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Source: Left communism in Australia : J.A. Dawson and the “Southern Advocate for Workers' Councils” / Steve Wright, libcom.org .

Socialism and Labor Unionism / Anton Pannekoek, 1913

Source:  Socialism and Labor Unionism  / Anton Pannekoek (Bremen). – In: The New Review, Vol I (1913), No 18 (July), p. 615-628; transcription by Micah Muer for Marxists’ Internet Archive , 2017.

In the working class movement there are great differences of opinion in regard to tactics, in regard to the best method of conducting the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat, and these differences often express themselves in acrimonious discussions and embittered internal conflicts. These differences can be cleared up and settled only by a thorough discussion of the fundamental principles of the class struggle.

The question involved is this: how can the proletariat conquer political supremacy? Those who do not concern themselves with this question, who do not consider it necessary for the workers to carry on a struggle for the conquest of power (anarchists and conservative workers) are disregarded here – we shall not concern ourselves with their opinions. To-day almost every militant worker knows that for him the political struggle is necessary. The bourgeoisie gained possession of political supremacy when it became the most important class of society. It is becoming to an ever increasing degree an economically superfluous, a parasitical class, but like every declining class it utilizes its power in the State to maintain its exploitation artificially. Marxism teaches that the political power of a class is always rooted in its economic importance: if a new class presses to the front, the political supremacy must devolve upon it. Not automatically, however, but only through struggle. The necessary connection which, according to Marxism, exists between economic importance and political supremacy, signifies that to a rising class there flow from society so many streams of increasing power that it is finally strong enough to overthrow the exploiting class. Hence it is now the mission of the proletariat to wrest the political supremacy from the hands of the capitalist class, for the economic revolution from capitalism to Socialism is impossible as long as the state is a tool in the hands of the capitalists. And hence the important all-absorbing question in regard to the method and manner in which the proletariat can win political supremacy.

In the discussion of this question two tendencies appear which are in sharp contrast to each other, even in America. On the one hand stands parliamentarism pure and simple, which wishes to win political supremacy by means of parliament and elections. On the other hand stands Syndicalism which, in its pronounced French form, will have nothing to do with the parliamentary struggle and wishes to conduct the struggle solely by means of the labor unions. These tendencies are distinguished by the role which they allot in the struggle for supremacy to the two forms of proletarian organization, the labor unions and the political party. We may say of these two tendencies that they are correct in their positive activity, but incorrect when they believe that they can succeed with that alone. Both lay stress upon a single side of the whole, and their methods, which are so sharply contrasted to each other, form narrow and one-sided distortions of the tactics of the class struggle, which are based upon Marxism.

Pure and Simple Parliamentarism

In all capitalist countries the political power is chiefly in the hands of the parliaments. In them the parliamentary majority can, if not entirely at least to a high degree, rule the state and control legislation. Every political struggle between the classes must become a parliamentary struggle. In those countries the working class also must be constituted as a political party, force its way into parliament by participation in elections, and take part in the parliamentary struggles.

The German working class has furnished a practical example. When general discouragement prevailed after the fall of the Commune, the steady advance of the German workers, the ceaseless increase in the number of their votes, showed the Socialists of all countries a new way to the conquest of political power. While formerly the idea had always been to seize power suddenly by a revolutionary uprising, as in 1848 and 1871, here the revolution, the conquest of power, appeared as the final act of a gradual but irresistible, peaceful development based upon the law. Thus was formed the idea of the parliamentary conquest of power. Parliament is the legislative body. Whoever controls the parliamentary majority controls legislation and government. But parliament is elected by the people through universal suffrage. Hence the Social-Democracy need only win by propaganda and education ever greater masses of the people; when it has finally won over the majority of the people – which it must succeed in doing, because the workers, whose interests it represents, form the majority of the people – then it has also the majority in parliament and employs legislation and the power of the state to revolutionize property and to abolish exploitation.

