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On "Dialectics" -- The Heresy Posts May 8, 2003 by RedStar2000


It's not for me to say what drives the "orthodox Marxist-Leninist" believers up the wall more quickly; my refusal to worship at "Lenin's Tomb" or my willingness to look at even Marx and Engels with a critical eye.

But these posts made me no friends among the "orthodox". I say flatly that "dialectics" is nonsense, a creation of that pompous windbag and shameless plagiarizer Hegel. I suggest further that Marx and Engels wasted a great deal of time and energy in verbally manipulating phenomena to "fit" into the dialectical schema that would have better been spent doing something productive.

Too bad.


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While I would never wish to discourage anyone from studying anything that interests them, "dialectics" is, in my view, one of Marx's most grievous errors...and just a fuzzy mess that can be made to mean anything and therefore really means nothing.

The fundamental basics of Marxism can stand without any reliance on dialectics: how societies depend on a material basis, how they change their class nature as the material basis changes, how class struggle reflects material differences, how ideas likewise reflect material reality and material changes, etc.

The struggle of the working class for emancipation from the bourgeoisie follows naturally from the struggle of the bourgeoisie to emancipate themselves from the old feudal aristocracy. The ultimate victory of the working class has no more to do with "dialectics" than with the phases of the moon...it is assured by the material changes in the basis of capitalist society.

Like all of us, Marx was a product of his intellectual era...in his case, his youthful studies took place at a time when philosophy was under the shadow of that Prussian charlatan Hegel. "Everyone" was a "Hegalian" and Marx himself started out as a "left Hegalian".

It was just damned unfortunate that Marx, when he began to develop his communist ideas, didn't dump "dialectics" in the trashcan of history...as one of those "profound" ideas that turn out to be useless.

Perhaps the worst consequence of "dialectics" is the vision of communism as some kind of ultimate synthesis and crowning achievement of history...a static unchanging epoch of perfection. We know very well that real human beings don't live like that...and, I suspect, so did Marx. (At one point, he characterized the achievement of communism as "the end of pre-history and the beginning of real human history".) How and in what directions communist societies will change is impossible to say...but that they will change, being human, is certain.

The idiot Hegel, of course, thought history's ultimate culmination and crowning achievement was the King of Prussia...and himself!

The fact is that ordinary "generic" historical materialism and ordinary logic are really all you need to understand Marxism. "Dialectics" is like chrome hubcaps on a racing car...the vehicle will move neither faster nor slower because of their presence.
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First posted at Che-Lives, January 1, 2003
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quote:

Dialectics is actually the most important thing to learn in Marxism.


Oh? And why would that be, pray tell?

Do you have the remotest idea what you would have to do to demonstrate that "dialectics" was something more than 19th century Germanic romanticist claptrap?

1. You would have to "use" dialectics to reach a conclusion about reality that could not be reached using ordinary generic historical materialism and the rules of ordinary evidence and logic.

2. The conclusion would have to then be verifiable by the ordinary rules of evidence.

Go ahead and give it a try; I don't think you or any "dialectician" can do it. I assert, in fact, that whenever "dialectics" comes up with a true statement, you can strip away the specialized terminology and recast the statement in ordinary language derived in ordinary ways from social reality.

And whenever someone waves "dialectics" in your face while making statements about reality that appear to be obviously false...you guessed it: someone is blowing smoke out their ass.

How did some "communists" in the 20th century get away with so much of that nonsense? Social reality is contingent: what is happening now was caused by what happened before; what will happen is caused by what is happening now as well as what happened in the past. Causation is complex...and it is always possible to single out some of the causes of any social development and label them "thesis", "anti-thesis", and "synthesis". Pasting Greek labels on things doesn't make them Greek...or any more profound than if stated in ordinary language.

There is no "hidden mystery" in history, no "special" way in which history develops outside the existence of real people living real, material lives.

Hegel needed all the help he could get in covering his servile apologetics for Prussian despotism...and "dialectics" was certainly useful for that purpose. But Marx and Engels did not need it and shouldn't have used it; whenever they would drag it in, the end result was only to obscure the clarity of their observations and conclusions.

In ordinary mathematics, division by zero is not permitted. The reason for this rule is simple: if you allow division by zero, then you can logically "prove" that any number is equal to any other number.

The same criticism is true of "dialectics"; by pasting the appropriate labels on your chosen causes, you can "prove" that any social development is "caused" by any other two developments that you wish.

