James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-38 by Bryan D. Palmer (Brill, 2021)
James P. Cannon and the Emergence of Trotskyism in the United States, 1928-38 is the latest installment in Canadian historian Bryan D. Palmer’s study of the titular US revolutionary socialist leader. This decades-long project’s first book-length product, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (2007) provides a brilliant account of the political formation of one of American Communism’s founding leaders and the early history of the movement itself. Palmer’s research for this second volume spun off a vivid account of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike and the role of its Trotskyist leaders, Revolutionary Teamsters (2013). He has also been one of the editors of a three-volume documentary history of the Trotskyist movement in the US, the first of which forms a useful companion to this book.
In the second directly biographical volume, Palmer’s narrative expands and contracts continually, taking in intimate details of Cannon’s domestic life and family relationships; the week-to-week grind of organizational work in a small, cash-strapped, frequently divided movement; and a broader canvas of the class struggle in the US, as well as international questions of the revolutionary movement. The book’s 1200-page length and the wide array of issues addressed may seem daunting, but its organization, with thematic sections nested within broadly chronological chapters, eases the burden considerably. Palmer is an unabashed partisan of both the Trotskyist movement and Cannon as an individual, but not uncritically so, as opposing perspectives are presented fairly (the acknowledgements refer to his partner, the feminist historian Joan Sangster, expressing skepticism about his sometimes ‘saintly’ treatment of his subject). But in addition to being a biographical study of Cannon and his movement, the book makes a number of pointed interventions into the highly contested historiography of international Communism and the US Left. It is with these interventions that the remainder of this article concerns itself.
“A Historiographic House of Mirrors”
Historians of Communism in the United States have long been polarized into two warring camps, often shorthanded as ‘traditionalists’ and ‘revisionists.’ The former, politically situated within Cold War liberalism, have portrayed the CPUSA as rigidly controlled by Soviet directives, subject to basically alien purposes epitomised by the willingness of Party members to act as spies for the USSR. The revisionists, the first cohort of whom emerged from the New Left in the 1970s, have focused on the contributions of CP members to struggles for social justice in the US, painting an often appealing picture of a flexible and diverse organization rooted in the experiences and aspirations of oppressed people. For Palmer, each of these perspectives is decisively weakened by one-sidedness. If the traditionalists “tend to hear only the sound of one hand of foreign domination clapping,” he writes, “their opponents seem able to discern only the thud of the police baton on the backs of jobless street protesters or the good work done in the creation of industrial unionism.”2 And yet, he argues, the two seemingly opposite camps converge in one particular weakness: neither resident of what he calls a historiographical house of mirrors adequately grasp the need for any history of the Communist movement to come to terms with Stalinism.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the anticommunist historians of the traditionalist school would see little need to understand the specificity of Stalinism. If the Bolshevik Revolution was a tyrannical-utopian experiment from the beginning, and the world’s Communist parties Russian instruments from birth, then the developments of Stalinism–the inward turn of the Russian Revolution, the subordination of the international Communist movement and the stifling of internal democracy in its sections, the vulgarization of Marxist theory, the bloody repression–were merely the obvious sequels to Leninism. Palmer counters this view with reference to the long tradition of dissident Marxist analysis of the brutal break between Leninism and Stalinism, from Trotsky to Deutscher to Lewin. He also scores some points on his chosen terrain of the history of the US movement, pointing out that Cannon and his closest comrades, with their long records of struggle in the IWW and the Debsian Socialist Party, epitomize the deep roots of American Communism in the workers’ movement, however transformed the militants who created it were by their encounter with the Russian Revolution. Assuming that few readers will have any sympathy for the traditionalist perspective, we will spend no more time on it. The revisionist perspective has been far more influential on perceptions of the history of the US Communist movement on the left, and Palmer’s critique raises crucial issues.
For the revisionists’ part, Stalinism is often seen as a concept that erases the complexities of the Communist movement, its internal diversity and the autonomy of members at various levels from both their national centres and Moscow. Palmer makes a number of acute criticisms of this perspective. Simply pointing out that the Communist movement was less homogeneous in practice than in theory, he argues, is a truism. While few organizations could ever completely fulfil the fearsome norms of monolithism that Stalinist parties set for themselves, Palmer is right to emphasize that they did try. Revisionist historians have downplayed the tight discipline that existed both within Communist parties and the Stalinized Comintern, which could and frequently did depose national Party leaderships for political deviations. Where revisionists have seen evidence of the diversity and malleability of Communist practice in the recurrence of the same problems in Party disciplinary records, Palmer puts more emphasis on the frequency with which the subjects of such complaints were in fact expelled.