That is logically the fundamental idea of pure and simple parliamentarism. The conquest of political supremacy becomes a peaceful process, which so far as the masses are concerned, consists only of propaganda and elections. It is the work of the Social-Democracy as a political party; other working class organizations, even the labor unions, are unnecessary. According to this conception, the difference between Socialist party and labor union consists in this, that the labor union struggles for the amelioration of living conditions under capitalism, while the party strives for the abolition of capitalism. The goal and the significance of the labor unions lies in the present, those of the party in the future; the labor unions have a reformistic, the party a revolutionary character. Practice also appears to confirm this contrast, for in the party we continually discuss revolution and Socialism, politics, sociology and philosophy, while in the unions we hear only of a few pennies more or less in wages and of petty differences with the employer. In Germany this contrast expressed itself in the early nineties, when the labor unions were painfully building up their strength, in this way, that many Social-Democrats declared the work of the labor unions to be a dissipation of force, because they sought only present amelioration, which was totally unnecessary since we would soon abolish capitalism entirely and all forces must be reserved for this complete emancipation. Prominent political leaders declared at that time that the labor unions had no future in Germany and indeed were hardly necessary.

This view of pure and simple parliamentarism, namely, that the conquest of political power was exclusively an affair of the party to be accomplished by means of elections and that the unions had merely a present-day significance, has spread from Germany to all other countries. Everywhere its supporters point to the German example, to the mighty electoral victories and the colossal power of the German Social-Democracy. But among the German workers themselves opinions have steadily undergone a change since the beginning of the present century. Even earlier the majority of Social-Democrats had the feeling that after all the revolution meant a much more difficult and violent struggle than mere electoral fights. But when after the electoral victory of 1903 the threats of our opponents to abolish the universal Reichstag suffrage became louder and louder, it became clear why the peaceful parliamentary conquest of power was impossible. It presupposes universal suffrage, and universal suffrage can simply be abolished by a parliament. But does this remove all hope of the acquisition of political power by the working class? No, for to such an attack upon universal suffrage the workers can oppose other weapons. At the Congress of Jena in 1905 the German party adopted a resolution that the working class would employ the political mass strike against a reactionary attempt to abolish the Reichstag suffrage and for the conquest of new political rights.

A form of suffrage is nothing rigid, unalterable or arbitrary; the suffrage is an object of struggles, and its form depends upon these struggles. In many countries where there is no universal suffrage, the workers are fighting for it, while on the other hand the reactionary parties are scheming to rob the workers of their suffrage when it becomes dangerous to capitalist supremacy.

Herein lies the defect of the basic idea of pure and simple parliamentarism. Even now it is not true that the popular majority, through parliament, controls the state and the law. Not only in Germany, where the government is independent of the Reichstag and is supported by the Prussian Landtag, in which the workers are rendered absolutely powerless by a reactionary electoral law, but in all countries the suffrage is either restricted, or else there exists alongside of the popularly elected parliament an aristocratic body, called House of Lords, Senate or First Chamber, which also passes upon the laws, or else the judges exercise the right of interpreting the law. But even granted that there exists in a given country a completely democratic system of government, so that there a Socialist popular majority might win the supremacy merely by means of votes – is there anyone in the world who believes that the capitalist class will allow itself to be simply voted out of power without resisting? Would the bourgeoisie, which is convinced that Socialism signifies the end of all civilization and the destruction of all human happiness, allow it to come peacefully into power, bewitched by the sacredness of a legal formula created by itself? The law is never anything more than a means for the purposes of human interests; and hence the bourgeoisie, as long as it is in the majority, will use the law to abolish, before it is too late, a universal suffrage that has become dangerous. Over this, then, the struggle rages. Hence here, too, the struggle about the foundations of parliamentarism will bring the real decision as to supremacy.

The Significance of Parliamentarism

The defect of pure and simple parliamentarism lies in the fact that it considers the form of suffrage as something absolute and independent. But precisely like the entire constitution, the suffrage is merely an expression of the actual relations of power in society. Constitution and suffrage rest upon the actual society of human beings in which the classes, of various, power and importance, are struggling with each other over their diverse interests. The social power of a class determines to what degree its interests are represented in the constitution; in proportion as the social power of the workers increases, they are in a position to win political rights or to defend old rights against the increasingly reactionary tendency of the bourgeoisie. When the proletariat fights for universal suffrage or resists an attack upon universal suffrage – no matter what the weapons which it employs, meetings, journalistic campaigns, street demonstrations, mass strikes – the result always depends upon the magnitude of the social power which it brings to bear upon the struggle.

