The Revolutionary Passion of Those Who Suffer Most
By Atlee McFellin. As published by Punto Rojo Magazine May 30th, 2022.
“In general, nowhere does a longing for a transformation of the existing state of things arise more strongly than when one sees the surface looking so drearily flat and even, and yet knows what a commotion and ferment is taking place in the depths of mankind.”
Most people know who Karl Marx was, at least to one extent or another. Remarkably and, yet also unsurprisingly, it’s Jenny Westphalen (aka Jenny Marx) whose understanding of the world we desperately need right now. The sensuous materialism she briefly expressed in her letters to husband Karl illuminates a path of hopeful imminent communal revolution.
Roughly a year after they married and less than a month after the birth of their first child, Karl unfortunately left Jenny for Paris to cosplay as revolutionary less than three years after completing his doctoral dissertation in philosophy. Awaiting him was a meagerly paying job as an agitational socialist journalist. In June of 1844, less than a month after he left, she wrote to him that her “heart is yearning” and for even just “a few words to tell me that you are well and are longing for me a little.”
Jenny’s materialism emerged from the immediately personal, which included interactions with her brother Edgar. Jenny wrote about Edgar as only a sister would do, while also perhaps trying to send Karl a message, wishing he’d read between the lines. She wanted him to “leave the revolution.” Today, with growing feminist calls to abolish the family unit itself, what they both really needed was a commune of care to sustain themselves in the movement.
Jenny seemed to know this, pointing to “new proof that a political revolution is impossible in Germany, whereas all the seeds of a social revolution are present.” As such, she wrote that Edgar “rejoices over the approaching revolutions and the overthrow of all existing conditions, instead of beginning by revolutionising his own conditions.” From that personal relationship, her next sentence, the quote above, transitions to a similarly sensuous societal analysis, one “longing for a transformation” that emerges from an unseen “commotion and ferment” that’s “taking place in the depths of mankind.” This connection, from the personal to the societal, from the surface to the depths, quite possibly operates at the quantum level, as an entanglement beyond space and time. We can feel the suffering and passion for revolution all around us.
Jenny wrote about her brother again three paragraphs later, as someone “who makes use of all the great signs of the times, and all the sufferings of society, in order to cover up and whitewash his own worthlessness.” In her harsh criticism, Jenny’s sensuous materialism was, at the same time, a societal analysis looking to “all of the sufferings.” Two months later, in another letter, she called Karl a “dear, good, sweet, little wild boar,” then concluded with “Adieu, heart of my heart.” This sensuous materialism was one of love, passion, and vulnerability.
As for her relationship with Karl himself, well, a 2011 biography made her seem “less an autonomous entity than a reflection of light cast by Marx.” She would go on to have six more children with him and, like his theoretical relationship to social reproduction, he wasn’t very involved in the domestic labor. Despite the first two sentences of the rough draft of The Communist Manifesto being written in Jenny’s handwriting, their relationship was not based on her helping “foment the coming revolution but to ‘humanize’ her husband when he lost himself in theoretical abstraction.” So let’s try to help turn this relationship on its head, like Marx did to Hegel, but now Jenny to Karl, including reconciling the social with the political.
As such, this first article attempts to re-center Marxism around the felt experience of suffering. The second article expands this into a more sensuous, suffering, and passionate materialism, including through the lens of quantum mechanics. The third and final article continues the integration of quantum entanglement into this more sensuous, suffering, and passionate materialism toward hopeful imminent communal revolution within a universe inherently striving for life to overcome.
The Questionable Origins of Dialectical Materialism
In his 1996 book, Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism, James D. White argued that after his death in 1883, Frederick Engels, Karl Kautsky, and Georg Plekhanov didn’t want to present Marxism in its “incomplete and fragmentary form.” On the contrary, they made sure it had “every appearance of a finished and all-embracing system.” Engels had actually regarded Marx’s years of research and unpublished writings on Indigenous societies and communes “to be an unnecessary diversion” and wanted to “throw them on the fire.”
What they presented instead, combined with what had actually been published to date, stressed an economic base, ideological superstructure, labor, and capitalism as the inexorable development of productive forces supposedly necessary for communism. Over the last roughly ten years of his life though, Marx would realize the error in some of these formulations, at least regarding the commune and the direct transition to communism through revolution. Looking to a letter Engels wrote to August Bebel in 1883, White asserted that “Engels attached more importance to publication than to finding solutions to problems and was not averse to cutting theoretical corners.”
Marx’s most known published works made it seem as though he believed all of humanity had to eventually be subsumed by capitalist expansion as a requirement for communism itself. We were more or less passive participants in what appeared to be fixed “laws,” a trans-historical process of humans becoming more “advanced” via labor over prehistoric and historical time.
Following the publication of Capital in Russian, a debate ensued in a publication called Otechestvennye zapiski. Marx wrote a reply, arguing that he did not believe in “a historico-philosophical theory of the universal path every people is fated to tread.” He never sent his reply though. It was only published years after his death and without much fanfare.
His rejection of this supposed “universal path” fit with the 1881 letter he sent to Vera Zasulich regarding the role of the commune in the direct transition to communism through revolution. Similarly, it fits with a foreword to an 1882 version of The Communist Manifesto published in Russia as well. But Capital, his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, The Communist Manifesto, etc. all seemed to the contrary.
In 1882, Marx had actually framed capitalism as something that must be avoided altogether. He wrote that “if Russia continues along the path it has followed since 1861, it will miss the finest chance that history has ever offered to a nation, only to undergo all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist system.” This was because, as he articulated to Zasulich, “the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia.” However, “in order that it might function as such,” Marx continued, “the harmful influences assailing it on all sides must first be eliminated, and it must then be assured the normal conditions for spontaneous development.”