The most telling point Palmer makes against the revisionist account concerns the relations between ‘official’ Communists and dissident forces. One of his main targets in this camp is the work of Randi Storch, including her book Red Chicago, which argues that expelled dissidents including Trotskyists often continued to be treated with relative friendliness by their former comrades. Palmer argues convincingly that the handful of examples of softness Storch documents pale in comparison to the long record of ostracism, slander, intimidation and physical violence orchestrated by the CPUSA leadership against its Trotskyist opponents from the time of the expulsion of their first nucleus in the fall of 1928. The Trotskyists’ first public meetings were disrupted by heckling and fights, and efforts to distribute propaganda at CP events met with jeering, beatings, and even stabbings. The apartment Cannon and his partner Rose Karsner lived in was broken into and documents and correspondence stolen.
While some Party members responded to this campaign with incomprehension or disgust, they were usually next on the list for expulsion, with many of them finding their way into the Opposition’s ranks. Most seem to have accepted that if the Party leadership now defined their former comrades as enemies, it must be so. Direct physical attacks became less common in later years, but the CP remained committed to excluding the Trotskyists from ‘united front’ activity. Palmer cites a particularly egregious incident from 1933, when Trotskyists taking part in eviction resistance alongside Communist youth were excluded by a Party official who declared that “Trotskyists…have no right to move furniture with us–they are left social fascists.”3 The rhetoric used by Stalinists against their rivals to the left became more and more violent during the global anti-Trotskyist witch-hunt which accompanied the Moscow Trials, and during the Second World War the CPUSA went beyond notoriously short-sighted praise for the prosecution of the SWP’s leaders under the Smith Act, going as far as sending documents to the Department of Justice to help with the case against a group they denounced as Nazi saboteurs.
Palmer’s argument that the revisionists have failed to adequately address these ugly aspects of a Party they have usually treated with great sympathy hits home. In advancing an explanation for this analytical shortcoming, he makes one of his most astute observations, with implications for understanding the history of Communism far beyond the United States:
At issue in this kind of approach is the sense that the Communist ranks were composed of honest militants, advocates of social justice who found themselves battling vicious bosses and mendacious agents of the state. Revisionist histories often exhibit an admirable liking for their subjects, some of whom have worked closely with the younger historians studying them, providing interviews, documents, and important circles of sociability. It is difficult, in such circumstances, to recognize in the figures so often sitting across the table from you, those who embraced a politics of vituperative dismissal and worse. Thus Eric Bentley long ago noted that Communists “have the worst record of perhaps any radical group that ever existed for intrigue, unscrupulousness, and inhumanity,” adding, yet “very many Stalinists continued to be men.” And this was undoubtedly true.
This is an extremely important point. The militants of Stalinist parties, in the US and throughout the capitalist world, played an essential role in struggles against capitalist exploitation, state repression, racism and national oppression, fascism and imperialism. They were among the most uncompromising defenders of many good causes, and the fierce discipline of their Parties brought out incredible capacities for self-sacrifice. They also willingly took part in sectarian attacks on other forces on the left, carried out political lines including the most ridiculous extremes of sectarian ultraleftism and craven class-collaboration, and defended or explained away the worst crimes of Stalinist regimes. It is impossible, in studying the history of this movement, to neatly separate the heroic and the appalling elements. The Comintern mobilized tens of thousands of brave volunteers, mostly Communists themselves, to defend the Spanish Republic. It also played a key role in organizing the repression of the revolutionary left within the Republic, which saw countless revolutionaries imprisoned, tortured or killed. In the midst of the anti-Nazi resistance, leaders of Italian and Greek Trotskyism were assassinated by Stalinist partisans.
