Second Republic and the socialists

The second part of Karl Kautsky’s 1905 work, ‘Republic and social democracy’, translated by Ben Lewis

When the republic was proclaimed on February 24 1848, all memories of 1793 were awoken. From the outset the lower classes regarded the republic as the surety protecting their interests, as the “social republic” which would reassume the work of equalling out class differences and saving downtrodden humanity with the same force as that of 1793, but with more success, because it was informed by all the experiences since then.

But, as Marx noted immediately after the revolution’s conclusion, the only thing the men of 1848 had borrowed from the Jacobins of 1793 was their costumes. While the men of the revolution still believed that the tasks they had to carry out were the same as those of 1793, while they believed that the same forces were at their command and the same methods were called for, the battlefield, weapons and even the fighters themselves had thoroughly changed. As encouraging as the revolutionary tradition was, it became an obstacle for the new revolution, because it hampered the recognition of the real tasks at hand, as well as the means of solving them.

Above all, the situation had now become totally different, because now there was peace. When the republic came about in September 1792, the foreign enemy[1] had advanced into France, approached the capital and was about to re-erect the ruinous and universally hated feudal regime. In February 1848 peace prevailed, and it continued. In 1792 monarchist Europe had allied itself against revolutionary France. In 1848 the revolution, starting in France, seized the whole of Europe and only stopped before one monarchy on the continent: the Russian, which was careful not to oppose the revolution by force of arms as long as it was advancing.

Yet without the state of war the lower classes’ reign of terror would have been impossible. The war created the state of emergency, the conditions from which this abnormal formation could arise: an anti-capitalist regime within a capitalist society. This had to lead to the most unsustainable of situations. It had to lead to the disappearance of either the anti-capitalist regime or capitalist production itself. As the latter was not yet possible, the former had to happen. The Jacobins’ reign of terror only became possible because of the war and the fear of defeat. In and of itself, war is antagonistic to each and every mode of production and always demands measures which constrict the normal production process. A defeat would have brought even greater suffering than the war and the reign of terror did.

But, just as the external situation was different in 1848, the classes were different too. The soul of the movements of 1793 was formed by the Parisian petty bourgeoisie. The proletariat of the Parisian suburbs had vested the petty bourgeoisie with strength and boldness by standing behind it, driving it forwards and providing it with the most energetic and ruthless fighters. But the proletariat had not yet developed its own consciousness. It still thought and perceived things in a rather petty bourgeois manner, especially because the petty bourgeoisie still thought and perceived things in a revolutionary manner. The petty bourgeoisie recognised that the struggle against all ruling powers – both capitalist and feudal – were the means of its own uprising and its liberation.

Since then, a number of decades of the most rapid capitalist development had taken place. This increasingly drove the petty bourgeois from a whole series of important branches of production and forced them back into others, driving them from production to sale and resale. While it once formed the basis of industry, the petty bourgeoisie had now become its parasitic appendage.

The petty bourgeoisie also increasingly lost its revolutionary strength and boldness, becoming more unreliable and floundering. At the same time, its connection with the proletariat loosened to the same extent that the proletariat had begun to develop its own consciousness and to set its own goals – goals which were opposed to petty bourgeois commodity production and private ownership of the means of production. Thus a deep discord stretched between the two classes, which had once conquered the republic and which were seeking to revive the traditions of the revolution. Both of these forces learned something quite different from these traditions.

But the proletariat itself was no less split. A part of the proletariat, and a very large one at that, had not yet freed itself from petty bourgeois ideas and sentiments, providing troops for the politicians of bourgeois radicalism just as it did in 1793.

Alongside this, however, a large part of the proletariat had already attained independent consciousness and independent goals in the form of socialism, which in the 1840s had started to outgrow its utopian stage. Back then socialism changed: once it had been a doctrine for bourgeois thinkers, which appealed to bourgeois philanthropists to provide the forces and the means to raise the proletariat and thereby abolish it. Now it had become a doctrine which was seized upon by the proletariat in order to raise itself and search for the means and ways of liberating and thereby abolishing itself.

But, however clear and simple the proletariat’s class position may be, however united its class struggle can be, the theories the proletariat took up were extremely diverse, as were the tendencies representing its socio-political aspirations.