“What impressed Marx,” according to White, “was not so much the fact that the communal form of organization was so widespread, but that it was so resilient.” He also argued that “Marx adopted the point of view that the agrarian commune could survive all economic development; it was only destroyed by the deliberate application of force.” Sound familiar, perhaps like the American Holocaust?
We in the decaying settler colony known as the USA must similarly get past our delusions of progress and our nightmarish American Dream, recognizing the necessity for an immediate shift to communal ways of Indigenous life that proliferated before genocidal European “Christians” slaughtered for Lebensraum in the name of their authoritarian God. This shift would amount to what Jenny Marx referred to as a “social revolution,” which would form the foundation for its political corollary.
“The solution,” as White put it of Karl Marx, “was to prevent the sovereign power confronting the communes directly.” Quoting Marx, this meant the formation of “an assembly chosen by the communes themselves.” This differing approach has profound implications for us today, including to inform the need for revolutionary parties.
For example, in “A Lesson in Natural Law,” Marcella Gilbert, of Dakota/Lakota lineage and an Oceti Sakowin Water Protector, recounted the spirit that emerged in the heart of the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline. This was in her contribution to a collection of essays published in book form in 2019 called Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement. “As groups of people and families worked together for the good of the camp community,” she wrote, “the decolonization of daily lives became evident.” This was a social revolution in practice.
Gilbert recounted how “people immediately began to resurrect our original systems of governance” which meant that “each tribal band was instructed to select one individual as a representative to the Council of Seven Fires.” The council would meet “almost every day to discuss strategy, camp conduct, and peaceful action based on discipline.” This leadership council at Standing Rock became that “assembly,” similar to a party on the path of political revolution in attempting to keep the sovereign away.
We need this sort of directly democratic “maroon and Indigenous communalism” everywhere, preparing for the possibility that fascists orchestrate a quasi-constitutional coup. We must be ready with the capacity for general strikes to overthrow capitalism and the settler state. Despite the similarity between late Marx, Standing Rock, and what Clara Zetkin referred to as a “Soviet Congress for a Soviet Germany” against Nazi fascism though, such efforts for dual power remain largely absent today.
Instead of Marx on the commune and the direct transition to communism through social and political revolution, Engels, Kautsky, and Plekhanov put forward a mechanistic reductionism many have found fundamentally lacking. This reductionism also led to the failures of the Italian and German socialist and communist parties against fascism in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Vulgar Marxism and the Supposedly Socialist State
Both Wilhelm Reich in 1933 and Walter Benjamin in 1940 would write on “vulgar Marxism” with regard to the role it played in the left’s failures against Nazi fascism. Their respective analyzes remain fundamentally erased, likely because examining them shows the extent to which the contemporary left remains fundamentally more conservative. In order to situate Reich and Benjamin within our more contemporary context, we start with Democratic Socialists of America founder Michael Harrington.
In his final book, published in 1989 and called Socialism: Past and Future, Harrington criticized social democracy as a strategy against Nazi fascism, much like he had already done in 1976. “Socialism was now the gradual self-socialization of a capitalist democracy under the control of the parliament,” he wrote. “The state, which had been the chosen instrument of bourgeois domination, was now the means of socialist transformation.” This was linked to what he referred to as “The Kautskyan thesis of the inexorable evolution of capitalism into socialism.”
In his 1976 book, The Twilight of Capitalism, he actually discussed all this in a chapter called “Bourgeois ‘Socialism.’” He rejected Kautsky’s “state socialism,” arguing against the idea that “government intervention into a capitalist economy” could be used, therein quoting Kautsky himself, “to put an end to the class struggle between proletarian and bourgeois and to introduce ‘social peace’ by ‘abolishing social classes’ and proposes a strong monarchistic state which stands above and independent of the classes.”
Harrington rejected this approach and explicitly sided with Franz Neumann’s analysis, though never realized that Neumann himself changed his mind after the war. As discussed before, Neumann realized that revolution through the united front with the communists in a “Soviet Congress for a Soviet Germany” had been necessary. At the end of Harrington’s last book, he actually advocated the proliferation of “little republics” modeled on the Paris Commune of 1871 and Antonio Gramsci on a cross-class “historic bloc” instead, which is closer to that united front than the electoral path to socialism. Unfortunately, Harrington also naively looked to Bernstein on the “new middle class.”
But at least this allows us a path to decolonize Harrington’s politics, seeking communal revolution to abolish settler society instead. Remarkably, it’s the colonialist form of social democracy as practiced against the Nazis that has been taken up by those who dominate the DSA today. As explored in a previous article, this electoral path to socialism actually rests on its own “Big Lie,” an American Exceptionalist covenant with the genocidal nightmare of settler LIFE. From the DSA to the Sunrise Movement and beyond, they’re pushing for that same “strong monarchistic state” yet again.
This is precisely why Benjamin’s analysis is so important. What he regarded as delusional social democratic “progress” was directly connected to the “strong monarchistic state” vulgarity. “This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor,” he wrote, “bypasses the question of how its products might benefit the workers while still not being at their disposal.” It fundamentally rested on a pseudo-revolution permanently delayed where workers never actually gained control of anything. Instead, social democracy, “recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature,” like pushing for a Green New Deal to save settler LIFE and the climate colonialism it inherently requires.
Depending on this “mastery,” in Benjamin’s words, “corrupted the German working class” more than anything else. Supposedly “moving with the current” of “technological developments” led “to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement,” like the enduring lunacy of so-called “green jobs.” Blinded by these illusions, they ignored “the retrogression of society” that tended toward Nazi fascism, failing to build a systemic alternative for revolution in time.
