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Antonio Gramsci And Rosa Luxemburg:
Leading Thinkers On Socialist Democracy

By Dr. Peter Custers

21 December, 2011

1. Introduction

In my below essay I will briefly discuss the views of two European theorists, Antonio Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg. Both were leading thinkers of the European workers’ movement in the beginning of the 20th century. The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci emerged towards the end of the First World War as organiser and editor of the weekly called l‘Ordine Nuovo’. The paper propagated the building of workers’ councils at factory level, as expression of the autonomous power of workers as producers. After the formation of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci was elected to Parliament and became the party’s de facto leader from 1924. In November 1926, he was arrested and incarcerated by Mussolini’s fascist regime. During his prolonged stay in jail Gramsci undertook intensive studies on aspects of social theory which in his view had not been fully theorized by Marxist teachers before him. These aspects all related to politics and culture, i.e. aspects identified as society’s ‘superstructure’ - contrasting with economic relations being society’s ‘base’. Seriously weakened physically in consequence of incarceration, Gramsci died shortly after he was released in 1937 (1).

Gramsci’s writings on workers’ councils are exceedingly important for any discussion on Marxism and socialist democracy. So too are Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s organisational principles, and a part of her critique of the Russian revolution. Luxemburg gathered first-hand experience as revolutionary in the country of her birth Poland, during the upheaval of 1905 when she was arrested and detained. Later, after her release, she shifted to Germany, joined the powerful Social Democratic Party, and became a fierce critic of the parliamentary leanings of the Party’s rightwing leaders, foremost those of the ‘revisionist’ Bernstein who opposed militant strike struggles. With foresight, she early started campaigning against German militarism and against the threat of a world war, - well before World War One actually erupted in 1914. Like Lenin, she theorized imperialism as a new phase in the history of capitalism. But she did so from a position that was clearly differentiated from his. For she focused largely on questions of international trade instead of on foreign investments of capital (2). Luxemburg’s writings on Marxism and democracy, although they don’t have a systematic character, are exceptional. For whereas she fully endorsed the building of a workers’ state based on workers’ and soldiers’ councils as the Bolsheviks in Russia attempted to, - she disagreed with the Bolsheviks’ temptation to suppress dissent. Rosa Luxemburg was incarcerated during World War One, and within months after her release towards the end of 1918, she was brutally murdered for supporting the uprising of the Spartacus League in Berlin (3).

Below I will only focus on aspects of the European working class movement immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution took place (1917). At the time the centre of the international working class movement did, of course, lie in Europe. Inevitably therefore, the thematic of this essay is ‘Eurocentric’. Nevertheless, the experiences gathered in that period of history have more than ordinary significance for debates today. For it was probably during this historical period that workers’ democracy was experimented with on the widest geographical scale, notably in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy (4). Moreover, even if many of the views expressed by Gramsci and Luxemburg were no final views on the theme of Marxism and democracy, - it is still crucial to recognize that part of working class history has been sidelined by the prolonged dominance of Leninism. I have divided my discussion into two parts: * the question of factory councils, and * the question of people’s civil and political rights under socialism. I am aware of the fact this will not be the final word on these themes.

2. Workers’ Councils

The first point to be scored, is that the movement for the building of workers’ councils emerged from the experience gathered by Russian workers in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The Russian proletariat did not just succeed in building political power in Russia on the basis of its factory councils and territorial soviets. It inspired industrial workers through other parts of Europe to do the same. In Hungary a ‘Soviet state’ briefly functioned immediately after World War I. In Germany the countrywide-movement to construct workers’ councils was so powerful that in 1918 it led to the fall of the imperial government. And in Italy, about which I will say more below, factory councils dominated life in the country´s industrial heartland, i.e. the Northern city of Turin and its surroundings, up until the factory occupations of 1920. To my knowledge, a comparative evaluation of the experience of factory councils in Europe during 1918/1919 is overdue. Yet there is no doubt that the experience was very rich; that it demonstrated the capacity of industrial workers to run society; and that it showed the possibility of a radical and democratic alternative to ´bourgeois-parliamentary´ democracy.

