Slowly but unrelentingly, the capitalist world is sinking into an ever deeper crisis, which touches all aspects of human life. When so-called "communism" collapsed in the East, governments, bosses, ideologues and media all celebrated the victory of the West, proclaiming noisily the final triumph of capitalism and democracy, even "the end of history". Since then, the victory cries have given way to the more prosaic daily reality of a capitalism corroded by its economic contradictions, of a democratic façade which masks with ever more difficulty the growth of state capitalism, of a social order which has no longer any perspectives to offer. In reality, there was never any communism in the Eastern bloc, there was only its antithesis, state capitalism, which differed only formally from the kind reigning in other parts of the world. The collapse of the political regime in the East did not herald economic and social renewal. It was, on the contrary, a spectacular manifestation of the progression of the worldwide economic crisis, which first devastates the weakest parts of the capitalist world and then drags the national economies that are incapable of sustaining international competition, one after the other, into bankruptcy. While the social productive forces were never as developed as they are today, while the material means to satisfy the needs of the whole of humanity are powerfully present, hundreds of millions of men and women are excluded from social production and hurled into material and moral misery. In the least developed zones of the planet, life has become an atrocious struggle against death for entire populations plagued by famine, epidemics, wars and ethnic massacres. But unemployment and misery are spreading like a cancer to the great economic and financial centres, where living and working conditions are degrading, year after year. The crisis is neither temporary nor exclusively economic. It also manifests itself in the stupefying accumulation of armaments, the pervasiveness of wars, the growing destruction of the natural environment, state totalitarianism (including its democratic form), social violence, or the development of nationalist, racist, and religious ideologies.
This general crisis shows that the capitalist social order has run its time, and that a new social order is necessary. At the very moment when pseudo-marxism and the Stalinist regimes are bankrupt [this was written in 1994], it therefore confirms the historic foresight of revolutionary Marxism and puts on the agenda the passage of humanity to a communist society – not to the state capitalist "communism" of Moscow, Beijing or Havana – but to a society, without money, without classes, without borders, and without states: to the communism foreseen by Marx and the generation of revolutionaries which followed him. But history doesn’t repeat itself; it’s not enough today to invoke Marxism to make into a theoretical tool able to respond to the needs of the present period. What is needed is a Marxism that can overcome the weaknesses which made its complete denaturation by social-democracy, Stalinism, and all derivated ideologies (Maoism, Trotskyism, etc) possible. It must become a living theory, capable of returning to its roots to produce its own critique and to develop according to the evolution of the historic social reality. The forms which capital, labour and their antagonism have taken, have profoundly changed over the course of this century. The class struggle which resurged in response to the crisis of capital, encounters much more difficulties than in the past century to affirm itself on the historic scene. But at the same time, it is forced to direct its attacks more profoundly to the roots of the existing social order, and because of this, it contains greater potential. If Marxism wants to contribute to a revolutionary process leading to a new society, it must understand these changes and their implications.
Capitalism: A Transitory Phase of History
Contrary to the claims of the dominant ideology – which show it for what it is, the ideology of the dominant class, of the capitalist social order – capital is far from being the "natural" form of relations between people. The development of humanity occurred through a succession of social forms, of which the first and by far the longest (lasting millions of years) was primitive communism; followed, in Europe, by a few thousand years of slavery; then came feudalism which lasted more than a thousand years; and finally, capitalism, which has existed only a few centuries. In large parts of the planet, capitalism has extended its domination only over the course of this century. And yet, capitalism has revolutionized the world more than all the other social forms which preceded it. Capital incarnates the development of the productive forces, the accumulation of social wealth, in its purest, most abstract form. While the previous modes of production were based on the production of useful products, of use values, and producers exchanged only their surplus, capitalism makes the exchange penetrate even inside the production process, which is based on the exchange of labour power for wages. It has made exchange value, and its universal form, money, the very goal of production, the absolute criterion of wealth, the new god on earth. Humans have become the slaves of this new god. Their only use, which determines their right to live and to eat, is to make this value grow, to produce surplus value through their labour. It is in this extreme exploitation and alienation that the secret of the stupendous social development realized by capital resides.