There are, in my opinion, cause-and-effect relationships in history that can be empirically demonstrated...though "laws" is too strong a term to use. But "dialectics" has nothing to do with that.

In fact, it has nothing to do with much of anything except a German professor's desire for a fat living and an even fatter reputation.
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 2, 2003
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1. The value, and hence (on the average) the price of any commodity is determined by the socially necessary labor required to produce that commodity.

2. Labor itself is a commodity.

3. The price of labor is therefore determined by the socially necessary labor to reproduce itself.

4. The capitalist must therefore go into the market and purchase labor just as he purchases raw materials, equipment, etc.

5. But when he purchases labor, it is not abstract labor he buys, but labor power--measured in Marx's time by the length of the working day (it's a bit more complicated now).

6. As a consequence of his ownership of the means of production, the capitalist is free to set the working day as long as he wishes...while still paying no more than the price needed to reproduce labor. And, he may in addition use machinery to intensify the labor power he purchases at no cost to himself beyond that of the machinery itself.

7. The difference between the socially necessary cost of the labor power the capitalist purchases and the value of the commodities that labor power produces is...surplus value, the source of capitalist profit.

Or, in one sentence: No capitalist will knowingly hire your labor power unless he reasonably expects that the value of the goods or services you produce will be greater than the wage he pays you.

If he makes a mistake about this (capitalists, like all humans, are not all-knowing), then he loses money on your labor and eventually fires you or goes out of business.

It's possible to "dress this up" in dialectical terminology--it's possible to dress up anything in dialectical language--but how or why is it necessary to do so?
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 3, 2003
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The point I was trying to make here is that Marx could have arrived at all his conclusions with ordinary generic materialism, rules of logic, etc.

Of course, you're right, he did think with dialectical terminology...he just didn't have to, nor do we.

It sort of gets to the problem of what inspires a hypothesis as opposed to what verifies it. Strictly speaking, science doesn't care what your source of inspiration is--be it dialectics, divine revelation, or a dream you had after eating a large, loaded pizza.

All that science asks you to do is to explain your idea in clear terms, show what evidence you gathered to prove it, and explain your evidence-gathering methods so that other scientists can check your work.

And the convention in scientific writing is exactly that. If someone claimed that there is "a special method of thinking" that proves his idea...the scientific community would reply: "maybe, maybe not, buddy, but you're still going to have to prove your case in ordinary language nevertheless."

And, of course, the real strength of Marxist ideas is that, surprise, they can be shown to be valid in ordinary language. Hegel's mysticism was never necessary...it is just an accident of history that it's present in Marx's works.

Marx used to say that he found Hegel standing on his head and turned him over on his feet...but Hegel was like one of those weighted dolls that always returns to one position--Hegelian dialectics naturally stands on its head. It really has no other position.

Let it gather dust in some small-town German museum.
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 3, 2003
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"Socialists study dialectics."...or else?

Sure they do...but why?

Have you ever heard of the "aura effect"? Something that is true and useful is often surrounded by ideas that are somewhat less truthful or useful.

For example, if you're peddling some "health nostrum", it's useful to dress up some guy in a white lab coat, horn-rim glasses, with a clipboard...because we've learned as a species that real science is quite often both truthful and useful, anything that "looks" scientific gains credibility by association.

Had Marx never lived, dialectics would be a philosophic footnote in a very thick text. Dialectics has "credibility" because it is associated with one of the great thinkers of the modern world...with a man whose scientific ideas have proven to be truthful and useful. Socialists have studied dialectics because of the aura effect.

Think how silly we would be if we did this kind of thing all the time. Isaac Newton, another one of the great thinkers of modern times, spent an enormous amount of time in detailed study of the "Book of Revelation" in an effort to determine the precise date of "the end of the world." People were not mis-led; they accepted the validity of Newton's scientific work and simply ignored the rest as superstitious nonsense.

The real test of "dialectics" is, I repeat, its actual usefulness in the real world. Socialists have been "studying" dialectics for more than a century...have they ever arrived at even one useful insight that would not otherwise have been available?

The others are right, of course; dialectics does indeed go back as far as the old Greeks...but it was Hegel who "put together the package" as it were.

As long as we're quoting the fragmentary discourses of Hericlitus, here's mine: We ought not to live as though we were asleep.
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 4, 2003
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Instead of directing us to websites, why don't you tell us what "dialectics" has done to improve your understanding of social reality, class struggle, the nature of communist society...or anything.

