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John Skorupski

Totalitarianism in late modernity


Twentieth-century totalitarianism was an extraordinary, deeply frightening, essentially novel thing - for a moment in mid-century it seemed the inevitable wave of the future. Its roots are clearly European (even if its most recent manifestations have been in China and Cambodia). This dismaying fact eventually brought forth agonised responses from European intellectuals;[1] for it is hard to deny that some crucial sources of totalitarianism must lie in modern European thought itself.

Unsurprisingly, suggestions as to those intellectual, and particularly ethical, origins are many. Prominent among them is the idea that the sources of totalitarianism lie in the European enlightenment - specifically, in its allegedly instrumental and totalising conception of reason. The idea goes back to Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment. And they were themselves drawing, directly or indirectly, on responses to the enlightenment which one finds among its first German critics.

In contrast, there's an influential liberal view that seeks the roots of totalitarianism precisely in those developments in German thought: developments which were indeed to prove pivotal for the shift from enlightenment to late-modernity (by which I mean the 19th century and the first half of the 20th). Where the neo-Marxists focused on atomising instrumental reason, the liberals focused on the cultural holism and communitarianism of the German counter-enlightenment and the positive concepts of freedom developed within German idealism. Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper are associated with this interpretation. But it should also be remembered that in The Open Society and its Enemies Popper tells a much vaster historical story, starting with tribalism and going on through Plato to Hegel. This story, it turns out, has some points in common with that of Adorno and Horkheimer. It places the seeds of totalitarianism in modernity as such - in Popper's case, in the strains placed by an open society on our perennial yearning for the 'tribal' cocoon. And Popper's 'open' and 'closed' plays a somewhat similar role to Adorno and Horkheimer's 'reason' and 'myth', though the evaluative polarities are not the same, and though he does not share either their belief in dialectical reason or their yearning for some utopia beyond both liberalism and tribalism.

I believe that both conceptions offer important insights. The phenomenon of totalitarianism calls for a -many-sided approach: both instrumental reason and the 'tribal', 'mythical' or mystico-communitarian rejection of modern disenchantment are implicated in it. In a largest view it is the polarisation of these two that lies at its heart. The totalitarian pursues mystico-communitarian ends by ruthlessly instrumental, technical and repressive means.

Yet true as that is in a largest account, the question still remains: were more specific developments in late-modern European thought implicated in the emergence of totalitarianism? How much did ideas and attitudes developed from the French Revolution and German romanticism contribute to it? This is the question that I want to discuss.

First a word about methods and definitions. Two familiar problems confront us: the problem of what role ideas play in history, and the problem of defining 'totalitarianism'. Direct intellectual influence is hard to establish. Ideas are 'there,' in the time and the culture; they are its product as well as its cause. They enable, create space for, political action, but of course they are not themselves political agents. Human beings pick and choose, distort, misunderstand, exploit for new purposes. Yet human beings can do nothing without ideas - and the potency of ideas in the right (or wrong) hands is immense. As to 'totalitarianism':  I take it that Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China were paradigm examples of it. It is quite different to an authoritarianism that respects the rule of law, due process, and independent institutions. The aspect of it that I shall particularly have in mind for present purposes is its denial of distinctions between the private and the public (collective, common). There is a mobilisation of every aspect of life into a pursuit of common good, virulently aggressive subordination of ordinary legal and moral precepts to that end, application of techniques of modern science and organisation, systematic elimination of differentiating civil associations and personal relations, liquidation or final exclusion of those who are irreconcilable. Destruction of pre-totalitarian moral identities and opposition to liberal individualism are obviously fundamental, as is a constant need for enemies whose defeat can be represented as a common good, justifying mobilisation.