This illusion is what some refer to today as Bright Green Lies, expressed in the belief that “technology and design can render industrial civilization sustainable.” In reality, this is nothing more than a genocidal fetish that masks the climate colonialism at the core of middle class settler LIFE. It is what Max Aji referred to in his 2021 book, A People’s Green New Deal, as “eco-nationalism” and “Green Social Control” through “the violent hand of the state.”
As such, the supposed necessity of Middle Class Joe declaring a “climate emergency,” fighting the climate crisis like its a “world war,” and increasingly centralizing power in the Executive Branch, like today’s Congressional Progressive Caucus advocates, is what Walter Benjamin referred to as “the technocratic features later encountered in fascism.” This is also what sociologist William I. Robinson called The Global Police State in his 2020 book by that title. Importantly, he was not necessarily referring to a single political entity, nor singularly “police and military repression, authoritarian government, the suppression of civil liberties and human rights.” It is, more generally, “the emerging character of the global economy and society as a repressive totality whose logic is as much economic and cultural as it is political.”
Perhaps the best example of the authoritarian tendencies lurking behind contemporary “green social democracy” came from Stephen Pacala of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. He attempted to shape the bounds of the expressible with regard to an equitable transition by 2035 and 2050, saying: “We risk a yellow vest movement in this country that could derail the transition.” In his 1991 book, Noam Chomsky criticized the framework Pacala expressed, referring to “liberal democracy” or “progressive democracy” as a system managed by supposed professionals meant to protect the republic from the rest of us, i.e. the “bewildered herd.”
France’s Yellow Vest movement, on the contrary, established systems of democratic assemblies across the country as its robust decision-making system. This helped bridge the left-right divide, while eliminating the influence of fascists. It would seem that this sort of real democracy is antithetical to dying settler middle classes in those “National Academies” who seek centralized power to save the rotten ground of their bourgeois social system in the climate breakdown though. This is the very politics Thomas Malthus advocated, while it remains to be seen if any of our so-called environmental leaders will come out from beyond the genocidal bounds of settler LIFE.
To Wilhelm Reich, vulgar Marxism was a problem in both the social democratic and communist parties, as his own analysis was a bit broader than Benjamin’s. To start, Reich believed that the vulgar Marxists argued a “completely separate economic existence from social existence as a whole, and states that man’s ‘ideology’ and ‘consciousness’ are solely and directly determined by his economic existence.” Instead, like Ernest Becker, Erich Fromm, and others, Reich utilized psychoanalysis to help explain “the subjective factor.”
Vulgar Marxists, according to him, also reject “facts such as ‘drive,’ ‘need,’ or ‘inner process,’ as being ‘idealistic.’” To put it another way, he believed these aspects of our existence are material in terms of a broader affect, one involving our feelings and emotions. According to Reich, when it comes to being human, we must understand “how he tries to cope with his existence” affectively. In its absence, vulgar Marxists were thus “continually forced,” as a result of the overly simplistic framework, “to employ practical psychology in political practice.”
Instead, Reich looked to a quote from Marx in Theory of Surplus Value for guidance, that “all conditions affect and more or less modify all of the functions and activities of man-the subject of production & the creator of material wealth, of commodities.” As we will examine in the next sections, Reich didn’t take this analysis of “affect” far enough. Vulgarity ultimately rested upon a fundamental neglect of the felt experience of suffering and threat.
For perhaps the most explicit example, Lenin wrote that in Engels’ 1845 book on The Condition of the Working-Class in England, he “was the first to say that the proletariat is not only a suffering class; that it is, in fact, the disgraceful economic condition of the proletariat that drives it irresistibly forward and compels it to fight for its ultimate emancipation.” Lenin was more or less correct, but neither he nor Engels ever actually raised that analysis to the level of any theoretical significance. As we will see shortly, Marx made similar remarks earlier, but rendered himself vulgar for exactly the same reason.
Practically speaking, we saw this in their overemphasis on what Martin Buber referred to in his 1946 book as the “political principle” of the centralized party as necessary “battle organ of revolution,” while simultaneously neglecting what he referred to as the “social principle.” This is what some refer to today as “social reproduction” and was inline with Jenny Marx. For Buber, this was the necessity of communal structures to sustain revolutionary movements, and whose relative autonomy must always be a matter at least open for debate.
Back in 1991, Chomsky equated “liberal democratic theory and Marxism-Leninism,” specifically the idea that this very different set of professional-managers were a “vanguard of revolutionary intellectuals” who would use “popular revolutions as the force that brings them to state power.” Today, we can unfortunately see this in the otherwise imperative politics of Andreas Malm and the “ecological war communism” of the Zetkin Collective. In contrast to the beliefs that Clara Zetkin took to her grave, that “Soviet Congress” is now supposedly impossible, while any other form of “dual power” is now “both delusional and criminal.” We shall see.
In the words of these professional-managerial leftists, “all we have to work with is the dreary bourgeois state,” which takes us right back to Walter Benjamin on the other side of that vulgarity. As Leon Trotsky wrote in his warnings to the communists in Germany for their struggle against the Nazis, “the vulgarizers of Marx, gravitating towards fatalism, observe nothing on the political arena save objective causes.” Importantly, for those of us in the decaying settler colony known as the USA, there is such widespread awareness of the ongoing threat of a quasi-constitutional fascist coup, the ladies on The View, a longstanding daytime talk show, have been sounding the alarm.
In what should also be a call to supposed revolutionaries of the middle class professional-managerial sort, one host said; “Wake Up America, because our national nightmare is not over.” Another host commented shortly after the Supreme Court’s draft Roe v. Wade decision was leaked that “I see fascism down the line here.” These calls have become deafening, yet vulgar leftists of one sort or another can’t bother to actually offer a meaningful alternative in a situation where revolution is the only way out.
