Rereading Rosmer

The following article is based on a paper presented at the London Historical Materialism conference in November, 2014. The forthcoming Haymarket Books edition of Lenin's Moscow by Alfred Rosmer includes a new introduction by Ian Birchall.

The name Alfred Rosmer is scarcely known today.1 Born in 1877 in the United States, he became a journalist on La vie ouvrière, a fortnightly magazine launched by Pierre Monatte in 1909, and which represented the very best of the revolutionary syndicalist tradition.2 An antiwar activist from the first day of the war, he helped to organize French participation in the Zimmerwald conference in 1915. He was called up into the army, but for reasons of age and health was not involved in combat. After the war he became involved in the activity that would lead to the foundation of the French Communist Party (PCF). After attending the Second Congress of the Comintern he stayed in Moscow for seventeen months, organizing the Red International of Labor Unions.3 He was expelled from the PCF in 1924 as part of the Zinovievite “Bolshevization,” and because he opposed the ultraleft line on the British Labor government. He was for some time a Trotskyist but broke with Trotsky over the latter’s support for the get-rich-quick activities of Raymond Molinier. He remained an intransigent internationalist until his death in 1964. In 1960, he signed the Manifesto of 121, giving support to those who refused to fight in Algeria and who gave material aid to the National Liberation Front. He is best known to English language readers for his book Lenin’s Moscow.4 

The first volume of Le mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre was published in 1936. Trotsky, who had been involved in many of the events described, wrote, “Every serious proletarian revolutionary ought to read—more exactly, to study—Rosmer’s book. . . . Every revolutionary organization ought to provide its propagandists with this book in order to arm them with facts and invaluable arguments.”5 The book covered the origins of the war and the development of opposition up to Zimmerwald. Rosmer had largely completed the second volume in 1939 when he left for a visit to North America, including some time with Trotsky in Mexico just before his assassination. Rosmer did not return to France until the Liberation; meanwhile the Gestapo, who doubtless knew he had once been prominent in the Communist International, had removed all his documentation and burned it. Much of the material was irreplaceable.6 Rosmer turned his attention to more important matters (notably finding French publishers for Trotsky’s works). However, he continued to research the First World War, and in 1959 the second volume appeared, taking the story up to the end of 1916. He was working on a third volume, which would have covered the 1917 mutinies and the Russian Revolution, at the time of his death. Only a few extracts have appeared in English.7

Today we are inundated with books about the First World War. Much relevant documentation has only become available relatively recently; thus the 1917 mutinies remain a topic of historical controversy.8 So what is the particular interest of a work that is nearly eighty years old? Le mouvement ouvrier is a substantial work—588 pages in the first volume and 252 in the second. Its structure is sometimes tortuous and difficult to follow, with polemics and book reviews inserted into the narrative. This is not history as it is written in the universities—Rosmer never set foot in a university, and it doesn’t seem to have done him the slightest harm. This is not just activist history, but participant history. Rosmer was actively involved in antiwar activity. 

In the spring of 1915, Rosmer was involved in one of the first public actions against the war. The metalworkers’ union had decided to bring out a special issue of its newspaper for May Day. Government censorship strictly controlled any published material hostile to the war. Rosmer helped to prepare an issue with articles critical of the war, including a piece by himself about the strikes on the Clyde in February 1915, of which French workers knew nothing. The proofs were submitted to the censors, who demanded the removal of the offending articles. A few papers were run off with the appropriate blank spaces, and a large number with the full version. They were then carefully packed up into packets, with the censored papers at the top and the rest underneath, and put into the post. Some 17,000 papers were distributed to members of the metalworkers’ union and to former subscribers to La vie ouvrière.9

Rosmer was in close touch with other activists—he regularly had lunch with Trotsky.10 But his personal memories are carefully intertwined with a more general narrative that covers the whole history of the war; thus the actions of an individual are placed in context, while at the same time the account of individual experience makes the general narrative more concrete. The very structure of the work invites us to consider the effectiveness and significance of individual action in a global conjuncture. 