And yet, the contradictions of this social relation manifest themselves brutally. First, the tendency to overproduce is inscribed in its very foundation, the relation between capital and labour. Since they are only of use for capital to produce value, the workers get to consume only that part of the social product which is necessary to restore their labour power, which corresponds to their wages. At the same time, capital produces commodities on an ever larger scale. The markets can’t keep up with the growth of production because of the limits which the relations of productionimpose on the capacity to consume. The result is a lack of demand: the value produced can not be realized through exchange, commodities find not enough buyers, there is a crisis of overproduction.
Second, the more capital accumulates and the productive forces develop, the more the importance of buildings, machines and raw materials grows in relation to labour power in the production process. Past, dead labour dominates ever more living, current labour. But only living labour creates new value. As a result, the rate of profit of capital historically tends to decline. At the same time, the increased labour productivity made possible by the growing importance of machines, means that commodities are produced on an ever larger scale. Each one contains less and less value. The tendency to overproduce becomes thus more pressing at a time when capital experiences more and more problems to invest with sufficient profit and thereby enlarge its market. Capital is historically condemned by its own laws.
Ultimately, the most decisive contradiction of the capitalist social relation, the one which makes it possible to overcome it in a new society, is the contradiction between capital and labour, expressed in the struggle between the capitalist class and the working class. By its own development, capital not only signs its own death sentence, it also creates its own gravedigger and the conditions necessary for a society to replace it. Under capitalism, human relations dissolve into relations of value, but, while capitalists draw power and wealth from this and are glad to be the agents of capital, for workers, this dissolution feels like a loss, self-alienation, a form of slavery. In the capitalist relation, living labour represents the negation of capital, its active, human side; that’s why the working class is the only class capable of facing it, of understanding it objectively and of bringing a revolutionary perspective – in practice as well as theory.
Communism is made possible and at the same time necessary by the maturation of the objective conditions for its hatching and by the development of the class which is its carrier. On the one hand, capital has pushed the relations of value to their limits; only a society which abolishes value and thus the exchange which generates it, can replace it. It has transformed the process of production and reproduction into a gigantic collective process; only a collective social form can succeed it. It has developed society’s productive forces to a point where the satisfaction of the needs of the whole of humanity has become a possibility and where the division in classes, based on scarcity, has become anachronistic. It has developed the means of production to a point where surplus labour is no longer a condition for the development of social wealth, where necessary labour can be reduced to a minimum and the division of labour can be abolished. On the other hand, the proletariat is brought to realize these objective potentialities because of its very conditions as the class which produces on an associated basis and for whom value, the exchange of its labour power and class domination mean alienation and exploitation. Communism, as a unified human community liberated from value, money, exchange, the division of labour, classes and the state, is therefore the possible and necessary step beyond capitalism.
The Historic Transformation of Capital
From the young capitalism emerging from the womb of feudalism to the decadent capitalism of today, this system has gone through an historic trajectory which has profoundly changed its contours and which made a number of concepts which revolutionaries of the past had about it, totally obsolete. Like all societies preceding it, capitalism went through an ascendant phase, during which it revolutionized the world, developed the productive forces considerably and prepared in this way the necessary conditions for the advent of the next social formation, to enter then into its phase of decadence, during which its contradictions explode and it becomes an obstacle to the development of society. Yet by its nature, capitalism is a dynamic social formation; the growth of value is its very essence. Therefore its decadence in no way implies a long term halt of the development of its productive forces and even less implies a regression, at least from a quantitative point of view.
Its decadence, of which world war one marks the beginning, is rather characterized by growing convulsions – crises and world wars – and of qualitative changes in its mode of existence. In particular, it goes hand in hand with its transformation into state capitalism.
On the economic level, the concentration of the whole of national economy under the aegis of the state is the completion of a tendency already present in the most developed capitalist countries during the 19th century, resulting from the transition from the formal domination of capital over labour to its real domination. At first, the domination of capital over labour exerted itself through a formal change of the social relations. Surplus value was produced merely by the lengthening of the work day (absolute surplus value). Its real domination, under which surplus value is mainly obtained by shortening the labour time used in production, as a result of the general augmentation of labour productivity (relative surplus value), required a transformation of the mode of production itself, the generalization of the use of machines and the incorporation of science and technology in the production process. This transformation goes hand in hand with the penetration of the capitalist social relation and the law of value, not only in the entire sphere of production, but also in the spheres of circulation and consumption, and with the submission of all aspects of human existence to the imperatives and logic of the production of value. This transition stimulates an acceleration of the development of capital as well as the factors which plunge it into crisis. It requires a growing state control over the economy, to guarantee the ever larger investments needed in fixed capital, to prevent interruptions of the production process and to train/form a multi-skilled labour force. And the more menacing the contradictions of capital become, the more this need for state control is felt.