Here I will focus on only one of these varied experiments with workers´ councils, namely those built by Italia’s industrial workers. This experience was summed up by Antonio Gramsci in a report he dispatched to the Communist International in July of 1920 (5). The council movement in Turin arose in the wake of two workers’ insurrections staged during the war years. These indeed were armed confrontations with the forces of state. According to Gramsci, - during the second insurrection of August of 1917 alone some 500 people were killed (6). Though beaten back, the workers in no time re-organized and launched new strike struggles. These culminated in the historic April movement of 1920, when all metal workers of Turin city struck for a whole month, while other categories of workers downed their tools for ten days. According to Gramsci, in its last ten days this general strike encompassed the whole region surrounding Turin, i.e. Piedmont. About half a million industrial and agricultural workers were mobilised, signifying some 4 million people were involved. Whereas other strikes, such as the strike wave that had broken out in the first part of 1919, had been over the eight-hour working day, - the April strike in Turin was centred on the recognition of factory councils. It was followed by factory occupations which unfortunately could not be sustained (7).

In order to understand the context in which factory councils could emerge, some facts need to be stated on the composition of the working class in Turin at the time. Here, according to Gramsci, nearly three-quarters in a population of half a million consisted of working class families. Further, the process of production was ‘perfectly centralized’, in particular in the automobile and engineering industry which employed 50 thousand shop-floor workers and 10 thousand clerks and technicians. The greater part of the workforce was made up of skilled workers and technicians. Moreover, both the engineering workers and the technicians were well organized. According to Gramsci, Turin possessed a single trade union organisation, which at the time he wrote his report had 90 thousand affiliated workers. What is also crucial to note, so as to understand the reasons for the success of the council movement, is that the clerks and technicians in the factories solidly stood by the workers in their strikes. Moreover, workers in other sectors such as in woodworking and in rubber, generally were willing to follow the lead of the metal workers (8).

Before elaborating on the methodology of workers’ democracy built at factory level, I should briefly outline the organisational structure of the factory councils. The basic approach is explained well in a crucial document entitled ‘The Programme of the Workshop Delegates’, written by a study-group of the council movement soon after the first councils had been formed. The group comprised mainly workers, but it included Antonio Gramsci and its document clearly bore the influence of Gramsci’s thinking. According to this program, member-delegates of the factory councils were appointed on a factory-workshop basis. They represented all workers in a given workshop, and held both trade union and council responsibilities at the same time. The factory council, consisting of all workshop delegates, was in principle convened once every week. In between, factory level responsibilities were carried out by the council´s executive commissariat which consisted of workers excused from work for their term of duty. This committee met every evening to assess the work of the delegates, and it was also entrusted with bringing out a fortnightly factory bulletin. The powers and duties of the delegates, the councils and the executive commissariat, all were spelled out clearly in the above mentioned Programme (9).

With regard to the functioning of the council system the most important point to be noted I believe is that the delegates needed to enjoy full confidence of their electorate. They were subject to ‘instant recall’! This provision echoes the experience of the Paris Commune of 1870, the first and short-lived West European experiment in the building of a workers’ state. Both Marx and Engels had praised the tremendous courage of the Paris workers in staging an insurrection against heavy odds. They had also stressed the uniqueness of the rules the Communards had devised for the functioning of their municipal government elected after the take-over of power in the city. Thus, in his be-famed writing ‘The Civil War in France’, Marx argued that ‘universal suffrage’ under the Commune system served the people: ‘The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short term’. In this latter respect, as well as with respect to payment (bare workers’ wages for politicians!), the rules of the Commune were differentiated from the formal democracy of the ´bourgeois-parliamentary´-system (10).

