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Revolutionary socialism

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Revolutionary socialism is the socialist doctrine that social revolution is necessary in order to bring about structural changes to society. More specifically, it is the view that revolution is a necessary precondition for a transition from capitalism to socialism. Revolution is not necessarily defined as a violent insurrection; it is defined as seizure of political power by mass movements of the working class so that the state is directly controlled or abolished by the working class as opposed to the capitalist class and its interests.[1] Revolutionary socialists believe such a state of affairs is a precondition for establishing socialism and orthodox Marxists believe that it is inevitable but not predetermined.

Revolutionary socialism encompasses multiple political and social movements that may define "revolution" differently from one another. These include movements based on orthodox Marxist theory, such as De Leonism, impossibilism, and Luxemburgism; as well as movements based on Leninism and the theory of vanguardist-led revolution, such as Maoism, Marxism–Leninism, and Trotskyism. Revolutionary socialism also includes non-Marxist movements, such as those found in anarchism, revolutionary syndicalism, and democratic socialism.

It is used in contrast to the reformism of social democracy and other evolutionary approaches to socialism. Revolutionary socialism is opposed to social movements that seek to gradually ameliorate the economic and social problems of capitalism through political reform.

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  • ✪ 7. Mass Politics and the Political Challenge from the Left


His writings inspired the great revolutionary movements of the 20th Century, leading to the dictatorial rise of men like Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong. He lived a life of poverty and obscurity, content to let others take the limelight and aware that his ideas would not be realized during his lifetime. We remember him as the Father of Communism, yet the version that took hold in Soviet Union and China bore little resemblance to what he had envisioned. In this week’s Biographics, we discover the man who was Karl Marx. Early Years Karl Marx was born on May 5th, 1818 in the historic German town of Trier. His was an upper middle-class family, with his father, Heinrich, doing well as a lawyer. Karl’s mother, Henrietta, was from a wealthy Dutch family. The family was Jewish, but Heinrich had converted to Christianity the year before Karl was born in order to avoid the harsh laws that were being imposed upon Jews. Karl was the third of nine children. He became the oldest son when his brother, Moritz, died in 1919. The young Karl was a lively child who was prone to getting into trouble. He was homeschooled by his father to the age of twelve, at which time he entered Trier High School. The headmaster of the school, Hugo Wyttenbach, took an instant liking to the inquisitive young Marx and helped to mold his early philosophical ideas. Wyttenbach taught liberal ideas to his students and employed young liberal humanists as teachers. As a result, the school developed a reputation as a fomenter of dangerous ideologies. In 1832, Wyttenbach was placed under surveillance by the authorities, with the school being searched for subversive materials. Off to University Karl graduated from the school at the age of 17. He furthered his studies at Bonn University, enrolling as a law student in October, 1835. He found the workload during his first semester to be extremely challenging. By the beginning of 1836, he had reduced his attendance to a part time level. He spent most nights at local pubs and often woke up the next day with a hangover, limiting the amount of focus he could give to his studies. On one occasion he was arrested for public intoxication. After a year of wasting his efforts at the University of Bonn, Marx’s father put his foot down. He transferred his wayward son to the University of Berlin and ordered him to start getting serious about his education. The summer before his transfer to Berlin University, Karl returned home to Trier. He began a romance with a young woman named Jenny von Westphalen, who he had known since childhood. Before leaving for University in October, Karl proposed and the two were engaged. The move to Berlin University served its purpose of encouraging Marx to get serious about his studies. He replaced late night carousing with membership in a number of philosophical societies. He became interested in the ideas of German philosopher G.W.F Hegel, and the ideas that he mulled over saw expression in a number of essays and treatises that he began working on. Karl’s bright academic star was diminished in May, 1838 with the death of his father. He had a great deal of respect and love for Heinrich and was shattered by the loss. His father had been supporting him financially and the sudden loss of this support imposed a financial hardship on him. This was a great concern to the Westphalens, who were now convinced that Karl would not be able to support their daughter as his bride. But the young couple continued their courtship, albeit by long distance, anyway. Focusing on Philosophy Following his father’s death, Marx shifted the focus of his studies