Leninism and the Mass Line

One of the core concepts of Marxism is that socialism is a project of self-emancipation. The working class cannot gain liberation by begging the rich and powerful, nor can it rely upon an elite minority to break its chains. Working class liberation must be undertaken by the workers themselves. This view has led many Marxists, notably Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong, to endorse the theory of the mass line.

While it was Mao who codified and systematized the mass line, there are inklings of the theory present in Lenin’s writings. For example, he talks about the Party “strengthen[ing] its ties with the masses” in Two Tactics, and in Left-Wing Communism he writes that the Party should “work wherever the masses are to be found.” In the same text, he states repeatedly that the masses prove the correctness of the Party through their own experience in struggle. As we will see, the mass line is focused heavily on this idea. It could therefore be said that the mass line is the method of work of all dedicated Marxist-Leninists, not just those who uphold Mao’s contributions to the theory.

But who are the masses? If we are to base our politics around a particular group of people, it is vital that we have an understanding of exactly who those people are. To do that. we need to deeper into Marxist theory.

The predominant level of social analysis in Marxist theory is that of social classes which are (approximately) groups of people having a common relationship to the means of production. Thus, not only is society as a whole analyzed in terms of classes, but so are subsections of the population such as the masses. Specifically, Marxism divides all of society into various social classes in accordance with the level of development of the class society in question (and their relationships to the means of production) and then separates these various classes into two groups: the masses (or, the “people“), and the enemy. The masses are the social classes which represent progress and social development in accordance with the Marxist theory of historical materialism, while the enemy is the class (or classes) whose vested interests lie in the preservation of the given stage of society and who oppose any further social development. It is in the interests of the masses to make revolution, while it is in the interests of the enemy class(es) to oppose revolution. It is important to remember that the masses are not those who already have an interest in making revolution. As we will see, the masses are not often innately revolutionary. The masses are merely those whose Class interests dictate that they might be interested in doing so. The label “masses” refers to revolutionary potential rather than pre-existing revolutionary action.

the masses are the people in society who are excluded and dominated by a hegemonic class structure, in our case the all-round domination of finance capital over means of coercion, means of production, production of culture, means of information, and so on. In the case of First World countries (pardon the generalization), the masses can generally said to be the basic proletariat, the part of the labor aristocracy which renounces its community of interest with imperialism, the part of the petty bourgeoisie which relinquishes its aspirations to join the ranks of the haute bourgeoisie, and part of the lumpenproletariat. The masses are the people who stand to benefit from the supersession of the current system; it is in the interests of the masses to build revolution, it is in the interests of the hegemons to fight it.

Needless to say, the masses aren’t a uniform mass of people. Rather, they are divided into social classes: people who share a common relationship to the means of production, a distinct way of life, interests antagonistic to those of other classes, unity transcending local boundaries, a collective consciousness of themselves as a class, and political organizations serving as vehicles for their class interests. The division runs further, with capitalism color-coding the members of its classes, genderizing them, or stamping them as disabled. In order to draw a social cartography of the terrain of struggle that indicates where to draw forces for revolution, we must engage in class analysis and understand the dimensions of prejudice that come with class structures.

In capitalist society it is the proletariat which is the most revolutionary class, the staunchest and most resolute, the only class which has nothing to lose and everything to gain by advancing society to socialism and then communism. They are oppressed, exploited, and victimized by the current society, and will therefore have some innate interest in overthrowing it. For this reason it is the proletariat which forms the leading component of the masses. It is the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, which has the most to lose by the destruction of capitalist society and its replacement by communism. They have no interest in abolishing the current order, because they benefit from it. They have amassed a tremendous amount of wealth and power that would be taken from them if a revolution were to break out. They are well aware of this. Not only will they have no interest in making revolution, they will actively attempt to frustrate it. The capitalist class, therefore, cannot be considered a part of the masses. They are the core of the enemy camp. All other classes are faced with the choice of adhering to one or the other of these two poles, and generally show ambivalence and vacillation in doing so.

