Karl Popper believed that Karl Marx's ideas lead to dictatorship.

Why did Karl Popper believe in this idea?

  • quote would be nice, good concise question though, thanks
    – user25714
    Jul 17, 2017 at 10:49
  • Look at the last century. Fascism, Communism....the enimies of the open society in Popper's opinion, I think. History. At any rate, when I was in school, Popper was considered safe by the political science department, whereas Marx was still permitted in philosophy. The history department had at least two classes in History of Economics, now many history depts. consider economic history has ended, capitalism won (this also makes life easier for the college deans when they meet politicians).
    – Gordon
    Sep 19, 2017 at 18:24
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    Btw I could go into more detail on this but some of the more so-called"radical" philosophers in my department considered Popper an old reactionary when he stepped outside of Phil. science, and he caught grief for the hatchet-job he did on Hegel, but he had his supporters in the philosophy dept too. Overall there was more of a sense of humor about it in those days.
    – Gordon
    Sep 19, 2017 at 18:39

5 Answers 5


Popper objected to Marxism because Marxism is historicist: Marxism claims that it can predict the future course of history. When I discuss Marxism below, I'm discussing what Popper said about Marxism without necessarily claiming Popper was right. (I think he was far too generous to Marx in many respects. In particular, both Popper and Marx were very badly wrong about political economy.) The specific form of Marx's historicism often led Marxists to favour tyranny.

Historicism is a badly flawed idea: the flaws are explained in "The Open Society and its Enemies" (OSE) especially vol. 2 Chapters 13-22, "The Poverty of Historicism", "The Open Universe" Sections 19-22, and "Unended Quest", Section 8. Second hand sources on Popper are almost always of extremely poor quality, consult such sources at your peril. I will state two problems below that have some relevance.

(1) Predicting the future course of history is impossible. What you will do in the future depends on what knowledge you will have at that time. You can't know what knowledge you will have, because if you did you would already have that knowledge. So predicting the future is impossible.

(2) People who imagine they can predict the future are often willing to sacrifice others to bring about the future events they regard as inevitable.

Marx specifically claimed that economic forces determine the course of history and that politics can't do much to help the working class. As a result, Marx was not too keen on liberal democracy. Liberal democracy provides a means of peaceful reform where no specific person or group has an absolutely final say. Marxism recommends instead that the proletarians should become the rulers, i.e. - it recommends tyranny by a particular group of people. The fact that the group concerned isn't a monarch, or a general or whatever is irrelevant. If you get to the point of thinking one particular group should be in charge without checks on their power, you are advocating tyranny. See OSE Chapter 17, Chapter 19 Section V.


Popper believed that Marx's ideas led to dictatorship based on his observations of the events in the Soviet Union and the actions of the Stalin government.

His real objection to Marx wasn't that it lead to dictatorship, but that Marx's ideas were unscientific. Popper was originally a fan of Marx who thought that Marxist economic theory was a perfect example of a scientific social theory that could make accurate predictions about human societies the way physics or biology could make accurate predictions. As Popper's thoughts on the philosophy of science evolved on one hand and the events following the Russian revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union and Stalin's rise to power unfolded on the other, Popper realized that Marx's predictions were not accurate at all, and that predictions made by Marxists regarding the outcome of revolutions and the economic evolution of society were not falsifiable. He became disillusioned with Marx, and went from being a big fan to a strong critic of communism.

Here's Popper himself explaining this view:

