Umberto Eco’s List of Fascism’s 14 Common Features

From via Open Culture, some thoughts on Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay in the New York Times Review of Books, “Ur-Fascism” in which the Italian novelist, critic, philosopher and semiotician offers a list of 14 “typical” features that make up the political system Italians got to name.

Fascist, along with its cousin Nazi, aren’t terms I use lightly, or even often. The associated memories and emotions are brutal, painful, strong. I never found calling someone a “soup Nazi” very amusing (I didn’t much care for Seinfeld either) but rather a way to merely cheapen the term.

Fascist and Fascism are words we have been and will continue to hear a lot, sometimes unfairly, but sometimes not. Most immediately, the terms are being bandied about vocally as incoming US president Donald Trump continues to piece together his administration.

But at their core many of the themes Eco expounded upon two decades are prevalent here in Europe as well in pockets, small and large, where the far right has, or is gaining traction.

By way of re-introducing Eco’s essay, Josh Jones writes in Open Culture:

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.”

Jones then notes it seems almost unfair for all subsequent authoritarian and totalitarian movements the share the name of a system that wasn’t very clearly defined.

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.”

Then, by way of introducing his 14 features, Eco writes:

But in spite of this fuzziness, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features 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.

A condensed version of the 14 features, in Eco’s order, via’s piece (one of my all-time favorite blogs):

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 humiliation by the wealth and force of their enemies. “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.”

Sound familiar?

An excellent read.


Today’s Pic du Jour, the site’s 1,054th straight: from a mural at Oslo City Hall, Oslo, Norway, 09 June 2016.



  1. Tyranny has arrived to the USA! His TV show which I saw once 20% was a clear indication of ego-trip, tyranny and Mr. Right of the President elect. we will have 4 years of this attitude and hope it does not break the United States of America as Hitler did Germany.

  2. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism …” ay yi yi. These are earthshakingly powerful. Thank you. Question is, what to do? Silence isn’t going to help. Thanks.

    1. That’s always been the question, hasn’t it? From what I can see many people are not keeping silent. So much about this election is unprecedented, not the least of which the fact that he lost the popular voted by a fairly substantial number, currently 1.7 million and growing. He won the states/electoral college, but this hardly signals a mandate of any kind. Certainly not the kind represented by the people he’ll be surrounding himself with.

  3. I can’t help but think that Great Narcissism is the right technical term for our new Orange Overlord. It seems to explain so much of him. Eco’s points are very familiar, yes. Even more so for someone originally coming from a Socialist, rural Slovenian East 🙂

  4. Sounds very familiar, yes. And as for ‘it seems almost unfair for all subsequent authoritarian and totalitarian movements the share the name of a system that wasn’t very clearly defined,’ for a brief period of European history the term ‘fascist’ was used by a number of similar movements, with similar ideologies, such as Mussolini’s Fascists and Moseley’s Fascists in UK, as well as the Nazis. Thus, a framework was created.

    1. Thanks, Mick – I agree that the framework was created, from which Eco drew these points. What also interested me in his essay was his explanation of some of the differences between the various so-called Fascist movements. The nuances may be subtle, but they’re important in that “one way” won’t necessarily translate well from one country –say Italy– to another.

  5. Very interesting, Bob. This is what happens when politicians in power do not listen to the people they are supposed to be serving. To find out what the future holds in store, the best person to ask is often a historian. Mankind in general never seems to learn by past mistakes and just repeats them, usually in 100 year cycles.

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