The social power of the workers is constantly increasing, and this forms the sure foundation of our future victory. The development of capitalism increases the mass of the proletariat, concentrates it into great factories and makes the whole of society dependent upon its labor. These masses are gaining ever clearer political insight, class-consciousness and Socialist knowledge; in that way alone do they become a fighting force against capitalism. These masses are welded ever closer together into organizations, in which each individual subordinates himself to the will and the interests of the whole, and thereby alone will the workers, who as individuals are powerless, become a powerful, effective body. Upon these factors, mass and importance, class-consciousness and knowledge, organization and discipline, depend all successes in the class struggle. If they had reached their highest perfection, the end of capitalism would already be here. The further a knowledge of Socialism has spread among the masses, the more votes do we win in the elections. Where union struggles are won, it is due to the solidarity, the unshakable cohesion of the rank and file and to their self-sacrifice in the interests of the whole. And in the struggles for suffrage also, in street demonstrations and mass strikes, success depends upon the degree in which the workers exhibit firm discipline and a clear consciousness of their purpose, and are not confused or provoked by the enemy, but hold together as a solid mass in which each subordinates himself completely to the whole. Therefore we must lay the greatest stress upon increasing this power of the proletariat; the lasting gain of all struggles consists in the fact that by the growth of intelligence and organization the firm foundation of the future supremacy of the proletariat is built up. The question of the conquest of political power brings us to the question when the social power of the workers will be great enough to completely overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie.

Now herein lies the meaning of parliamentarism. Whoever considers the participation of the workers in the parliamentary struggle, in the sense of pure and simple parliamentarism, as the effort to win the supremacy by mere votes, must, as soon as he realizes its impossibility, swing to the opposite extreme. He must say to himself: What is the use of all the parliamentarism and all the voting? Is not all this infinite labor, this effort entailing immense sacrifices, this immense amount of money for the elections, simply thrown away if the bourgeoisie, when we are near our goal, can simply nullify every result by a decree of parliament, by a modification of the suffrage law? Hence is it not simply an immense error for the Socialist parties everywhere to regard the parliamentary-political struggle as the main part of its work? The statements made above answer these questions. If universal suffrage is abolished and the Socialist deputies vanish from parliament, the result of the earlier work is not lost thereby. The real result is the Socialist thought of the popular masses, and that does not disappear. The basis of our strength, the real power of the proletariat is not affected, but must now exert its activity in new ways, according to new methods. In the electoral struggle – this the spokesmen of the German Social-Democracy have always emphasized – the electoral seats are only the apparent goal; the main purpose is to gain as many adherents as possible, to spread Socialist teachings further among the masses, at the moment when political interest is the greatest; the activity of the representatives in parliament is only a means to the same end, to enlighten the masses more and more through the practice of the daily political struggle.

The value of parliamentarism does not lie in the fact that it is a means of winning political power peaceably and without further revolutionary struggles, but in the fact that it has proved itself to be the most advantageous means for developing and increasing the power of the proletariat. That is the real lesson which the German example teaches us; the German workers were the first to show the world how universal suffrage and the parliamentary struggle – when rightly conducted, hence not like the British Labor party, for instance – can serve to make the working class great and strong. If to-day the German working class movement is the foremost in the world, this is chiefly due to its excellent fighting methods.

In the parliamentary struggle the classes appear in their real nature. Not only the industrial employer with whom the unions are struggling, but all the groups of the bourgeoisie – high finance, the colonial capitalists, the agrarians, the merchants – are represented and form a bourgeois totality which rules the state. There not only the question of wages, but, the entire system of exploitation with all its ramifications, social legislation, militarism, taxes, the whole public life, are upon the regular order of business. The representatives of the workers fight there over each individual question with the representatives of the bourgeoisie; for the interests of the workers are opposed to those of the bourgeoisie in all respects – taxes, factory regulation, housing, schooling, colonial policy, militarism, administration of justice. Hence the activity of the parliamentarians does not consist in making speeches on the future society, but in ceaseless struggle over practical questions of the moment, and their Socialism consists in bringing each question into its proper relationship to the entire capitalist system and to the entire Socialist conception of life. For that reason the effect of their activity is in the highest degree enlightening to the widest circles; their criticism of the capitalist parties opens the workers' eyes; wherever the parliamentary discussions are followed, political insight is increased, men realize better and better the nature of capitalism, and interest in Socialism is awakened. This parliamentary activity, to which the electoral battle is added each time as a conclusion and a commencement, is more effective than the ordinary propaganda – which none the less is necessary – first, because it is exercised in a place where everyone in the whole country sees it and hears it, and secondly, because it is a practical and stubborn struggle for interests of the moment and hence makes a stronger claim upon men's minds.