Under the Italian factory council system that emerged in Turn subsequent to World War One, - the workshop delegates elected as members of the councils too were ‘subject to instant recall’. If any were repudiated by a half plus one of his electorate, or by the majority of the factory assembly, - the delegate was ‘obliged to seek renewal of his mandate’ (11). As to voting, the Programme stated it would take place by secret ballot. Further, it is important to stress that no limits were placed on the right of ordinary workers to participate in elections to factory councils. Whether any person were organized in a trade union did not matter; it did not impact on his voting right. Candidates who stood for the elections of workshop delegates had to be trade union members – here there was a sensible restriction indeed. But this restriction did not exist with regard to voting rights. Given this electoral system, it is clear that the factory councils represented the entire proletariat in factories where they functioned. The councils became the expression of the unity of the working class at the level of production. They not only represented all manual workers, i.e. workers physically engaged in production, - but other categories of waged employees, such as engineers, technical supervisors and clerical staff as well (12).

A brief comment is in place regarding the relations between factory councils and the trade unions. Gramsci, in writings for l’Ordine Nuovo, insisted that the factory councils were a historically new phenomenon, and that they should be differentiated conceptually from trade unions (13). The latter, he argued, were institutions formed within the framework of capitalism. Unions served to represent the workers as waged slaves in negotiations with the representatives of the employers’ class. Their historical mission was to strive for improvements in wages and other working conditions under the rule of capital. Factory councils instead were defined by Gramsci as embodiment of the working class as producers. Their historical mission was to give guidance to production itself, and to function as the anti-thesis of the employers´ authority. Ultimately their aim was to conquer public power and eliminate private property. Nevertheless, the above mentioned programmatic regulations drafted by the council study group, were not concerned with production control alone, but also with trade union-work at factory level. The Programme warned against any repetition of the ‘fatal error’ of conflict which had tragically shaped relations between unions and councils in Hungary (14). In fact, factory delegates in Turin were entrusted with double functions, including the representation of trade union-members. The modalities for discussions on negotiations towards agreements between unions and employer-organisations too were elaborated in the council-regulations referred to! (15).

Before concluding this brief summary on Gramci’s views regarding the Italian factory councils, let me refer to what appears to have been their principal limitation in practice. The council movement in 1919 and 1920 helped the industrial working class in the North of Italy develop enormous power. Yet contrary to the proletarian movements built in Russia and Hungary, the Italian movement on the whole did not result in the formation of soviets, of territorial bodies representing workers’ power, at least not throughout Italy. In Turin assemblies bringing together factory delegates were held, but the geographic parameter of workers’ power was circumscribed. Moreover, though the factory councils in the city and its surroundings strove to take over power from capitalist owners, - in reality full consolidation of workers’ power over factory production did not take place, and the power of the industrialists over production was re-established after a temporary occupation of Turin factories in 1920. Nevertheless, the experience of the Italian workers´ councils, and of Gramsci’s weekly l’Ordine Nuovo, is of extraordinary importance today. For in course of this movement, workers’ democracy took a very concrete shape. Moreover, the structure of workers’ democracy was embodied in very precise regulations, - regulations which continue to serve as an apt reference point for debates on workers’ democracy today!

3. Civil Rights under Socialism

I will now proceed to discuss the question of people’s civil rights under socialism. All opponents of the bourgeois form of democracy participating in the debates of the international workers’ movement in the beginning of the 20th century, including Lenin, Gramsci and Luxemburg, argued the world proletarian revolution they dreamt of would bring a higher form of democracy. There was agreement, following Marx, that the new state would be a class state, just like the bourgeois states to be replaced by the workers’ republics. Like the bourgeoisie which used dictatorial methods whenever its class interests were threatened, - the working class too would have to defend its class rule and suppress ‘counter-revolutionary’ groups and sections of the population. Nevertheless, the new socialist republic representing the interests of the oppressed would be more democratic in content than any of the bourgeois republics to be replaced. The common position of Marxist theoreticians was: socialism would mean not that democratic rights would be restricted - but that in fact these would be extended far beyond the rights bourgeois states had granted their citizens.