To Reich, vulgar Marxists also included social democrats like Bernstein and Kautsky, the latter of which Yale historian Timothy Snyder referred to as “the leading Marxist theorist of his day.” Snyder argued that, like Hitler, Kautsky “insisted pedantically that people were animals.” Snyder argued more broadly that “opponents of capitalism, the socialists of the Second International, also embraced biological analogies” in mechanistic fashion. “They came to see the class struggle as ‘scientific,’ and man as one animal among many, instead of a specially creative being with a specifically human essence.”
The phrase “human essence” seems like inarticulate nonsense commensurate with Snyder’s own failing social democratic liberalism. As discussed earlier, it masks his own genocidal settler politics, which necessitates the ongoing erasure of countless Jewish people who experienced Nazi fascism first-hand and arrived at more revolutionary conclusions, like Franz Neumann. Despite this fact, Wilhelm Reich agreed that “Scientific Marxism degenerated to vulgar Marxism.” As we will explore in the next section and thereafter, by re-interpreting Marxism as a sensuous, suffering, and passionate materialism, we can delve more deeply into ourselves as a “creative being,” including in kinship with our non-human or other than human relatives as well.
As for social democratic politics against fascism, Reich argued that “The ‘socialist’ state is an invention of party bureaucrats,” like Benjamin on the social democrats’ “servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus.” The supposed validity of the state rested upon what Michael Harrington referred to as the “Kautskyan thesis,” which would also form the basis of white supremacist, settler colonial socialist views among countless vulgar Marxists thereafter.
In the words of Franz Neumann, the dominant Kautskyan wing of the German social democratic party “fully accepted colonial expansion as a boon for the working classes, expecting rising wages and a quickening of the natural life of capitalism, which would hasten the coming of socialism.” To summarize, Neumann pointed to “the leading party theorist” again: “Colonialism, for Hilferding, was the necessary outcome of capitalism.”
As for Bernstein, he wanted the social democrats to better target “the lower middle class,” and was supposedly opposed to “colonialist imperialism.” His vision of a universal “new middle class” still required the benefits of settler colonialism though and amounted to what Walter Benjamin referred to as delusional dependency on managed capitalist development, i.e. “progress” against Nazi fascism. For us today, the middle class is the ideological foundation of the genocidal nightmare we call the American Dream, a continuation of the struggle for Lebensraum or “living space” in the project for an “Aryan” nation that inspired Hitler in the first place.
This colonialist form of vulgar Marxism can be found in what was a book-length manuscript in 1845 co-authored by Marx and Engels. It had been intended for publication and is popularly known today as a book called The German Ideology. As a March 2022 article in Jacobin Magazine argued, this book “Is the High Point of Karl Marx’s Philosophical Thought.” In it, he and Engels argued that the “first premise” or “first historical act” of humanity was labor and that consciousness was developed through labor over time. This sounds innocent enough, except for the fact that this meant the development of the productive forces through that labor over prehistoric and historical time was supposedly necessary to overcome what they referred to as “herd-consciousness” and “sheep-like or tribal consciousness.”
If this vulgar Marxism from 1845 was correct though, i.e. if the development of the productive forces through capitalism was actually necessary for communism, then the settler colonial American Holocaust would thus be a “required” part of that process. This is, to put it mildly, highly vulgar and amounts to a Rudyard Kipling-esque “white man’s burden” Marxism.
This isn’t to suggest that Marx never changed his mind. In 1860, for instance, Marx wrote about John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry in favor of the broader abolitionist movement, saying that it was “the most momentous thing happening in the world today.” However, he never incorporated his updated views to the level of their supposed “dialectical materialism.”
In his 1878 book, Anti-Duhring, for example, Engels expresses the vulgarity clearly, exactly like Benjamin warned. “Freedom therefore consists in the control over ourselves and over external nature, a control founded on knowledge of natural necessity; it is therefore necessarily a product of historical development.” We can also see a glaring instance of this in Engels’ 1883 book called Dialectics of Nature, specifically a chapter titled “Part Played by Labour in Transition from Ape to Man.” Sadly, he still referred to “the lower savages” in a highly reductionist process. Just seven pages later though, he made an argument similar to Reich looking to Marx on affect to overcome vulgarity. “Everything affects and is affected by every other thing, and it is mostly because this manifold motion and interaction is forgotten that our natural scientists are prevented from gaining a clear insight into the simplest things.” As we will explore in subsequent sections, it takes a sensuous, suffering, and passionate materialism, understood though the lens of quantum mechanics, to reconcile what they did not.
By misleading people with the supposedly all-embracing system of “Marxism,” “scientific socialism,” and the “socialist state” on its inexorable path, even more was lost to conformism. Just as Jewish theorists like Reich, Fromm, and more sought to expand upon Marx’s analysis of class to understand the racial dimensions of Nazi fascism, the so-called orthodoxy that Engels, Kautsky, and Plekhanov constructed has been the basis for generations of repeated attempts, including up to the present. Marx himself cannot be counted on for an alternative, of course, because in many ways he was a willing accomplice. We can, however, identify what he lost in the transition to a reductionist political economy, reconnecting so-called “early” and “late” Marx through the power of Black abolitionist feminism.
Re-Centering Marxism on the Felt Experience of Suffering
James D. White’s 1996 book examined continuity within Marx’s thought beyond the supposedly irreconcilable “early” and “late.” However, White also commits a fundamental error on the very first page, arguing that the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 were “the first important document of Marx’s thought.” White does not make the connection back to Jenny’s letters and, as we will examine in the following sections and subsequent articles, misses the sensuous continuity with Karl’s 1841 dissertation, his subsequent first articulation of the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, those same 1844 manuscripts, as well as on the decline of the second French republic to dictatorship late 1851.