from law to philosophy. His goal was to graduate with honors and then secure a position at the university as a philosophy lecturer. On order to help fund his studies, he sought work as a journalist. He secured a position with the most controversial newspaper in the region, the Rheinische Zeitung, or Rhineland News. The paper expressed vocal opposition to the Prussian occupation of the Rhineland. On October, 1842, Karl Marx became the editor-in-chief of the paper. It was through this paper that Marx first began writing about Communism and what form a possible Communist government could take. But, when he openly criticized Russian monarch, Tsar Nicholas I, it was a step too far. The Prussian authorities moved in and shut down the paper. Marx was now an unemployed journalist. But that didn’t stop he and Jenny from marrying on June 19th, 1843. The ceremony took place in a Protestant church, and was attended by members of both families, though many of the Westphalen clan muttered that Jenny was marrying below her station. However, the marriage was to last until the couple were parted by death. France Beckons Karl and Jenny moved in with Jenny’s mother. They lived off the mother’s stipend as Karl tried to restart his writing career. He managed to get a gig working for a French based newspaper called Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher that had as its audience far leftists in the Rhineland. The paper had been started by German socialist Arnold Ruge who was based in Paris. In October, 1843, Marx and his wife moved to Paris and boarded with Ruge and his wife. In 1844, Jenny gave birth to their first child. This made the living conditions extremely cramped and so the Marx’s moved into their own apartment. As well as publishing the newspaper, Marx and Ruge worked together on two treatises, that would become very controversial. The second of them was called ‘On the Jewish Question’. Even though Marx was of Jewish ancestry himself, the pamphlet comes across as quite anti-Semitic. In it, he wrote for the first time of the proletariat, a working-class band of revolutionaries, who would throw off the yoke of religion and other cultural bonds to finally unite the masses. Soon after, Marx moved on from working with Ruge, finding employment with the Pairs based newspaper Vorwarts, of Forward, which targeted Germans living in France. The paper was sponsored by the League of the Just, made up of German immigrants who believed in a Communist system where everyone enjoyed economic equality. It was while working for Vorwarts that Marx met and formed an alliance with Friedrich Engels. The two men immediately gelled, with their ideas converging into what would be called Classical Marxism. Marx was inspired by a report that Engels had written called ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England’, being convinced more than ever that the working class would eventually rise up to overthrow their oppressors. Engels came from a wealthy family and, over the years, he would prop up Marx financially time and again. The revolutionary ideas that Marx was espousing through his writings soon came to the attention of the Prussian authorities, who put pressure on him to leave France. The Interior Ministry shut down Vorwarts and Marx was given 24 hours to leave the country. He decided to relocate to Brussels, Belgium with his wife and baby joining him a few days later. Brussels Belgium was a liberal, free thinking country and so was a natural fit for the leftist philosophies of Karl Marx. Soon after, settling in Brussels, Jenny became pregnant with the couple’s second child. Back in Germany, Marx’s mother-in-law became concerned that her daughter wouldn’t be able to cope with the stress of starting anew with one small child and another one on the way. She sent her maid-servant, Helen Demuth, to Brussels to help her cope. Helen would, from then on be a permanent member of the Marx household. Unknown to Marx, the Prussian government was putting pressure on the Belgians to kick him out. As a result, he experienced frustrating delays in his efforts to obtain permanent residency. In order to get residency granted, he had to promise not to get involved in local political issues or espouse his political views. He then proceeded to find loopholes that would allow him to spread his ideas. In 1847, he published a treatise entitled The Poverty of Philosophy, which challenged an earlier tract by French leftist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon called The Philosophy of Poverty. The Poverty of Philosophy was a stepping stone toward Marx’s most impressive and famous work, The Communist Manifesto. In order to get direct experience of the conditions of the working class, he traveled to England in 1845 along with Friedrich Engels. They toured factories and slums, witnessing the terrible working and the even worse living conditions. After six weeks in England, Marx returned to Brussels fully equipped to produce his magnum opus. Two weeks later, the 30-page pamphlet was ready for the presses. The Communist Manifesto was published on February 21, 1848. In it, Marx stated that the bourgeoisie were ‘their own grave diggers’, with their exploited workers rising up to overthrow them. Hard Times Soon after the Manifesto’s publication, the second French revolt broke out. The monarch was cast aside and a democratic government