In 1848 it was possible to distinguish between three main tendencies in the French socialist movement, denoted by the names of Blanqui,[2]Proudhon[3] and Louis Blanc.[4]


The most elemental [urwüchsig – see introduction, BL] of them was the Blanquist tendency, which directly drew on Babeufism. In turn, Babeufism was nothing more than the continuation of Jacobinism translated from a petty bourgeois outlook to a proletarian one. Just as the Jacobins conquered Paris through a series of popular uprisings, dominated the convention (parliament) and held the whole of France at bay through their tight organisation and the tremendous power of the Paris Commune, the Blanquists wanted to bring Paris under the sway of the proletariat through a series of proletarian uprisings, to dominate France via Paris and to gradually impose a socialist mode of production on the country. In these uprisings, the Parisian proletariat was to be led by a most centralised organisation modelled on the Jacobin club. After achieving victory, this organisation was to direct the proletariat.

Indeed, if such a thing was possible in 1793, why should it not be possible in 1848, now that the proletariat had become so much stronger?

Like all politicians who sought to resume 1793 in 1848, the Blanquists too failed to recognise how the situation had changed since 1793. In many respects these changes were even more unfavourable to the proletarian Jacobins of 1848 than they were to the petty bourgeoisie.

As we have already mentioned, for all their anti-capitalism, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie of 1793 had actually remained grounded in commodity production and private ownership of the means of production – at the time, the basis of the whole economic system. Capitalism was still in its infancy. It had become a social necessity, but the mass of the population still lived from petty production. The anti-capitalist tendencies of the Jacobins corresponded to their personal needs, even if they ran contrary tosocial needs – something which the individual was not directly conscious of.

In 1848 capitalism was perhaps no longer a universal social need. It could have perhaps already been replaced by social production in several regions and in several branches of production. But for the greater part of France’s population, and even for a large part of those living in Paris, commodity production and private ownership of the means of production remained a personal need. Thus the proletarian Jacobins of 1848 stood in far greater opposition to the needs of the mass of the population than the petty bourgeois Jacobins of 1793 did. In order to assert their dictatorship, they would have had needed much greater instruments of power at their disposal than their predecessors.

However, the exact opposite was the case. Since 1793 power relations in France had shifted tremendously to Paris’s disadvantage. One of the conditions of Jacobin rule was that in 1789 all the ruling class’s means of rule – church, bureaucracy and army – had been destroyed. The proletariat, as well as the petty bourgeoisie, will never be able to rule the state through these institutions. This is not only because the officer corps, the top of the bureaucracy and the church have always been recruited from the upper classes and are joined to them by the most intimate links. It is in their very nature that these institutions of power are striving to raise themselves above the mass of the people in order to rule them, instead of serving them, which means they will almost always be anti-democratic and aristocratic. The Jacobins sensed this so well that when the war forced on them the need to create an officer corps again, they placed every senior officer under the supervision of civil commissioners, because from the outset all of them were suspected of having aristocratic inclinations.

The conquest of state power by the proletariat therefore does not simply mean the conquest of the government ministries, which then, without further ado, administers the previous means of rule – an established state church, the bureaucracy and the officer corps – in a socialist manner. Rather, it means the dissolution of these institutions. As long as the proletariat is not strong enough to abolish these institutions of power, then taking over individual government departments and entire governments will be to no avail. A socialist ministry can at best exist temporarily. It will be worn down in the futile struggle against these institutions of power, without being able to create anything permanent.

In 1792 the Jacobins were in the favourable position of finding all these institutions dissolved. Using its enormous instruments of power and the Jacobin club, which was so superbly disciplined and organised throughout the country, Paris was able to fully deploy its superiority.

After Thermidor 9,[5] and especially under the empire, however, the bourgeoisie and the empire had reconstructed and infinitely perfected the means of rule described above.

It is true, these institutions were strictly centralised and directed from Paris. As long as they remained in the possession of the Parisian government, France was governed from Paris. But as soon as Paris fell into the hands of a democratic regime these means of rule had to immediately turn on this regime and thus on Paris itself. These institutions were also able to find a necessary central point outside Paris, as shown by the experience of 1871. Those centralised institutions then became the power which led the whole of France against Paris and which crushed it.