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    Hello. Can you provide a source, about Popper's having been a fan of Marx's? Nov 11, 2015 at 23:33
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    I heard it in detail in an audio lecture, but here is the SEP: "1919 was in many respects the most important formative year of [Popper's] intellectual life. In that year he became heavily involved in left-wing politics, joined the Association of Socialist School Students, and became for a time a Marxist. " plato.stanford.edu/entries/popper Nov 11, 2015 at 23:50
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    @Gordon "if the fascists rise again, so will the real Left," --- in the U.S at least, the "if" in your statement is no longer necessary. So the question becomes: "When will the real left rise?" Sep 19, 2017 at 19:58
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    @AlexanderSKing I should mention that Habermas wrote a little book as a postmortem on 1968. I can't remember the name, but it has a beautiful blue "sculpted" cover. English language edition. I'll look for the title. In this book Habermas says to the young people, in so many words, you don't know what your up against.
    – Gordon
    Sep 19, 2017 at 21:56
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    The book I mentioned by Habermas: "Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest , Science and Politics (Boston, Beacon Press 1970). The first edition, hardback, is one I've seen with the interesting scuplted (embossed?) blue cover under dust jacket. Habermas says: how can students come up against states w/nukes? Now that I think of it, USSR later fell and it had nukes. So there is precedent for a nuclear state falling somewhat peacefully. Who knows?
    – Gordon
    Sep 20, 2017 at 1:28

I will add here an anarcho-communist perspective in broad lines. Marx supported his critique of bourgeois democracy (The critique of the Hegelian philosophy of Right) in Hegel's text "Philosophy of Right" a purely bourgeois analysis of economic-political relations among economical classes in which bourgeois democracy is analyzed as: A bourgeoisie regime, a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie where the state is controlled and used to support the interest of the leading bourgeois class, exploit the inferior economic strata and secure with the usage of violence its status. Bourgeois democracy is a liberal regime only for the capital and its owners (ownership of means of production). The inferior economic strata experience it as a forced totalitarian social-political relationship (Marx's interpretation, mine wording).

In this context, Marx was led to the idea of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", an economic order established from the industrial proletariat (having for property only their labor force) as a stage in the transition to a society of economic equality and the consequent dissolution of any kind of oppressive state. (based on the example of the French commune of 1871).

Economical historicism or determinism, the idea that economic relations act above and beyond individual people wills and economical classes, seems to many as a non-scientific idea. Actually it is just a common sense observation based on facts in the history of society organization. It took the form of a strict law only for ideological purposes. The case of this law is based on the observation of the rise of power of the bourgeoisie when the development of society allowed it and imposed it during the modern years (French revolution) and in confrontation with the ancient regime, the aristocracy and feudalism (which as a form of society organization has fulfilled its "historical role" and then only delayed the forces of progress and societies growth).

What Marx could not and wasn't supposed to see, is how the bourgeois state would react under the emergence of the political consiousness of the proletariat, and how it would join (the bourgeois state) a collaboration with some parts of the petite-bourgeois (fascism-militarism), and in these circumstances (white Terror, two world wars), the proletariat would lose all the capacity to develop the new political formation and would be ignored by the dominance of individual alliances within the bourgeoisie class. This alliance of the upper bourgeoisie with extreme parts of the petite bourgeoisie (imperialism, militarism) led to the destruction of large parts of the labor and resources of society and the regression in terms of the possibilities for the transition to a more developed form of social organization. Consequently regimes under the banner of communism degenerated into bourgeois bureaucracies antagonistic but in essence supplementary to traditional bourgeois -democracies.

Carl Popper acted as a supporter of bourgeois relations, he tried to link the Marxian theory of communism and economical historicism to totalitarian/militaristic regimes, ignoring the particular differences that are clear to every impartial observer. This is evidenced by the positive reception of communist, libertarian ideas by progressives and democrats around the world.









Popper launches a complex barrage of objections at Marx in 'The Open Society' and 'The Poverty of Historicism'. His objections separate into two sorts. He objects to Marxism as pseudo-science and he sees Marxism as totalitarian, dictatorial and inimical to freedom.


Popper attacks Marx for what Popper calls his 'historicism'. This is not a luminous label and Popper uses it in different senses in different places. Popper's key criticism of Marx under this label is that Marx's social and political theories are pseudo-science. The grounds for this claim that:

  1. No precise predictions are possible in the social sciences.

  2. No short term predictions are possible in the social sciences.

  3. The observational base of the social sciences is limited to a chronicle of social and political events.

  4. The only universally valid social laws are developmental laws linking up successive social fornations.

(Richard Hudelson, 'Popper's Critique of Marx', Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Apr., 1980), pp. 259-270: 259-60.)