put in place. Back in Belgium, Marx was arrested for subversive activity. Upon his release, he made the decision to head to a reinvigorated and freer France. The Marx family’s relocation was helped by the belated inheritance he received from his father’s estate. Most of that money, though, was poured into starting another newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Engels worked on the paper, providing the latest news and happenings from Europe. Soon after moving to France, Marx joined the Communist League, which had been formed by members of the Jacobin Club after the revolution to prevent the aristocracy from reasserting itself. Their methods of doing so were so drastic that the time period became known as the ‘reign of terror’. The French authorities viewed the Communist League as the reinstituted Jacobin Club under a different name. This brought official scrutiny upon the League, with Marx being arrested several times. Initially the police were unable to directly link him to any subversive activity and no prosecution was brought against him. But things changed when Prussian king, Fredrick William IV, took a personal interest in stomping out every leftist movement in his realm. It didn’t take long for his attention to go to the Paris based leftist newspaper run by Karl Marx. For the second time in his life, he was expelled from France. Marx had poured all of his financial resources into the paper. With it shut down, he was left with nothing. Just to get enough money for passage out of France, he had to visit a pawn shop and hock the family silver. He received support from a couple of German socialists who raised money to help the Marx family get reestablished. However, the help turned out to be a double-edged sword. The benefactors had painted Marx to be in such a poor, demoralized condition in order to secure support that Karl was treated as a laughing stock when he returned. Marx was not pleased with this reception. He stated that . . . The greatest financial difficulties are preferable to public begging! London In June, 1849, the Marx family of four relocated yet again. The destination this time was London, England. It was their final move, with the famous German spending the rest of his life amongst the English. Not long after the Marx’s resettled in London, the disbanded French Communist League reformed in the city. The leaders of the movement wanted to bring about an immediate revolt of the working classes in London, which would, ideally, spread across the entire continent. Marx viewed these goals as unrealistic and labeled the leaders of the Communist League as unrealistic dreamers. He was firmly convinced that overthrow would come but believed that it had to evolve gradually. He wasn’t concerned if the revolution didn’t occur in his own lifetime. He was happy to plant the seeds that would come to fruition at a later time. As it turned out, the first Communist revolution didn’t happen for another 68 years. In London, Marx focused on bringing reforms on a small scale. He championed the rights of the poor and advocated for voting rights and freedom of speech. For their first few months in London, the Marx family were among the poor of London, only surviving thanks to the financial support provided by Friedrich Engels. The financial strain was lifted in 1851 when Marx secured a position as a European correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune. At the start, Engels had to translate the articles that Marx wrote. Before long, Karl taught himself English and was able to translate for himself. At the time, the New York Daily Tribune was the most widely read newspaper in the United States. The paper paid him two hundred pounds per year in order to provide two articles per week. Still, it was never quite enough, and the family struggled to make ends meet. In 1852, Marx was concerned with what was taking place across the English Channel. A second French Revolution had erupted and a new Napoleon, the nephew of the first, seized power, establishing himself as the new emperor. Marx was frustrated at how the French working people could allow another dictator to rule over them. He wrote a book called The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, which mocked the new emperor. In it, he placed the blame on both the French working class for being sucked in by the dictator and on the proletariat for being gullible to Napoleon’s promise to keep the masses in check. In his book, he summed it up this way . . . The struggle seems to be settled in such a way that all classes, equally impotent and equally remote, fall on their knees before the rifle butt. New York Correspondent As a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, Marx was in a unique position to give an outside perspective on the American Civil War. He predicted that the election of Abraham Lincoln would lead to civil war and that the war would greatly impact the British economy, with its textile industry relying on exports of cotton from the American south. He was right on both counts, with the slowdown in trade being termed the Cotton Famine. Many British factory workers lost their jobs, providing the British government with the incentive to provide financial aid to prop up the Confederate cause. Marx was quick to point out the hypocrisy in Britain’s position. Having outlawed slavery itself, Britain was now supporting