Italo Calvino, reflecting on his membership in the PCI from the Resistance to the crisis of 1956-57, wrote that the Communists of his time were “schizophrenic,” torn between the desire to “be a witness to the truth, avenging the wrongs suffered by the weak and oppressed, and defending justice against every abuse,” and the equally powerful need to “justif[y] those wrongs, the abuses, the tyrannies of the party, Stalin, all in the name of the Cause.” This jagged, messy double-sidedness is an essential characteristic of Stalinism as a movement. There is no simple way to turn it into a neat balance sheet or a ‘dialectical’ unity. Palmer should be commended for encouraging students of the history of Communism to refuse efforts to smooth it over.
Race and revolution
One of the central subjects in the historiography of American Communism is the role played by Communists in the Black liberation struggle and their analysis of the dynamics of racism in American society. Some of the best work of the revisionist school has been in this area, including classics by Robin Kelley, Mark Naison, and Mark Solomon. Palmer takes up this analytical thread, exploring the early Trotskyist movement’s analysis of Black oppression and describing their initial efforts to intervene in the liberation struggle. The newborn Left Opposition did not initially question the framework of national oppression and self-determination with a territorial focus in the Black Belt south, first adopted by the CPUSA shortly before their expulsion. But as the 1930s progressed, the Trotskyists came to reject this analysis sharply, condemning it as unhistorical, conducive to nationalist and separatist tendencies, if not conciliatory with segregation itself. Their protracted efforts to theorize an alternative analysis culminated in a 1933 manifesto by Max Shachtman, which was in turn the subject of extensive internal debate (and partly as a consequence, remained unpublished until 2003). Palmer’s fine-grained reconstruction of these analytical efforts is a valuable contribution, but his defense of the conclusions the early Trotskyists arrived at is less convincing.
In viewing the Black Belt thesis as an imposition on US Communists with little social basis or appeal to the masses of Black people, Palmer is this time within the historical consensus. But whatever else the framework did or did not do, viewing African Americans as an oppressed nation focused the attention of Communists on autonomous Black struggle as a potentially revolutionary force in itself, rooted in oppression that affected Black people of all classes (albeit differentially). The critique of the CP position developed by Trotskyists in the 1930s pointed away from these insights, emphasizing the dangers of conciliating bourgeois forces in the Black community and the need for interracial class unity.
The question, however, has always been how to create that unity, and what the most important obstacles to it are. Drawing on the work of Barbara Foley, Palmer makes what is, at least, a suggestive argument that the Black Belt thesis contained an underlying essentialist assumption that Afro-Americans were an un-modern people, intrinsically rooted in the soil. He then extrapolates from this the rather strained claim that it was the romance of “an aesthetics of the African American folk” that led Black intellectuals in the 1920s away from the possibilities of interracial class struggle briefly glimpsed in 1919, “dampen[ing] the possibilities of the African American working class exercising…leadership in the struggle for…human emancipation.” This “culturalist” turn in the Harlem intelligentsia then found its curious culmination in the CP adoption of the Black Belt thesis. This seems to ignore the most obvious factor in disillusioning radical Black intellectuals from class politics: the brick wall of indifference, where it was not vicious hostility, from white workers. This is something Trotsky, for one, grasped keenly.
In a conversation with visiting American followers in 1933, the Bolshevik exile insisted that the racism of white workers, who in their vast majority he considered “hangmen” and “beasts” when it came to relations with racialized people, was the basic obstacle to the interracial working-class unity his US supporters counterposed to the CPUSA’s allegedly nationalist position (Trotsky also explicitly expressed sympathy for the CP position; Palmer treats Trotsky’s view as rooted in a transposition from Russian experience to an American reality which he had little knowledge of). This brick wall is one part of what the CPUSA sought to challenge with the national self-determination framework, and at its best the Party focused squarely on white racism as the central problem to be overcome for genuine class unity to exist. Many tendencies have had valuable insights into the oppression of Black people in the US and the relation between the Black liberation struggle and the prospects for socialist transformation, including the ‘revolutionary integrationist’ tendency based on the work of Richard Fraser, which Palmer sees as the continuation of the early Trotskyist analysis. But the work done by the concept of national oppression (which the Trotskyist movement later adopted, in a non-territorial version) cannot be easily dismissed.
