Theories of difference: the Subaltern project examined

Issue: 144

Talat Ahmed

A review of Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013), £19.99

Postcolonial theory has been the dominant intellectual trend within academia relating to studies of imperialism, decolonisation and the legacy of empire for the last two decades. Its central attractive feature has been to posit the non-Western world and its peoples as the subject of history and central agents shaping their own destiny. Postcolonial thinking has aimed to challenge the notion that the only way to understand the non-Western world is through its interaction and relationship with Europe and instead puts forward an intellectual agenda that seeks to “provincialise” Europe. The traditional Eurocentric framework assumes that non-Western societies essentially had no history worthy of the name until the impact of European colonialism as the dynamic for change. It was thought that progress in such societies could only come through a Western “civilising mission”. For many scholars, students and anti-imperialist activists, postcolonialism represents a radical critique of all existing thinking about race and imperial power and, within this, the Subaltern Studies project stands out as a particularly inspirational framework for 21st century theorising about these questions.

The Subaltern project began life as a collective around the Subaltern Studies journal, published from Delhi in 1982 and focusing on South Asia. Over the next two decades 11 volumes emerged and several monographs, as scholars went beyond the limitations of traditional colonial narratives but more fundamentally also sought to challenge the nationalist historiography that had emerged during the struggle for colonial freedom. National liberation movements had rightly sought to overthrow conservative colonialist interpretations of their region’s history, but they tended to replace one “Whiggish” story of progress with another, and though the authors of this narrative had brown and black skins, this often resulted in a rather narrow and elitist hagiography of “great men” as heroic figures of the anti-colonial struggle.

Taking their cue from Antonio Gramsci, who had written about “subaltern classes”, as well as the English Marxist historian E P Thompson, who had visited India in 1976-7 and inspired a focus on “history from below”, a group of historians of South Asia came together as part of the New Left that had emerged in India in the late 1970s. They consciously sought to offer a new theory of modernity for the Global South and posed this as a fundamental review of all existing theoretical paradigms. The whole raison d’être of Subaltern Studies had been to uncover the hidden histories of forgotten subjects such as peasants, workers, low caste and untouchable groups that traditional historical frameworks had neglected. Classic works like Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay, “Trade Unions in a Hierarchical Culture: The Jute Workers of Calcutta, 1920-50”, showed the potentialities of this new historical approach.1 Focusing on popular consciousness and subaltern agency, the merit of Guha’s work was to locate peasant identity and consciousness within the conditions of rural India in terms of the relationship of the peasantry to dominant economic and political groups of landlords and moneylenders.2 He questioned the use of colonial data, informed as it was by the categories of scientific racism stemming from the colonial sciences. Both the policies of the Raj and elitist national historiography utilised official data and followed its logic of defining peasant mass action as “criminal” and “pre-political” because it was seen as “unstructured movements of the masses”.3 Guha rightly condemns the selective use of these sources and the interpretations they advance for their denial of agency to peasant insurgency.4 Similarly, Chakrabarty, an eminent labour historian, raises important questions on ideology and culture in his essay; particularly those concerning militant strike action alongside poor trade union organisation and the continuing presence of a middle class syndicalist cadre—”the outsider-in”.5 Again he argues that the autonomy of jute workers was underplayed if the focus was primarily on workers’ leadership and therefore ignored the hierarchical manner in which some forms of this intellectual leadership treated workers as a passive entity to be led. These earlier works were empirically informed, historically specific and thus carried an intellectual weight.

Locating itself within Gramscian and Thompsonian categories, the radical claims of Subaltern Studies would appear on the surface to lend itself to a broad Marxist analysis. Instead, as Vivek Chibber notes in his impressive new study of the Subaltern Studies collective, the group worked to overcome what they assumed were “the blinders imposed by Marxist theory”.6 Subalternism as a “discipline” has had limited scrutiny from left leaning academics or political activists. This makes Chibber’s analysis extremely welcome as an important and pioneering Marxist critique that is the first thoroughgoing and comprehensive assessment of this project. Chibber excavates the foundational basis of the theoretical framework provided by the key figures of the collective: Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty, but also examines the much hyped and influential work of another collective stalwart, Partha Chatterjee.