On the military level, war has ceased to be a means to establish a national framework for the development of the productive forces. In decadent capitalism, it is the armed prolongation of the heightened competitive struggle which states, groups of states or parts of states wage over the control of the means of production and the world market or a part of it. Especially in its generalized form of world war, it has become a moment of violent destruction of capital, which every national capital tries to push onto the others. Today, imperialism is the universal policy of all states: this creates the tendency to the formation of imperialist blocs which respond to the need to increase military and economic power in international conflicts. The accumulation of armaments takes over a growing part of the social product; the war economy tends to become permanent. This tendency again demands a firm control of the state over the whole economy.
On the political and social level, the control of the state over the whole economy goes together with a totalitarian control over the whole of social life, in particular over the waged labour force, but also over other classes and social layers and over the conflicts of interest within the capitalist class itself. The absorption of civil society by the state becomes a necessity under the real domination of capital, and even more so in the decadent phase of capitalism, when its contradictions become manifest so as:
to prevent the interruption of the process of reproduction and to contain the imbalances between the sectors of production; to regulate wages around the value of labour power, to allow its efficient reproduction in favourable periods of the economic cycle in the most developed countries or to keep wages under the value of labour power in periods of open crisis and in the least developed countries; to impede the explosion of class contradictions which are threatening the very survival of capital. It therefore means the end of any possibility for the proletariat or any other non-capitalist layer, to maintain independent, permanent mass organizations, such as parties and trade unions: they are all swallowed by the state and used as organs of control over the proletariat and other social layers. It also means the end of any possibility to draw support from one fraction of the capitalist class against another and the reduction of democracy and parliamentary mechanisms to mere forms of ideological control.
Although these tendencies are general characteristics of capital in its phase of decadence, it has continued to evolve, especially since the second world war. Today, capital differs from what it was at the beginning of this century [i.e., the 20th] in many ways. Its entry into its phase of decadence with the outbreak of the first world war, was the result of the creation of the world market and the extension of the domination of capital over the entire planet; it was shaped by the development of capital and of its contradictions to a global scale. But the forms of domination and the degrees of development of capital on a national scale were very unequal. While its domination was already real in the most advanced capitalist countries, its impact was mostly indirect, through the world market, in the least developed countries, where precapitalist forms or the characteristics of formal domination still largely subsisted. So real domination was considerably extended over the course of the 20th century, although in different forms than in the 19th century. The growing dependency of national capitals on the most powerful capitals, economically through the world market and militarily through imperialism, brings a growing internationalization of capital, within the imperialist and commercial blocs, which is accompanied by the appearance of supranational control structures dominated by the most powerful states. The extension of this real domination meant, for the economically weakest countries, the selective development of production sectors turned towards the demands of the world market and the expulsion of all forms of social production for a large part of the population, which is then reduced to misery. In the most advanced countries too, the progress of technology and of labour productivity contribute to the rejection of a growing proportion of the labour force from the production process, exacerbating the contrast between the productive forces developed by capital, and the narrow anachronistic basis formed by the social relations in which they develop.
State capitalism itself has evolved from a largely formal statification of the economy, corresponding to a tendency to concentrate the legal control over the existing productive apparatus in the state’s hands, through nationalizations, to a real statification, corresponding to a transformation in depth of the ways in which capital controls the monetary and financial systems. Some important factors in the pursuit of enlarged reproduction of capital in its decadent phase were: the creation by the state of a growing mass of fictitious capital, by boosting credit to compensate in the short run for the lack of sufficient market expansion; the expansion of the world market, made easier by the supranational control structures; and the successive transformations of the organization of labour which intensified exploitation, such as Taylorism, and which were also generalized under the state’s guidance. The growth of fictitious capital in particular, makes the monetary and financial systems in the hands of the state increasingly important. The legal ownership of the means of production ceases to be the determining factor of state control, which explains the recent tendency of privatizations of economic sectors.