the slave owning Southern states in order to boost her own economy. His articles were published in the Tribune without dissent until the paper changed its pro-Abolitionist stance and began calling for an immediate cessation to hostilities. From now on, articles had to be neutral in their tone. This was a disaster for Marx, who, unwilling to compromise his principles, tendered his resignation. Once more, Karl Marx was unemployed. It was terrible timing, with financial pressures having mounted even before his leaving the paper. On top of that, Jenny was sick with a bout of smallpox. With nowhere else to turn, Marx sought relief from Friedrich Engels. However, Engels was grieving the recent death of his wife and the letter from Karl requesting relief was not taking kindly. After three days of stewing on the matter he sent the following reply . . . You will find it natural that my own trouble and your frosty reception of it made it positively impossible for me to answer you earlier. All my friends . . . have shown me on this occasion, which was bound to touch me very nearly, more sympathy and friendship than I could expect. You found the moment suitable to enforce the superiority of your cold thought processes. Marx was surprised and upset that he had unwittingly insulted Engels. He quickly wrote back, in the process giving us insight as to just how desperate his situation was . . . My wife and children will bear me witness that when your letter came, I was much shattered by the death as one of those nearest to me. But when I wrote to you in the evening, it was under the impression of very desperate conditions. I had the landlord’s broker in the house, the butcher protesting my cheque, shortage of coals and food, and little Jenny in bed. In such circumstances, I can generally save myself only by cynicism. Das Kapital The two men quickly made up and Engels once more provided financial support to keep the Marx family afloat. Before long, however, Marx faced a new crisis. While his wife’s health improved, his own began to deteriorate. Boils erupted all over his body, causing great pain and discomfort. He suffered on as he completed his latest work, Das Kapital. The work was published in Berlin in 1867. In it, he emphasized the surplus value of labor and the impact that machines would have on the workforce. Das Kapital was a success but that didn’t translate to financial stability for the ever-struggling family. Marx’s mother once made the salient comment . . . If only Karl had made capital, instead of just writing about it. When Marx’s daughter Laura got engaged to a struggling medical student named Paul Lafargue, her protective father sought to save her from the same mistake her mother had made – marrying a man who was ill-prepared to care for her. He strongly objected to the marriage, only relenting when he gained the assurance that the young man was able to care for his daughter financially. By 1869, Marx was actively working as an ambassador for an organization called International Working Men’s Association, which endeavored to bring the world of communism together under a single umbrella. In 1870, France declared war on Germany. Among the International Working Men’s Association there was division between those who were in favor of the war and those who were against it. Marx was keen for Germany to ‘give the French a good drubbing’, believing that it would lead to resurgence of socialism in France. Following the defeat of Napoleon III, a coalition of International Worker’s members and French citizens combined to take control of Paris. After two months they were overthrown by the French authorities. For that short period of time, Marx saw the embodiment of his proletarian revolt. It’s overthrow by the establishment convinced him that . . . The working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes. For a take-over of power to be successful, Marx reasoned, there had to be an existing infrastructure ready to replace the old one. The Final Years For the last decade of his life, Karl Marx struggled with health problems and financial survival. During this period, he produced just one work of note, in which he commented on what he termed the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. He expressed his firm belief that the masses needed to work together in the coming revolution without allowing for a dominant leader to rise. Unfortunately, that is precisely what happened in many of the Communist revolutions of the 20th Century. On December 2, 1881, Karl’s life-long companion, Jenny, died. She had been in terrible pain with cancer of the liver for months. Her last words to Karl were ‘good’, indicating that she was happy that her pain was at an end. Following Jenny’s death, Marx fell into a deep depression. At the prompting of his life-long friend, Friedrich Engels, he took a holiday to Algiers. After two months he returned to England. Just as he was beginning to get back on his feet, he received another blow when his daughter Jenny Caroline died of bladder cancer at the age of 38. With the loss of his two Jenny’s, Marx gave up the will to live. He hung on for another two months, racked by pain and living in poverty. The end came on March 14, 1883, when his body succumbed to a combination of bronchitis and pleurisy. The man was gone but his ideas survived to have a massive impact on the coming century.