White is certainly not alone in neglecting the felt experience of suffering in Marx and Marxism, as it’s unclear if anyone has ever considered it this way. Yet it has always played a key role for exactly the reason Wilhelm Reich identified as part of “vulgar Marxism,” i.e. the necessity of utilizing “practical psychology” in an attempt to fill in cavernous theoretical gaps. To re-center Marx and Marxism beyond this substantial shortcoming, we start with Angela Davis, specifically her 1984 “Forward” in Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings.
Overall, Davis took the position that Zetkin rejected the importance of “subjective experiences” in favor of a view centered on the “objective interrelationship between racism and sexism” with regards to “the class struggle unfolding between monopoly capitalism and the working class.” Clearly, this is not entirely untrue, but Zetkin’s framework was actually much closer to what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at Princeton University argued in a 2017 book called How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.
“The Combahee women did not coin the phrase ‘intersectionality,’” Taylor wrote. But they “did articulate the analysis that animates the meaning of intersectionality, the idea that multiple oppressions reinforce each other to create new categories of suffering.” Taylor also wrote on their relatedness to Marxism in general. “They were not acting or writing against Marxism, but, in their own words, they looked to ‘extend’ Marxist analysis to incorporate an understanding of the oppression of Black women.” The CRC itself began as “an emotional support group” so these Black, working class, lesbian, socialists could have a space to learn from their respective experiences. On top of introducing us to terms like “identity politics” and “interlocking oppressions,” they actually did far more than “extend” a Marxist analysis.
Rather than base and superstructure, James D. White argued in favor of Marx’s original articulation of capitalist subsumption, based on a German Romantic philosopher named Friedrich Schelling. In its simplest form, think of something shaped like the letter “V.” At its two ends are objective, which would be the interconnections at a given time and place like Angela Davis asserted for Clara Zetkin. At the other end is subjective, as in one’s subjective experiences of those objective conditions. For Marx, the base of the triangle was the process of being subsumed by capitalism, which eventually meant being exploited as a wage laborer and, potentially, the “self-activity of the working class” on the collective path to revolution thereafter.
Italian communist theorist Mario Tronti was by far not alone when he asserted in Workers & Capital that Marx’s first insistence on the revolutionary potential of the proletariat was to be found in a January 1844 article with a paragraph-long sentence on the “class with radical chains.” Whereas Tronti included parts of both the beginning and end of this sentence, the actual foundation of this revolutionary potential is found in between, rooted in the fact that Marx viewed the working class as “a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering.”
Therefore, at least according to Marx’s first articulation, the base of the triangle would be “universal suffering” at the intersection of objective conditions and subjective experiences. Instead of singularly focusing on the exploitation of the working class as what can achieve this quality of being “universal,” Taylor on “categories of suffering,” i.e. what “animates the meaning of intersectionality,” would certainly seem highly aligned with Marx’s first articulation. Every system of oppression could then be thought of as intersecting at the base of that “V,” causes of felt suffering where objective and subjective meet.
In his first insistence on the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, Marx was specifically referring to workers in Germany, a country that “did not go through the intermediary stages of political emancipation at the same time as the modern nations,” referring to the overall lack of capitalist development as its “limitations.” However, when it came to those “limitations,” Marx wrote that “in reality it must feel and strive for as bringing emancipation from its real limitations.”
The proletariat “cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society” through the “dissolution” of capitalism. Writing to him months later, after the birth of their first child, this is like Jenny arguing that “political revolution” was not possible, “whereas all the seeds of a social revolution are present.” That side of Karl’s analysis was always lacking though.
Similarly and for the most part, Marx’s analysis of the felt experience of suffering was lost later that same year, including throughout nearly all of the 1844 manuscripts. Instead, he wrote on alienation and its possible transcendence only through the development of the productive forces via labor over prehistoric and historical time where, eventually, even human feelings would be sufficiently developed through capitalist private property as a precondition for communism.
Though the felt experience of suffering still made an appearance at various places, Marx never bothered to elevate it to any level of significance. This finds one of its most disappointing moments in a section called “The Power of Money.” Here he asks whether “man’s feelings, passions, etc.” are “truly ontological affirmations of essential being.” Unfortunately, one of his six conclusions is that this requires “developed industry i.e. through the medium of private property” for them to be “in its totality and in its humanity” as though the Indigenous, yet again, were somehow less human.
The last of his 1844 manuscripts was titled “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole.” Hegel’s “outstanding achievement,” as Marx put it, was his “dialectic of negativity as the moving and generating principle.” Pages later, Marx expanded upon his original assertion regarding the proletariat’s revolutionary potential, though makes no explicit connection and promptly abandons his own conclusion, rendering it a theoretical aberration to the commonly-known “Marxism” with its undercurrent of vulgarity.
“To be sensuous is to suffer,” he wrote, adding that “Man as an objective, sensuous being, is therefore a suffering being – and because he feels what he suffers, a passionate being,” referring to passion as “the essential force of man energetically bent on its object.” Marx otherwise lacked his own “moving and generating principle” like he admired so much in Hegel. This is despite the fact that the felt experience of suffering would constitute its own “dialectic of negativity.” These three sentences no doubt provide a different “moving and generating principle” with suffering as a negative experience, further animating intersectionality via passion.
This doesn’t mean Marx never referenced feelings, emotions, passion, or sensuousness again. It’s just that the more he delved into the realm of political economy, the less any of the rest of this saw the light of day. However, and perhaps where it matters most to us in this decaying settler colony today, we find glimmers of this sensuous materialism in his analysis of French society during its decline and fall from republic to dictatorship in December 1851.
Marx hoped there would be a revolution constituted by socialist clubs in a “proletarian commune” that orchestrated general strikes to bring seizure to the country as the republic fell. On this struggle, he wrote that “in this vortex of the movement, in this torment of historical unrest, in this dramatic ebb and flow of revolutionary passions, hopes, and disappointments, the different classes of French society had to count their epochs of development in weeks when they had previously counted them in half-centuries.” As such, while the settler state continues to degenerate through “semi-dictatorships” on the path to fascism, let us hope what Marx wrote will apply today here as well.
