By Umberto Eco
February 24, 2020
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 humour 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.”
- 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.”
- 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 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
- 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.”
- Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
- Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
- 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.”
- Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
- 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.”
- 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 seemingly total lack of common interest between these parties, Eco simply says, “Who cares?… Liberation was a common deed for people of different colours.”
Read Eco’s essay at The New York Review of Books. There he elaborates on each element of fascism at greater length.
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Umberto Eco (5 January 1932 – 19 February 2016) was an Italian writer of fiction, essays, academic texts, and children’s books. His most famous work is “The Name of the Rose”)A professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, Eco’s brilliant fiction is known for its playful use of language and symbols, its astonishing array of allusions and references, and clever use of puzzles and narrative inventions. His perceptive essays on modern culture are filled with a delightful sense of humor and irony, and his ideas on semiotics, interpretation, and aesthetics have established his reputation as one of academia’s foremost thinkers.
More about him at Wikipedia
Jessy Szalay, “What is Fascism?” in Live Science, January 25, 2017
Dave Renton, Fascism – Theory and Practise, 1999
Encyclopædia Britannica, Common characteristics of fascist movements