Initially the founders of the Subaltern Studies project aimed to offer a distinct explanation for non-Western economic and political development. So for Guha, a key issue was why the path of non-Western societies differed so dramatically from those in Europe. For him with respect to India, the answer lay in the failure of the nationalist bourgeoisie to realise the universalising principle of capitalism. Whereas in Europe the rising bourgeoisie was able to refashion society in its own image, and completely destroy feudal relations, the Indian bourgeoisie achieved “dominance without hegemony” over the rest of society.7 According to Guha, classic bourgeois revolutions in Europe saw a new revolutionary class take power that was then able—through the establishment of liberal bourgeois democracy—to integrate the interests of non-elite and subaltern groups within their own project, and so win these groups to identifying with the bourgeois revolutions. Capitalist modernity in India, by contrast, evolved with the “coexistence” of semi-feudal social relations with bourgeois property rights. This in turn created two separate spheres of discourse existing independently of each other—an elite arena comprising a rich minority and a subaltern space inhabited by the vast majority of those excluded from the nationalist project.

Guha maintains that the English and French bourgeoisie were able to rule with consent as they succeeded in wedding subaltern groups—labouring classes, industrial workers, small artisanal groups, peasantry—to identify with liberal reforms, democratic order and elective assemblies. No such “universalising” took place in India. In India the national bourgeoisie could not speak for the majority of society; this is identified as the “structural fault” of the Indian bourgeoisie’s lack of political ambitions. Chibber quite rightly takes Guha to task over his analysis and interpretation of the English and French Revolutions of 1640 and 1789 respectively stating that the revolutionary periods in Europe witnessed attempts by the new bourgeois class to “contain and suppress subaltern demands for representation” and to use “a significant dose of coercion” when necessary.8 Thus it is demonstrated that the European experience of bourgeois revolutions was not as straightforward and linear as Guha implies. These revolutions took decades to unfurl and were fraught with contradictions and violent class struggles. At the end of this process the most radical element of the bourgeoisie lost its revolutionary character, as it sought to entrench its rule over the lower orders.

Chibber reminds the reader that capitalism does not universalise social organisation based on the consent of the governed. Rather, what is universalised is “the compulsion to produce in order to sell—production for exchange value, not for use”. Capitalists, contrary to Guha’s belief that the bourgeoisie will attempt to enact the will of the subaltern classes in a cross-class alliance, will fight for “a narrower, more exclusionary regime”.9 In fact the rising European bourgeoisie was focused on capitalist production but quite willing to allow earlier relations of power to remain so long as they could capitalise on newly developing methods of production. There was no mission to improve the quality of life of peasants and urban workers or promote democratic reforms and equality. These reforms, when they did appear, were the result not of bourgeois benevolence, but of agitation from below against the bourgeoisie; “capitalism has always striven not just for economic domination but also for political domination, inasmuch as the latter helps secure the viability of the former”.10

Subaltern scholars use this flawed model of European transformation to move away from empirically informed research and to criticise the “methodological Eurocentricism” at the heart of historical writing. By the end of the 1980s Dipesh Chakrabarty, building on Guha’s analysis, applies it to his detailed work on the jute industry in Calcutta. Here he concludes that jute mill workers of the period were “pre-individualist”, inhabiting a “pre-capitalist culture” where community—not class—determined their consciousness.11 Consequently, jute workers were incapable of participating consistently in modern forms of politics because the concept of trade unions as “bourgeois democratic organisation” was alien to this cultural space.12 Even their relationship with trade union leaders was locked in a “babucoolie” hierarchical structure.13 Again colonial capitalism differed from “original” capitalism in the West because the former did not produce “bourgeois forms of power” as the nationalist ruling class did not penetrate popular domains. Instead what was produced was a “capitalism but without capitalist hierarchies, a capitalist dominance without a hegemonic capitalist culture, or in Guha’s phrase ‘dominance without hegemony’”.14

