francisco saw its largest demonstration in decades, with police estimates of 20,000 (neatly cutting in half the real crowd size), the stirrings had found their constituency—and in small measure, also helped to create it.

So many of the phenomena we need to observe are likely to elude the printed word and take flight in forms that may or may not find political realization. Whether they do depends upon economic and political conditions, of course, but also the shape of the U.S. left ahead. The decisive positive lesson of the Popular Front that remains all these decades later is the need to work within the cultural possibilities at every available level, to find or invent transitional watchwords, to evoke a multiradicalism and multiculturalism at once realistic and visionary.

We will not see the reappearance of the European ethnic-style socialist or communist local clubhouses, sickness-and-death benefit societies or perhaps even the single, unifying international event (like the Russian Revolution) that seems to make sense of an epoch. But we have already experienced the birth of a new working class with global roots and aspirations that place its members in the most active sectors of the reviving labor movement (such as restaurant and service workers). If the AFL-CIO can make a comeback after so many decades (until at least 1995) of incompetent and/or CIA-linked leadership, it will find the human sources and the future leadership here—or nowhere.

Global developments, most especially the direction of U.S. leadership, certainly offer dire prospects. But hope is not lost, nor the story of the cultures of American socialism burdened with an unhappy ending. Not at all.

Notes

  1. Malcolm Margolin, The Ohlone Way: Indian life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1978).
  2. See, e.g., Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas, eds, The Immigrant Left in the United States (New York: SUNY Press, 1998), for preliminary discussions of political and social impulses among Haitians and Middle Easterners. The Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997 edition), contains the most comprehensive group-by-group analysis but scarcely deals with movements of newer immigrants since the 1980s.
  3. See the “Tim Hector Anthology,” published as C. L. R. James Journal 8 (Winter, 2000-2001), published at the Africana Studies Department of Brown University.
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