The definition of the masses is not clean. It is not simply the proletariat. In the case of the intermediate classes some sections will belong to the masses and other sections will form part of the enemy camp. In the U.S. for example the large petty-bourgeoisie (small business owners)   is split, with some sections and individuals siding (at least potentially) with the proletariat—thus counting as part of the masses—and other sections and individuals siding with the bourgeoisie and thus not being considered masses. Even the proletariat and bourgeoisie themselves have individual traitors and defectors from their ranks to the other side. Nevertheless, the overall picture can only be comprehended when the masses are understood in terms of classes and strata (sections of classes). In the U.S. and the world today, the proletariat and its allies from other classes form the masses.

Now that we understand that the masses are those who produce the wealth of society (and are oppressed and exploited because of this position), as well as their allies, we can delve into the mass line itself. This mass line begins from the idea that, to quote Mao, “The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in making history.” History is made not by great leaders such as Winston Churchill or even Mao. (In the case of Churchill, I mean great as in well known, not great as in admirable). Rather, it is made by the masses. Leaders are only able to arise because the masses believe them to be leaders. Good leadership can create a movement, but it is the strength of the people that keeps the movement together. This interaction means that the Marxist concept of history is dialectical in nature. If leaders could simply rule on their own, it would not be necessary to repress mass resistance or spread propaganda. The power of leaders is derived, by consent or otherwise, from the people. The masses do not make history free from any limits, of course. They make history in accordance with certain laws, certain material conditions. The masses have agency in the creation of history, but material conditions set limits on how far that agency extends.

This concept of history leads Marxists to fuse their revolutionary leadership with the masses. The mass line is about using the “boundless creative power” (as Mao put it) of the masses to lead a communist revolution. It is about taking the concerns of the people into account when questions of aims and strategy are considered.

At any given time and in any given place, the masses can be divided into three groups: the advanced, the intermediate, and the backward.

The advanced are the most active, strident elements in struggle. Organizers, activists, and so on. They engage in activity and may even understand the systemic nature of certain issues, but they are not yet communists. They do not yet understand the need for revolution. The advanced need to be armed with an understanding that addresses the concerns and questions of the intermediate and practical policies need to be adopted as well. Even when we get to socialism, the active communists are going to be a relatively small minority so we need to rely on the advanced to get things done. It is the advanced who are the bridge to and lever for moving the majority – the intermediate. Not only are the advanced a lever for moving broader numbers of people, they are usually a group of people who we have invested a lot of time and energy in. It often takes years to build up an advanced core in a mass organization and years can be spent replacing it if we lose it. Furthermore it is from the ranks of the advanced that new communists will emerge, so this issue has strategic importance as well. Because this group is so important, communists need to be flexible. New advanced people might have illusions about the system; we should work patiently with them to correct their mistakes. More long-term advanced may be frustrated and prone to errors such as getting way ahead of where the people are at. Despite these possible errors, the advanced make up a militant core of the masses that can mobilize the majority. If we win the advanced to communism, they can carry it forward to other sections of the class. This is why communists should dedicate most of their energy to organizing this strata.

The intermediate are the majority. They are the group in the middle, and so have contradictory ideas by definition. They engage in some activity but may not understand that certain issues have systemic causes. If they do understand this, they have unrealistic or incorrect ideas about how to change things. Because they are the majority, we should design our slogans in such a way that they appeal to the most developed sentiments of this group. This can be done by affirming the partial correctness of their ideas and expanding upon them. As in, “I agree that X needs to change, but I take issue with your suggestion as to how. We should do Y instead.” This helps us connect to the intermediate, show them that we are on their side. Being able to move and mobilize this section of the masses is critical to the success of any objective.

The backward are what we might call naysayers and oppositionists. They may propagate out-and-out reactionary ideas, such as racism, or they could advocate methods such as tailing the Democratic Party. (That is, attempting to win concessions from them rather than building power outside mainstream politics). The methods they advocate serve only to hold us back. While the backward can theoretically be won over, our primary objective should be to isolate them. This is mostly a question of resources. All the time we spend trying to win over the backward could be spent galvanizing the advanced or developing the intermediate. It is impractical from an efficiency standpoint to focus on winning over the backward.

These terms are relative and heavily context-dependent. Somebody may be considered “advanced” in the context of a strike if they understand that the company is unequivocally their enemy and that the rank-and-file of their union should have democratic control over bargaining demands, but that same person may be “intermediate” on the question of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system.