1.- 4. are 'points'. More deeply, Popper's central philosophical critique is threefold:

(1) That there cannot be developmental laws of the kind the historicist claims to discover, (2) That if there were such laws we could never know them, and (3) That the historicist confuses mere empirical trends with genuine laws. (Hudleston: 260.)

Is Marx guilty as charged ?

It is doubtful that he is. I can't go into full detail but can summarise the major points.

The only universally 'valid' laws of society must be developmental laws governing the transition from period to period

Popper's objection is that the only universally 'valid' social laws possible are time-bound, holding good only for transitions from one period to another. A proper scientific law is not time-specific in this way.

Popper attributes to the historicist the argument that since most social uniformities obtain only within a certain historical period and thus cannot be projected as 'valid through space and time', it follows that the only universally 'valid' laws of society must be developmental laws governing the transition from period to period.

It is difficult to see why anyone would accept this argument. The only basis for it seems to lie in a misunderstanding of the sense in which a law must be universal, a confusion of logical form with the notion of being applicable in the explanation of actual events occurring at all times and places. A statement of the form, 'if conditions cl, ..., c, obtain and an event of kind, kl, occurs, then an event of kind, k2, will follow' is, if true, no less true when conditions c1, ..., c fail to obtain. Presumably, period relative law claims would be statements of this form where the c conditions formulate the features of the period within which the regularity obtains.

Marx clearly does believe such period relative laws to be worthy of investigation. Most of the three volumes of Capital are devoted to working out the period relative laws of capitalist social systems. Further, on the basis of this analysis Marx is able to make many relatively precise, short term predictions about the effects of changes in specified variables on other variables. It is true that Marx criticized the classical economists for confusing the period relative laws of capitalism with natural laws of physics or chemistry. But, Marx's point is just that there is nothing more 'natural' about the c conditions constituting capitalism than the conditions constituting other social formations. Marx does not deny that there are genuine period relative laws governing each formation. He praises the classical economist for initiating genuinely scientific theories of capitalism. (Hudleston: 260-1.)

There cannot be such laws

The first step in Popper's rejection of claims to discover developmental social laws is his denial that there could be such laws. 'But can there be a law of evolution?', Popper asks.

His answer is 'no' and that for a 'very simple' reason:

The evolution of life on earth, or of human society, is a unique historical process. Such a process, we may assume, proceeds in accordance with all kinds of causal laws, for example the laws of mechanics, of chemistry, of heredity and segregation, of natural selection, etc. Its description, however, is not a law, but only a singular historical statement. Universal laws make assertions concerning some unvarying order, as Huxley puts it, i.e. concerning all processes of a certain kind; and although there is no reason why the obervation of one single instance should not incite us to formulate a universal law, nor why, if we are lucky, we should not even hit upon the truth, it is clear that any law formulated in this or in any other way, must be tested by new instances before it can be taken seriously by science. But we cannot hope to test a universal hypothesis nor to find a natural law acceptable to science if we are for ever confined to the observation of one unique process." (Popper, Poverty of Historicism: 108-109.)

As has been pointed out by others, this argument fails to establish the conclusion it was supposed to establish. Popper sets out to show that there cannot be laws which govern the evolution of society. But, the fact that a process is unique does not mean that it is not law governed. It is true that laws make no assertions about particular processes but only about kinds of processes. But, this is consistent with there being only one, or even no, instance of the kind of process about which the law is formulated. Indeed, Popper seems to concede this point in saying that we might be lucky enough to formulate a law which happened to be true on the basis of a single observation. From this point the whole argument shifts direction. From the claim that there could not be such developmental laws we tum to the claim that we could not know such laws.

Another argument, suggested in the passage quoted above, might also be seen as supporting the claim that there can be no developmental laws. The argument appears to go something like this: The process of social evolution is a complex matter involving many constituent processes which are govemed by a variety of laws - i.e. the laws of mechanics, chemistry, biology, etc. Such complex processes are determined by many laws and therefore cannot be governed by a single law of social development.