Chakrabarty goes further to identify different types of authority being exercised by employers in Europe as compared to India. Under “proper” capitalism, power is exercised “through an articulated body of rules and legislation”,15 making this transparent, predictable and clearly demarcated. Conversely, Bengali jute mill employers exercised power in an arbitrary, personal and often violent manner.16 This leads Chakrabarty to characterise labour relations in India as essentially paternalistic based on workers seeing managers in the role of loco parentis and accepting punishment as “parental” justice.17 Chibber again takes issue over this simplified and mechanical interpretation of capitalist class relations. Using Marx’s writings in Capital, he shows how capitalism is the most dynamic system that “can sustain a broad gamut of power relations and social identities”, where “traditional institutions and identities can find new life within capitalism”.18

Guha’s conflation of liberal, nationalist historiography with Marxist theory is key to his weak postulations. Along the way he is dismissive of Marxist concepts and explanations of bourgeois revolutions as basically part of the same Western liberal ideological framework that does not apply to India. The language used by Chakrabarty lays emphasis on religion, caste and village ties. Both emphasise cultural specificity, the uniqueness and exceptional character of Indian society. The assertion of divergence leads Guha and Chakrabarty to reify the very subaltern groups they set out to rescue from the “enormous condescension of posterity”.19

Such ideas were initially seen as innovations within Marxism but Chibber argues that at each juncture the authors of Subaltern Studies moved further away from classical Marxism and linked their project to the most “dynamic trend in post-Marxist theorising”—postcolonial studies.20 This trajectory is most pronounced in the widely quoted and super-trendy subaltern scholar Partha Chatterjee. He too emphasises the power of community consciousness for poor Bengali peasants where “alliances are not seen as the result of contracts based on common interests; rather, they are believed to be the necessary duty of groups bound together by mutual bonds of kinship”.21 Chatterjee insists there is an entirely different psychology in Western subalterns than Eastern. In the West political psychology revolves around secular conceptions of the individual and their rights; whereas in the East agency is motivated by the concept of duty or obligation, resulting in a religious orientation.22 For Chatterjee peasant communitarian identity is central to rural politics which will generate “a project to write an Indian history of peasant struggles”, not a “history of peasant struggles in India”.23 This theory of divergence is located in Chatterjee’s analysis of anti-colonial nationalism, which he chastises for its adherence to the modernising agenda of the nation-state. He in fact refers to it as colonial nationalism because it is derivative of colonial forms of thought, at the heart of which are reason, science and the individual, notions associated with Enlightenment thinking.24 Consequently, the Enlightenment is dismissed as a Western European mode of thinking every bit as nasty as colonialism because it perpetuates Western dominance, even after decolonisation. To underline this cultural variance Chatterjee makes a distinction between the “spiritual greatness of the East and the material advantage of the West”.25

Chibber is quite rightly scathing about the nonsense this is predicated on and charges Chatterjee with reviving orientalist notions of Eastern culture in which actors lack individuality and are instead “other-oriented”.26 In his careful deconstruction of Chatterjee’s The Nation and Its Fragments, Chibber demonstrates, with devastating panache, how the ostensible radical scholar ends up making the case for India’s exceptional difference with the West as inevitable, the result of some age-old cultural traits. Chibber notes how in this framework there is an abandonment of historicism and its substitution with some timeless, inexplicable values. Chatterjee’s grasp of nationalism is weak, superficial and impressionistic, and fused with an “inflated assessment of the role of ideas”,27 where capitalism is written out of the history of modern nation-states and the rise of nationalism. Not only are Marxist categories out of the window but for Chibber this is evidence not of radicalism but of its antithesis.

Another weakness of Subaltern Studies was how the early desire to focus on industrial workers and peasant agency quickly gave way to a looser and more eclectic definition of “subalterneity”. This encompassed more fashionable concerns based on Michel Foucault’s approach to power and knowledge and the weaknesses of Edward Said’s Orientalism and hence an obsession with linguistic deconstruction and theorising for the sake of theorising, a method more suited to cultural and literary approaches than one based on a critical examination of historical evidence. Rather than trying to identify broad historical patterns and examining the relationship between exploitation and oppression, there was a celebration of “the fragment” which offered disconnected stories about the past. The rejection of “grand narratives” as “hierarchical” and “oppressive” resulted in conclusions based on voguish social theory and an increasingly turgid style of writing incomprehensible to most workers, peasants and low caste communities—those the group ostensibly championed—and, in reality, to many academics.