But the more capital extends its domination and develops the means to suppress its immanent contradictions, the more it exhausts its possibilities to pursue its further development. The accumulation of fictitious capital had led to such a massive indebtedness of the national economies, even the most powerful ones, that it threatens the international financial system and crushes profits under the weight of interest obligations. In this sense, the current crisis goes much deeper than all the previous ones, despite the slowness of its unfolding, and the objective conditions of the communist revolution are more mature than they were during the first revolutionary wave at the beginning of this century.
The historic Transformations of Classes and Their Struggles
State capitalism eliminates the barriers between the previously different spheres of production, circulation, and consumption, unifying them into a single process of the production and accumulation of the national capital. It thus brings together productive and unproductive labour, manual and intellectual labour, in a total labour process where the different types of labour participate in the valorization of the national capital. The real agent of the labour process is no longer the ensemble of workers in a given factory or enterprise, but rather the social labour-power of the whole nation, which constitutes the total productive machine of the national capital. Similarly, the capitalist class, the class which personifies capital, ceases to be defined by individual property in the means of production, to become the social entity which collectively directs the process of the reproduction of the national capital. This class includes what remains of the private bourgeoisie, as well as the state bureaucracy. The recomposition of classes which occurs under state capitalism has made forever obsolete the image of the worker with his calloused hands and blue shirt as the representative figure of the proletariat, as well as the man in the top hat, smoking his big cigar, as the representative figure of the capitalist. The determination of one’s class ceases to be an individual question, and becomes a collective one. The tendency to a formal universalization of the wage as a form of remuneration to all classes and strata makes the lines between classes less clear than before. Nonetheless, in contrast to the members of other classes and strata, the proletarian retains his or her essential attributes: facing capital as the mere possessor of his or her labour-power, separated at one and the same time from the means of production and from the products of his or her labour.
The historic transformations of capital, and of its social classes, have profoundly changed the conditions of the class struggle. In the ascendant phase of capitalism, the working class could win durable improvements in its living conditions, improvements made possible by the expansion of capital, and the growth in the productivity of labour. The permanent struggle for demands within the capitalist system and, with it, the development of permanent mass organizations, such as unions and workers’ parties, was possible because it went in the direction of the very development of capitalism itself (even if these struggles were often bitter and violent). Thus the reduction of the working week won by workers’ struggles in the nineteenth century was a factor stimulating the use of new machinery, and the transition to the real domination of capital. In the phase of the formal submission of labour to capital, workers also found themselves in a personal relation with the capitalist who exploited them: class conflict pitted the workers against the boss of a particular enterprise in a direct fashion. Antagonisms were clearly identifiable, and the consciousness necessary to carry on the immediate struggle was relatively elementary.
The decadent phase of capitalism saw the completion of a tendency already at work at the end of the nineteenth century in the most industrialized countries, as a result of the transition to the real domination of capital: permanent struggle became impossible, and the old mass organizations become definitively integrated into the capitalist state. Henceforth, the capitalist state imposed the conditions of exploitation on labour-power as a function of the needs of the national capital. The proletariat now objectively faces the whole of the national capital, represented by the state. Immediate struggles become much more difficult to wage, and are typically condemned to defeat. The developed form of the class struggle is from this point on the mass strike, a general movement combining economic and political demands and tending to the self-organization of the class, which prefigures the revolutionary struggle and its organization into workers’ councils.
The difficulty of immediate struggles is increased by the impersonal and collective character of class relations which demand of the proletariat a consciousness of the social relation of capital as a totality. What was a still abstract historical requirement in the phase of the formal submission of labour to capital, becomes an immediate requirement under state capitalism, making the immediate and the historic programs of the proletariat inseparable. But this requirement also has its positive side: it compels the proletariat to an ever more profound consciousness of the capitalist social relation, and of the nature of communism. Social-Democratic and Leninist conceptions of class struggle, which predominated at the beginning of the century, at the moment of the revolutionary wave which culminated in the Russian revolution, were based on the historically outdated conditions of the formal domination of capital: it was believed that to bring about socialism, it was only necessary to eliminate the formal relation of the submission of labour to capital by seizing hold of the means of production. Such vulgar materialist conceptions are today totally worthless in the face of the reality of state capitalism. In that sense, the historic potential for the class consciousness of the proletariat is greater than in the past, although it will be more difficult to realize.