It is completely mistaken to presume – following the Jacobin tradition – that the centralisation of administration would allow a revolutionary Paris to rule France more easily than with an extensive self-government of the municipalities. Revolutionary Paris was dominant precisely when self-government of the municipalities was most highly developed. The centralism of the Jacobins controlled the federalism of the localities. The Girondists’ attempt to mobilise the provinces against Paris at that time failed miserably. It was precisely centralisedFrance which successfully carried out the Girondist plan[6] in 1848 and 1871.

This clearly points to the tasks of French socialism: the conquest of the provinces is as important as that of Paris. The dissolution and weakening of the centralised means of rule is to be promoted as much as possible – particularly through the expansion of local self-government, naturally on the basis of universal and equal suffrage. Many French socialists, of course, appear to be of a different opinion even today. They believe, for example, that the threat to the republic posed by the army’s aristocratic tendencies can best be combated by increasing the police powers of the state, rather than by introducing the militia system.

Had Jacobin Blanquism conquered Paris, it would have encountered far greater difficulties in the face of these tremendously centralised institutions of power than its predecessors of 1793 did – despite the fact that their forces were significantly smaller. It was certain to fail eventually, just as its predecessors had. Nonetheless, Blanquism would actually have been able to temporarily establish a socialist regime, which would not have been in vain. This is because no great revolutionary movement fails without leaving tremendous traces behind. These traces cannot be erased again – the failed movements provide powerful impulses, which continue to have an effect for decades, centuries even. The revolution of 1848, then, would have achieved more for the cause of the proletariat than merely sharpening proletarian class-consciousness and deepening class antagonisms through the June battle.

But Blanquism could not deploy its full strength in 1848. When the revolution broke out, its organisations were weakened by the unsuccessful putsches of the previous decade. Its best leaders were in prison – above all Blanqui himself. And alongside Blanquism other tendencies had emerged, which captivated a large part of the proletariat.


One of these was the Proudhonist tendency. If Blanqui operated above all as a fighter, an organiser, then Proudhon was above all a theoretician – from time to time a dreamer too. He recognised the contradiction between the proletariat and capital as much as Blanqui did. But he occupied his mind in researching its economic laws far more than the latter.

The experiences of 1793, however, had quite a different effect on him than on Blanqui. Blanqui wanted to continue Jacobin policy in the interests of the proletariat, and one-sidedly pushed the need to conquer state power to the fore. Proudhon only saw the revolution’s failure and became distrustful of revolutions and changes to the state, and eventually of the state itself. For him, the proletariat was to emancipate itself not by conquering the state, but by reshaping economic conditions. But if the proletariat wishes to emancipate itself through purely economic means, then these are necessarily petty means – means which can be obtained from its own funds. And they are also necessarily peaceful means which do not encounter any significant resistance from the ruling classes, because they do not appear dangerous.

In its practice, Proudhonism thus restricted itself to such means – to establishing insurance funds, exchange banks and cooperatives. Some of these, like the exchange banks, were completely utopian. Others, like insurance funds and cooperatives, could be quite useful if they were applied alongside other, more powerful and more important means of the proletarian struggle for liberation. However, these means had directly harmful effects and thus became objectionable, because they were supposed to form the exclusive area of working class activity, preventing the proletariat from using other means.

And limiting the struggle to these petty, peaceful means necessarily entailed limiting the final goal of the struggle itself, because small means could only achieve small ends. Fundamentally, the final goal could amount to nothing more than the abolition of capitalism and the emancipation of the proletariat through transforming it into a petty bourgeois. The final goal of Proudhonism was not the abolition of commodity production and its replacement by social production, but the formation of a new type of commodity production, in which capitalist profit was to be abolished by suppressing money and intermediary trade.

Proudhon was decidedly hostile to social production and communism. He was both contemptuous of and unsympathetic to the revolution.

Many of his ideas were quite petty bourgeois and thus in many cases reactionary, most clearly so on the women’s question.[7]
On May 17 1846 he wrote to Marx: “I believe we have no need of it [the revolution] in order to succeed; and that consequently we should not put forward revolutionary action as a means of social reform, because that pretended means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness: in brief, a contradiction. I myself put the problem in this way: to bring about the return to society, by an economic combination, of the wealth which was withdrawn from society by another economic combination.”[8]

Discovering this combination appeared to him to be the main task of socialists, not conquering political power.


