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

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:

Yale Professor Jason Stanley Identifies Three Essential Features of Fascism: Invoking a Mythic Past, Sowing Division & Attacking Truth

20,000 Americans Hold a Pro-Nazi Rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939: Chilling Video Re-Captures a Lost Chapter in US History

Rare 1940 Audio: Thomas Mann Explains the Nazis’ Ulterior Motive for Spreading Anti-Semitism

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


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Comments (40)
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  • Dennis says:

    Sounds awfully much like the SJWs of the left

  • Randy says:

    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.

  • Glynn Kilara says:

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

  • Malinda says:

    It sounds exactly like black South Africa today.

  • Laszlo Toth says:

    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?

  • John says:

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

  • joe says:

    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.

  • Emerald says:

    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.

  • Woody says:

    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.

  • TheWorm says:

    Hahaha, I live the second one :)

  • chris Pike says:

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

  • chris Pike says:

    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.

  • Brooke Byrne says:

    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!

  • Benny H. says:

    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.

  • Mary Hawkins says:

    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.

  • Dolores J. Nurss says:

    I would modify #1 to a cult of dead tradition. Living tradition, like any living creature, adapts and grows. For instance, over time most Christians came to a realization that persecution was not evangelism, and violence against other religions, once considered a service to Christ, was in fact a betrayal of His teachings. A dead tradition does not grow.

  • Devin says:

    How does this apply to the left? I believe the essay made is perfectly clear that in order to qualify as a traditional facist movement it must jave at least one of the items listed.

  • Readloudnation says:

    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.

    By Donald Trump Muslim ban will keep Oscar-nominated director Asghar Farhadi from 2017 ceremony

  • Patricia Cremer says:

    I want to sign up to this terrific sight and don’t see a sign up as in name and email which is all I have, no social media what so ever, just a computer, no iPhone.

    Also: King of them all Umberto, endless what he is all about, First, British, both sides at the same time- up side down and backwards knowing he is funny, he is his words, that is who he is, beyond brilliant, never able to capture him in words. and what I see in comments, he reveals in Name of The Rose, every single one of them

  • Patricia Cremer says:

    How to sign up for all your offerings as shown. Not anything but computer,Mac, no iPhone no social media, just computer email

  • Michael Brandow says:

    “The rejection of modernism … an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” That covers pretty much all of academia.

  • Kung T'ze says:

    Professor Eco qualifies for ten of the 14. Is this the ironic autobiography of an unconscious Fascist, or do all European philosophies look so depressingly bland and similar?

  • yvonne lunde-andreassen says:

    Ditto UK; I seem to recall Orwell linked this to laguage;

  • bob says:

    Uh no. All media except fox news serves the left, thats why its called the liberal media. 90% of the richest people in america are democrat left wingers. Most of the middle class is right wing. You are wrong on all your points. Lookup the parties of the richest Americans, the political spectrum of all the media and the voting statistics of the middle class and you will see how wrong you are.

    Fascism is left wing and always has been.
    Left wing = big government/more government. Fascism/communism/monarchy/dictatorship are all on the left giving more power to the government.

    Right wing = small government/less government. The further right you go the less government you get until eventually you have anarchy.

  • Marsha says:

    1.The left want open borders because we are traditionally a nation of immigrants.
    2.Their ‘modernism’ is not philosophical, it is ideological; huge difference. Philosophical modernism is tolerance of all points of view, as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of the citizens. People can believe in Sharia law (talk about machismo and rejection of modernism!), or communism (no right to personal property and redistribution of it by a government), or Nazism (deadly extreme Darwinism: destroy the ‘unfit’ as defined by a them), or fascism (government controls industry, such as quotas, etc., no free market), but they must not enact it upon other citizens. (possibly, arguably, not even on their own children; like FGM, or not allowing girls to learn to read or write.)
    3.The ‘left’ claim that multicultural means all the different races and religions must be represented equally throughout society (equity of outcome is a supremely dangerous ideology). The right claim that equity of opportunity is ideal for citizens, which includes all the different points of view – the content of their character, not the color of their skin, and really has little or nothing to do with the race or ethnicity. Fear of difference is not about skin color! In much of today’s establishments and institutions, conservatism is branded as fascism, and conservatives dare not speak their minds. This is NOT multicultural, it is fascist.
    4.The current state of the so-called women’s movement is merely women being MACHO and hateful toward white men and western society in general, which is, of course stupid, since it’s only in western societies that we have even these rights, and white men who ended slavery, which had been going on since humans have had tribes, and has historically included any and all ethnicities, by the way. Also, one more word on machismo and weapons: Antifa. There is a strong imbalance of hatred and violence coming from the left, because, in their nasty ideology, only people who state the politically correct opinions should be allowed to speak, and the vast bulk of their argument are straw man arguments, where they are fighting against the various horrid labels that they put onto anyone who disagrees with them. They actually insist they have the moral high ground, and all others be damned! The right generally just want to be left alone.