I do not find this argument compelling. The laws of many of the sciences govern processes which are themselves complex outcomes of constituent processes governed by a variety of laws. The laws of biology govern processes which are determined at the level of the constituent processes by the laws of chemistry and physics. An even better example, for our purposes, is the science of geology which makes developmental hypotheses analogous to the imagined developmental laws of society. The fact that the processes underlying the geological development of the earth are governed by the laws of chemistry and physics does not preclude the possibility of there being certain geological laws of development. The relation between 'macroscopic' and 'microscopic' laws need not detain us here. The point is just that the fact that there are many microscopic laws determining certain processes need not exclude the possibility of there being macroscopic laws with respect to processes of which the microscopic processes are constituents. The argument thus fails to establish that there cannot be laws of social development.(Hudleston: 262-3.)

Could we know developmental social laws?

Popper's second criticism of historicist claims for developmental social laws is that even if there were such laws, we could not know them. I have maintained that the argument from the uniqueness of the process of social evolution, quoted above, does not suffice to show that there cannot be such laws but at most shows that we could not know such laws. Does the argument justify this claim?

I do not think that it does. In the first place I see no reason why we might not, on occasion, be justified in believing a law claim true on the basis of a single confirming observation. If a theory is alone amongst competing theories in predicting an observed event I see no reason why we might not be justified in believing that theory true. The issues here get very complex and further features of the supposed case - among them our prior subjective probability with respect to the occurrence of the observed event - will bear on whether or not we are justified in believing the law true. I will not attempt to say anything more about what would count as a satisfactory theory of justification. Certainly our justification for believing a law claim true is strengthened by new instances of confirming observations, but again, the important thing is not so much the number of confirming observations but the theoretical context in which they arise and the way they bear on competing theories.

But, we need not rest our objections to Popper's claim on this reply alone. For, the fact that a process is unique does not imply that we are restricted to a single observation as the basis for claims about laws governing that process. With suitable factual assumptions, the law claim may entail a number of predictions about the occurrence of events at various stages in the unique process that it purports to explain. Insofar as this is so, the law claim could be tested by observations of the process at each of these various stages. The fact that we are 'for ever confined to the observation of one unique process' does not mean that we are for ever confined to one unique observation. Such a law claim might be testable by 'new instances' in the sense of instances other than the one which prompted us to formulate the law claim.

Finally, a process may be unique in the sense that in the course of its development the interacting elements that constitute the process enter into relationships that they do not enter into under any other circumstances. But, if the process is simply a novel arrangement of normally behaving elements, the law claims conceming the process may be derivable, or in some weaker sense based upon, the lawful behavior of the elements. Insofar as develop- mental laws are reducible to laws about the behavior of the elements Popper seems willing to accept the claim that laws about unique processes could be known.13 If, then, a social process is unique in the sense that it constitutes a novel arrangement of familiar elements, Popper's argument provides no basis for denying that we might know the laws governing the process. (Hudleston: 263-4.)

Marx confuses trends and laws

Popper claims that Marx, along with his historicist cohorts, is guilty of a fundamental methodological confusion of empirical trends and genuine laws. Even if it is possible to know genuine developmental laws, it may yet be the case that Marxism is infected with such a methodological confusion in certain of its claims. In this section, I want to examine that charge.

Popper draws the distinction between trends and laws in the following way. A trend statement asserts the existence of some tendency over time, e.g. a tendency for population to grow. A trend statement is existential in its logical form. A law statement, on the other hand, is universal in its logical form. It makes no existential assertions. It "asserts the impossibility of something or other".

One should not conclude from this that trends are of no importance or interest to science. The explanation of trends is a proper aim for theory. An explained trend is a kind of empirical law. Thus, a law of the form: 'If conditions of kind c obtain, then there will be a trend of kind t' is acceptable to Popper. The historicist's error rests on his failure to recognize that empirically observed trends rest on such c conditions. As Popper sees it the historicist simply notes some pattern in history and projects this pattern into the future as an "absolute trend". Thus, he criticizes Marx for failing to understand that trends are dependent upon c conditions and hence, for confusing trends with laws:

There is, for example, a trend towards 'an accumulation of means of production' (as Marx puts it). But we should hardly expect it to persist in a population which is rapidly decreasing; and such a decrease may in turn depend upon extra-economic conditions, for example, on chance inventions, or conceivably on the direct physiological (perhaps biochemical) impact of an industrial environment. (Poverty of Historicism; 129.)