The book contains a vast amount of detail, and much of it may be of interest primarily to specialist historians of the French labor movement. Naturally Rosmer’s main interest is the French movement, and much of the book is devoted to it. He gives detailed accounts of various congresses. But Rosmer knew several languages; he was described by Lenin as “a man who knows how to keep his mouth shut in several languages,”11 and had reported extensively on the international movement for La vie ouvrière, so he includes much material on the movement in Germany, England, and Italy. He reproduces a letter from the remarkable Serbian socialist Dušan Popović, who despite his opposition to Austro-Hungarian oppression of Serbia was against the war because it had become an imperialist war.12 He also provides much detail on the Russian émigré movement in Paris.

Rosmer had been one of the first in the syndicalist movement to defend women’s rights,13 and he reported on the growing involvement of women in the antiwar movement, notably such figures as Hélène Brion, who, after initially supporting the war, admitted that it had been the greatest mistake of her life,14 and Louise Saumoneau, who was arrested for her antiwar activity. Among women radicalized by antiwar activity was Marguerite Thévenet, who was to become Rosmer’s companion for more than forty years. Despite the important role she played in the early years of the French Communist Party, Rosmer does not mention her in his work. There is a bizarre exception to this in volume 2 of Le mouvement ouvrier. On page 40, there is an account of a group of antiwar women. In the index, Thévenet is named with a reference to page 40, but her name does not appear in the text.15 One can only speculate as to whether she was originally named and the name was withdrawn at the last minute, after the index had been compiled. Thévenet was known as “discreet Marguerite”16—her discretion derived not only from modesty but also from her activity as a people-smuggler.

Rosmer’s documentation draws on literature that had been circulated clandestinely or illegally,17 and also on private letters from activists. His work is therefore an important primary source on the activities of the antiwar movement. He also documents extensively the pro-war position, though as he points out it was not necessary to do so in so much detail because it was continually put forward in the mainstream media. And he repeatedly takes sideswipes at pro-war journalists, the now long-forgotten Littlejohns and Hitchenses of their day, many of whom, he notes, were able bodied but preferred to fight the war in a newspaper office rather than in the trenches. 

Rosmer’s primary concern is the growth and development of the antiwar movement. He in no way underestimates the scale of the defeat suffered in August 1914. But he shows that pockets of resistance began to emerge almost immediately. As he shows with many detailed illustrations, this was not a simple process; individuals and groups often went through several stages of opposition and held contradictory positions. But what emerges as a clear theme is that to grow, the opposition needed not only an understanding of the real situation, nationally and internationally (when, for example, casualty figures were concealed),18 but also confidence. Individuals might oppose the war inside their skulls, but if they knew there were others who opposed the war, they were more likely to be publicly active. In this respect Rosmer saw Zimmerwald as a key turning point. Despite press lies and censorship, Zimmerwald made people aware that there was organized opposition to the war and that it existed internationally.

I want, therefore, to look briefly at just two themes in the book. First, the explanation of the 1914 collapse. And second, the approach adopted by Rosmer in presenting the history of the working-class movement. 

Why did opposition to the war collapse so rapidly within a few days in the summer of 1914? Michael Gove assures us that the workers who went to fight “were not dupes.”19 Eric Hobsbawm tells us that workers flocked to the trenches with “spontaneous zeal.”20 More generally, it is argued that when it comes to the crunch, national identity will always override class-based internationalism.

Rosmer has a more subtle explanation. He notes that in the weeks preceding the outbreak of war, people had been alternately threatened with war and told there was a hope for peace.

The anxious populations were systematically tossed between war imposed by the enemy and peace which had been finally preserved. In a single day it was war, then peace, then war again. All that interrupted with emergencies, rumors, denials. Already in ordinary times the power of the press over opinion is considerable. In such times of anxiety it takes over completely. After a week of such battering, the strongest heads can take no more; the state of nervous tension is such that people ask for nothing but a way out. There must be a way out. Peace, certainly, would be welcomed with joy, but even war is better than this maddening uncertainty.21

But while Rosmer shows that there was genuine confusion and even enthusiasm for the war among working people, the role of direct intimidation should not be underestimated. Central to this, and exercising a huge impact, was the murder of Jean Jaurès. Jaurès was perhaps the best-known working-class leader in France, and he was clearly identified with the cause of peace. On July 31, 1914, he met a member of the government who asked him what the Socialist Party would do if the moves toward war continued. When he replied that they would continue to campaign against the war he was told: “You wouldn’t dare do that; you would be killed on the next street corner.” Two hours later he was shot dead.22