Naturally the parliamentary struggle only has that effect when it is properly conducted, as a class struggle of the workers and for the political enlightenment of the masses. Where the parliamentarians look upon themselves as little gods who by means of their higher “political capacity” forge victories for the workers, and make deals with the other parties behind the scenes or become quite openly the tail of a bourgeois party – there the effect of parliamentarism is just the reverse, it is injurious. There it arouses in the workers illusions as to their enemy, the bourgeois classes; it destroys their self-confidence, their consciousness that they can be emancipated only through their own strength, it brings disillusionment and discouragement, and creates an anti-parliamentary tendency in those very workers whose feelings are revolutionary. However, it is not parliamentarism itself, but the false opportunistic tactics which are to blame for the harm; hence a struggle for correct parliamentary tactics, radical, Marxian tactics, which consist chiefly in the criticism of such parliamentarians, is entirely necessary in the interest of the party.

Labor Union Movement and Syndicalism

Hence if the real revolutionary significance of parliamentarism consists in the fact that it constantly increases the power of the proletariat – namely, its class-consciousness, its knowledge, its unity – and hence creates the conditions prerequisite to the revolution, it follows that other fighting methods may possess the same revolutionary significance. Hence the relation between the Socialist party and the labor unions is quite other than is assumed by pure and simple parliamentarism. The labor union has just as great a revolutionary significance as the political party, for it contributes just as much to the social power of the proletariat. The labor unions unite the proletariat in great organizations, in which the common struggle against the employer takes the place of individual competition for jobs. Alone the worker is absolutely helpless; only as a collectivity, as a great organization the members of which act unitedly in the common interest, can he improve his working conditions. The practice of wage struggles shows that success is great in proportion as discipline and solidarity are great, as personal egoism is repressed in the interest of the whole, and as the latter determines the actions of each. Therefore the labor union movement is the great school of organization and discipline; it uproots narrow egoism, which believes in its ability to rise at the expense of fellow-men, and teaches the workers through ever new experiences that the individual can rise only together with his fellows, only as a member of a collectivity, and hence that each has only to further the interests of the collectivity. Naturally that only holds true where the labor union is actually fighting against the capitalists, and not where, as in the old conservative trade unionism, peaceable agreements are the goal, and harmony between capital and labor is the guiding rule of a narrow trade egoism. But where they regard their activity as a struggle, as a part of the great class struggle of labor against capital, they constantly increase the most important element of proletarian power; they are building the foundation of our future victory by making new men out of the workers, who through their rigid discipline, their strong organization spirit are capable of overthrowing the power of the bourgeoisie.

Syndicalism derives its vital force from this fact, that the unions have great revolutionary value for the overthrow of the political supremacy of the capitalists. It derides pure and simple parliamentarism, which believes itself capable of effecting the social revolution by means of the ballot. Such a violent change, the greatest revolution which the world has ever seen, which will reach to the root of all conditions, is simply to consist in this, that on a certain day men cast certain ballots in a box! Merely this easy, safe motion of the hand, and by the magic power of the ballot – because then the elected representatives will simply abolish capitalism by law – the whole weight of slavery and exploitation falls from the shoulders of the workers! But every man can understand that the yoke which has burdened humanity for thousands of years cannot be so easily and painlessly cast off; a very different effort will be necessary for that. In order that the workers may emancipate themselves they must first become entirely new men, capable of conquering in hard-fought battles, in which they stake their very existence. Such men are only produced by the militant practice of the labor unions. Hence the activity of the labor unions is a sort of revolutionary gymnastics, the exercise of power and capabilities which are necessary to the revolution. While according to pure and simple parliamentarism the workers have merely to vote at elections and need do nothing else, since everything, the real struggle against the other parties and against the capitalists as well as the making of laws, will be cared for by their elected representatives, Syndicalism emphasizes the fact that the workers themselves must act, that only the direct struggle against the capitalists, only the direct action of the workers themselves can make them strong and capable of the conquest of power.