This is the only specific example Popper offers of the central fallacy of historicism at work in Marx's thought. I believe the example seriously distorts what is going on in Marx. Marx did believe that there is a tendency for the means of production to accumulate. This is true both as a belief about the course of human history as a whole and as a belief in a tendency for an accelerated accumulation of means of production as a characteristic of capitalism. But, it neither case does the belief rest simply on a projection of a tendency observed to hold in the past.

The general tendency for accumulation rests on Marx's account of human need satisfaction. People, like all animals, have certain needs which must be satisfied if they are to survive and reproduce. Unlike other animals which simply follow instinctive behavior pattems in satisfying their needs, human beings use their heads to devise new, more reliable and more productive means for satisfying needs. And, they pass on these artificially developed means to succeeding generations. Further, Marx notes that this tendency for accumulation depends on commerce and that it can be retarded or reversed by warfare.

The specific tendency for an accelerated accumulation under capitalism rests on Marx's analysis of the behavior of individual capitalists under conditions of a competitive struggle for survival. Further, Marx realized that the rate of accumulation is dependent upon a number of factors. He explicitly mentions the effects of the degree of exploitation, the productivity of labor, the ratio of capital consumed to capital employed in a given time period, and the magnitude of capital advanced. Marx made some effort to trace out the effects of these variables. He also recognized the dependence of the rate of accumulation upon some variables, the ratio of investment to revenues consumed by the capitalist and foreign trade and investment, the effects of which he made no attempt to analyze.

Insofar as Marx recognized that both the existence of the trend toward accumulation and the specific rate of that trend depend upon conditions which he attempts to formulate, it does not seem to be the case that he confuses trends with law. (Hudleston: 265-7.)


At a philosophical level there is no plausibility in the claim that Marx was an enemy of the Open Society, a defender of tyranny or totalitarianism:

A recurrent but vaguely defined concept in Marx is the post-revolutionary "dictatorship of the proletariat" which he envisioned. This phrase is often interpreted in the light of twentieth-century dictatorships, and particularly Soviet Russia. But to understand what Marx himself may have had in mind the model must be sought elsewhere. Engels declared: "Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat." What is relevant here, of course, is not the historical Paris Commune but the Paris Commune as seen by Marx. The specific features of the Commune which caused Marx and Engels to regard it as the political prototype of the dictatorship of the proletariat were (i) universal suffrage, (ii) criticism of the government by the people, (iii) freedom of religion and separation of church and state and (iv) a non-militaristic outlook5-in short, the common denominators of Western democracy. Marx was by no means an enemy of "the open society." His belief in free scientific inquiry and his opposition to any governmental control of the content of education showed an attitude very different from that which has led to state attempts to mold a "Soviet man." Marx sharply opposed any idea of the state as "a children's home" or of society as "a crowd of adults whose destiny is to be educated from above." (Thomas Sowell, 'Karl Marx and the Freedom of the Individual', Ethics, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Jan., 1963), pp. 119-125: 119.)

While Engels suggested the Paris Commune as a model of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Soviet Union has assumed that role for many. Its national peculiarities and paradoxes have been widely accepted as examples of the Marxian word made flesh. Thus, if the U.S.S.R. lacks political liberties, this has been regarded as evidence that Marxian thought is undemocratic. If Russia concentrates on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods, this becomes a "Marxist" notion, despite Marx's complete silence on this subject. If the Soviets violate international agreements, this is explained by the "Marxist" precept that "the end justifies the means"- a precept not to be found in all Marx's voluminous writings. Moreover, these hasty assertions are often cited as examples of the influence of ideas on history and, therefore, a further point scored against Marx. But there is little need to resort to Marx- ian doctrine to explain Soviet practices. There is nothing mysterious in the fact that a country which has never had a tradition of individual freedom still does not have one. Instead of this situation being a result of Marxian theories, Marxian theory was itself changed to accommodate the situation. The principles of the one-party state and of "iron discipline in the party" were included by Stalin among the "new contributions made by Lenin" to "developing Marx's doctrine." (Sowell: 122.)