What do you now know and understand from studying "dialectics" that you would otherwise find incomprehensible?

Come on, name one thing and explain how "dialectics" reveals a "truth" that's hidden from ordinary thinking.

Otherwise, this begins to take on the form of a religious argument...you keep asserting that "dialectics" is "real" and "useful" and I keep countering: show me!

If you'll pardon me for saying so, liturgy and ritual have no place in scientific thinking. Marx, in common with nearly all thinkers of his era, thought "races" were real entities...now, we know better. He thought "dialectics" was a useful method of thinking...now, it's about time we admit that we know better.

Reality may be always more complex than we can fully comprehend...but the ordinary use of logic and evidence have resulted in enormous progress in our understanding. A very important part of that progress has been the willingness to discard what was once thought "profound" and "useful" and which turned out to be neither.

As my parents said to me long ago: "Take out the trash, son." About that, at least, they were right!
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 5, 2003
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quote:

You don't know blue is blue, you are just going by what people tell you, but why call blue green?


Your analogy suggests that I'm proposing a change in terminology...calling "dialectics" formal logic and thus just "confusing" people.

On the contrary, I'm suggesting that the terminology of dialectics as well as its "laws" are what is meaningless here...ordinary logic, rules of evidence, etc. are sufficient...or, at least, the best thing our species has come up with so far.

The fact of the matter is that social reality can rarely be reduced to a simple thesis-antithesis-synthesis progression...at least not without paying a price in sharply reduced accuracy.

Consider the long sweep of human history: primitive communsm, nomadism, oriental despotism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism...and, hopefully, advanced communism. It is surely possible to paste the "appropriate" labels all over this progression...but how does it help? A detailed examination of how the means of production changed, how relations of production changed as a result, the class struggles that took place, how ideas about reality changed, etc. seems to me to be far more useful...both in understanding how history "works" and in understanding reality at the present time.

It gets worse. "Communist" politicians of the 20th century often "used" dialectics in an effort to predict the future in concrete terms...which, if accurate, would really prove that dialectics was both true and useful.

Guess what? They might just as well have flipped a coin...if anything, their results were worse than chance. The folks who boast of their "dialectical understanding" of reality remind me of bourgeois economists with their quantitative models of free markets...neither can predict squat. Just as they have a fake "Nobel Prize" for bourgeois economists, they might just as well have one for "dialecticians"...their track record is remarkably similar.

So, it's not a matter of changing a basic and useful convention on what to name a color; it's a matter of discarding a seemingly "profound" but actually useless and ultimately confusing way of thinking about social reality. To say, effectively, that "we've always done it that way" is no defense...it's just the abandonment of reason in the name of tradition; it's a religious excuse. You end up "believing" in dialectics...and where's the room for thinking once you start letting belief get in the way?
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 5, 2003
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It may well be that people are walking around "thinking dialectically" and don't know it...but I fail to see how that could be demonstrated...or what difference it would make.

As soon as you begin to communicate an idea, a theory, an explanation of something, people want to see how you arrived at what you are saying and what evidence you have for what you are saying. Word-play, like "negation of the negation" or "interpenetration of opposities", etc. won't cut it.

I think the word you wanted there was "sub-atomic". That matter is in constant motion is an idea that goes back to the old Greeks...but is a fact found in every high school physics text. The people who discovered what matter in motion is really about never heard of dialectics, much less "used" it to tell the scientific community of their discoveries. (The atomic explanation of "Brownian motion" was advanced first by, you guessed it, Albert Einstein in 1905.)

In other words, if you want to learn about "matter in motion", study physics. Instead of the verbal flourishes and mystical formulas of dialectics, you'll learn real formulas that really tell you how matter behaves...ideas that have been proven to be both truthful and useful.

As a consequence of Marx's theory of surplus value, he predicted that the long-term trend of workers' wages would be downwards. This has yet to be empirically confirmed...however, we know with reasonable certainty that wages have been essentially stagnant in the U.S. for the last three decades and in Japan for the last decade. It's starting to look like Marx was on to something here.

But, the result of such a decline in workers' wages can only be a fall in the rate of profit on invested capital...no matter how cheaply a capitalist prices his product or service, growing numbers of workers can't buy what he's selling.

Capitalism, by functioning according to its own laws, paints itself into a corner...the expansiveness and innovation that characterized youthful capitalism fades away. The relations of production (capitalist/proletarian) have become chains on the means of production...the result is stagnation or depression.