Palmer also provides a fascinating account of the Trotskyists’ early attempts at practical organizing among African Americans. Particularly valuable is the recovery, drawing on work by Christopher Phelps, of the experience of Simon Williamson, one of the first Black Trotskyists. Williamson was a communist militant from Kansas City who, having been active in the Communist-led League of Struggle for Negro Rights, came to the Trotskyists in the first years of the 1930s. He wrote on the Black struggle for the movement’s publications, criticizing the CP’s line as a surrender to Jim Crow and advocating class unity. After the Left Opposition merged with the American Workers’ Party in late 1934, Cannon successfully advocated for Williamson to be deployed to Harlem to begin work for the new Workers’ Party. There he found his white comrades ensconced in the neighbourhood’s German enclave, seemingly accomplishing little. After a struggle simply to refocus the branch’s work on the Black population, Williamson found the WP leadership unable or unwilling to provide him with much political guidance.
Not surprisingly, beginning political work in 1930s Harlem, where the CP was already becoming influential, was a challenge. When the CP was able to turn the 1935 Harlem riot to its political advantage by standing up to red-baiting, the WP leadership blamed Williamson for the lack of corresponding gains. His continued complaints of apathy and white chauvinism from his fellow branch members fell on deaf ears, and as a split developed between factions led by Cannon and Hugo Oehler, Williamson sided with the latter. Eventually, however, he was expelled without much of a defense by his (white) factional allies. Palmer implies at times that the Trotskyists were unable to challenge the advantage gained by the CP in the Black struggle because their forces were simply too small. The forces initially available to the official Party for the same work had not been large either, but they had the full backing of a Party which made their work a central priority. Allowing for the limitations of size and of Stalinist exclusion, the record of Trotskyist work in the Black liberation struggle in the 1930s suggests that for all their analytical efforts to formulate an alternative to the CP position, practical intervention in that struggle was never seen as a priority, as it was by their larger rival.
Militants and revolutionaries
The intervention of Communists and other radicals in the labor upsurge of the 1930s holds an equally important place in any discussion of the history of the US Left in this period, and here again Palmer’s examination of the Trotskyists’ role brings some very valuable material to the surface. Besides the comparatively well-known story of the Minneapolis Teamsters’ Strike, he discusses a range of activity including labour defense campaigns, where Cannon played a key role, and organizing among workers from the hotels of New York to the Illinois coal field, from Midwestern auto plants to Pacific shipping. A recurring theme in the exploration of early ‘30s struggles is the Left Opposition’s critique of the CP’s Third Period ‘red unionism’ as sectarian and adventurist, as well as their alternative: consistent advocacy of trade union unity and tactics which, however militant, were more closely in keeping with what masses of workers were ready for in a given situation.
In Minneapolis, for example, while the (locally small and uninfluential) CP called for a political strike to bring down the state’s Farmer-Labor governor, the Trotskyist cadre leading the strike remained solidly focused on the immediate situation, knowing that victory for Minneapolis’ drivers would have beneficial effects on the wider balance of class forces. Reading this through the congealed stereotypes of later generations, it can seem a strange role reversal to find official Communists playing the role of the ultra-militants and Trotskyists as sober trade union tacticians. But as Palmer emphasizes, Cannon and many of his close comrades had deep roots in the American labor movement, enabling them to draw on the experience of struggles going back to the heyday of the IWW.
This breadth of experience did not mean that the Trotskyists did not encounter significant problems in their work in the labor movement, especially when we turn from their contributions to building unions to their efforts to advance their own politics within them. In the early 1930s, an epic struggle by Illinois coal miners (and their families, as Palmer emphasizes in his discussion of the role of the Women’s Auxiliary) against the mine owners, the state, and the UMW bureaucracy produced a militant independent union, the Progressive Miners of America. One of the PMA’s leaders was an on-and-off member of the Left Opposition, Gerry Allard. Allard was a popular voice of the rank and file movement and editor of the union’s newspaper, but Cannon, other Trotskyist leaders, and cadre active in the coal field engaged in a frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to ensure that he used his position to build their movement as well as the union. Allard took little or no part in efforts to build the Trotskyist organization in the coal field, resented any infringement on his autonomy as editor, and tended to respond to red-baiting not by defending his affiliation or beliefs but by hiding them behind the abstract right of adherents of different politics to participate in the union. Albert Glotzer, a close associate of Max Shactman, wrote to him of Allard:
His woeful unpolitical brain could never teach him that our policy had in mind precisely the advancement of the interests of the union. But Gerry cannot see the relation at all. He sees on the one hand, the political organization and on the other, the union and Gerry is primarily a unionist, in spite of his years in the movement.