The advanced forces should be united by communists—around a specific perspective, a set of demands, or an organization, for example—in order to both bring them closer to a communist perspective and to make them more effective over the course of the struggle. This may mean starting a communist group, or it may not, depending on the situation.

Intermediate forces are those who are not hostile to the perspectives of the advanced but are not wholly convinced or not quite ready to make the jump into that advanced perspective. Through the struggle in question, the advanced perspective should show itself to be correct—whether through principled political debate, through the effectiveness of our practice, or through the failure of bourgeois forces—if we are doing a good job. This creates the conditions for intermediate forces to be won over to the more advanced perspective, allowing for consolidation and unity with those forces.

Keep in mind that these are not arbitrary moral categories concocted out of thin air by revolutionaries. They are rooted in material analysis. These categorizations are not permanent either. Those who are most advanced in one struggle may become the most backward in the next. A worker may be considered “advanced” in the context of a strike if they understand that the company is unequivocally their enemy and that the rank-and-file of their union should have democratic control over bargaining demands, but that same person may be “intermediate” on the question of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. People are in different places. It is up to revolutionaries to advance the masses as far as we are able.

In order to ensure that this is possible, revolutionaries must go deeply and concretely into the work that needs to be done. They cannot simply sit on their hands, or read books in a library all day. They must go among the masses and learn about their concerns. This has been the method of work for every great Marxist. Che organized peasants in Cuba. Lenin investigated working conditions in Russian factories. The list goes on. This organizing ensures that the masses will rally behind the Party. Only with a strong base of popular support can a revolutionary movement succeed in overthrowing capitalism.

Once the leaders are aware of the concerns of the masses, they must make a general and widespread call for action to the masses. If the land system is unjust, revolutionaries need to call for redistribution. If a factory is without a union, revolutionaries must stand up for the right to collectively bargain. Again, the call to action must be centered on the immediate concerns of the masses. This will help build enthusiasm and remold the masses into a revolutionary force. They will identify very strongly with the revolutionary movement if they feel that they themselves are a part of it. This is a key point. Revolutionary organizing is about struggle. We do not go among the masses to lecture them on theory or drop a stack of books on the table (although literature and theory are very important). Rather, we organize the masses in order to draw them into the struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and oppression.

It is important to keep in mind that the mass line is not simply repeating to the masses what we hear from them. Rather, it is about taking the ideas of the masses and developing them into a plan of revolutionary action. Mao illustrated  this by comparing the party as a factory processing the ideas of the masses and turning out a finished product: a program for revolution.

Once we have rallied the masses around a specific struggle, we must combine the general with the particular. The general resides in the particular. This may seem abstract at first, but it becomes fairly simple when we break it down.

There is a general system of capitalism. Capitalism is not a spirit. It does not exist outside of or above the material world, and it is certainly not eternal. Capitalism is bound up in a set of concrete relations. The military, too, is bound up in these relations. It does not exist because a spirit dictates that it exists. Armies are composed of actual (or concrete) soldiers, wearing concrete armor, carrying concrete guns, taking concrete orders, and killing concrete civilians. These kinds of social systems and social phenomena are the general.

The general is composed of the particular. To continue my example of the military, let’s say there is a soldier working undercover in India to undermine the people’s movement there. That soldier, and the orders they carry out, is an example of a particular. These are components of a process, individual instances of general processes in action, which collectively make up general structures.

The masses in general have little knowledge of theory or unifying ideas. This is of course not their fault, but rather the fault of the oppressive capitalist class and its ideological apparatus. As a result, however, the masses do not usually see general systems. They are not aware of the structural inequalities between capitalists and workers or why these inequalities occur. They only know that their boss makes much more money than they do.

If we want to teach people about the evils of capitalism, it is not enough to show them the abstract stock market. We need to show them the negative effects of capitalism that they face, as well as the negative effects of capitalism faced by workers around the world. We need to show them that they are the ones who work hard, who perform labor, and yet they are stolen from by an entire class of people who do nothing. We need to show them how degrading work is, how dehumanizing that the  rules handed down from capitalists are. We need to spread everyday stories of exploitation and alienation to all.

It is vitally important that we link both these aspects. If we only talk about the general, the masses will be unable to grasp what we mean. Spouting jargon is not what makes someone a revolutionary. What makes a revolutionary is the ability to synthesize theory and practice. Without practice, we are merely intellectuals, and we are doing nothing to further the cause of socialism. This is why we cannot rely on the general in organizing.