One example of this is the seminal but highly abstract essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”.28 Tantalisingly subversive as the title suggests, Spivak attempts to recover the voices of women about the practice of sati (widow self-immolation), which have been ignored in both Western and Hindu nationalist explanations. However, Spivak’s method here is not particularly helpful or insightful, based as it is on a convoluted philosophical, existential discussion of what it means to be subaltern and with a puzzling conclusion that “the subaltern cannot speak”. The explanation is that Western thought and knowledge denigrate non-Western forms of knowing by labelling these mythical and folkloric. So in order to be “heard” the subaltern has to mimic, learn and adapt to Western forms of knowledge, thereby dismissing their own reasoning processes, language and thought as folklore. Hence the subaltern cannot speak! This mode of thought legitimises the very object of what it seeks to dispute: it gives credence to the idea of exceptionalism in non-Western societies, that there is something intrinsically different in them, some unknown and un-quantifiable entity that is uniquely “indigenous”. The notion of what constitutes indigenous is vague and, one suspects, deliberately so, to avoid the difficult question of how these non-Western societies have themselves been the product of change, conflict and a mass of contradictory phenomena.

Some critics have argued that Chibber conflates Subaltern Studies into postcolonial theory. There is some truth to this. Chibber’s own Marxist understanding has been influenced by the intellectual framework of “Political Marxism” which has sought to place history at the heart of Marxist analysis, partly also under Thompson’s inspiration. This was a necessary corrective to the plethora of ahistorical, intellectually unanchored and politically flawed types of research that dominate so much of academia, including regrettably what passes for Marxist, radical studies. Postcolonial theory’s chief concern was the cultural legacy of the colonial project and the ongoing impact of imperialism in post-independent societies. Hence its focus on knowledge production and reproduction, cultural and social control and the power to represent, define and interpret colonial societies. Though a perfectly valid response to colonial experience, the analytical tools became Foucauldian, psychoanalytical, critical theory, and lately, gender-sex theory and an obsession with linguistic categories. As such it borrows heavily from postmodernist techniques and its intellectual heritage is firmly rooted in the poststructuralist school. Though it castigates colonial powers for “essentialising” the non-Western world as the “other” with fixed cultural traits, postcolonial theory nevertheless sees categories of “West” and “non-West” as given entities that have a timeless essence.

The distinction between Subaltern Studies and postcolonialism is that postcolonial theory expressly rejected Marxist analysis as every bit as Western and European as the colonial project. Their criticism is predicated on the well-worn shibboleths of Marxism being “Eurocentric, reductive, determinist” and consequently incapable of explaining the non-Western world. It is interesting to note how Foucault, feminist analysis of patriarchy and psychoanalytical studies are not seen as Western! Subalternist thinking began life on a more promising premise—to challenge nationalist interpretations of the postcolonial world as the only narrative that could explain pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial history. It sought to interrogate a version of history that told the national story in a linear fashion and took a reductionist approach to exploitative and oppressive social relations among and within the “colonial” peoples. Through its championing of “subaltern” subjects it led an offensive against “essentialising” approaches based on notions of fixed cultural traits. But, as Chibber so ably demonstrates, the radical posturing of subaltern authors would target Marxism as much as colonial and nationalist interpretations.