Robert Paxton's description of fascism can apply to totalitarianism as such, including Stalinism and Maoism:

At its fullest development, [it] redrew the frontiers between private and public, sharply diminishing what had once been untouchably private. It changed the practice of citizenship from the enjoyment of constitutional rights and duties to mass ceremonies of affirmation and conformity. It reconfigured relations between the individual and the collectivity, so that an individual had no rights outside community interest. It expanded the powers of the executive - party and state - in a bid for total control. Finally, it unleashed aggressive emotions hitherto known in Europe only during war or social revolution.[2]




Late modern sources of totalitarianism


The first 'anticipatory diagnoses' of totalitarianism, as one might say, are to be found in responses to the French revolution. Hegel is a notable example.[3] In the Jacobin terror he finds a drive which I think we are now able to recognise as totalitarian; the assumption of an 'absolute' or 'negative' freedom - as he calls it - which negates all particular determinations.  Applied to actuality it becomes

the fanaticism of destruction, demolishing the whole existing social order, eliminating all individuals regarded as suspect by a given order, and annihilating any organization which attempts to rise up anew. Only in destroying something does this negative will have a feeling of its own existence. It may well believe that it wills some positive condition, for instance the condition of universal equality or of universal religious life, but it does not in fact will the positive actuality of this condition, for this at once gives rise to some kind of order, a particularization both of institutions and of individuals; but it is precisely through the annihilation of particularity and of objective determination that the self-consciousness of this negative freedom arises.

This wholly abstract conception of freedom reduces the self to an "empty point": its "sole work and deed" is

death, a death too which has no inner significance or filling, for what is negated is the empty point of the absolutely free self. It is thus the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off the head of a cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water.[4]

We have here a recognisable portrait of Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. The limitless voluntarism that Hegel finds in revolutionary terror - the re-setting of history to year zero, the idea that total mystico-community can be attained by sheer will power applied to all available means - is one crucial ingredient of modern totalitarianism. I will come back to it, because it seems to me essential to understanding why totalitarianism broke out in 20th century Europe, having occurred nowhere in the 19th century after its first outbreak in French revolutionary terror.

For voluntarism is decidedly not a feature of mainstream 19th century ethical thought. In contrast, the yearning for community, for reconciliation, for the overcoming of alienation and exclusion, the transcendence of separateness - combined, very importantly, with the belief that such community can be realised on this earth - that certainly is. And so is a third essential element in the totalitarian syndrome: belief in the radically social and mutable nature of human beings. Human beings as they are may be unsuited to perfect community. But there is no limit to how far they may be historically transformed to become so suited.

It is right, in this context, to examine German idealism but wrong to focus on it alone. For the yearning for a wholly reconciled community, combined with a strongly historical and anti-individualist conception of human malleability, are just as present in French positivism as in German idealism, and widely shared beyond both of these. They are in fact two ground notes in the reaction against enlightenment and the French revolution. True: one theoretical basis for the belief that history can transform humanity is the psychological associationism of the enlightenment. This had the potential to become a charter for revolutionary praxis (which is of course not to say that it had to). But it is more important that many who fervently believed in humanity's transformability had no time for such individualistic and mechanical psychology. They were historical and holistic. They vehemently rejected the notion that humanity could be transformed in a generation or two by a determined vanguard applying its will to scientifically selected means.

I suggest that the distinctively late-modern seed-bed of totalitarianism, be it national and fascist or cosmopolitan and communist, is produced by the fusion of the three things we have now mentioned - the single-minded drive to total reconciliation, the belief in the radical transformability of human beings, and finally the voluntarism, with its consequent commitment to 'ruthlessly consequentialist'[5] methods. Only the first two were present in the 19th century; Hegel is by no means the only 19th century thinker to have identified the dangers latent in the third. When and why this insightful 19th century opposition to revolutionary voluntarism weakens therefore becomes a key problem in understanding the 20th century emergence of totalitarianism.[6]

However I will not in the present discussion seek to explain the 20th century resurgence of revolutionary voluntarism in politics. It seems to me to be an important element in that century's modernist recoil from 19th century ways of thinking and feeling, an element in which for example decisionism or existentialism in ethics and conventionalism in philosophy of science are other aspects - both of them equally 'revolutionary'. But to investigate how the elements in that recoil hung together, to try to understand it, would be a major task far beyond the short sketch I am offering here. I shall attend instead to the other two commitments, so powerfully felt by many social philosophers in the 19th century: the yearning for reconciliation and the faith in human perfectibility. And I will illustrate mainly by reference to Comte and Marx.