The defect of Syndicalism consists in this that it regards the entire parliamentary action of the Socialist party as no more than pure and simple parliamentarism. Hence it can only gain ground (and must necessarily gain ground) where the practice of the Socialist party gives occasion for this mistake. Wherever reformism prevails in the party, a reformism that plays politics in the same manner as the bourgeois parties, co-operates at times with those parties, and regards parliamentary party strifes, successes and trickery, and not the enlightenment of the workers, as the highest aim – there anti-parliamentary Syndicalism must come into being as a protest, in which is incorporated the natural class feeling, the instinctive hostility of the proletariat against the whole of bourgeois society. Hence it has chiefly developed in France as a reaction against the bloc policy and the “Socialist” Ministers, who have endeavored to restrict by government regulations the free activity of the labor unions. But it was unable to gain ground in Germany, because there everyone sees that the parliamentary policy of the party has always been a part of the class struggle of the proletariat.

When Syndicalism rejects parliamentary action, it renounces one of the most important and necessary means for the building up of proletarian power. It is certainly correct, and we so stated above, that to overthrow the supremacy of capital the working class requires a tremendous power of organization, revolutionary sentiment and rigid solidarity, which things can only be the fruit of prolonged labor union struggle. But still more is necessary. Because the rule of capital is concentrated in the power of the state, in the political institutions, the workers must not merely regard these with hostile eyes, but must also thoroughly understand their nature; if they are to conquer this strong citadel of capitalism, they must know well the function of the state, the profound and many-sided influence of politics upon society, the influence of general ideas upon the political actions of men. The bourgeoisie has in the state immense intellectual and material means of power, with which the workers must become familiar if they are to be able to attack them. Where knowledge and political insight are lacking, the most convinced and staunchest revolutionary becomes all too easily the victim of the shallowest political treachery. Only by continual participation in all political struggles, attentive following of political actions, political education of many decades, can there be developed in the workers a knowledge and a political maturity and confidence sufficient to the conquest of power.

But this repudiation of the political struggle is not the worst defect of Syndicalism. For it is conceivable that, side by side with the party but without approval of its work, it might devote itself to its own task – the organization of the workers into labor unions, while the party at the same time took charge of the political struggle and political education; and then it would play a useful part. But the case is far worse, for due to the very attitude of Syndicalism toward parliamentarism it is incapable of building up the organization of the masses. The reason is that by its rejection of parliamentarism, it allots to the labor unions the task of political struggle against the state and thereby diverts them from their real duty.

When labor unions wish to engage in the political struggle and for that purpose, as in England, send representatives of their interests to parliament, they constitute themselves a political party. It depends upon conditions how far this party develops into a Socialist party with revolutionary aims. But Syndicalism will have none of such participation in politics on the part of the labor unions. It regards the state, together with the government and parliament, merely as an organ of bourgeois rule, a means to oppress the workers, against which the workers must direct their struggle from without, by means of their organizations. The labor unions, as the real working class organizations, are to conduct the revolutionary struggle against the power of the state, until such time as their ever-increasing strength enables them to overthrow it. The aim is indeed fine, but the trouble is that it will never be reached in that manner. For in this struggle the labor unions must neglect to a large extent their real duty, the struggle for immediate amelioration of living conditions, so that they grow not at all or very little, and hence do not attain to the necessary power.

The masses of the workers are not attracted by revolutionary watchwords and far-reaching aims; they must first slowly learn their significance. At first the Socialist party consists of a nucleus of workers of especially revolutionary tendency, but it grows by attracting to itself increasing numbers of the masses who become impressed with the fact that the party represents their interests in all questions of detail. And only after they have been won over by this practical work for small improvements do they gradually learn to understand our great revolutionary aims and to become enthusiastic over them. The same holds true of the labor unions. They only gather together the working masses by struggling tirelessly for the improvement of working conditions and defending against the employer the most immediate interests of the workers. Syndicalism, which believes it possible to attract them by revolutionary programs, presupposes in the workers an intelligence and an insight which can only be the result of a prolonged participation in the class struggle; hence its watchwords repel rather than attract the undeveloped masses. For not only insight, but self-confidence and courage also, without which no revolutionary vigor is possible, are an outgrowth of organization. The working masses, oppressed, powerless, and hence timid and fearful, will become bold and energetic only when and because they feel behind them the power of a great organization, the solidarity of an entire class, and then only does there awaken in the masses the bold feeling that they are capable of grappling with the whole mighty power of the bourgeois state.