The Developent of the Consaciousness and Organization of the Proletariat
Unlike all the ruling classes of the past, as a revolutionary class which is the bearer of communism, the proletariat will neither have to submit to economic laws, nor administer scarcity, but bring about abundance for all. It will no longer maintain the domination of a particular class, but will abolish classes. It will not perfect the division of labour, but abolish it. The society that the proletariat bears within itself must be fully conscious as a totality, because only conscious control of all of social activity can replace the blind mechanisms based on the division of labour, and competition, which have hitherto assured the regulation of social activity. Until now, consciousness has played only a secondary role in history, because class divided society subjected the individual to blind economic relations which transcended her, and his consciousness could not go beyond his individual act of production to englobe the whole of social reality. Communism is, in its very bases, the passage of society to consciousness. Besides, under capitalism, the proletariat disposes of no economic power through which it could bring about the transformation of society. Its consciousness and its organization are therefore its only weapons in its struggle against the prevailing order, even as they announce the essential characteristics of the new society.
The consciousness of the proletariat radically differs from ideology, the alienated form of social consciousness which is born of the division of labour in class societies. Because class societies are divided between those who produce and those who possess the means of production, between those who act and those who think, social consciousness is split into thought and action, theory and practice, and is identified with the first terms of this dichotomy: with thought, with knowledge. If the proletariat bears within itself the abolition of the division of labour, it also bears within itself the abolition of the separation between theory and practice, between being and consciousness. Consciousness ceases to be ideology and becomes identified with its capacity to take in hand the transformation of the world, of its conditions of existence and, therefore, of itself. Thus, the organization of the proletariat can be nothing other than its conscious self-organization.
Under ascendant capitalism, the permanence of organizations of the proletariat and the generally limited extension of both struggles and their objectives, at the same time as the heritage of the bourgeois revolutions, led to a theorization of the nature of class consciousness, and of the relation of party to class, on the model of bourgeois ideology. Such was the case with both Social-Democratic and Leninist conceptions. However, the profound nature of class consciousness as a conscious class, and of the organization of the proletariat as self-organization, burst upon the scene in decadent capitalism, in the course of sudden eruptions of mass strikes and revolutionary movements. The general movement of the class and its unitary organization into workers’ councils tended to smash the separation between theory and practice, between the economic and the political, as it took in hand all the aspects of the tasks of social transformation.
This historical tendency will only be completed with the disappearance of the proletariat itself at the end of the revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism. As an exploited class, the proletariat is always subject to two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, the internal contradictions of capitalism and its conditions of exploitation impel the proletariat in its historical movement towards its affirmation as an autonomous and conscious class. On the other hand, these same conditions reproduce the dominant capitalist ideology, the effect of which is to destroy the proletariat’s class consciousness. This contradiction engenders sudden movements of advance and retreat in the class struggle, in the course of which one or the other of these tendencies prevails. The primary factor which impels the proletariat to struggle against capital is provided by the worsening of its living and working conditions under the effects of the capitalist crisis. But class consciousness is not pre-ordained, an automatic and mechanical product of the existence of exploitation and crisis. It is created and develops in the course of the struggle itself. By virtue of this fact, class consciousness is a heterogeneous process in both time and space. It is this heterogeneity of the process of the development of class consciousness, which makes it unceasingly arise from vanguard fractions within the proletariat, and which makes necessary their organization into groups, fractions or parties.
If the theorization of its own conditions and experiences constitutes a permanent effort of the proletariat, this effort is constantly counteracted, repressed, and destroyed by the material and ideological conditions of capitalist society. Outside of revolutionary periods, for the great majority of the class, this effort results in partial elements of understanding, drawn from the lived experience. It is only among more or less small minorities that this effort achieves a global and historical understanding, and crystallizes into a coherent theoretical form. This crystallization can, under favourable conditions, in its own turn, have an important catalytic effect on the overall process, by furnishing a theoretical core to which elements formed in the struggles of the whole of the class can attach themselves. Thus, in a pre-revolutionary period, such minorities can even accelerate in a decisive way the development of class consciousness. This was shown by the example of the Bolshevik party in the development of the consciousness of the possibility and necessity of revolution in Russia between April and October 1917, notwithstanding the fact that the Bolshevik conception of the party as the sole representative of the proletariat was to have disastrous consequences. Products of the heterogeneity of the development of class consciousness, parties and revolutionary organizations are, therefore, organs that the proletariat creates to overcome this heterogeneity and bring about a conscious transformation of social relations. Their function is to be a catalyst for the development of class consciousness, by elaborating and defending a revolutionary theory and program within the class struggle. And to fulfill this function, they must organize themselves in such a way as to facilitate reflection and debate within their own ranks, and to expand that debate to the class as a whole.