Individual and social


The 19th Century is often thought of as the age of individualism.[7] There were indeed plenty of rugged and eventually influential individualists in philosophy - proto-existentialists, libertarians. Yet this was also the great age of philosophical projects to reintegrate the individual and society. In metaphysics and methodology various schools of philosophy claimed that the thoughts and actions of individuals are constituted, or at least can only be explained, as elements of an historically evolving social whole. Meanwhile the main streams of ethics, though diverse in many other respects, advanced a social conception of human flourishing as the keystone of ethical life. Indeed the whole preoccupation with the relation between individual and social life was at root ethical - grounded in a reaction against what was widely regarded as the shallow and one-sided individualism and rationalism of the enlightenment.  

Four broad traditions make up these main streams: German, especially Hegelian, idealism, Marxism (which in some ways continued it), positivism and utilitarianism. All four of these traditions, in their various ways, take it that the social good is something of fundamental ethical importance and all are concerned with the social dimensions of individuals' good.

But how are the good of individual and society related? The utilitarians were ethical individualists. They held that the social good is a function of the good of individuals, and has no existence over and above the good of individuals. Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick all took for granted that only the individual subject of experience can really be said to have a good, or an interest - talk of the good, or interest, of any kind of collective entity being necessarily derivative from that. In his System of Logic Mill underpinned this view with an account of social science that was metaphysically and methodologically individualist.

In contrast, the other three traditions were anti-individualist in all these respects: ontological, methodological, and ethical. Comte constantly recurs to the organic model of the relation between individual and society: what is good for the organ, the individual, is determined by what makes it effective in the organism. This holistic functionalism about individuals' good becomes close to literal in his late thought, when he classifies various social classes as organs of the 'Grand Être' which is humanity: philosophers as organs of reason, women as organs of deep feeling, proletarians as organs of energy.

For Hegelian idealists, and even in some degree for Marx, the picture that structures their thought is not that of a social organism but that of a collective, historical subject - Geist, or in Marx's case, humanity. Nonetheless, idealists and Marxists could certainly agree agree with Comte that the individual is a metaphysical fiction:

"L'homme proprement dit n'est, au fond, qu'une pure abstraction; il n'y a de réel que l'humanité, surtout dans l'ordre intellectuel et moral."[8]

By the 1870s or 80s this sacred tenet of the time had reached British shores:

The 'individual' man, the man into whose essence his community with others does not enter, who does not include relation to others in his very being, is, we say, a fiction ... the 'individual' apart from the community is an abstraction.[9]

Where Hegel and Marx differ from Comte however is that while they invoke with more or less literalness the idea of a collective subject determining itself in history, they also hold that there is a good for every individual, from that individual's point of view - and not just some greater thing for which the individual is good. The difficult question in understanding their (and particularly Hegel's) view is thus how to conceive the self-determination and good of the collective subject on the one hand, and its relation to the self-determination and good of individual subjects on the other.

It is also important that Marx's vision of a communal human essence combines Hegelian themes with Schiller's ideal of the fully developed, whole individual.[10] Communist society, we are told, will be "the only society in which the genuine and free development of individuals ceases to be a mere phrase"[11]  He shares this Schillerian vision with many liberals of the time, and therefore like them diverges from the rigoristically reconciliationist simplicity of Comte's 'vivre pour autrui.'[12] But in this respect he also diverges from Hegel's vision of modern freedom. For Hegel the individual 'finds his liberation in duty'; but these self-realising duties are found in the differentiating specifics of one's many social roles. Hegelian reconciliation takes place within the articulating social institutions of a liberal-conservative state, and could not take place without them.

Hegel thinks that freedom can and must retain the elements of abstract right, subjective freedom and private scope for particular individuality. But Marx thinks that communism will abolish abstract right and with it all contrasts between public and private life. So it will abolish private property and money; and crucially, it will abolish the State itself, with its institutions of representative government. For the State "is based on the contradiction between public and private life, on the contradiction between general interests and private interests."[13] Like Saint Simon, Marx imagines that there can be a transition from the government of people to the administration of things. He thinks that truly political, as against administrative, deliberation can simply go away. If we are thinking about where the seeds of totalitarianism can grow, these differences between Hegel and Marx are crucial.