Toward a Dialectic of Suffering and Communal Revolution
In January 2022, Vox ran an article about “How trauma became the word of the decade.” Going back thirty years to her book, Trauma & Recovery, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Judith Herman outlined what she called “the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” Unfortunately, her overarching framework was constrained by liberal settler colonialist feminism. However, like what is elsewhere referred to as the “wisdom of trauma,” this dialectic can be reinterpreted in terms of what’s required for recovery beyond the pathological normalcy of settler LIFE, i.e. communal revolution encompassing both the social and political.
Herman articulates two ends of this dialectical spectrum, referring to each of them as part of the “ordinary response” to trauma. At the one end, traumatic experiences can catalyze an inherent desire or necessity “to banish them from consciousness,” what she otherwise refers to as “denial, repression, and dissociation,” offering an alternative way to understand Marx on alienation. At the other end of what she described as an internal “conflict,” traumatic experiences simultaneously necessitate the “will to proclaim them aloud.”
This is not singularly isolated to the immediately inter-personal, as Herman’s analysis is simultaneously oriented around much broader historical, social, and political contexts. Her assertion regarding the need for “a social context that affirms and protects the victims and that joins victim and witness in a common alliance,” for instance, is clearly essential. Without such systems of care, it can otherwise be difficult or impossible to “hold traumatic reality in consciousness,” which is perhaps the central precondition for recovery, whether in the way she framed it or not.
Otherwise, the fear of being engulfed by reliving the traumatic experiences may be too potentially overwhelming. It is a form of what she elsewhere referred to as a “constant threat of annihilation.” Therefore, without this alliance, we can be afflicted with a “spectrum of traumatic disorders.” But it’s important to understand that when Herman argues on the need for “political movements that give voice to the disempowered,” this is entirely within the bounds of what Clara Zetkin referred to as “the rotten ground of the bourgeois social system.”
Given that Marx’s 1844 manuscripts were first published in 1932, it is hard to believe that Zetkin had actually read them. She was unable to continue her writing project at the time, no doubt because she had been going blind while simultaneously being forced to contend with an accelerating threat of Nazi fascism. But her August 30th speech to the rest of the German parliament that same year echoed the above just before she concluded on her intent to preside over a “Soviet Congress for a Soviet Germany” after hoping to defeat the Nazis during what she viewed as their potential upcoming coup.
What she referred to as a “crisis of collapsing capitalism” amounted to “a hailstorm of the most terrible suffering.” The reformism of social democracy, what Franz Neumann referred to as its policy of lesser-evilism, “impugns the right of the masses to combat this suffering,” she argued. Going beyond Herman’s framework, this would then result in disorders.
Defensive preparations through the formation of community and workplace councils as dual power to sustain general strikes in the event of a possible quasi-constitutional fascist coup was required. She was also clear as to who must join this movement for revolution: “All those who feel themselves threatened, all those who suffer and all those who long for liberation must belong to the United Front against fascism and its representatives in the government.”
Going beyond Herman again, the united front as dual power was a revolutionary alliance meant to truly affirm and protect. Zetkin’s call to action for the united front implied an inherent relationship between threat and the felt experience of suffering. Therefore, similar to the Combahee River Collective, Zetkin called for people to join a united front constituted by soviets as their own version of an intersectional “emotional support group.”
In what’s called modern “affect theory,” the interrelationship Zetkin identified could be understood as a “political ontology of threat,” but this body of work has thus far not examined Marx and Marxism in this way either. Predating this modern body of academic work by more than forty years, we can turn to Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller, a Marxist and student of Georg Lukacs, who wrote a book in 1979 called A Theory of Feelings.
To her, feelings, emotions, and affects were interchangeable terms. Overall, she regarded them as essential to maintaining a “homeostasis” or “equilibrium.” In terms of “circumstances threatening” this “biological homeostasis,” she argued that “feeling signals precisely this threat,” informing “us that something is ‘out of order’ in our system.”
In her two page epilogue on “Human Suffering,” she distinguished this from pain in the way that the unconscious is differentiated from consciousness. “Pain is a negative feeling,” she argued, that it “develops precisely when action or refraining from action has been tied together to intention.” We understand the pain as somehow being directly caused by someone or something. “Suffering, on the other hand, is a kind of pain that falls on me completely from the outside.” She goes on to argue that it “does not signal ‘help yourself, help others,’ because suffering is a kind of pain that cannot be helped. Suffering can at most be suffered.”
At the end of the second page, she offers up the book’s conclusion. “To feel means to be involved in something,” she argued, which entails an inherent condition of vulnerability “Because never has danger been so great.” Unfortunately, this danger has only increased since then. For many, it is overwhelming. “Suffering must be converted into pain,” she continued, “in order for us to become involved in the cause of mankind.” This conversion of suffering into pain entails the signal to inform both its cause and means of abolition.
Heller goes on to write that “we can say that the more obfuscated the social relations in a given era, the more difficult it is to know what is dangerous and what is not.” This then means that “the more the individual feels himself threatened by social forces functioning independently of his selection and decision, the more frequent and general anxiety becomes.” Without identifying the origins of suffering, like Zetkin for a united front beyond social democracy, this “general anxiety” can lead to what Herman referred to as being engulfed in a “spectrum of traumatic disorders.” Zetkin thus calls it out, articulating the necessary path to revolution.
Though neither Marx nor Zetkin ever made the distinction between suffering and its conversion into pain, this dialectic is most certainly implied with their usage of the word suffering alone.