The Perspectives for thePresent Period
The present crisis of capitalism, the first manifestations of which appeared more than 25 years ago, is an insoluble crisis, which marks the historical exhaustion of the capitalist mode of production, and of its final form, state capitalism. The colossal development of fictitious capital under state capitalism permitted the continuation of the enlarged reproduction of capital after world war two, even while it fundamentally expressed the historic difficulties of capital in assuring this self-same enlarged reproduction. Capital has accumulated contradictions under the form of indebtedness, the weight of which today threatens capitalist profit and the international financial system on which the continuation of the reproduction of capital depends. In its attempt to balance the growth of indebtedness and the fall in the rate of profit, the capitalist state has sought to limit the burden that it itself represents for the economy by discharging the effects of the crisis onto the weakest national capitals through the operation of the world market, and by lowering the global price of labour power [through the process of globalization – wage slave x]. The crisis has already spread devastation over the greater part of the world, precipitating numerous countries in the "third world" into economic bankruptcy, then overturning the Russian bloc, and with it the organization of the world which arose in the wake of world war two. The next step in this cataclysm is only too clear: it is to the heart of capitalism, in its core countries, that the ravages of the crisis will now reach.
The "natural" outcome of world crises under decadent capitalism is world war, as a result of the exacerbation of economic competition, and imperialist tensions on the international scene. Only world war has brought about the massive destruction that has made possible the renewal of the accumulation process of capital on a global scale. But war represents a solution for a national capital only if it can hope to draw a profit from it. The breakdown of the Russian imperialist bloc has opened a new situation, where a single great power – the Unites States – alone dominates the imperialist scene. The exacerbation of the economic crisis and of tensions between the great economic powers within the American bloc will tend to generate new imperialist blocs. However, this process will be slow and complex, because of the growing economic interdependence of capitals, because of the gigantic scale reached by armaments in the U.S., and because of the difficulties in mobilizing the financial resources to assure an equivalent accumulation in other countries. Besides, in the most industrialized countries, capital does not possess sufficient ideological control over the proletariat to impose the extreme sacrifices required by a generalized war. This last factor, moreover, has already played a key role in the imperialist strategy of the Russian bloc, which led to its collapse. Therefore, world war is not a short-term or medium-term perspective in the present period.
More than ever before, the generalized crisis confronts capital with its living negation: the proletariat. The warning signs of the crisis at the end of the 1960s sparked – from 1968 to 1975 – the first international wave of class struggle since the revolutionary movements of the early part of the century. Since then, the slow aggravation of the crisis in the core countries has produced a jagged course of class struggle, with significant class movements, such as the mass strike in Poland in 1980, as well as periods of profound reflux. Today, the proletariat is confronted by immense difficulties in developing its struggle, unifying itself, and articulating its own perspective in response to the conditions created by state capitalism and its general crisis. These difficulties are heightened by the recomposition that the proletariat has undergone as a result of the new transformations in the process of production (computers, automation) and in working conditions (overtime, part-time work), accompanied by massive unemployment. Exclusion and fragmentation weigh heavily on the consciousness of the proletariat. But, the conditions for generalized confrontations between the classes are also ripening with the necessity for the most powerful capitals to drastically lower wages, and the number of workers utilized in production, as the effects of the crisis hit them with full force, with the result that workers become increasingly disillusioned with the policies of the capitalist class.
In these confrontations, the consciousness and the organization of the class will find a fertile terrain for their development. As a result, both the perspective for communism, and revolutionary theory, could again become material forces. The capacity of revolutionaries to contribute to this movement is strictly dependent on their clarity. Now is the time to achieve that clarity, through the development of the theoretical bases of Marxism, and the understanding of the historic conditions of the present epoch; through an open confrontation of ideas, together with a theoretical rigour, and by intervention in the struggles of the proletariat.
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