In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote:[2]

The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air. Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie. In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat. (...) The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; (...) The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.

— Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848

Twenty-four years after The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels admitted that in developed countries "labour may attain its goal by peaceful means".[3] Marxist scholar Adam Schaff argued that Marx, Engels and Lenin have expressed such view "on many occasions".[4] By contrast, the Blanquist view emphasised the overthrow by force of the ruling elite in government by an active minority of revolutionaries, who then proceed to implement socialist change, disregarding the state of readiness of society as a whole and the mass of the population in particular for revolutionary change.

In 1875, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) published a somewhat reformist Gotha Program, which was attacked by Marx in Critique of the Gotha Program, where he reiterated the need for dictatorship of the proletariat. The reformist viewpoint was introduced into Marxist thought by Eduard Bernstein, one of the leaders of the SPD. From 1896 to 1898, Bernstein published a series of articles entitled "Probleme des Sozialismus" ("Problems of Socialism"). These articles led to a debate on revisionism in the SPD and can be seen as the origins of a reformist trend within Marxism.

In 1900, Rosa Luxemburg wrote Social Reform or Revolution, a polemic against Bernstein's position. The work of reforms, Luxemburg argued, could only be carried on "in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution". In order to advance society to socialism from the capitalist 'social form', a social revolution will be necessary:[5]

Bernstein, thundering against the conquest of political power as a theory of Blanquist violence, has the misfortune of labeling as a Blanquist error that which has always been the pivot and the motive force of human history. From the first appearance of class societies, having class struggle as the essential content of their history, the conquest of political power has been the aim of all rising classes. Here is the starting point and end of every historic period…In modern times, we see it in the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism.

— Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution

Vladimir Lenin attacked Bernstein's position in his What Is To Be Done? When Bernstein first put forward his ideas, the majority of the SPD rejected them. The 1899 Congress of the SPD reaffirmed the Erfurt programme as did the 1901 congress. The 1903 congress denounced "revisionist efforts".

World War I and Zimmerwald

On 4 August 1914, the SPD members of the Reichstag voted for the government's war budget while the French and Belgium socialists publicly supported and joined their governments. The Zimmerwald Conference in September 1915, attended by Lenin and Leon Trotsky, saw the beginning of the end of the uneasy coexistence of revolutionary socialists and reformist socialists in the parties of Second International. The conference adopted a proposal by Trotsky to avoid an immediate split with the Second International. At first opposed to it, in the end Lenin voted[6] for Trotsky's resolution to avoid a split among anti-war socialists.

In December, 1915 and March, 1916, eighteen Social Democratic representatives, the Haase-Ledebour Group, voted against war credits and were expelled from the Social Democratic Party. Liebknecht wrote Revolutionary Socialism in Germany in 1916, arguing that this group was not a revolutionary socialist group despite their refusal to vote for war credits, further defining in his view what was meant by a revolutionary socialist.[7]

Russian Revolution and after

Many revolutionary socialists argue that the Russian Revolution of October 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin follows the revolutionary socialist model of a revolutionary movement guided by a vangaurd party. By contrast, the October revolution is portrayed as a putsch or coup d'état along the lines of Blanquism.