We can see this sensuous materialism in Poland-born Jewish revolutionary Abram Leon’s one and only book. He completed it in manuscript form before he was forced to flee Belgium and go underground as the Nazi military approached in May of 1940, only months before Walter Benjamin’s suicide. Leon believed that the Nazi horrors of Holocaust were bringing together the working classes of the world. In his words, “the greatest social explosion the world has ever seen is finally preparing the liberation of the most persecuted pariahs of our planet.”
Born in 1918, Leon got his start in Martin Buber’s Hashomir Hatzair socialist Zionist youth movement, but would leave the organization to join a Trotskyist union because he believed that pursuing the cause of a bourgeois Jewish republic, what we now call the State of Israel, would amount to a “boomerang against those who wield it.” Despite the world around him, Leon seemed like a fundamentally hopeful person. Rather than a bourgeois republic, he believed that the coming defeat of the Nazis would then subsequently lead to a revolution against capitalism, which he believed was necessary to finally rid the world of antisemitism.
Leon argued that being Jewish entailed being what he referred to as a “people class.” This was at the intersection of race and class going back centuries. Absent any reference to Marx’s writings on the subject, this different notion of class was rooted in the felt experience of suffering, which was most apparent near the end of his book: “The ghettos and the yellow badges do not prevent the workers from feeling a growing solidarity with those who suffer most from the afflictions all humanity is suffering.” To Taylor’s “categories of suffering,” can we add an additional dimension, i.e. “those who suffer most” from intersecting systems of oppression? Leon believed that it was this intersectional suffering, experienced in the extermination camps, that would eventually catalyze global revolution.
Hopeful Abram Leon came out of hiding to organize French miners, but was abducted by the Nazi Gestapo, tortured for information, then sent to Auschwitz where he was murdered in a gas chamber September 1944. Though he was not able to experience the solidarity of soldiers who would eventually liberate the camp late January 1945, it is we who must take up his cause and fight alongside him in relative “spacetime.” We must relate to him sensuously, as he joined “those who suffer most.” We must strive to feel his suffering in order to cultivate passionate solidarity for one another in our collective cause of revolution.
- Jenny Marx, “Jenny Marx to Karl Marx” in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, (New York: International Publishers, 1987). P. 576. ↑
- Ibid, 575. ↑
- Ibid, 576. ↑
- Sophie Lewis, “Covid-19 Is Straining the Concept of the Family. Let’s Break It.” The Nation, June 3rd, 2020. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/family-covid-care-marriage/; ME O’Brien, “Communizing Care,” Pinko Magazine, October 15th, 2019. https://pinko.online/pinko-1/communizing-care ↑
- Jenny Marx, “Jenny Marx to Karl Marx” in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, 580. ↑
- Jenny Marx, 575-578. ↑
- Ibid, 584. ↑
- Jenny Marx, “Page from the Rough Draft of the Manifesto of the Communist Party” in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 6, (New York: International Publishers, 1987). P. 577; Timothy Shenk, “Love in the Time of Capital,” Dissent Magazine, Summer 2012. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/love-in-the-time-of-capital; Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, (New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2011). ↑
- James D. White, Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism, (London: Macmillian Press, 1996). P. 326, 340, and 364-365. ↑
- Ibid, 281. ↑
- Ibid, 283. In case anyone wants to simplistically assert that these arguments are nothing more than another version of the “Engels divergence,” nothing of the sort of taking place here. For the most part, Marx was just as guilty. ↑
- Ibid, 235-244. ↑
- Ibid, 364. ↑
- Ibid, 241-242. ↑
- Karl Marx, “Karl Marx: The reply to Zasulich,” Marxist Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1881/zasulich/ ↑
- James D. White, Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism, 205-206 ↑
- Ibid, 206. ↑
- Ibid, 279. ↑
- Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon, editors, Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). ↑
- Marcella Gilbert, “A Lesson in Natural Law,” in Standing with Standing Rock, edited by Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon. P. 284. ↑
- Modibo M. Kadalie and Andrew Zonneveld, “Re-learning the past to re-imagine the future,” Roar Magazine, January 25th, 2022. https://roarmag.org/essays/modibo-kadalie-interview/ ↑
- Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1980). P. 15; Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, (New York: Schocken Books, 2007). P. 259. ↑
- Michael Harrington, Socialism: Past and Future, (New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1989). P. 57. ↑
- Michael Harrington, The Twilight of Capitalism, (New York: Macmillan Press LTD, 1976). P. 211. ↑
- Ibid, 216-220. ↑
- Ibid, Socialism: Past and Future, 275-277. ↑
- William Lawrence, “Understanding Sunrise, Part 1: Strategy,” Convergence Magazine, March 14th, 2022. https://convergencemag.com/articles/understanding-sunrise-part-1-strategy/ ↑
- Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, 259. ↑
- Ibid, 258-259. ↑
- Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert, Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, (New York, Monkfish Book Publishing, 2021). ↑
- Max Aji, A People’s Green New Deal, (London, Pluto Press, 2021). P. 21-22; Ibid, “Eco-Nationalism?” New Frame, September 14th, 2021. https://www.newframe.com/new-books-a-peoples-green-new-deal/ ↑
- Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, 259; Jean Su, “Progressive Caucus Urges Biden to Declare Climate Emergency, Stop New Fossil Fuel Extraction, Turbocharge Renewables,” Common Dreams, March 17th, 2022. https://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2022/03/17/progressive-caucus-urges-biden-declare-climate-emergency-stop-new-fossil-fuel; C.J. “With Earth on Edge, Climate Crisis Must Be Treated Like Outbreak of a World War,” Truthout, August 9th, 2021. https://www.commondreams.org/views/2021/08/09/earth-edge-climate-crisis-must-be-treated-outbreak-world-war ↑
- William I. Robinson, The Global Police State, (London: Pluto Press, 2020). P. 3; Ibid, “A Global Police State Is Emerging as World Capitalism Descends Into Crisis,” Truthout, November 28th, 2020. https://truthout.org/articles/a-global-police-state-is-emerging-as-world-capitalism-descends-into-crisis/ ↑