Quite soon after the Bolsheviks staged their revolution in Russia (1917) however, a controversy arose over some of the measures taken by Lenin’s new government to consolidate its state rule. Surely, the Bolshevik revolution was hailed as the very most radical rupture with capitalist exploitation ever attempted. Surely, and for this reason, there were sustained attempts by imperialist powers to subvert the new revolutionary government. Surely, in order to consolidate revolutionary rule, some measures of repression, such as against members of the former autocratic (‘tsarist’) government were inevitable. Nevertheless, doubts did arise rather soon over measures taken against a range of political forces, - including against Left Socialist and anarchist forces, that held programmatic differences with Lenin’s Party but were Left-leaning. These measures of suppression amongst others included: * the dismantling of the Constituent Assembly where the Bolsheviks were in a minority and were up against the party of Socialist Revolutionaries; and * stern measures restraining others’ civil rights, such as the banning of publications of rival political organisations, and ultimately prohibition of these organisations.

An articulate critic of Bolshevik measures was the Marxist thinker Rosa Luxemburg whose positions on many theoretical questions were rather close to those of Lenin. To be clear from the start: like Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, when participating in the debates of the German Social Democratic Party, had outspokenly opposed the tendency of Rightwing leaders to neglect extra-parliamentary mass actions, i.e. the tendency to overwhelmingly rely on participation in Parliament (16). In her writings on ‘bourgeois’ parliaments, Luxemburg admitted that these can be an arena of class struggles; that at crucial moments the mood of the masses ‘penetrates’ the bourgeois parliament; and that the extension of voting rights towards all sections of the working class was a historical achievement that should be valued by Marxists without hesitance. Nevertheless, Luxemburg was aware of the fact that parliamentary democracy is formal in kind, and that through revolutionary struggle it needs to be replaced by a new, more comprehensive type of democracy (17).

Yet Luxemburg early raised pointed questions about the organisational methods used by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Thus, in a text published as early as in 1904, she critically commented on Lenin’s book ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’. Here she argued, that Lenin’s propositions on party structure amounted to ‘’ultra-centralism’. She specifically took issue with Lenin’s proposition that the party’s central committee would have a determining power to intervene in all activities of the local chapters of the party. Thus she questioned ‘the omnipotent central power with its unlimited right of intervention and control’(!). Whereas she agreed with Lenin’s principle of centralisation, she argued that centralisation should be of a ‘coordinating, synthetic character, and not a regulative and exclusive one’. Whereas she understood that Lenin’s policies were aimed at countering opportunism within the Russian labour movement, Luxemburg was afraid his organisational approach would tend to weaken the party’s capacity to rely on the spontaneity of the masses. It would weaken the party’s capacity to draw synthetic lessons from the experience of the Russian working class gathered in the course of the labourers’ own independent combats (18).

In the context of this brief essay there is no scope to reflect in detail on Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s party principles, and on the differential experience of China under Mao Ze Dung. What is important to note though, is that her doubts concerning Bolshevik Party policies were not restricted to organisational principles alone. After the Bolshevik revolution took place, they were broadened and came to comprise a whole series of issues relating to civil rights and political democracy. While imprisoned in Germany because of her opposition against militarism and World War One, she wrote a long pamphlet, entitled ‘The Russian Revolution’ (September, 1918). The pamphlet was published posthumously in 1922, i.e. after she had been brutally killed by the German police (19). In this pamphlet she praised the Bolsheviks for their extraordinary courage; expressed understanding for the complications they faced in the immediate post-revolutionary period. Still, Luxemburg stated strong reservations with regard to Bolshevik policies. Below I will skip her critique of the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (in view of an apparent contradiction in her own stance (20)), but will highlight two issues relating to people’s civil rights.