Subaltern Studies did not aim to go down this route but Guha’s understanding of Marxism was rooted in Stalinist orthodoxy encapsulated in the Communist Party of India (CPI), a tradition that held a stageist version of historical developments whereby colonial societies had to enter capitalism first before building for socialism. As such national movements were to be supported uncritically and independent working class politics from below suppressed in the “national” interest. This is the antithesis of classical Marxism as a theoretical tool and lies at the heart of the methodological and political flaws of the Subalternists. Guha was a member of the CPI and schooled within its Stalinist orthodoxy. In the post-1956 era after the Soviet invasion of Hungary many people resigned their membership of Communist parties—including E P Thompson. The courageous questioning of their political heritage sadly did not lead to a renewed effort to return to the tradition of Russia in 1917, of genuine revolution from below. Similarly in India the Subaltern collective did not try to reforge a new explicitly anti-Stalinist Marxist historiography, in part because of the growing intellectual fashion for poststructuralism internationally but more fundamentally due to the bastardised version of Marxism they had been taught. As Guha and others moved away from what they perceived as the “real” Marxist tradition, they abandoned Marxism altogether and their intellectual moorings became more fluid and unanchored.

Chibber is not claiming that all societies are identical or that there are not specificities that need explaining. This has been the charge against Marxism by postcolonial and subalternist thinkers. But this is based on a vulgar interpretation of Marxism that is a million miles from the deeply rich and creative tradition of classical Marxism, a tradition sadly closed to most Indian Marxists because of their Stalinist heritage. And if they challenged it in any way it was forms of Maoism, Guevarian politics and other Third Worldist notions that became the mainstays of Indian Marxism. The political practice has been dominated by a top-down version of socialism, and the CPI’s entry into electoral politics resulted in corrupt parliamentary cretinism and a deep compromise with local and international capital.

Chibber’s understanding of bourgeois revolutions and their outcomes owes much to the scholarship of Ellen Meiksins Woods and Robert Brenner, with which this journal differs on some major questions. Nevertheless, Chibber’s careful dissection of early Subaltern thought exposes the simplified, mechanical and mistaken interpretation at the heart of their explanation for the rise of the bourgeoisie and capitalist class relations.

Chibber is at pains to defend Enlightenment values as universal, particularly against charges of “Eurocentrism”. This is all the more reason to point out that the Enlightenment was not the sole preserve of European thinking. Notions of scientific rationality, reason and political rights were deeply influenced by ideas emanating from across the Eurasian landmass, and in this produced a cultural fusion entailing Islamic, African and Asiatic civilisations. Marx himself was a child of the Enlightenment but he went way beyond its bourgeois constraints towards a truly global universalism of working class self-emancipation.

Although Subaltern scholars claim to offer a new theory of global modernity of the South, and to stand in the great radical traditions of the 20th century “shorn of their analytical and critical infirmities”,29 regrettably, Subaltern Studies has demonstrated through its embrace of the postcolonial theoretical paradigm that it is beholden to many of the analytical and critical infirmities of the poststructuralist and postmodernist template.

Chibber recognises that scholars and students are open to questioning the orthodoxies of classical liberalism, nationalism and the limitations of postcolonial theory and with that predisposed to a healthier scepticism of the previously unquestioned authority of the Subaltern Studies project. In spite of the deep disfigurement of Stalinism there has been some good historical writing on South Asia using a Marxist framework with the aim of trying to present an integrated and whole picture of historical phenomena. Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi’s pioneering An Introduction to the Study of Indian History; Irfan Habib’s The Agrarian System of Mughal India 15561707 and his A People’s History of India volumes; Ram Sharan Sharma’s book Indian Feudalism; Romila Thapar’s work on the social history of Ancient India and Sumit Sarkar’s seminal work on the Swadeshi Movement and his theoretical work Writing Social History are all exemplars of how to write history: historically informed, intellectually rigorous, theoretically coherent, methodically researched and politically committed.30 With the exception of Thapar, who is not a Marxist, all the above have operated under a clear Marxist framework that is not characterised by reductionism or determinism. Paradoxically, despite their schooling in the Indian Communist tradition, the scholarship of this generation of historians has been marked by sensitivity to the creative and powerful impulses of classical Marxism as a method to understand historical developments in the Global South.