Before long, Allard had lost his union position and severed his affiliation with the Left Opposition. Even in their stronghold of Minneapolis, where more disciplined Trotskyist cadre held leading positions in the Teamsters, strategic problems developed as their efforts to build the union across the midwest came to rely more on ties to temporarily friendly union bureaucrats than on reproducing a mass base outside of the Twin Cities. As Palmer describes in more detail in Revolutionary Teamsters, this shallow support meant that they were unable to defend themselves from red-baiting attacks by the state and bureaucracy in the new climate of the war, and American Trotskyism lost its strongest foothold in the organized working class.
These tactical and strategic problems for revolutionaries in the American labor movement, be that the reluctance of militants in influential union positions to stick their necks out for the political organization or the temptation to rely more on bureaucratic allies than on mass support, were far from unique to the Trotskyists. Although Palmer does not make this connection, their experiences closely parallel, on a smaller scale, the trajectory of the Communists in the CIO between 1935 and 1950. This suggests that there were dynamics at work deeper than the lines of particular left groups. In the context of the ‘30s labor upsurge, faced with the default of the AFL bureaucracy, radical organizers were able to turn their exceptional motivation, capacity for self-sacrifice and tactical sense into positions of influence in the new unions (or reinvigorated ones like the Teamsters).
It was something else entirely, however, to overcome American labor’s profound allergy to “politics,” which is to say explicitly expressed, and especially anticapitalist, politics. Individual influence, then, rarely translated into a mass base for revolutionary organizations, whether Communist, Trotskyist, or otherwise. Palmer argues, as many others have, that this could have been done, but in any case it was not. The politics of the masses of newly mobilized workers remained within Rooseveltian liberalism, and leftists faced immense pressure to adapt to this. Trotsky criticized his American followers for this in a 1940 discussion, telling visiting SWP leaders, “You are afraid to become compromised in the eyes of the Rooseveltian trade-unionists. They on the other hand are not worried in the slightest about being compromised by voting for Roosevelt against you.” The vulnerability of this position, revealed in the wartime attack on the Trotskyist Teamsters, would be shown even more clearly in the postwar Red Scare.
Problems of party-building
The growth of the American Trotskyist movement from 350 members of the Communist League of America in 1934 to approximately 1500 members of the newly-formed Socialist Workers Party in 1938 was a complex process, entailing fusions, splits, and a period of ‘entryism’ in the Socialist Party of America from the spring of 1936 to the fall of 1937. The last development has not gone down favourably in the historiography of the SPA, with one authority quoted by Palmer characterizing the Trotskyists’ conduct as “cannibalism.” The entryist experience has usually been portrayed as a destructive raid by sectarian interlopers, which contributed to fatally weakening the Socialists in the later 1930s. Palmer convincingly challenges this narrative. The Trotskyists’ entry was negotiated with the SP’s new, left-leaning leadership while they were in the process of breaking with the right-wing Old Guard, with the idea that they would help consolidate the left’s control of the party. These plans were almost immediately altered by the eruption of two events which posed massive challenges to the entire global left: the outbreak of civil war (and social revolution) in Spain, and the beginning of the Moscow Trials.
The SPA quickly became an arena of intense debate on these events. While the Trotskyists and allies pushed for the party to take part in their efforts to defend Trotsky from the slanders emanating from Moscow and condemned the repression of the revolutionary left in Spain, pro-Stalinist forces on the right rejected any criticism of the USSR or the Spanish Republic (these divisions dovetailed with debates over whether the SP should endorse New Deal-aligned politicians like LaGuardia). Center forces in the leadership tried to avoid committing the party to firm stances where lines were literally being drawn in blood, and eventually tried to suppress these uncomfortable debates by banning internal currents from issuing their own publications. The Trotskyists refused this gag order, aimed primarily at themselves, aware that it would mean being purged from the SP. As Palmer writes, Cannon and his comrades “did not split the Socialist Party so much as they were run out of its town on a rail.”9 Conventional accounts portraying the ‘native’ Socialists as innocent victims of sectarian intrusion fail to recognize the agency of other factions in shaping the development of the party, or the deadly urgency of the issues on which the Trotskyists can hardly be blamed for speaking up.