However, at the outbreak of revolution the third tendency of French socialism, that of Louis Blanc, had far more influence than that of Proudhon and Blanqui. Blanc recognised the profound contradiction between capital and the interests of the proletariat just as much as Proudhon and Blanqui. Like Blanqui, but in complete contrast to Proudhon, he also recognised the significance of state power for economic life and for the transformation of society.

But in contrast to Blanqui he did not wish to set the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the revolutionary struggle. He thought it was possible – and therein lies his historical distinctiveness – to convince the more noble and intelligent sections of the propertied classes of the necessity of socialism, because they suffered under capitalism and free competition no less than the proletariat. Louis Blanc envisaged the means of realising his socialism as consisting of a state authority standing above all classes, powered and enlightened by the best elements of the entire nation. His socialism, therefore, had to be a peaceful one, inimical to any idea of class struggle. He did not envisage the victory of the proletariat, but the victory of reason, which is the same for all classes. He aimed for social production, but not through the conquest of capital’s means of power and the expropriation of the capitalist class. For him, the workers’ cooperatives set up and supported by the state were to grow alongside the capitalist enterprises, gradually expanding more and more.

Above all, then, Louis Blanc counted on the good will of the bourgeoisie, which had to be convinced of socialism. If for Blanqui the sovereign means of liberating the proletariat was its political organisation, if for Proudhon it was its economic organisation, then for Louis Blanc it was the power of the orators and literati of socialism in stirring people’s hearts.

He saw in beautifully spoken and written rhetoric the most important weapon of socialism – a weapon he himself deployed with virtuoso skill. And what is true of him is true of his successors. They are brilliant speakers and writers who regard the magic of their words as irresistible. In fact, without this belief their tendency would be inconceivable.


We can see that all three tendencies had their weaknesses. But the weakness of each and every one of them arose from the weakness of the proletariat itself. While the proletariat already felt the burning need to emancipate itself, it did not yet possess the strength to rule society. Each of the three tendencies sought a different path to make this emancipation possible, before the proletariat itself had gained sufficient strength to do so.

At the same time, each of these tendencies was caught up in the traditions of the Great Revolution, and this was the second aspect of their weakness. Blanquism drew directly on Jacobinism and its illusions. In contrast, it was the doldrums brought about by the failure of the illusions in the Great Revolution which were active in Proudhon. Louis Blanc, on the other hand, embodied those great memories, where revolutionary movements, in spite of the class differences which ultimately motivated them, appeared as purely human movements. They appeared to be the effects of the great ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity – like, for example, when during the night of August 4 1789 feudal lords and church dignitaries voluntarily abolished their own privileges. Of course, seen in the light of day, these privileges had actually already been smashed to smithereens by the outraged people, so that renouncing them was not too great a sacrifice.

While these three tendencies were best represented by the three people named above, they were not actually created by them. The tendencies arose from circumstances which are not coincidental, butessential to modern society, so that we still find all three tendencies in France today too – although they have long since been stripped of the special features which accorded them the above three protagonists, and each has adapted to modern conditions and completely changed in appearance. Indeed, this is not just true in France. Again and again we find these tendencies represented to a greater or lesser extent in the whole of the international socialist movement: one tendency which wants to liberate the proletariat by conquering political power in a struggle against the bourgeoisie; another which wants to do it by winning the good will of the state or a section of the bourgeoisie; and a third which wants to emancipate the proletariat behind the back of the state, through economic organisations and without much by way of politics. The vitality of these three tendencies is probably due to the fact that each of them represents a necessary part of the proletarian struggle for emancipation. That is also true, cum grauo salis [with a pinch of salt], of Louis Blanc’s tendency.

The proletariat cannot emancipate itself if it is not constituted as an independent political organisation, which captures state power. Yet this cannot be the work of a coup by a small minority of the working class. It presupposes the slow and laborious, in many cases peaceful work of raising the mass of the proletariat economically, morally and intellectually, whereby the development of its economic organisations is indispensable. And this cannot happen by ignoring the bourgeois state. The proletariat cannot place itself outside the state. It remains within it, and any change in the latter in turn has an impact on the proletariat’s own development. It cannot, therefore, stand on the sidelines of the political struggles between the different bourgeois parties, it cannot regard the composition of legislation with indifference. It must actively engage in the former, supporting one side against the other. And it must attempt to wring laws from the state which advance the proletariat’s cause.