Under communism organisation is communal and spontaneous, and conflicts about just distribution fall away. Human beings realise themselves by working freely for the benefit of each other. They have left the realm of necessity and entered the realm of free community. In the communist state I will produce "in a human manner": my product will now gives my individuality objective expression, rather than standing against it as something alien; your use of my product will give me the enjoyment of satisfying your need and will objectify the human essence, which is that of relatedness to others; I will mediate between you and that essence and will thus be felt by you as a completion of your essence and confirmed in your love.

In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.[14]

Since Marx thinks he can see that history progresses dialectically to this outcome, he can insist that he is not indulging in wishful thinking about some Future Perfect. He strongly agrees with Hegel that mere invocations of 'what ought to be' are worthless posturing. By the same token, since criticism can only be immanent, detailed ethical reflection on how a future communist society should work in detail is impossible as well as redundant.[15]

But in reality it is obvious that Marx's analysis of history is strongly driven by the post-enlightenment ideals of 19th Century thought. He is the thinker who most fully indulges a vision which puts together all those ideals: a community in which human beings achieve complete ethical at-one-ness, while yet each at the same time fully and freely develops his or her individuality. Communism will satisfy all aspirations and abolish all tensions - and it's inevitable.

Whatever one thinks about all the aspects of that, the central idea that has proved really dangerous is the notion that conflict between particular and general interests can be somehow abolished. Marx envisages communist society as a self-transparent collective subject pursuing a common good in a conflict-free, and hence justice-free, way. That is an outstandingly important stream flowing into the river of totalitarianism.

In contrast, it is a cornerstone of any liberalism that no such thing can be. Liberalism can acknowledge the vocation of human beings to be citizens, precisely because it does not see the political as something that can disappear. Furthermore, the political need not be seen, and by classical liberals was not seen, merely as an arena of bargains and threats; it is valuable in itself. In larger and smaller associations, it is the arena of social good, the arena in which we come together to forge a differentiated unity from out of our conflicts. But the political exists precisely because human beings always retain both purely private and civil-competitive as well as public-political domains. As Hegel saw, they must be able to articulate themselves as persons and as moral subjects through their civil and political institutions; and this absolutely requires a transparent rule of law and a structure of rights. But Marx thinks rights betray an alienation of individuals from themselves and each other.

         Marx indisputably stands in the ancestry of communist totalitarianism; whereas the affinity of fascism to Comtean positivism is not, so far as I know, a case of causal filiation. Nietzschean strands played a well-known role in some fascists' self-image; yet in fact the points of analogy between Comte's ideal society and 'actually existing fascism' are considerably more striking, even though it must be said immediately that there are also fundamental differences.

For Comte, as we saw, it is once again the individual not society that is the metaphysical abstraction; correspondingly, he denies psychology a place as an independent science, dividing its work between biology and 'sociology', a term which he coined. And a fundamental question for sociology, Comte holds, is the basis of social authority. There must be a shared conception of the good to which individuals can be reconciled, and in which they can find personal meaning by identifying with something greater than and other than themselves. This Catholicism had understood. The decisive battle, as Comte liked to say, was now between Catholicism and positivism; Protestants and other individualists had had their day.

In the middle ages the Church had made possible the construction of a society founded on a shared world view and on Christian faith and love. But what could be the modern world view and the modern form of faith and love? Who should be the modern clerisy? Who could provide spiritual leadership? In the positivist age the 'pouvoir spirituel' in society would have to be founded on science, not faith, but it must find a way to combine a scientific view of existence-as-a-whole with 'altruism'  - another word coined by Comte. It would do this through a new religion, the 'Religion of Humanity', or 'Sociolatry'. (At this point the comparison of positivism and fascism breaks down: positivism, like communism, is inherently humanistic and cosmopolitan.)

As in the middle ages, there would be a division of spiritual and temporal power. The spiritual power would be led by state-supported scientists, philosophers, doctors; women and proletarians would form its subsidiary ranks. The directing vanguard of the spiritual power, the priests of positivism, would lay down ethical codes and direct the progress of science. Bankers, capitalists and landowners would take temporal power. There would be no representative government or popular assembly - individual rights, freedom of conscience and popular sovereignty belonged to yesterday's 'critical', not tomorrow's 'organic', age.