But is there a threat to freedom from Marx's 'holism'. 'Holistic or utopian social engineering 'aims at re-modelling the "whole of society" in accordance with a definite plan or blueprint' (Poverty of Historicism: 71, see also 23, 67, 74.)

How might this threat arise. Here's Popper again:

But there is one element within utopianism which is particularly characteristic of Plato's approach and which Marx does not oppose, although it is perhaps the most important of those elements which I have attacked as unrealistic. It is the sweep of utopianism, its attempt to deal with society as a whole, leaving no stone unturned. It is the conviction that one has to go to the very root of the social evil, that nothing short of a complete eradication of the offending social system will do if we wish to 'bring any decency into the world' (as Du Gard says). 'It is, in short, its uncompromising radicalism.... Both Plato and Marx are dreaming of the apocalyptic revolution which will radically transfigure the whole social world.' (Open Society and its Enemies, 5th ed., I, 164.)

This might produce totalitarianism in practice (though the term is anachronistic as applied to Plato) but it does not embody Marx's intention. Once the classless society had been introduced, the state had withered away, and exploitation and alienation had disappeared, Marx had no blueprint to impose on society. Human beings would spontaneously and co-operatively make their own social arrangements; Marx did not think they would need the guidance of a 19th-century theorist.


K.R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 5th ed. Published by Routlege & Kegan Paul, London (1973) ISBN 10: 071004626X ISBN 13: 9780710046260

K.R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism. Published by Routledge (2002) ISBN 10: 0415278465 ISBN 13: 9780415278461

Richard Hudelson, 'Popper's Critique of Marx', Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Apr., 1980), pp. 259-270.

Thomas Sowell, 'Karl Marx and the Freedom of the Individual', Ethics, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Jan., 1963), pp. 119-125.


A difference between Popper's philosophy and Marx's philosophy is, Popper valued good ideas more than Marx. Marx abhorred new ideas because he believed it caused the problems regarding lost jobs. He wrote "Labour, then, as the creator of use values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself." (Marx 1990:133) His statement that labour is "the creator" degrades ideas. Socrates said in Book X of the Republic and in Ion gods and goddesses have good ideas. Marx was probably very much influenced by sacrificing of "the Creator" according to religion. He for example made fun of the Bauer brothers. "The Holy Family (German: Die heilige Familie) is a book written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in November 1844. The book is a critique on the Young Hegelians and their trend of thought which was very popular in academic circles at the time. The title was a suggestion by the publisher and is meant as a sarcastic reference to the Bauer Brothers and their supporters. ... Later Marx will continue this sarcasm by referring to them as Saint Bruno, Saint Max (Stirner), etc." (Wikipedia)


Marx; K. 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: Volume One. London: Penguin Classics

Wikipedia. From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Holy_Family_%28book%29 on 13 January 2016.

  • "Marx abhorred new ideas" - any source for this ridiculous statement? Mar 24, 2019 at 12:56
  • Logic is a source. Differences in views between capitalists and communists, about how capital forms, inform my opinion. Placing value on Socrates's view above, ideas form capital. Marx wrote labour only form value/capital, whilst degrading the new ideas, which caused the industrial revolution, with the argument the ideas caused unemployment. Most people with Caiaphas Syndrome hate new ideas and Marx's book The Holy Family indicates he suffered it. Mar 25, 2019 at 19:02
  • "Hence the interconnection between their various labours confronts them, in the realm of ideas, as a plan drawn up by a capitalist". (Marx. 1990. Capital Vol 1. London: Penguin Classics. 449-450) My opinion is explained in more detail at: africahead.co.za/Africahead/QuotesAndRamblings_files/… Mar 25, 2019 at 19:20

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