The first one is that of voting rights. Luxemburg noted that the right of suffrage elaborated by the new Soviet government was very restricted, - too restricted in her view. According to Lenin’s and Trotsky’s interpretation of proletarian dictatorship, Luxemburg stated, the right to vote would be granted only to those who live by their own labour and ‘is denied to everybody else’. She noted that under Russia’s revolutionary conditions the lives of many people had been disrupted, ‘derailed without any objective possibility of finding any employment’. This was true not only for members of the elite, the capitalist and landowning class, - but also for members of the middle classes, and even for members of the working class! Under these circumstances, a political right of suffrage on the basis of a general obligation to labour, she stated, is ‘quite an incomprehensible measure’. Luxemburg thus pleaded in favour of respecting the principle of universal suffrage. This after all had historically been granted to members of the working class not by way of bourgeois charity, - but in consequence of the working class’ own determined struggles. She warned against ‘a general disenfranchisement of broad sections of society’, something she would completely disagree with (21).

The second point is that regarding freedom of expression and freedom of association. Shortly after the conquest of power, the new Soviet government instituted measures banning the publications of a whole series of rival political organisations. The list of prohibitions was indeed strikingly large. It included even the paper brought out previously by the highly respected socialist writer Maxim Gorky! Moreover, they were followed later by prohibitions on rival political organisations. In her pamphlet Luxemburg expressed firm disagreement with these measures: ‘It is a well known and an indisputable fact that without a free and untrammelled press, without the unlimited right of association and assemblage, the rule of the broad masses of the people is entirely unthinkable.’ Luxemburg warned that the tendency of the Bolshevik Party to rely on extensive terror and on other measures of repression for consolidation of their rule, would ultimately threaten the revolution itself. For the revolution’s success depended on the strength of political life, it depended on the participation of the broad masses of the people. ‘With the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled.’ (22)

Lastly, I wish to quote the way Luxemburg defined democracy in her pamphlet. Though some of the statements se made on the Russian revolution in 1918 are largely of historical interest, - a part of her views remain of great actual value today. This counts in particular for the manner in which she defined democracy. Whoever has been dubbed a heretic like the undersigned, or has been denounced for holding ‘diverging’ or dissenting views, is bound to feel comforted. For in a truly prophetic passage, she argued: ‘Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’, but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege’ (23). Now that the historical era when socialism was defined as one party-rule has passed for ever, there is much reason to reflect on the way Rosa Luxemburg defined socialist democracy, and to re-reflect on her defence of people’s civil and political rights under socialism formula-ted at the very start of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party-rule.

4. Conclusion

By way of conclusion of this summary on Marxism and socialist democracy, I wish to re-state the need to break with all exclusivist traditions. This break is an important precondition, I believe, for the revival and blossoming of Marxist thinking in the era of globalised resistance. After the success of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and given Lenin’s extraordinary success in capturing state power for the Russian working class, - it was only natural for socialist activists worldwide to uphold the Bolshevik experiment, and gloss over its limitations in terms of socialist democracy. Lenin could muster his unique success because he hailed the workers’ councils that mushroomed in the course of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. His moral stance seemed to invalidate all criticisms. Further, since imperialist countries made strenuous efforts to subvert the Russian revolution through multiple military interventions, - it was only natural for socialists to rally to Lenin’s cause. Even Rosa Luxemburg in her critical essay on the Russian revolution referred to the absolute need to stand by the Bolshevik Party. The victory of Leninism within the international workers´ movement is similarly explainable. It was predicated on the fact that the Russian revolution triumphed in a period when all other attempts to establish workers’ rule in countries of Europe tragically failed.

Today, in the era of globalisation, when the undemocratic practices in formerly socialist states have resulted in a worldwide setback for almost all emancipatory currents, - there is little reason to continue glossing over the limitations of the Bolshevik experiment. Lenin’s contribution to the history of Marxism, such as his popular formulation of the theory of imperialism; his ideas on the unity of workers and peasants in the democratic revolution; and his enthusiastic and principled support for anti-colonial struggles in countries of the South – all these are appreciated. However, it is crucial for Marxists today to recognize that valuable currents have been sidelined historically, that currents such as those represented by Antonio Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg have contributed their own, differential ideas to the tradition of Marxist thought. There is an urgent need to democratise our thinking as Marxist activists. For too long dissidents and minorities within the Marxist tradition have been ignored, or even condemned in the name of an unfailing Leninism. In the era of globalisation Marxism can still regain its status as a scientific or proto-scientific critique of capitalist rule. However, it can only do so, if we are ready to reflect on the contributions a variety of currents have historically made to human emancipation, including - most adamantly - the feminists and the anarchists. An open re-appraisal of the international workers’ movement in its flourishing period after World War One will, I believe, be helpful. It will be helpful towards developing an up-to-date perspective on socialist democracy.