The family would be recognised as the basic social unit, conceived as an ethical union, not a merely contractual agreement. Within it women would exercise spiritual power, checking egoism and developing the social impulse; but the husband would have the temporal power, and women would have no right to work for their living. The next ethical union would be that of the nation; though ideally altruistic feelings would be extended to the whole human race. These universal altruistic feelings would be cultivated in the Religion of Humanity, whose object,'le Grand Être', was constituted by the sum total of those past, present and future human beings who have laboured for the improvement of humanity. The dignity of the individual would consist in incorporation in the Grand Être: through living for others, through membership of family and nation. In Marx's communist vision the free, self-developed Schillerian human individual drowns in an outpouring of total reconciliation that floods over every counter-theme. In Comte's positivist vision no element of freely self-expressing individuality appears in the first place.


Mutability, History, and Will


Comte and Marx illustrate very clearly how extreme the yearning for total reconciliation and the rejection of liberal 'atomism' could become for secular political intellectuals in late modernity. This lead them - though it did not lead others who experienced the same yearning - to an assault on public/private distinctions which with hindsight we can see as proto-totalitarian. What about the other element I have mentioned in the totalitarian syndrome: belief in the transformability of human beings by social and political action?

All 19th century thinkers, both liberal and non-liberal, agreed that history, social structure and individual action interact in a process which can lead, or even is fated to lead, to unlimited human progress. Understandably, this secular eschatology has seemed to traditional religious believers to be rebarbative, even dangerous. Traditional or institutional religion gives full scope to the yearning for total reconciliation in a loving community - but places that community in another world. It keeps heaven firmly in heaven, and does not teach (once it has become institutionalised)[16] that it can be brought down to earth. So it has no political project of this-worldly communitarian at-one-ment (though breakaway religious cults may do) - and so it does not bring hell to earth either.

         Many 19th century thinkers had an important emotional investment in this reconciliationist this-worldly eschatology. Yet though they did not safeguard their red-hot reconciliationism with a religious firebreak, most of them did not deploy it to fire utopian political projects either. For they were well and truly insulated against the voluntaristic joys of revolutionary destruction by a historicist conception of human improvement - and in many cases, by an equally important emphasis on self-improvement.

Consider the British idealist liberal, T. H. Green. He had a mystico-communitarian vision of common good, and the duty to work towards it, which, in itself, can strike one as being as scary as anything Comte and Marx had to say in that regard. But like other thinkers of the time he thought progress towards realising this vision would be evolutionary not revolutionary. It had to be historically achieved through a gradual self-improvement of human beings towards realised positive freedom. Furthermore Green believed with Kant that the process of moral improvement - and we are always in process - had moral worth only if it was genuinely autonomous. The task of the state was not to manufacture new human beings but to bring about the conditions that would enable people to work at making themselves better.

Here then are two things that separate even very communitarian liberals of the 19th century from 20th century totalitarians: a historicist evolutionism about moral progress and a profound belief in the value of individual self-improvement. But in any case all thinkers of that period, liberal and non-liberal, come from a different world. Consider this:

Viewed from the standpoint of a higher state morality, it cannot be doubted that the endeavour to sustain worthless life at all costs has been taken to excess. We have got out of the habit of regarding the state organism as a whole, with its own laws and requirements like, for example, a self-contained human organism which, as we doctors know, abandons and rejects individual parts which have become worthless or damaging.[17]

In one way, it is hard to see what in Comte's thought would prevent him from agreeing with it. He is, after all, a thorough-going social organicist and a radically self-abnegating consequentialist. But to stop at that comparison would be seriously misleading.. Important as it is to note these continuities, it is also important to keep a sense of the transformation in the whole ethical culture that had meanwhile taken place, a transformation that had made it possible to talk of the 'higher state morality' and of 'worthless life' in these terms. The organicism is not new, but the murderous inference drawn from it is.