Chibber is correct to point to the limitations and flaws of both postcolonial studies and the Subaltern Studies project and to the general hostility towards Marxism that these schools of thought have encouraged. Rather than illuminating how capitalism has impacted on Indian society, Subaltern Studies ends up obscuring and, worse still, resurrecting Orientalist categories. One key question that the book hints at but does not fully develop is why these ideas have come to such prominence in the last three decades or more. Chibber notes that the path taken by Subaltern Studies was simply keeping pace with “broader shifts”.31 And these shifts demonstrate how scholastic techniques do not exist in a vacuum. Interest in Marxist ideas could rise in the late 1960s and early 1970s, set as they were against a backdrop of momentous struggles initially on the part of students but taking a more militant organised working class orientation into the 1970s. Likewise we need to locate the intellectual moorings of postcolonial theory in the lack of sustained, combative onslaught by the organised working class—subordinate groups—to shift the balance of class forces back in our direction irreversibly. Postmodernism and postcolonial studies have evolved from poststructuralist theoretical paradigms, where class is a thing of the past and if it has any relevancy it is only in so far as it is one of several categories alongside gender, ethnicity, “tribal” identity, caste, region, religion, and so on. There is a material basis for why certain intellectual trends develop and take root among radical scholars and students. Postcolonial theory has been a product of retreat, in spite of its radical posturing. Its supposed “chicness” is more evidence of a lack of rigour and shallowness than serious intellectual labour.

Sadly, Subaltern Studies, for the reasons mentioned above, has not challenged but accommodated to the whole gamut of post/anti-Marxist theoretical agendas so beloved by the academic establishment. Chibber has provided a valuable historical survey of the Subaltern intellectual agenda from its promising beginning to this ignoble endpoint, and it deserves to be widely read and critically discussed by all those seeking a way out of the theoretical impasse represented by postcolonial theory.


1: Guha, 1983; Chakrabarty, 1984.

2: Guha, 1983, p8.

3: Guha, 1983, p5.

4: Guha, 1983, pp106-107.

5: Chakrabarty, 1984, p135.

6: Chibber, 2013, p10.

7: Guha, 1997, pp16; 19; 65; 102. This book was a seminal work that underpinned and continues to shape non-materialist explanations of development in the Global South.

8: Chibber, 2013, p99.

9: Chibber, 2013, p125.

10: Chibber, 2013, p152.

11: Chakrabarty, 1989, p218.

12: Chakrabarty, 1989, p132.

13: Chakrabarty, 1989, p145.

14: Chakrabarty, 2000, p15.

15: Chakrabarty, 1989, p172.

16: Chakrabarty, 1989, pp170-177.

17: Chakrabarty, 1989, p163.

18: Chibber, 2013, p151.

19: Thompson, 1980, p12.

20: Chibber, 2013, p8.

21: Chatterjee, 1993, p165.

22: Chibber, 2013, p153.

23: Chatterjee, 1993, p167, Chibber’s emphasis.

24: Chatterjee, 1986, p43.

25: Chatterjee, 1986, p51.

26: Chibber, 2013, pp160-161.

27: Chibber, 2013, p281.

28: Spivak, 1988, pp281-283.

29: Chibber, 2013, p284.

30: Kosambi, 1956; Habib, 1963; Habib, 2001-4; Sharma, 2005; Thapar, 1966; 2003; Sarkar, 1973; 1998.

31: Chibber, 2013, p7.


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Chakrabarty, Dipesh, 1989, Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890-1940 (Princeton University Press).

Chakrabarty, Dipesh, 2000, Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press).

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Chatterjee, Partha, 1993, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton University Press).

Chibber, Vivek, 2013, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso).

Guha, Ranajit, 1983, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Oxford University Press).

Guha, Ranajit, 1997, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Harvard University Press).

Habib, Irfan, 1963, The Agrarian System of Mughal India 15561707 (Asia Publishing House).

Habib, Irfan, 2001-4, A People’s History of India (4 volumes) (Tulika).

Kosambi, Damodar Dharmananda, 1956, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (Popular Book Depot).

Sarkar, Sumit, 1973, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 19031908 (People’s Publishing House).

Sarkar, Sumit, 1998, Writing Social History (Oxford University Press).

Sharma, Ram Sharan, 2005, Indian Feudalism (Macmillan India).

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, 1988, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Macmillan).

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Thapar, Romila, 2003, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 (Penguin).

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