We cannot rely solely on the particular either. Alleviating specific issues is important. But if this work is not linked to a wider struggle, it will not matter. This wider struggle need not be a struggle for communism, though this is our ultimate goal.  I mean that we need to take the particular and turn it into the general. If, for example, we have led a successful particular campaign to stop a racist anti-immigrant bill from passing, we should turn that into a wider struggle for immigrant rights. The focus should be taken off of specific instances of injustice and shifted onto the system that perpetuates them.

In order to use the mass line, revolutionaries must have a specific problem to solve, a social goal which you want to help lead the masses in achieving. Often the specific goal to be achieved is very clear, is a given. In that case, we can move directly to the gathering process itself.

Sometimes, however, there may be difficulties even in ascertaining what the next goal should be. In that case the mass line may be used in connection with a more general goal in order to help determine the next step or subsidiary goal. This leads to the question, what—if anything—is the very most general goal, the most central goal which serves to guide all our activity?

Of course, the goal of revolutionaries is always revolution; all other goals are subsidiary to that great end. To really use the Marxist mass line our overall conscious goal must be proletarian revolution, and any specific goal we are addressing must be subsidiary to revolution. But revolutionaries must develop many such subsidiary goals since revolution is far too complex a goal to be accomplished in one simple act. As such, revolutionaries should not be afraid to join-and struggle for leadership in, particular reform struggles, so long as the revolutionaries  are using them as a springboard to develop the consciousness of the masses.

Once we are clear on the situation, on the problem, on the goal, we have our primary guidelines as to what sort of ideas and experiences of the masses to gather. Obviously, we want to gather the ideas of the masses (expressed or implied) which are in any way relevant to achieving the goal being aimed at. In other words, not just explicit proposals for action, but any or all comments relevant to the situation. Even negative comments, such as a reason why someone believes a certain plan of action would not work, may prove invaluable.

An important point to stress here is that to gather the ideas of the masses one must be close to the masses. This means being physically close to the masses, but more important than that, it means being psychologically close. To be psychologically close to the masses means to be able to understand them, and to know what they are thinking. The reason for being physically close, and putting oneself in the same situation and circumstances as the masses, is so that you can be psychologically close to them—so that they can understand, influence and educate you, and so that you can understand, influence and educate them.

The ideas of the masses, though,. will necessarily be undeveloped, utopian, or otherwise erroneous. Revolutionaries would be wrong, however, to abandon the masses because of this. The masses create history, the Party only leads. If revolutionaries want to succeed, they should not dismiss the ideas of the masses out of hand. Rather, they should work to uncover the lessons in these ideas and apply them, with their own insight and modification, to the struggle.

In order to gather the very best ideas of the masses, the ideas of the advanced, revolutionaries need to participate in their struggles. The best ideas come from practice, and the best ideas about how to change things come from the practice of trying to change things, from struggle. Of course the experience in struggle of any individual is limited, but the overall experience of the masses in struggle is enormous, even in reactionary periods. While gathering ideas from individuals who are involved in struggle is useful, revolutionaries should strive to gather the ideas of the people as a whole over even the most knowledgeable individuals.

The individual party members that are best situated to gather the ideas of the masses are those in closest contact with the masses. It is therefore important for the party to especially rely on these members when applying the mass line. This is certainly true for the first and third steps of the method, the gathering of ideas and the returning of the processed ideas to the masses, though it is also true to a degree in the second, processing step as well. (The rank and file members who are close to the masses participate in the second step of the mass line method primarily by making the “first cut” in selecting the ideas of the masses to forward up to higher bodies. But if the party leadership is wise, it will also consult with many of these valuable members in the course of processing the ideas of the masses which have been passed upward to it.)

The leadership of the party should also play a role in all three steps in the mass line method, to the maximum degree possible. This means that they also should participate in gathering the ideas of the masses and returning the processed ideas to the masses. But the leadership has its greatest responsibility when it comes to the second step of the method, the processing of the ideas of the masses which the entire party has gathered. Obviously this step must be done centrally so that a unified line is arrived at that the whole party may put into effect (or at least all those concerned with the specific problem being worked on). Otherwise party members would be working at cross purposes and much of the potential strength of the party would be vitiated.