  • Marsha Fields says:

    To Joe’s question/comment from Nov. 2016: 1.The left want open borders because we are traditionally a nation of immigrants. It’s all about traditionalism.
    2.Their ‘modernism’ is not philosophical, it is ideological; huge difference. Philosophical modernism is tolerance of all points of view, as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of the citizens; your right to swing your arm ends where the other guy’s nose begins. People can believe in Sharia law (talk about machismo and rejection of modernism!), or communism (no right to personal property and redistribution of it by a government), or Nazism (deadly extreme Darwinism: destroy the ‘unfit’ as defined by a them), or fascism (government controls industry, such as quotas, etc., no free market), but they must not enact it upon other citizens. (possibly, arguably, not even on their own children; like FGM, or not allowing girls to learn to read or write.)
    3.The ‘left’ claim that multicultural means all the different races and religions must be represented equally throughout society’s institutions (equal opportunity is great, but the equity of outcome is a supremely dangerous ideology). Equal opportunity is the best goal, because it includes all the different points of view – based on the content of our character, not the color of our skin; it has little or nothing to do with the race. The leftist fear of difference is not about skin color, but about difference of opinion. In much of today’s establishments and institutions, conservatism is branded as fascism, and conservatives dare not speak their minds. This is NOT multicultural, it is totalitarian and fascist: agree to open borders and hatred of Trump (the intruder), or lose your job. 4.The current state of the so-called women’s movement is merely women being MACHO and hateful toward white men and western society in general, which is, of course stupid, since it’s only in western societies that we have even these rights, and white men who ended slavery, which had been going on since humans have had tribes, and has historically included any and all ethnicities, by the way. Also, one more word on machismo and weapons: Antifa. There is a strong imbalance of hatred and violence coming from the left, because, in their nasty ideology of Identity by Group, only people who state the politically correct opinions should be allowed to speak, and the vast bulk of their arguments are straw man arguments, where they are fighting against the various horrid labels that they put onto anyone who disagrees with them. They actually insist they have the moral high ground, and all others be damned! The right generally just want to be left alone.

  • Daddy says:

    To sum up all the comments, I’d go with Orwell’s remark :”the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.”. It’s become a pejorative to smear an opponent.

  • Chris says:

    It is misguided to refer to progressives, liberals and the more extreme variants as a unified political group called “the left”.
    First, conservatives consider anyone disagreeing with their views as “a liberal” or “the left”. That would put Richard Nixon, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as leftists btw. I agree completely that a true liberty minded egalitarian who believes in strict adherence to the constitution as it relates to civil liberties would fight for the right of Nazis to express themselves.
    What is challenging our democracy currently is that at no other time has the federal government and the office of the President appeared to support those very extremist views.
    Normally the majority of Americans would feel comfortable that “common sense” (which is Pollyannish regardless of your political viewpoint) will always win out.
    What “liberals” have never appreciated is how the Obama years destabilized the right. By ushering I’m so much change to the order of the world while it simultaneously being used as a dog whistle to activate the sub conscious fear of death we all harbor (see Becker)

  • Tony Ridler says:

    Its nice, to be taken seriously, when touched! One can’t be too nice, to the touched, seriously-#PoliceThePolice

  • Attila the Hun says:

    Almost two years down the track now, Mary. As an observer of US & A from a safe distance, I have seen no increase in critical thinking or reduction in reactionary thought. If anything, your country has become even more polarised. I’d get out while you can.