Dr. Peter Custers Leiden, the Netherlands, December 1, 2011 - www.petercusters.nl


(1) on Gramsci’s life, see for instance: John M.Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Stanford University Press, California, USA, 1967); and Alistair Davidson, Antonio Gramsci. Towards an Intellectual Biography (Merlin Press, London, 1987); also Narahari Kabiraj, Gramsci. Jiban O Chinta (Radical Book Club, Kolkota, 1996);

(2) see Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1964); for excerpts see Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (ed.), The Rosa Luxemburg Reader (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2004), Part One, Chapter 1, p.32 (‘The Historical Conditions of Accumulation’);

(3) on Luxemburg’s life, see for instance: Peter Nettle, Rosa Luxemburg (Oxford University Press, 1969); and Elzbieta Ettinger, Rosa Luxemburg. A Life (Beacon Press, Boston, 1986);

(4) for a bibliography on the history of workers’ councils, see e.g. Anton Pannekoek, Workers’ Councils (Introduction by Noam Chomsky – AK Press, Oakland/Edinburg, 2003, p.209); for experiences in the Global South, see e.g. Assef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran: A Third World Experience of Workers’ Control (Zed Press, London, 1987); and Ian Clegg, Workers’ Self- Management in Algeria (Monthly Review Press, New York, 1971);

(5) see ‘The Turin Factory Councils Movement’ (Report dispatched in July 1920 to the Executive Committee of the Communist International - see Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings. 1910-1920 (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1977, p.310);

(6) ibid, p.314;

(7) ibid; see further Paulo Spriano, The Occupation of the Factories (Pluto Press, London, 1975);

(8) Antonio Gramsci (1977), op.cit., p.311/312;

(9) ibid,p.114; for an anarchist account of the Italian workers´ councils, see e.g. Daniel Guerin, Anarchism from Theory to Practice (Introduction by Chomsky - Monthly Review Press, New York, 1970), p.109;

(10) see Karl Marx, ‘The Civil War in France. Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association’ (in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works. Volume Two (Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR, 1973), p.202;

(11) Antonio Gramsci (1977), op.cit., p.119;

(12) ibid;

(13) see eg. Antonio Gramsci, ‘Unions and Councils’ (from l’Ordine Nuovo, 12 June 1920 - Antonio Gramsci (1977), op.cit., p.265);

(14) Antonio Gramsci (1977), op.cit., p.115;

(15) ibid, p.119/120;

(16) see e.g. Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Social Reform or Revolution’ (1899) and ‘The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions’(1905) – in Peter Hudis & Kevin B. Anderson (2004) , op.cit., p.128 and 168;

(17) for Luxemburg’s position on the formation of workers’ and soldiers councils, see the programmatic document ‘What Does the Spartacus League Want?’ (in Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (2004), op.cit.), p.354;

(18) for Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s organisational methods and his inner-party centralism, see the following two documents: ’Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy’ (Neue Zeit, 1904) and ‘Credo: On the State of Russian Social Democracy’ (September/October, 1911) (texts published in Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (2004), op.cit., p.248 and p.266 respectively;

(19) republished in Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (2004), op.cit., p.281;

(20) for this question, see eg. Peter Nettle (1969), op.cit., p.452; and Peter Bierl, Alle Macht den Raeten. Rosa Luxemburg: Raete Demokratie und Sozialismus (ISP Verlag, GmbH, Koeln, Germany, 1993), p.9;

(21) see Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (2004), op.cit., p.302-304;

(22) ibid, p.304-307;

(23) ibid, p.305.




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