The actual bullet may have been fired by a right-wing maverick, but it was in a climate created by the government. War minister Adolphe Messimy warned: “Give me the guillotine and I guarantee victory. . . . These people shouldn’t imagine that they will simply be sent to prison. They must know that we shall send them to the front line; and if they won’t go, well, they’ll be shot from in front and behind. Then we shall be rid of them.”23

In addition, there was the Carnet B, a list of some 3,000 antimilitarist activists including many of the top leaders of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), which had a longstanding antimilitarist policy. It was widely believed that in the event of war, those named would be rounded up—many leading trade unionists were sleeping away from home. So when it was intimated that the Carnet B would not be applied, it was a clear signal to the trade-union leaders that the government would be prepared to cooperate with them if they dropped their opposition to the war.24 

Added to this was the fact that the labor movement had no credible strategy for what to do in the event of war being declared. While the labor leaders might lobby vigorously for peace, they had no plausible sanctions if their lobbying failed. Rosmer drew on a pamphlet by Georges Dumoulin, Les syndicalistes français et la guerre (The French Syndicalists and the War), which he published in full as an appendix to volume 1,25 although he noted that he did not endorse all Dumoulin’s judgments.26 Dumoulin, a miner, was a CGT leader who had been jailed for antimilitarism. He served at the front during the war. His pamphlet, written in 1918, described the degeneration of the CGT in the years before the war: “An ignorant proletariat which cannot read, doesn’t want to read, or reads filth. Militants who play cards endlessly with their comrades in bars. In Paris, a gang of adventurers hanging around the Labour Exchange buying drinks for the fulltime officials.”27

And, as pointed out, the CGT had no strategy for the event of war. The CGT had just 300,000 members. Instructions to members were that in the event of war, they should report to their local labor exchange (the local union headquarters). But as Dumoulin inquired: “Which workers? The 300,000 [CGT members]? Or all workers, peasants, civil servants, office workers? How many are able to go to their labour exchange? And how many labour exchanges are there to receive them?”28

As a syndicalist, Rosmer found himself midway between Marxism and anarchism, and as a political journalist he was well-placed to observe all currents of the Left. His book covers socialists, syndicalists, and anarchists, and shows that the excuses and justifications produced for support for the war were remarkably similar right across the political spectrum. Thus he notes that as early as 1905 the anarchist Peter Kropotkin had declared that in the event of a war between France and Germany, he would take arms to defend French democracy against German militarism. Rosmer thus undermines the myth that the collapse of 1914 was particularly a problem of the Second International—and indeed of that peculiar entity “Second International Marxism,” an invention of philosophers who would like to imagine that philosophy has any impact on events.29 

Two themes emerge from Rosmer’s survey of pro-war literature. One is the question of imperialism. In discussions of the impending war before 1914, it had been commonplace to refer to imperialism and to conflict between rival imperialisms as the cause of war. What became clear in 1914 was that political explanation and education had been inadequate, and that many people had not understood the argument. As Dumoulin pointed out, “We allowed the persistence of the erroneous belief that imperialism exists only in countries governed by an emperor. In the minds of those whom we kept in ignorance, a republic is not imperialist, democratic countries are not imperialist. In fact imperialism is the stage of development reached by capitalism in all countries.”30 The fact that France’s ally, the Russian tsar, was also an emperor was ignored. 

The second theme, probably much more important, was the invocation of the French revolutionary tradition. Rosmer provides a number of examples, from both socialists and syndicalists, of appeals to the legacy of 1789 and contrasts with the alleged militarism of Germany. The syndicalist daily paper told its readers, “Against . . . German militarism, we must save France’s democratic and revolutionary tradition.”31 Prime Minister Viviani told the National Assembly that “France was the daughter of the seething Revolution,” and was applauded by the Socialist deputies.32 Although Rosmer does not develop the argument, he provides extensive evidence to show the double nature of the revolutionary tradition, and the way in which the republican-nationalist interpretation of the revolutionary tradition can be deployed in a reactionary way—something that would continue with the notion of France’s “civilizing mission” in its colonies, and more recently in the deployment of laïcité in support of Islamophobia.