In order that the party leaders may accomplish this processing step, they must receive the appropriate input from the rest of the party. Even if the party leaders seriously participate in the gathering of the masses’ ideas, this will be a small part of the entire gathering process. If the party leadership does not have a good selection of the ideas of the masses to work with, its determination of the appropriate line to return to the masses will be hampered, and tend towards subjectivity. In other words, there will be more mistakes, and perhaps some very serious mistakes.

Thus the responsibility of the rank and file party members to pass upward the ideas they have gathered from the masses must be strongly and constantly stressed.

The question remains: how do we get people involved in struggles? The answer may seem simple, but it is actually fairly complex: we must go to where the masses are. If there is a movement based around fighting education cuts, we go among the students. If there is a movement based on unionizing a factory, we organize the factory workers. Again, the struggle must be a participatory project, involving the masses and their interests.

The fact that revolutionaries must act in the interests of the masses does not mean that revolutionaries are indistinguishable from the masses. Far from it. Revolutionary leaders have important roles to play, the most notable of which is to unify the ideas of the masses.

All the people have ideas. They all have ideas about how to make society better. For the most part, these ideas are scattered. The job of revolutionaries is to learn those ideas. Not only that, we must clarify and systematize them. We must figure out what the masses are fighting, what they want to accomplish, and the tools they are able to use. We must then combine these aspects with an analysis of material conditions, including the position of the enemy. From this, we create a plan to help the masses accomplish their goals. “If you are concerned about X, you should do Y” is the general formula.

Only when our analysis and method is grasped by the masses have we succeeded. But it is enough to explain to the masses what is happening to them, or even how to stop it. It is important that they understand (not only) our analysis, but also how we came to that analysis. Revolutionaries will train the masses so that they can eventually form plans themselves. This is what Mao meant when he said that the revolutionary method was “from the masses to the masses.”

This is not a task that can be accomplished overnight. The mass line is a step-by-step process. It is not merely about putting forth the best arguments to sway the masses. It is not sloganeering or nitpicking about political positions. It has nothing to do with getting people to buy our newspapers. It is a political, organizational, and ideological practice. It involves systematic investigation, education, and struggle. When we forget this, we risk isolating the masses, turning them away from the Party. This can only result in a failed revolution.

In the United States, I identify the main revolutionary forces as low-waged and precarious working class communities, primarily communities of color, as well as indigenous peoples. These are often the poorest and most exploited members of society, and therefore have the greatest interest in revolution.

These groups are constantly inundated with reactionary, capitalist, and anti-communist ideas by the bourgeoisie. The oppressed indigenous peoples are in constant struggle for survival and are already engaged in critical anti-colonial struggles. Simply trying to push a communist line on these groups without understanding their obstacles and aims will surely result in a major setback to the revolution. Making a genuine effort to involve ourselves in these struggles, however, greatly increases our chance of success.

One other benefit to the mass line in the modern era is the blow it strikes against bourgeoisie propaganda. The masses have generally been indoctrinated by the capitalist class to such a degree that they see communism as wholly evil. Communist leaders are made out to be power-hungry demons who want to enrich themselves at the expense of the common people. It is of the utmost importance that we as communists combat these ideas.
There are two methods by which we can do that. The first is through counter-historical works that seek to challenge this perception on an academic level. The writings of Michael Parenti and Grover Furr come to mind as examples, though there are of course many others. The effectiveness of this approach is debatable. While some might be receptive to texts such as these, their reach is limited. The working class ought not be expected to care very much about historical events that do not obviously affect their lives. Oftentimes, they are too worried about simply feeding themselves.

It is far more effective to take the second approach, which is going to the masses and concretely struggling for their rights. It is far more effective to show people that communists are not narcissists than it is to merely tell them. People learn through practice. If the practice of communists is centered around the masses, they will realize that they have been lied to. The mass line is a way to show that communists have the best interests of the people at heart and, in so doing, rally the masses behind them.

The mass line also represents a cure for the political alienation suffered by the masses. Under capitalism, the power to make, pass, and enforce laws is concentrated in the hands of the capitalist class and its political lackeys. As a result, the laws of capitalist states do not represent the interests of the masses. The masses are aware of this, in many respects. They are quick to point out that there is a ruling elite that does not act in their interests. However, they are not generally able to identify capitalism as the cause of this. They do not understand that capitalism necessarily creates a ruling elite. Our job as communists is to make this clear.