When this happens, the working class will see communism not as an idealistic goal for the distant future...but as an immediate practical necessity lest they literally starve amidst abundance. It is possible that the factory occupations in Argentina are an embryonic form of this.

There's your "proof" of the "inevitability" of communist victory over capitalism. Just ordinary materialist reasoning and ordinary evidence (as much as we have at this point).

Anyone who would accept "negation of the negation" as a substitute for the kind of reasoning from evidence that I posited above is, bluntly speaking, looking for a church, not a revolution.
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 6, 2003
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quote:

After studying dialectics, things became extremely clear to me, so how is this a useless, bad thing?


Well, this gets into the area of human psychology in which I have only a layman's knowledge.

Consider the professional athlete who goes through some superstitious ritual before a game. The "reason" he does this is because at one time, when he did this ritual more or less by accident, he performed well. Since that success, he now performs the ritual every time because it gives him the (superstitious) self-confidence that by performing the ritual, he will perform well in the game itself...even though the evidence is clear that it makes no difference; he still has "good games" and "bad games".

So if "dialectics" gives you the self-confidence to do something that you would otherwise be afraid to do for fear of failure...who can argue with that? In political thinking as in sport, the real test is the outcome of your efforts.

Yes, everything in the universe is a serious of processes; nothing is at rest. Even a hydrogen atom at absolute zero has a tiny residual motion. But that really doesn't take you very far in understanding specific processes. If you want to understand photosynthesis at a useful level, you have no choice but to study the actual process in detail. Just saying it's "dialectical" doesn't tell you anything useful at all.

The same is true of politics, economics, sociology, etc. except even more so...because human interactions are far more complex than physical processes. The little "quickie" summaries of Marxist economics that I wrote in my previous posts are drastically over-simplified compared to reality; that's why I could be easily embarrassed if a real Marxist economist came onto this board and started talking about this stuff in real detail. But his knowledge would be far more useful than mine...and he wouldn't even dream of passing off some mumbo-jumbo about dialectics as an explanation of anything.

Thus, there is real clarity about a subject and there is "clarity"--the feeling that you really understand something whether you really do or not. How to tell the difference? Real clarity results in useful conclusions; fake "clarity" is just another dead-end. Dialectics offers the illusion of "clarity" when what we always need is the real thing.

Mark Twain said it: "It ain't so much the things that people don't know that's the problem; it's the things people know that ain't so."
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 7, 2003
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Sorry, but I think my own--admittedly inadequate--summaries of Marx's achievements are superior to the massive extract that you posted...and a lot easier to read.

If the point is supposed to be that Marx himself had a high opinion of dialectics, we already know that. In fact, I'll concede a further measure: to the extent that dialectics suggested the idea of social processes to Marx, as opposed to abstract and/or static models of social theory, then dialectics was a "good" inspiration for Marx's real work.

But even if he thought dialectics was an "integral" part of his analysis, that doesn't make it so. The fact that Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin all thought dialectics was an essential or fundamental part of Marxism also does not make it so.

Put it this way: great thinkers also make great mistakes. When they are right, they are powerfully right. When they are wrong, they are deeply and profoundly wrong. We lesser thinkers have to sort out the difference...not an easy task, but an essential one.
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 8, 2003
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Of course, defenders of capitalism like to argue with formal logic. But some of them now use Hegalian dialectics as well...to "prove" that capitalism is the culmination of all historical progress. In spirit, this is much closer to Hegel's real motivations than anything in Marx.

Looking over this thread, it just occurred to me that there actually is a specialized way of thinking that really does produce truthful and useful results that cannot be achieved (usually) by ordinary logic and the rules of evidence. It has to be studied intensively and the outcome of such study is always good.

Did you guess it? It's mathematics!
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 9, 2003
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The best example I know is

The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama (ISBN #0029109752).

It is a neo-Hegelian analysis of the "triumph" of "liberal democracy" and the "free market".

But a more graphic example was when the playwrite-president of the Czech Republic addressed the U.S. Congress a few years ago.

"Marx was wrong," he thundered, "and Hegel was right. Consciousness determines being." (Respectful applause.)

So, yes, it's doable; all it takes to "use" dialectics in defense of capitalism is to apply the labels of thesis-antithesis-synthesis in a somewhat different way.

Like I said about 10 posts back or thereabouts, you can "use" dialectics to "prove" anything. But that's the same as proving nothing.
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 10, 2003
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I think it's a mistake to get hung up on formal "modes of thought" period.