Rosmer can be vitriolic and devastating in his critique of the pro-war hypocrites, but in dealing with more interesting figures on the left he often shows great generosity and awareness of nuance. One interesting example is his treatment of Alphonse Merrheim. In 1911, Merrheim had written a series of articles describing the process that he predicted, all too correctly, would inevitably lead to a disastrous European war. He opposed the war from the start, even though the atmosphere on the leadership body of the CGT was such that he used to take two large dogs with him to meetings.33 He was one of the French delegates at Zimmerwald and continued to campaign against the war. But after the end of the war he moved to the right and found himself in sharp conflict with those, like Rosmer, who were working toward the founding of a Communist Party.34 But Rosmer never lapsed into the style of argument that claims if someone goes wrong it is because they were always defective. On the contrary, Rosmer continually pays tribute to Merrheim’s courage and perspicacity and insists that the Merrheim of 1919 was not the Merrheim of 1915.35

In his preface, Rosmer comments on his treatment of Merrheim and of Dumoulin (who, broken by his horrific experiences, became a Nazi collaborator during World War II): “But whatever may have been the subsequent attitude of these two militants, however heavy and fateful may have been the faults and errors they committed, it would not cross my mind to try to conceal or play down what was great and heroic in their conduct then.”36

Jaurès is more of a problem. Jaurès’s murder in 1914, on the eve of war, when he was fighting a last-ditch battle to prevent the disaster, appalled the entire Left. Yet as a result, the question remains open as to how Jaurès would have responded when war broke out. After all, Jaurès had been the author of a massively influential history of the French Revolution37 that argued that socialism should not be counterposed to the republican tradition, but rather seen as flowing out of it.38 It was scarcely surprising that various pro-war ideologues cited Jaurès in support of their position. When a new war cabinet was formed in August 1914, the syndicalist daily La bataille syndicaliste declared that Jaurès would have played a leading role in the new government.39 In the Socialist Party, supporters and opponents of the war both invoked Jaurès.40

Before the war, Rosmer, as a syndicalist, had been critical of Jaurès’s brand of socialism, writing that “with Jaurès, the most audacious statements are always wrapped up and drowned in a pompous rhetoric, which is often very beautiful.”41 But here he does not criticize Jaurès, doubtless feeling that there were other more obvious targets for his wrath. There are, however, some mild reservations that could serve as a basis for a more developed critique of Jaurès. Thus, Rosmer notes Jaurès’s support for the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France in 1904. “Jaurès, who was an optimist by nature, and also by will, as though he believed that will was capable of bending the rigour of the consequences inherent in the antagonisms of imperialisms, greeted the Entente Cordiale on the day it was agreed.”42

Secondly, he argues that Jaurès was wrong to accept the assurances of the French government on July 25, 1914, that it was doing all it could for peace. Rosmer thinks he may have been skeptical but hoped to catch the government out; however, the result of his position was to encourage the passivity of workers in the Socialist Party.43

Thirdly, he hints at the ambiguity of Jaurès’s role when he describes the bankruptcy of the Socialist Party parliamentary group after Jaurès death, and notes sardonically: “The sumptuous eloquence of Jaurès was no longer there to hide this wretchedness.”44 But in general, Rosmer leaves us with an unanswered question.

It is therefore particularly interesting to look at Rosmer’s view of the Russian socialists. He knew both Lenin and Trotsky personally, and had seen them in action notably at the Second, Third, and Fourth Congresses of the Communist International. The American historian Robert Wohl, who interviewed him at the very end of his life, recorded that “to the end he never gave up his belief in the Leninism of 1917–22, which in his view was corrupted but not called into question as a doctrine.”45

But it is important to ask what sort of Leninist Rosmer was. He had nothing in common with those for whom “Leninism” is a means of silencing their critics and ensuring permanent reelection to the leadership. Nor was he what may be called a teleological Leninist, that is, one who argues that since Lenin got it right in 1917, every tactical decision he took in the preceding fifteen years must be part of a causal sequence leading up to the October Revolution.