Thus, whilst each of the three tendencies has a healthy core, each of them made errors because of their isolation from the working class movement as a whole. Today as well, therefore, every one-sided accentuation of one of the three aspects of the class struggle which ignores the others – political revolution, economic organisation, influencing legislation – must turn a truth into an error and lead the proletariat astray, increasing its casualties and reducing its successes in battle.

But, while the proletariat can only deploy its full strength when it remains conscious of all three aspects of its struggle for liberation, real conditions will at certain times give more prominence and success to one aspect of the struggle than the others.

The fact that one aspect of the struggle then comes more to the fore is not at all objectionable. As long as this does not lead to the other aspects being completely forgotten or even absolutely condemned, then it is highly beneficial to the cause of the proletariat. Because under different circumstances these other aspects can become much more effective and need to be kept in view if the accentuation of one aspect at one particular time is not to lead to one-sidedness. One-sidedness can only lead to illusions, followed by disappointments.

During times of political revolution, it was the conquering of political power which had to be pushed to the fore by the advanced fighters of the proletariat. Blanquism best corresponded to the needs of the situation back then. The proletariat could gain most from the situation by energetically and unitedly entrusting itself to the Blanquist leadership.

Man of the hour

But we have already pointed out that the Blanquist organisations were weakened and their leaders were in prison. And this particular aspect of the proletarian struggle, the conquering of political power, was precisely the one that required a unified political organisation and recognised leaders. The time of political revolution was, of course, not very propitious to Proudhon’s economic prescriptions. Louis Blanc, on the other hand, became the man of the hour. His illusions corresponded to the lack of class-consciousness amongst the majority of the proletarian mass. But he also presided over the press: that great weapon with which modern politicians most influence, indeed control, the unorganised masses.

Louis Blanc’s illusions in the cooperation of the classes always found the most fertile soil in journalistic circles. The journalist is exploited by capital and degraded as one of its wage workers. However, he often originates from bourgeois circles and is incorporated into the bourgeois milieu through personal relationships, interests and goals. Literally and politically, the journalist reproduces the intermediate position between bourgeoisie and proletariat, which the petty bourgeois occupies economically. He easily develops proletarian sympathies, but looks for a way of asserting them without breaking with the bourgeoisie. Every one of us ‘academics’ in the socialist movement has probably been through this stage – even those who have now come to emphasise the proletariat’s class point of view most sharply. Many remain stuck in that stage for life.

The journalist who makes ‘public opinion’ through his editorials is also most easily seduced by the illusion that he is able to overcome class contradictions through spoken or written editorials, or that he is able to convince the different classes to work together.

While the spontaneous proletarian movement always oscillates between the two extremes of political revolution and economic organisation of the working class (something which in 1848 took the forms of Blanquism and Proudhonism), the literati socialist always tends towards cooperation of the classes, as represented by Louis Blanc in 1848.

The less organised, the less politically educated the proletariat is, the more it will be controlled by the press. And in February 1848, with the exception of a few secret clubs, the Parisian proletariat possessed no organisation at all. LaRéforme, founded in 1848 and edited by Louis Blanc in association with petty bourgeois/socialist democrats, was a force amongst the revolutionary masses at that time.

The fact that it was Louis Blanc and not Blanquism which influenced the composition of the provisional government was a reflection of the lack of independent organisation and class-consciousness of the Parisian proletariat. This was also true of the fact that the government was not a socialist government, but a bourgeois one in which two socialists, Louis Blanc and Albert,[9] were condemned to impotence from the outset. Their presence was not a proletarian outpost in enemy territory, but protected the bourgeois government from the proletariat.

Jaurès wrote in Cosmopolis that it was a great misfortune that with Blanc’s participation in government, “socialism appeared to be in power without possessing it. Socialism was represented in the provisional government in which bourgeois views prevailed; a semblance of power, through which socialism overexcited the fears of the capitalists, without possessing the power to get rid of capitalism” (quoted by E Bure in La vie socialiste 2nd issue, p125).