After we do this, it is vitally important that we present a viable alternative. The mass line is a key part of this alternative. As we have seen, the mass line is about taking the concerns of the general population into account during revolution. This policy must continue after we win, as well. The Party must always listen to the concerns of the masses, modifying and developing them as needed. The practice of the mass line should be applied to policy-making, ensuring that the Party does represent the interests of the masses.

The mass line is not only a method of leading the masses, it is also a method of “leading the leaders.”

Leadership is a joint enterprise of the leadership and the led, a joint effort based on common, collective interests, with not only the means being determined by all involved, but also the ultimate ends.

The leaders lead, and the led are led. But this is a relative situation, a dialectical relation. In the Marxist conception, “the led” also lead the leaders to some extent, and the “leaders” are also the led to some extent. (A mutual interpenetration of opposites.) No doubt the heads of those who do not habitually view things in a dialectical fashion are already swimming! So let us go slowly here.

We say that the leaders are also led because they learn how to lead and where to lead, in large part, from the masses they lead. And since the masses thus show the “leaders” how and where to lead, we may say that the masses also, to some extent, lead their leaders. The proletarian party both leads the masses collectively and is collectively responsible to the masses.

In doing mass line work, the Party is not only organizing the masses, it is also being organized by the masses. The mass line is a method not only for changing the masses and society, but also a method of first changing the leaders so that they can change the masses and society. The mass line is not only a method of teaching the masses, but also a method of first teaching the leaders so that they know how and what to teach the masses.

This can be demonstrated by the Marxist view of the origins of individual leaders, that is, where individual leaders come from. Individual revolutionary leaders are not “born”, they are  made. It is primarily the experience of mass struggle which makes such leaders, both individually and as a group. As Mao put it, “A leading group that is genuinely united and is linked with the masses can gradually be formed only in the process of mass struggle, and not in isolation from it.” Individual leaders are molded in struggle, they must be changed by struggle. Leaders must be willing not only to teach the masses, but to learn from them in a dialectical process.

While revolutionary leaders are molded primarily through the experience of mass struggle, there is also an element of Marxist education and training involved. One cannot become an effective revolutionary leader without being educated in Marxism-Leninism. Ideology helps one see the world more clearly, and thus conduct sharper and more accurate analysis. We must also have opportunities to gather leadership experience. We must then use  this leadership to learn from the masses. While our primary goal is to carry their consciousness forward, this can not be done through lectures or condescension. Revolutionaries do not automatically know better than the masses. Indeed, revolutionaries only become such when they are engaged in struggle with the masses. As such, our objective should not only be to lead. We must also be willing to learn.

If we do not do this, we risk falling into the trap of commandism, which simply means forcing the masses to follow us rather than winning them over and explaining why they should follow us. The mass line is not about the use of force against the working class, it is about appealing to and developing their class consciousness.

Our goal is not to get people to “obey” the Party—whether “voluntarily” or otherwise—but, instead, to get them to make up their own minds about what to do on the basis of sufficient and truthful information. The Party does seek to lead the masses, and the masses themselves seek this kind of leadership. But leading people is not a matter of getting them to “obey” in the sense that they follow orders unquestioningly. In the Marxist sense, leadership is about bringing the masses together under a common goal and allowing them to develop their potential as revolutionary actors.

I have continually stressed the importance of spreading our ideas to the masses and convincing them to follow and join the Party. I should note, though, that the mass line is not simply about inspiring people. It is not enough to put forward our ideas and hope for the best. We need to be deeply involved in work that the masses are already focused on, yes, but we cannot simply go to protests and hand out our pamphlets. We need to actually help the masses win, put forward concrete results, so that they are convinced by real experience that the Party is on their side. There are a number of ways in which this can be done, and it is up to revolutionaries to determine which will be most effective in a given situation. The point that we should keep in mind is that people learn when they have hard evidence.

This is, in essence, the theory of the mass line: It is about raising the whole working class to the level of revolutionaries. Only by awakening and organizing the entire working class can we hope to put an end to the tyranny that is capitalist-imperialism.

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