  • lendl says:

    1 Never believe anything any Khazar says.
    2 All Khazars help each other to get to the positions from which they can dicated what is
    proper and what is not.
    3 No matter where they live Khazars will always work for their own good and not the good
    of the country which they live in.
    4 Umberto Eco is Khazar.
    5 Never believe anything Khazar says.
    6 Tradidion is the biggest enemy of Khazars and they always work on destruction of any tradition and culture except for their own traditions.
    7 “Modernism” is a largely Khazarian invention and it’s basically replacement of good, trusted values that have been ok for thousands of years with Khazarian garbage values which are implement to destroy any real values.
    8 Khazars hate action because they dont act. They only think how to infiltrate,
    subjugate, defeat and exploit. They are parasites.
    9 Khazars infiltrate all other societies and that’s why they always propagate “inclusivity”. They know they are foreign bodies/parasites.
    10 Khazars hate leaders who find out what is that they do and call masses to fight back.
    11 You cant talk about Khazars because their parasitism is protected by laws.
    12 Only lives of Khazars matter all other lives of all other nationalities are worthless.
    13 Khazars are chosen people. Thats what it says in their Book.
    14 Khazars only believe in one thing, money.
    15 Khazars dont have 1 political system they support. They will use Communism, Capitalism, Feudalism, Slavery, Democracy,Anarchism etc..anything is good as long as it works for them in a given moment……etc..etc…etc..

  • pbrower2a says:

    Classic antisemitism, if modified to identify certain Jews as Khazars.

    If anything, Jews are hostile to fascism because of its cruelty, its rejection of the decencies that make Jewish freedom possible, its rejection of rational thought, and its menace to anything that can seem different. Judaism is hostile to racist ideologies that deny the shared humanity of us all and that usually turn against Jews.

    Rationality requires individual integrity, something that fascists consider disposable. Judaism is a religion of morality, and Jews are capable of faulting other Jews for ethical shortcomings. Jews have often been strangers in strange places,and hence vulnerable.

    Jews are not any more greedy and materialistic than us gentiles. Success is not the result of greed and materialism; it is the reward for doing well at something useful that the society desires well enough to pay well for doing.

  • Rich says:

    How on earth does any of that soudn remotely like SJWs? Or the Left. You say words withouth meaning.

  • Bill W. says:

    SJW’s are the ones banning/boycotting ANYTHING they disagree with. They are the ones blocking traffic and attacking white drivers who ‘disobey’ their commands. They distroy businesses and property like the Nazis did in the 30’s, and to Progressives, anyone to the right of Stalin is a ‘Nazi.’ Mindless violence is the Leftist way, they are what they claim to hate!

  • Sasha says:

    Fascism is a scapegoat for the rich/poor problem nowadays. Lets talk about fascists instead of rich who misuse their wealth to further drain the working class. Contribution of rich is 0, meritocracy is dead. It is shame that Ecco participates in giving rich a free ride.

  • jlockley says:

    That is because you do not know and thus understand the use of the mythical past in Fascist regimes.Hitler built the German followers on the Valhalla myth, a mythical past in which there was neither greed nor crime, which was then attributed to the Jews, Gypsies and others who were supposedly not only corrupting German blood buy threating the entire civilization. Germany is the template but not the only country to incorporate the idyll concept into its propaganda. As a matter of fact it is common to all populist philosophies. Here and now it is the myth of pervious American greatness. Previously it was manifest destiny.

  • jll@chefsprofessional.com says:

    I had forgotten this. Thank you for sharing it cogently and directly without emotion.
    I simply wish that more of your readers were able to understand it.

  • jlockley says:

    Thank you for trying, but reading the comments you must realize that their createers either do not want to grasp the proposed connecxtions, or, more likely, simply are unable to do so.
    A fractured saying: In the land of the blind the one eyed man should probably keep silent. It is worth considering.

  • HEJC says:

    Awww, lookit all the “Must be the SJWs/Leftists!” posts. Me thinks the poor widdle racists doth protest to much. Or, as elementary school students say when someone farts…”Fox knows his own hole first.”

  • Catherine Morrisey says:

    I agree that the rejection of modernism is the real danger. Rational thought is essential for progress and social stability. I enjoy antiques, but they are romantic ciphers from a past time that was fraught with rigid values tied to toppling power structures. Huge wars resulted as empires died. Do we have to do this again? If we teach the value of rational thought, can we promote a better future for all, including the bitterly disenfranchised?

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