The revolution will be prepared only by the small detail work of the present, which does not constantly have the word revolution upon its lips. It may sound paradoxical, yet it can be confidently asserted that a labor union movement which pursues revolutionary aims is in reality not revolutionary; only a labor union movement which places before itself no revolutionary goal can really be revolutionary; for only when it employs all its forces upon its own task, the struggle for the improvement of working conditions, can it gather the working masses together into great organizations and thus contribute to the realization of the conditions necessary to the revolution. The best example of the latter is furnished by the German labor union movement which, because of its very restriction to the economic struggle against the employer, has grown in a score of years into a mighty organized power which will be of the greatest importance in the future revolutionary struggles in Germany.

Where syndicalistic tendencies showed themselves in the i.w.w., their membership groups opposing parliamentarism as “too little revolutionary” and desiring to conduct the revolutionary struggle by means of the labor unions – there they necessarily became small debating clubs, which intoxicated themselves upon revolutionary catch-words, but were without any real significance for the revolutionary development. But the i.w.w. was really revolutionary, that is to say, important to this development, wherever it entered the field as a militant labor union, led the masses of unskilled laborers in the struggle against their exploiters, and hence awakened in their hearts class-consciousness, solidarity, a sense of organization, self-confidence and pride. Here lies its great revolutionary duty: it should organize the masses of these hitherto neglected workers. This is, naturally, not accomplished by the sudden uprising of a formerly immovable mass, as in the successful struggles at McKees Rocks and at Lawrence. These form merely the beginning, the first awakening, and they must of themselves lead to renewed and greater struggles. The capitalists will seek, gradually and by indirection, to take back that which was won; through their agents they will seek to divide the workers upon national and religious lines, to discourage and to depress them, and with partial success. Then that which was won in the first onslaught must be held by stubborn fighting; then it will be found that the spirit of organization, which seemed suddenly to spring into being with wonderful strength, can only be firmly welded by long practice, in which the workers arm themselves in advance and fight as a permanent organization, and sometimes even suffer defeats, but ever renew the struggle.

It appears clearly from our statements what position the Socialist party should assume, according to the Marxian theory, toward the labor unions. Even where these labor unions will have nothing to do with Socialist teachings, it must not oppose them as an enemy and seek to injure them. For they do not work in the direction of revolutionary development by conducting a Socialist propaganda – if they conduct an anti-Socialist propaganda, this must be opposed and an effort made to hinder it, – but only by accomplishing well their own task, conducting the labor union struggle for better working conditions. It is only when they neglect their own duty, when misled by bourgeois dreams of harmony, they avoid the struggle, so that the workers suffer constant defeats due to false union tactics and are thrust down ever lower, it is only then that there can be good grounds for replacing the old unions by better organizations. This has always been the Socialist party's attitude toward the American Federation of Labor; it does not originate in a weak opportunism, but in a clear perception of the independent importance of the labor union movement in building up the power of the proletariat. The craft solidarity of conservative trade-unionism, which at the same time is craft egoism, is merely an insufficient beginning of the necessary spirit of organization; but it should not for that reason be destroyed by splits in the organization and by conflicts; on the contrary, it should be broadened into a general class solidarity.

In America the power of the proletariat is slight. Although the capitalistic economic life exhibits highly developed forms, the class-consciousness and organization of the workers are still immature; bourgeois ideas and individualism still have possession of their minds. But everything indicates that the immediate future will bring great advances: the increase in the number of our votes in elections, the great mass struggles of the unskilled workers, the internal changes in the old labor unions, are all signs of this evolution. The great duty of the Socialist party is to urge forward this evolution by proper tactics. But that can only be accomplished by keeping itself free from the narrowness of pure and simple parliamentarism as well as from the narrowness of Syndicalism. Only by means of a revolutionary struggle on all fields, a struggle which upholds in the legislature as well as in the workshop, all the immediate interests of the workers, and which at the same time is filled with the spirit of Socialism, a class struggle upon the solid foundation of Marxian science, can the power of the proletariat constantly increase and become capable of overthrowing the rule of capital.

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Compiled by Vico, 1 June 2019