In real life, the test is not whether we understand the true nature of A formally or dialectically; the test is what we can say about the nature of A that is verifiable.

Whatever insights this or that philosophy or way of thinking about things may have to offer, the real test is correspondence with the real world.

I suppose that makes me a "Marxist-empiricist"...but I've been called worse.
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First posted at Che-Lives on January 13, 2003
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quote:

How can we verify the potential of something that has not yet shown itself in its developed nature? Communism for instance.


Probably, we can't. Do we have to?

Certainly a session of verbal gymnastics under the rubric of "dialectics" isn't going to help.

What we have is a sound analysis of capitalism (Marx and Engels), some historical experience (much of it negative), and some speculative ideas on what we want to achieve.

What else do we need?
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First posted at Che-Lives on May 7, 2003
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quote:

The problem of verification as the mantra of modern empiricism is that it impoverishes theory and leaves it at a level of bare facts.


It certainly does not. Theories that lack empirical justification are just empty words...attractive, perhaps; interesting, perhaps; even plausible, perhaps. But that's all they are.

Theory that is grounded in verifiable knowledge of material reality is useful...it really explains something.

quote:

Yet if the distinction between utopian and scientific socialism is to mean any thing, it is to show that the theory is internally consistent and not a canon of fragmented loose thoughts."


Well, I would say Marxism is a coherent theory...with or without the "dialectic"; indeed, the best thing I can say for the "dialectic" is that it may have been useful scaffolding with which to erect a materialist theory of history...but it should have been dismantled and trashed as soon as the theory itself was verified.

quote:

The whole vision has thrust and power and makes itself comprehensible by using a dialectical framework of understanding process rather than facts.


Leaving aside such metaphysical concepts as "thrust and power", processes are just as subject to empirical verification, just as "real", as facts.

Note that the quote from Marx not only makes no mention of the "dialectic" but is a perfectly reasonable summary of how to empirically investigate anything.

Here's a couple of speculative questions to consider.

If Marx and Engels had never mentioned the "dialectic", would any sensible person waste five minutes on reading Hegel and giving any kind of serious consideration to such metaphysical nonsense?

Do people "like" the "dialectic" because they think it somehow guarantees them a "win"? The workers will win because the "dialectic" says so?

What foolishness.
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First posted at Che-Lives on May 13, 2003
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quote:

There is no Marxist I know who seeks victory in dialectics. It is not a war. It is most broadly a tool of analysis that can guide thinkers of all types to see patterns in nature that helps to give State of the Art explanations in all fields of human endeavour.


I seem to recall this argument from earlier pages in this thread. At the risk of repeating myself, I don't think that science cares where you get your ideas; the only question is can you verify them, at least provisionally, on the basis of real world evidence.

Perhaps there is, somewhere, a case where a scientist (besides Marx himself, of course) actually "used" the "dialectic" to formulate a hypothesis that was subsequently verified. Even so, I am willing to bet, in complete ignorance of the facts, that there were other ways that could have stimulated that hypothesis.

It's been noted that mammals, especially primates, especially humans are "pattern-seeking" life-forms. We do it instinctively. The "dialectic" is certainly one way to create/impose a "pattern" on material reality...what I question is precisely its usefulness.

quote:

Making a fetish out of verification closes down much of the huge scope of human thought. It is not merely an accident that Marx turned to Hegel and defended him in later life from being ''kicked about like a dead dog''


No, it doesn't "close it down", it just puts it into a different category. That which is not verifiable may be coherent or incoherent, logical or absurd, interesting or boring, etc., etc., etc.

What such things are not is useful explanations of the real world.

Recall that both Hegel and Marx thought that human history was "dialectical" in essence; yet their "predictions" were as far apart as one could possibly imagine...dialectics is like silly putty; it will conform to any shape that you care to impose.

When two "dialecticians" disagree, each will accuse the other of "failing to grasp the dialectic". That is a metaphysical dispute.

quote:

A flower seed cannot be understood unless you see the flower it will become.


I suspect that it will not be all that far into the future when a first-rate plant geneticist will be able to tell from a seed what the flower will look like...depending on environmental conditions, of course. And s/he will do it without ever even having heard of Hegel.

Fortunate scientist.

PS: Marx to the contrary notwithstanding, I happily join in kicking Hegel about "like a dead dog". Had Hegel lived a century later, he would almost certainly have been an "academic Nazi", like Heidegger.
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First posted at Che-Lives on May 17, 2003
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