This does not, however, exhaust an evaluation of the ‘French Turn’ in the US. Palmer argues convincingly that the Socialist Party was in serious trouble well before entryism began, and that the idea that the Trotskyists had ruined an otherwise healthy organization was a convenient myth for the Socialist leaders. He also cites a number of leading Trotskyists who bragged about their role in clearing away this centrist obstacle to the construction of a revolutionary party. Palmer argues that the latter shared in the Socialists’ myth-making, with their own opposite evaluation of the significance of these events.
Palmer’s evaluation of entryism concludes with a further argument which sits somewhat awkwardly next to what precedes it. If the Trotskyists did damage the Socialist Party, he suggests, this should not be judged too harshly, because the “all-inclusive party of the left” which the party’s mid-30s leadership sought to create was merely “an attractive panacea.” Palmer does not believe that a pluralist socialist party could ever have a sustained, politically effective existence, and in light of this impossibility Cannon and his comrades acted “not with the purpose of destruction…but with the intent of construction.”10 They simply did what they had to do in order to build the revolutionary party, in the sense of an ideologically tight (although not monolithic) cadre organization. Here historical interpretation shades into contemporary political argument. This writer, at least, is not convinced that the 1930s SPA’s inability to grapple with the crucial questions of the time is a conclusive negative verdict on the idea of a pluralist party of the left, especially considering the uninspiring record of the alternative, at least in the advanced capitalist societies.
The Trotskyist movement, as Palmer points out in his opening historiographical chapter, has often been treated unkindly by historians of the left. Scholars sympathetic to official Communism have frequently dismissed them as irrelevant, while anticommunists collapse the differences between them and their Stalinist rivals. This dismissal can come from unexpected sources as well. In The Prophet Outcast, Polish Left Opposition veteran Isaac Deutscher paints a jaundiced portrait of Trotsky’s international following, harping on its small size, lacerating divisions, and non-proletarian social composition. But this condescension, from whatever ideological angle, obscures the history of a remarkable cohort of revolutionary militants.
Those who joined the Left Opposition made an agonizing choice, breaking with the bonds of comradeship and spurning the prestige of the leadership of the world’s only workers’ state. They endured ostracism and rejection. In the depths of the Depression, their small organizations made up almost entirely of manual workers, often unemployed, were frequently penurious both collectively and individually–Palmer describes how militants were forced to negotiate with landlords to pay organizational expenses with their own rent money. They faced employer blacklists and state repression along with other revolutionaries, but with less protection from strong organizations and without the hope of any place of refuge on earth. They also faced Stalinist opposition beginning with criminalizing slander and extending to murderous violence. In a global echo of the Soviet witch-hunt, the GPU campaign to destroy Trotsky’s movement claimed the lives of several organizers of the nascent Fourth International, and others were swallowed up, along with their former allies in POUM, in the repression of the revolutionary left in Spain. When Cannon travelled to Europe in preparation for the founding conference of the FI, he carried a gun.
As discussed above, this campaign continued during the Second World War, with Stalinists persecuting their rivals even in the fascist prisons and concentration camps and the partisan strongholds. In a 1963 manifesto accompanying the reunification of two strands of the splintered movement, the leaders of the Fourth International wrote that “In all history no radical political movement has suffered such persecution or received so little help from sources outside its own ranks as the Trotskyist movement. That the pioneers could hang on at all is monumental testimony to the tenacity of the human will.” It is difficult to disagree.
What enabled even a small core of militants to “hang on” through this extraordinary adversity was the conviction that it had fallen to them to defend the program of Marxism. And indeed they defended more consistently than any other tendency such fundamental principles as internationalism, socialist democracy, and working-class independence, as well as some of the crucial political gains of the early Comintern–most importantly the United Front. That their ideas and practice also had numerous flaws, reinforced in many cases by the effects of isolation, should not be allowed to obscure these accomplishments. Palmer’s work is an admirable contribution to refuting the all-too-common dismissal of this movement and restoring its adherents to their legitimate place in the history of those who have struggled for the emancipation of humanity.
This article was first published on Cosmonaut.
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