Thus Rosmer devotes a whole chapter to the activities of the Nashe Slovo group in Paris, with whom he had worked closely. This group46 actually produced a modest daily paper in Paris—just a single two-sided sheet—despite censorship and repression. Trotsky was expelled from France after the paper was accused of having incited a small mutiny among Russian troops in France who killed a colonel—in fact probably the work of an agent provocateur who was a bit too provocative.47 

The Nashe Slovo group included a number of individuals who went on to join the Bolsheviks and play a significant role in post-revolutionary Russia. While Trotsky is the best-known name, others involved included Lunacharsky, Ryazanov, Kollontai, and Radek.48

Now Lenin had some hard words to say about Nashe Slovo. But Rosmer finds no necessity to take sides.49 On the contrary, he reminds us that it is necessary to read Lenin in the right way; he has little sympathy with those who think they are Leninists because they imitate Lenin’s polemical style. As Rosmer points out, “To read Lenin’s writings profitably, you have to know how to read them. It is clear here that he is unfair and that he knows that he is being unfair; he is impatient to win socialists over to his point of view, and he bluntly abuses anyone who resists. That is his tactic, which in no way prevents him from stating on occasion his agreement with Nashe Slovo.”50

Rosmer devotes a whole chapter to a book circulating in France in the 1930s, apparently written by a Russian “red professor.” Here he demolishes the absurd Lenin cult, which argued that Lenin played a key role in organizing support for Zimmerwald in France. As Rosmer points out, Lenin was unknown in France and had absolutely no influence there.51 

Rosmer also points out, not to gloat but to establish the historical record, that at the outbreak of war the Paris Bolshevik group was split, and some of its members volunteered for the French army.52 He had no desire to maintain the Zinovievite myth of the Bolsheviks as a “centralised, military, iron-disciplined party.”53 

In particular, Rosmer rejected Lenin’s call for “revolutionary defeatism.” 

One of the divergences arose about “revolutionary defeatism”. . . . All the arguments given in favour of “revolutionary defeatism” are not equally cogent, and above all they do not all lead to the same conclusion. Inasmuch as they enable us to draw out exactly what Lenin’s thought was, it seems that he lays down as a principle that if one does not start from revolutionary defeatism, one will be fatally paralysed in action against war. You would be afraid to unleash strikes, mass demonstrations and the fraternisation of soldiers at the front because such actions could compromise the military situation of the country you belong to, and affect its chances of victory. But you can very well push such action to the maximum degree without adopting this starting point. . . . “Defeatism,” even if preceded by the epithet “revolutionary,” puts the stress on defeat when we should put it on revolution.54

He saw nothing there superior to the positions adopted by Liebknecht, “The main enemy is at home,” or by Welsh miners’ leader Noah Ablett, “We are not pro-German; we are the working class.” Rosmer points out that initially the slogan applied only to Russia, not to all nations involved in the war.55 

Rosmer also observes that Lenin’s hostility to the demand for “peace” could be explained in part by his particular situation:

In 1914 Lenin was living in a non-belligerent country. He had thus escaped the atmosphere of collapse which is prevalent in all countries at war. As is natural, his eyes turned first to Russia, where, precisely, the situation was less hopeless than anywhere else. The socialist deputies in the Duma had voted against the war credits. The Bolsheviks were already organising their clandestine activity. There was no sacred union, or at least only a minimum.56

Once again, Rosmer was concerned to show that Lenin was not a superhuman fount of wisdom, but rather a historically determined individual living in a specific concrete context.

There is much more in the book that replays study. Doubtless there are many points on which Rosmer can be corrected by later historians with greater access to archival material. But as a participant account by an antiwar activist, it remains of great value. Rosmer understood that the war was launched by capitalists who didn’t care how many workers died and that it was made possible by cowardly labor leaders who abandoned their most basic principles. Both species are still with us. 