The strength which the proletariat developed in the February days was not enough to overthrow the bourgeois regime, but it was enough to make the existence of the monarchy impossible – and thus to replace it with the republic.

While it forced the republic into existence, the proletariat achieved nothing more than to impose on the bourgeoisie the task of transforming the republic – considered by the proletariat as the tool of its emancipation and embraced as a ‘social’ republic – into a tool of bourgeois class rule. It forced the bourgeoisie to reign over the proletariat itself – an unpleasant task, which the bourgeoisie had previously left to the monarchy.

However, the significance acquired by the proletariat in the republic induced in the bourgeoisie a hatred against the working masses, which it had not known under the monarchy. If under the monarchy the bourgeoisie gladly used the proletariat to intimidate the government and to make it compliant, it now pushed the government to put an end to the new power, which was rising up so threateningly alongside it. If necessary, this should be done quickly, with terror.

While the workers led by Louis Blanc dreamed of solving the social question through a social republic, which would alleviate all class differences and lead to the cooperation of the classes, the bourgeois republic was preparing for a horrific class conflict, the likes of which had not been seen in the 19th century.

Above all, the new government saw it as its task to get a ‘reliable’ military power to Paris to disarm the proletariat, which had acquired weapons in the February days. This led to the disaster of the June days, to the bloody suppression of the proletariat. And now everything that the proletariat had seized by defeating the monarchy was taken back from it by the victorious republic. Its press was suppressed and its clubs were disbanded. The national guard, which had been made accessible to all classes, was once again restricted to the bourgeoisie. And when, in spite of the June defeat, the elections saw socialists enter the national assembly, universal suffrage was abolished.

The right to vote was now tied to a residency of three years. Moreover, police fines, even violations of the laws of association and similar trifles, were sufficient to entail the loss of the right to vote.

This is how the bourgeoisie succeeded in completely containing the crushed proletariat. But in doing so it eliminated a buttress of the republic – a buttress which the republic had even more need of in 1848 than it did after 1793. At the time of the Convention the petty bourgeoisie had still been energetic and strong. Fifty years on, it had become unstable and timid. Yet the bourgeoisie still viewed the republic with suspicion, hostility even. The army brought them assurance. But the bourgeoisie also submitted itself to the regime of the army’s trusted man, Napoleon III.[10] It was just as necessary that the Second Empire would follow the battle of June, as the First Empire had followed Thermidor 9.


  1. The “foreign enemy” Kautsky refers to is the combined military might of monarchist Prussia and Austria. Their armies were advancing on Paris, but were forced to retreat at the famous Battle of Valmy in September 1792.
  2. Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-81).
  3. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65).
  4. Louis Blanc (1811-82).
  5. Thermidor 9 (July 27 1794) marked the fall of the Jacobin leader, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94).
  6. As noted in the previous article in the series (‘Republic and social democracy in France’, April 28), the Girondists sought to create a parliamentary monarchy. Thus the ‘Girdondist plan’ of 1848 and 1871 refers to attempts to restore the monarchy.
  7. It is unfortunate that Kautsky does not proceed to discuss Proudhon’s flaws on the women’s question in any detail. Tony Cliff’s Class struggle and women’s liberation provides some (non-referenced) quotes by Proudhon, such as this one: “Genius … is virility of spirit and its accompanying powers of abstraction, generalisation, creation and conception; the child, the eunuch and the woman lack these gifts in equal measure” (
  9. Here, Kautsky is referring to Alexandre Matin, who was commonly known as Albert l’Ouvrier (‘Albert the worker’) due to his background as a machinist in a button factory. Matin, who was closely associated with Louis Blanc, soon lost faith in the provisional government and subsequently led an uprising against it with Auguste Blanqui. Matin was arrested and jailed for four years on charges of treason.
  10. Napoleon III (Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, 1808-73) was nephew of Napoleon I. He was president of the Second Republic and then emperor of the Second Empire from 1852-70. As president of the Second Republic he spent much of this time consolidating power, and staffing the government administration with his supporters. But the constitution stipulated that the president had only a four-year term, and Bonaparte sought to change this. However, he was unable to get the majority he needed, so on December 2 1852, before his presidency expired, Louis Bonaparte staged a coup to overthrow the government and install himself as emperor.


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