- David Kotz, “Green Social Democracy Offers the Most Viable Path Toward a Sustainable Future” Interviewed by C.J. Polychroniou, Truthout, December 21st, 2020. https://truthout.org/articles/green-social-democracy-offers-the-most-viable-path-toward-a-sustainable-future/ ↑
- Umair Irfan, “’We risk a yellow vest movement’: Why the US clean energy transition must be equitable,” Vox, February 4th, 2021. https://www.vox.com/22264282/biden-climate-change-clean-energy-national-academies-science-transition ↑
- Noam Chomsky, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1991). P. 14. ↑
- Mathilde Goanec, “Gilets Jaunes gather for third “Assembly of Assemblies,” Roar Magazine, July 31st, 2019. https://roarmag.org/essays/gilets-jaunes-third-assembly-assemblies/; Plateforme d’Enquetes Militantes, “Back to the Future: The Yellow Vests Movement and the Riddle of Organization,” Viewpoint Magazine, November 15th, 2019. https://www.viewpointmag.com/2019/11/15/back-to-the-future/ ↑
- Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 14-17. ↑
- Vladimir Lenin, “Frederick Engels” in Collected Works Volume 2, (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1960). P. 22; Author Unknown, “Preface” in Marx-Engels Collected Works Volume 4, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975). P. XX-XXI. ↑
- Martin Buber, “Lenin and the Renewal of Society” in Paths in Utopia, (New York: Collier Books, 1958). P. 99-128. ↑
- Noam Chomsky, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1991). P. 14. ↑
- Andreas Malm, “War Communism” in Corona, Climate, and Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, (New York: Verso, 2020). Ebook Edition. The same political myopia can be seen in two additional books. Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism, (New York: Verso, 2021) and Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, (New York: Verso, 2021). ↑
- Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971). P. 344. ↑
- Joy Saha, “‘The View’ sounds the alarm on Trump: “Wake up, America, because our national nightmare is not over,” Salon, April 11th, 2022. https://www.salon.com/2022/04/11/the-view-warning-jan-6/ ↑
- Joy Saha, “‘The View” sees ‘fascism down the line’ after SCOTUS Roe draft leak,” Salon, May 3rd, 2022. https://www.salon.com/2022/05/03/the-view-roe-vs-wade-scotus-abortion/ ↑
- Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2016). P. 2. ↑
- Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 17. ↑
- Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 225; Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, 258. ↑
- Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, (Chicago: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2009). P. 211-212. ↑
- Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2016). P. 13 and 325. ↑
- Tom Whyman, “The German Ideology Is the High Point of Karl Marx’s Philosophical Thought,” Jacobin Magazine, March 31st, 2022. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2022/03/marx-engels-hegel-feuerbach-stirner-philosophy-idealism ↑
- Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, The German Ideology, (New York: Prometheus Books, 1998). P., 47. ↑
- Ibid, 50. ↑
- Kevin B. Anderson, “Slavery, War, and Revolution,” Jacobin Magazine, May 2017. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/05/civil-war-marx-slavery-capital-race-reconstruction ↑
- Frederich Engels, Anti-Duhring in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 25, (New York: International Publishers, 1987), P. 106. ↑
- Frederich Engels, Dialectics of Nature in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 25, (New York: International Publishers, 1987), P. 452. ↑
- Ibid, 459. ↑
- White, Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism, 1. ↑
- Angela Y. Davis, “Forward” to Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, (New York: International Publishers, 1984). P. 15. ↑
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Introduction” in How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). P. 4. ↑
- Ibid, 7. ↑
- White, Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism, 36. ↑
- Mario Tronti, Workers & Capital, (New York: Verso Press, 2019). P. 186; Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, Political Writings: Volume 1, edited and introduced by David Fernbach, (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). P. 15. ↑
- Karl Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. Introduction,” in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, (New York: International Publishers, 1987). P. 186. Here is the full quote:“Where, then, is the positive possibility of a German emancipation? Answer: In the formation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong but wrong generally is perpetrated against it; which can no longer invoke a historical but only a human title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in an all-round antithesis to the premises of the German state; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete rewinning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat.” ↑
- Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. Introduction,” Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, 183 ↑
- Ibid, 186. ↑
- Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, (New York: Prometheus Books, 1988). P. 135-136. ↑
- Ibid, 155. ↑
- Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France 1848-1850, (New York: International Publishers, 2018). P. 83 and 98-99. ↑
- Ibid, 91. ↑
- Lexi Pandell, “How trauma became the word of the decade,” Vox, January 2022. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/22876522/trauma-covid-word-origin-mental-health ↑
- Judith Herman M.D., Trauma & Recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror, (New York: Basic Books, 1997). P. 1. ↑
- Ibid, 9. ↑
- Ibid, 188. ↑
- Ibid, 20. ↑
- Ibid, 2-3. ↑
- Ibid, 9; Clara Zetkin, “Fascism Must be Defeated,” in Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, 171. ↑
- Ibid, 170-171. ↑
- Ibid, 174. ↑
- Brian Massumi, “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat,” in Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth eds. The Affect Theory Reader, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). P. 52-70. ↑
- Agnes Heller, A Theory of Feelings, (Netherlands: Von Gorcum and Company, 1979). P. 70. ↑
- Ibid, 34. ↑
- Ibid, 51. ↑
- Ibid, 243. ↑
- Ibid, 244. ↑
- Ibid, 79. ↑
- Abram Leon, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation, (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970). P. 254. ↑
- Ibid, 21. ↑
- Ibid, 254. ↑
- Ernest Mandel, “A Biographical Sketch” in Abram Leon, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation, 15-31. ↑
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