Revolutionary socialists, particularly Trotskyists, argue that the Bolsheviks only seized power as the expression of the mass of workers and peasants, whose desires are brought into being by an organised force—the revolutionary party. Marxists such as Trotskyists argue that Lenin did not advocate seizing of power until he felt that the majority of the population, represented in the soviets, demanded revolutionary change and no longer supported the reformist government of Alexander Kerensky established in the earlier revolution of February 1917:

Lenin, after the experience of the reconnoiter, withdrew the slogan of the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government. But he did not withdraw it for any set period of time, for so many weeks or months, but strictly in dependence upon how quickly the revolt of the masses against the conciliationists would grow.

— Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October, Chapter Four: "The April Conference"

For these Marxists, the fact that the Bolsheviks won a majority (in alliance with the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries) in the second all-Russian congress of Soviets—democratically elected bodies—which convened at the time of the October revolution, shows that they had popular support of the masses of workers, peasants and soldiers, the vast majority of Russian society.

In his pamphlet Lessons of October, first published in 1924,[8] Trotsky argued that military power lay in the hands of the Bolsheviks before the October Revolution was carried out, but this power was not used against the government until the Bolsheviks gained mass support.

The mass of the soldiers began to be led by the Bolshevik party after the July days of 1917 and followed only the orders of the Military Revolutionary Committee under the leadership of Trotsky in October (also termed the Revolutionary Military Committee in Lenin's collected works).[9] Yet Trotsky only mobilised the Military Revolutionary Committee to seize power on the advent of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, which began on 25 October 1917.

Following the October Revolution, the Communist International (also known as the Third International) was founded. This International became widely identified with communism, but also defined itself in terms of revolutionary socialism. However, in 1938 Trotskyists formed the Fourth International because they thought that the Third International turned to Marxism–Leninism—this latter International became identified with revolutionary socialism.

Emerging from the Communist International, but critical of the post-1924 Soviet Union, the Trotskyist tradition in Western Europe and elsewhere uses the term "revolutionary socialism". For instance, in 1932 the first issue of the first Canadian Trotskyist newspaper, The Vanguard, published an editorial entitled "Revolutionary Socialism vs Reformism".[10] Today, many Trotskyist groups advocate "revolutionary socialism" as opposed to reformism and are considered—and consider themselves—"revolutionary socialists".[11] Luxemburgism is another revolutionary socialist tradition.

See also


  1. ^ What Revolutioreeeeeeeeeenary Socialism Means by Carl D. Thompson.
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ "... we do not deny that there are countries like England and America... where labour may attain its goal by peaceful means." Marx, 18 September 1872, at the Hague Congress of the International,, K. Marx and F. Engels, On Britain, Foreign Languages Press, Moscow, 1962
  4. ^ "Both Marx and Engels and, later, Lenin on many occasions referred to a peaceful revolution, that is, one attained by a class struggle, but not by violence." Schaff, Adam, 'Marxist Theory on Revolution and Violence', p. 263. in Journal of the history of ideas, Vol 34, no.2 (Apr–Jun 1973)
  5. ^ Luxemburg, Rosa, Social Reform or Revolution, Chapter 8, Conquest of Political Power, accessed 1 July 2007. Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p107-8, Pathfinder, (1970)
  6. ^ See Christian Rakovsky's biography by Gus Fagan for details
  7. ^ Liebknecht, Karl, Revolutionary Socialism in Germany, 1916, accessed 1 July 2007
  8. ^ LeonTrotsky's "Lessons of October".
  9. ^ Trotsky, Leon, Lessons of October: "On October 16th the Military Revolutionary Committee was created, the legal Soviet organ of insurrection." Accessed 27 August 2007
  10. ^ Socialist History Project, accessed 1 July 2007
  11. ^ For instance, the Committee for a Workers International states, "We campaign for new workers’ parties and for them to adopt a socialist programme. At the same time, the CWI builds support for the ideas of revolutionary socialism" [2] Archived 2007-09-27 at the Wayback Machine and the UK Socialist Workers Party’s Alex Callinicos argues The Case for Revolutionary Socialism, [3] Archived 2007-07-29 at the Wayback Machine.
This page was last edited on 18 October 2019, at 02:59
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