Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism

in History, Literature, Politics | November 22nd, 2016


Creative Commons image by Rob Bogaerts, via the National Archives in Holland

One of the key questions facing both journalists and loyal oppositions these days is how do we stay honest as euphemisms and trivializations take over the discourse? Can we use words like “fascism,” for example, with fidelity to the meaning of that word in world history? The term, after all, devolved decades after World War II into the trite expression fascist pig, writes Umberto Eco in his 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism,” “used by American radicals thirty years later to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits.” In the forties, on the other hand, the fight against fascism was a “moral duty for every good American.” (And every good Englishman and French partisan, he might have added.)

Eco grew up under Mussolini’s fascist regime, which “was certainly a dictatorship, but it was not totally totalitarian, not because of its mildness but rather because of the philosophical weakness of its ideology. Contrary to common opinion, fascism in Italy had no special philosophy.” It did, however, have style, “a way of dressing—far more influential, with its black shirts, than Armani, Benetton, or Versace would ever be.” The dark humor of the comment indicates a critical consensus about fascism. As a form of extreme nationalism, it ultimately takes on the contours of whatever national culture produces it.

It may seem to tax one word to make it account for so many different cultural manifestations of authoritarianism, across Europe and even South America. Italy may have been “the first right-wing dictatorship that took over a European country,” and got to name  the political system. But Eco is perplexed “why the word fascism became a synecdoche, that is, a word that could be used for different totalitarian movements.” For one thing, he writes, fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”

While Eco is firm in claiming “There was only one Nazism,” he says, “the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change.” Eco reduces the qualities of what he calls “Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism” down to 14 “typical” features. “These features,” writes the novelist and semiotician, “cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”

  1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
  2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
  3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
  4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
  5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
  6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
  7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
  8. The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
  9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
  10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
  11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
  12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
  13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
  14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

This abridged list (available in full at The New York Review of Books) comes to us from Kottke, by way of blogger Paul Bausch, who writes “we have a strong history of opposing authoritarianism. I’d like to believe that opposition is like an immune system response that kicks in.”

One detail of Eco’s essay that often goes unremarked is his characterization of the Italian opposition movement’s unlikely coalitions. The Resistance included Communists who “exploited the Resistance as if it were their personal property,” and leaders like Eco’s childhood hero Franchi, “so strongly anti-Communist that after the war he joined very right-wing groups.” This itself may be a specific feature of an Italian resistance, one not observable across the number of nations that have resisted totalitarian governments. As for the seeming total lack of common interest between these parties, Eco simply says, “Who cares?… Liberation was a common deed for people of different colors.”

Read Eco’s essay at The New York Review of Books. There he elaborates on each element of fascism at greater length. And support NYRB by becoming a subscriber.

via Kottke

Related Content:

Umberto Eco Dies at 84; Leaves Behind Advice to Aspiring Writers

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George Orwell Reviews Mein Kampf: “He Envisages a Horrible Brainless Empire” (1940)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Make a Comment (15)

Comments (15)

  1. Dennis says . . .
    November 22, 2016 / 12:10 pm

    Sounds awfully much like the SJWs of the left

  2. Randy says . . .
    November 22, 2016 / 1:23 pm

    With the exception of item 1, I agree.

    While I find Trump to be … horrifying… I also found the Clinton campaign policy to be equally horrifying.

  3. Glynn Kilara says . . .
    November 22, 2016 / 8:25 pm

    DRumpf is a classical Fascist by Eco”s definitions. Fascism has finally arrived here. I suspect though it will be uniquely an American hybrid.

  4. Malinda says . . .
    November 23, 2016 / 1:25 am

    It sounds exactly like black South Africa today.

  5. Laszlo Toth says . . .
    November 23, 2016 / 6:32 am

    Dennis, two questions:

    One, how exactly does #12, “machismo and weaponry,” sound “awfully much like the SJWs of the left?”

    Two, you wouldn’t happen to own a bar in Philadelphia, would you?

  6. John says . . .
    November 23, 2016 / 9:41 am

    “Disagreement is treason.”
    sounds like the bullies of the left; SJW, Environmentalists, BLM

  7. joe says . . .
    November 23, 2016 / 5:18 pm

    cult of tradition?
    rejection of modernism?
    fear of difference?
    machismo and weaponry?
    sorry, whatever else you may say about the left, i don’t see these as hallmarks.

  8. Emerald says . . .
    November 23, 2016 / 5:35 pm

    Trump is definitely authoritarian but the real danger is that the party that supports him is #2 – ”The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”

    The extremist, regressive and obsessive position with religious belief, their refusal to believe in science. While the rest of the world moves progressively forward, Americans as a people continue to live in the past, adhering to rigid morals and values hundreds of years old. There are SOME progressives but not enough to move the country forward in a positive way.

  9. Woody says . . .
    November 23, 2016 / 7:08 pm

    Half of these features characterize the right and the other half the left. It seems to me that both parties have managed to create a level of division that brings to mind mid 19th century America, and the media is a big part of the problem. Journalism is dead. Now the media is a servant to the left and right respectively. Maybe a two party system isn’t the way to go, and maybe the media needs to stop pushing propaganda. Ideology is a fickle beast. If a fellow American doesn’t have the same beliefs as you, that’s OK. There is no need for a safe space, or to resort to violence, we live in a democracy! Change can be made through the system. That’s a fact Jack! Sorry for the knitted sweater that is my comment. Also, I love you all.

  10. TheWorm says . . .
    November 23, 2016 / 9:56 pm

    Hahaha, I live the second one :)

  11. chris Pike says . . .
    November 24, 2016 / 2:37 am

    There we go right wingers in first trying to neuter the debate.

  12. chris Pike says . . .
    November 24, 2016 / 2:49 am

    The media is a servant of the right to serve the rich in their continuing exploitation of the poor working class and the middle classes. Trump will make life even worse for the the majority of Americans (he stared this yesterday with his taxation policy couched in caring right wing rhetoric.

  13. Brooke Byrne says . . .
    November 24, 2016 / 8:50 am

    I would add:

    1) restriction of higher education except of those inculcated into ideology during youth. No thinking for yourself!
    2) formation of youth groups to indoctrinate ideology into future generations.
    3) using artistic ventures as propaganda tools and punishing independent artists for speaking against the regime. Totalitarians always seem to understand the power of the arts.

    All of Eco’s points can be used by “left” or “right” (Germany, Italy, China, Soviet Union) the moral is to recognize the tendencies and resist!

  14. Benny H. says . . .
    November 25, 2016 / 5:56 am

    No! With a few eceptions, one or two of these items are not enough to be present to allow fascism to coagulate around them. This is a serious reservation I have…
    Any accounting of a list without discussion is an oversimplification. An oversimplification is always narrowing the reader’s choices, especially of those that mostly need a liberal education.
    To give an example: To stand against tradition is not necssecarilly antifascistic. Neither to be a fanatic of Enlightment.

  15. Mary Hawkins says . . .
    November 25, 2016 / 12:59 pm

    Demonizing opposing views is a tactic employed by the left and the right. But the overarching theme of fear of change and regression is antithetical to progressive ideologies. We all need to check ourselves when we enter into any absolutist, emotionally-charged rhetoric. The election of Trump and liberal backlash thereof is an awakening by millions who have been complacent observers of their government. I see that as a positive thing because it means we will all become less lazy in our thinking. More critical thinking, less reactionism. We can only hope.

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