When Bukharin writes, in mechanical-voluntarist vein, about "the manufacturing of Communist man out of the human material of the capitalist age" Lenin pencils "exactly!" in the margins.[18] In this case the model is industrial, not organic. But again we hear the distinctive voice of the late-modern revolutionary: the 'transcending' of mere morality, the romanticism of hardness. No 19th century thinker has either the hubristic historical voluntarism nor the ruthless prodigality with human life that 20th century totalitarianism does. Just as we have to explain the 20th century totalitarian's voluntarism, we also have to explain its proneness to extreme violence.

We can try to find intellectual and social origins for this ruthless voluntarism - indeed we should. But as I said at the beginning, thoughts and thinkers only open up intellectual spaces; human beings, high-minded and wise, or hate-filled and cunning, choose or refuse to inhabit them. It is people, not ideas, still less history or society, that bear responsibility for the atrocities of 20th century politics.


[1] Though not before many had fallen for it: see Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (Zniewolony Umsyl (1953), page references here from the edition by Wydawnictwo Literackie Krakow, 1999).

[2] Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, London 2004, p. 11. See also his characterization of fascism on p. 219.

[3] Among many: see Bentham, for example, on 'Anarchical Fallacies'. But Hegel stands out by his precise and imaginative insight.

[4] The first passage is from the Philosophy of Right, §5, the second from the Phenomenology of Spirit, §590.

[5] The phrase is Jonathan Glover's, in Humanity (London, 2001).

[6] In contrast, it is increasingly clear that German idealism's positive concept of freedom plays no part in the aetiology of totalitarianism. Scholars who have argued that Hegel's (and indeed Kant's) notion of freedom is innocent of such totalitarian intentions or implications seem to me to be correct. Recent work that throws light on the point includes that of Fred Neuhouser, Ken Westphal and Allen Wood. However this is not to say that Hegel can (in my view) be presented as exactly a liberal. I try to strike a balance on this issue in an article entitled 'Ethics and the Social Good,' forthcoming in Allen Wood, (ed.) The Cambridge History of Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century. [A draft of this chapter can also be found on http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/academic/philosophy/STAFF/jmswip.php.]

[7] In this section I am drawing on longer discussions that can be found in my 'Ethics and the Social Good'.

[8] Cours de Philosophie Positive, Paris, Bachelier, 1842, VI, 692. Or again: "Man indeed, as an individual, cannot properly be said to exist, except in the too abstract brain of modern metaphysicians. Existence in the true sense can only be predicated of Humanity" (System of Positive Polity. I, 268)

[9] F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies (1876), 2nd ed, (Oxford, 1927), pp 168, 173.

[10] "In a communist society ... nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes" CW5: 47 [MEW 40.1: 462]. Marx links this, as Schiller does, to the overcoming, at least in some degree, of the division of labour. Schiller talks of play where Marx talks of work - but Marx's conception of work as free self-activity (as against work as alienated labour) is pretty much Schiller's idea of play, especially in the idea of it as a freedom from natural necessity.

[11] CW5: 439 [MEW3: 424].

[12] See for example the magisterial critical assessment of Comte given by John Stuart Mill in his Auguste Comte and Positivism.

[13] CW3: 198 [MEW1: 401].

[14] 'On James Mill', CW3: 228 [MEW 40.1: 462]

[15] "Ten etap - zrealizowanego komunizmu - jest miejscem swietym ze swietych dla wyznawcow i nie wolno tam siegac wzrokiem. Jest to Niebo." (Milosz, p. 58). As Milosz notes, it is forbidden not just for these reasons of Hegelian philosophy of history, but also because to look into it is to lose faith: "Kiedy juz bedzie zakonczona wielka praca wychowawcza i znienawidzona 'istota metafizyczna' w czlowieku ulegnie zniszczeniu, co dalej? Watpliwe, czy nasladowanie chrzescianskiej liturgii przez Partie, it rodzaj nabozenstw odprawianych przed portretami wodzow dostarczy ludziom doskonalych satysfakcji." (p. 58) As a matter of fact, something of that kind was exactly what Comte envisaged for his Religion of Humanity, to which we will in a moment turn.

[16] See the conversation between Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov.

[17] Alfred Hoche: cited in Glover, p. 323. Cp the passage from Konrad Lorenz cited at p.325.

[18] Glover, p. 254

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