  1. There is a full biography: Christian Gras, Alfred Rosmer (1877–1964) et le mouvement révolutionnaire international (Paris: Maspero, 1971). See also Ian Birchall, “Alfred Rosmer”; available at
  2. See Ian Birchall, “La Vie Ouvrière: A Beacon of Internationalism,” Socialist History 46. 
  3. On this see Reiner Tosstorff, Profintern: Die Rote Gewerkschaftsinternationale 1920–1937 (Paderborn: Schoeningh Ferdinand GmbH, 2004).
  4. Lenin’s Moscow (London: Pluto Press, 1971); second revised edition London 1987. There is also a 1973 Monthly Review edition titled Moscow Under Lenin. A new edition will be published by Haymarket Books in 2015. See also Revolutionary History 4 (2000), devoted to the writings of Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer. 
  5. Leon Trotsky, “An Honest Book” (March 21, 1936), in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1935–36 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), 284.
  6. Le mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre (hereafter MOPG), Vol. II (Paris: Editions Pierre Horay, 1953), 7.
  7. Chapters VII and IX, plus the Conclusion, together with Appendix XVI (Rosmer’s 1915 letter to subscribers to La vie ouvrière) were translated in Revolutionary History 4 (2000).
  8. See Guy Pedroncini, Les mutineries de 1917, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967), André Loez, 14–18, Les refus de la guerre: une histoire des mutin (Paris: Gallimard, 2010).
  9. MOPG I, 254–58.
  10. MOPG I, 247–48.
  11. According to Roger Hagnauer (La révolution prolétarienne, May 1964). Rosmer’s name does not appear in the index to Lenin’s Collected Works.
  12. MOPG I, 231–33. English translation in Revolutionary History 3 (2003).
  13. See his article in Revolutionary History 4 (2000) in defense of Madame Couriau, who took a job in the printing industry despite union opposition.
  14. MOPG II, 180.
  15. MOPG II, 247.
  16. See obituary by Maurice Chambelland in La révolution prolétarienne, February 1962.
  17. MOPG II, 19.
  18. MOPG II, 38–39.
  19. Tim Shipman, “Michael Gove blasts ‘Blackadder myths’ about the First World War spread by television sit-coms and left-wing academics,” Daily Mail, January 2, 2014.
  20. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire (London: Abacus, 1987), 108–09.
  21. MOPG I, 86.
  22. MOPG I, 91–92.
  23. MOPG I, 109.
  24. MOPG I, 156–59.
  25. MOPG I, 523–42.
  26. MOPG I, 523.
  27. MOPG I, 527.
  28. MOPG I, 534.
  29. E.g., the favorable citation of Walter Benjamin in Alex Callinicos, Social Theory (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 204.
  30. MOPG I, 533.
  31. MOPG I, 118.
  32. MOPG I, 206.
  33. MOPG I, 182.
  34. For a biography see Nicholas Papayanis, Alphonse Merrheim: The Emergence of Reformism in Revolutionary Syndicalism (Dordrecht, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1985).
  35. MOPG II, 10.
  36. MOPG I, 10–11.
  37. Jean Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, 1789–1900 (Paris: Joues Rouff, 1900-08).
  38. For a left critique of Jaurès, see Jean-Pierre Hirou, Parti socialiste ou CGT? (1905–1914), de la concurrence révolutionnaire à l’union sacrée (La Bussière: Acratie, 1995).
  39. MOPG, 129.
  40. MOPG I, 279–82.
  41. Alfred Rosmer, “Le Congrès socialiste de Brest,” VO, April 5, 1913, 385-405.
  42. MOPG I, 57.
  43. MOPG I, 90.
  44. MOPG I, 327.
  45. Robert Wohl, French Communism in the Making 1914–1924 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1966), 427.
  46. In fact because of government bans the paper had three names, Golos, Nashe Slovo, and Natchalo.
  47. MOPG I, 124–26.
  48. MOPG I, 246.
  49. For a fascinating analysis of the differences between Lenin and Trotsky, see Brian Pearce, “Lenin and Trotsky on Pacifism and Defeatism”, Labour Review, Spring 1961; available at I have been told that this article led to Pearce’s departure from the Socialist Labour League, since Gerry Healy could not tolerate the argument that Lenin and Trotsky had disagreed.
  50. MOPG I, 249.
  51. MOPG I 461.
  52. MOPG II 102.
  53. Zinoviev, speech to Second Congress of Communist International, July 23, 1920;
  54. MOPG, 477–78.
  55. MOPG II, 104.
  56. MOPG I, 474.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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