by Umberto Eco edited by O Society July 29, 2019
So we come to my point: There was only one Nazism. We cannot label Franco’s
hyper-Catholic Falangism as Nazism, since Nazism is fundamentally pagan, polytheistic, and anti-Christian. But the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change. The notion of fascism is not unlike Wittgenstein’s notion of a game. A game can be either competitive or not, it can require some special skill or none, it can or cannot involve money. Games are different activities that display only some “family resemblance,” as Wittgenstein put it.
Consider the following sequence:
1 2 3 4
abc bcd cde def
Suppose there is a series of political groups in which group one is characterized by the
features abc, group two by the features bcd, and so on. Group two is similar to group onesince they have two features in common; for the same reasons three is similar to two and four is similar to three. Notice that three is also similar to one (they have in common the feature c).
The most curious case is presented by four, obviously similar to three and two,
but with no feature in common with one. However, owing to the uninterrupted series of decreasing similarities between one and four, there remains, by a sort of illusory
transitivity, a family resemblance between four and one.
Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist. Take away imperialism from fascism and you still have Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have the Balkan fascism of the Ustashes. Add to the Italian fascism a radical anti-capitalism (which never much fascinated Mussolini) and you have Ezra Pound. Add a cult of Celtic mythology and the Grail mysticism (completely alien to official fascism) and you have one of the most respected fascist gurus, Julius Evola.
In spite of this fuzziness, I think it is possible to outline a list of features 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. It is enough if one feature is present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
1. The first feature of Eternal-Fascism is the cult of tradition. Traditionalism is of course much older than fascism. Not only was it typical of counter-revolutionary Catholic thought after the French revolution, but it was born in the late Hellenistic era, as a reaction to classical Greek rationalism. In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of them indulgently accepted by the Roman Pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages – in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little known religions of Asia.
This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice”; such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a silver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.
As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already
spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.
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 most influential theoretical source of the theories of the new Italian right, Julius Evola, merged the Holy Grail with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, alchemy with the Holy Roman and Germanic Empire. The very fact the Italian right, in order to show its open-mindedness, recently broadened its syllabus to include works by De Maistre, Guenon, and Gramsci, is a blatant proof of syncretism.
If you browse in the shelves in American bookstores labeled as “New Age,” you
can find there even Saint Augustine who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But
combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge – this is a symptom of Eternal Fascism.
2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. Both Fascists and Nazis worship technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden).
The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense, Eternal-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.
3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in and of itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Eternal-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.
4. No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. 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. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.
5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for
consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Eternal-Fascism is racist by definition.
6. Eternal-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why 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. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.
7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Eternal-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Eternal-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.
The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the U.S., a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.
8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their
enemies. When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.
9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.
10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Eternal-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians.
The Great Leader, knowing that his power was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler. Since the group is hierarchically organized (according to a military model), every subordinate leader despises his own underlings, and each of them despises his inferiors. This reinforces the sense of mass elitism.
11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Eternal-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Falangists was Viva la Muerte (in English it should be translated as “Long Live Death!”).
In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness.
By contrast, the Eternal-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Eternal-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.
12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Eternal-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Eternal-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons – doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.
13. Eternal -Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view – one follows the decisions of the majority.
For Eternal-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the
People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.
To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. 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.
Because of its qualitative populism Eternal-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. One of the first sentences uttered by Mussolini in the Italian parliament was “I could have transformed this deaf and gloomy place into a bivouac for my maniples” – “maniples” being a subdivision of the traditional Roman legion. As a matter of fact, he immediately found better housing for his maniples, but a little later he liquidated the parliament. Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Eternal-Fascism.
14. Eternal-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Eternal-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. 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. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.
On the morning of July 27, 1943, I was told according to radio reports, fascism
collapsed and Mussolini was under arrest. When my mother sent me out to buy the
newspaper, I saw the papers at the nearest newsstand had different titles.
Moreover, after seeing the headlines, I realized each newspaper said different things. I bought one of them, blindly, and read a message on the first page signed by five or six political parties – among them the Democrazia Cristiana, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Partito d’Azione, and the Liberal Party.
Until then, I had believed there was a single party in every country and in Italy it
was the Partito Nazionale Fascista. Now I was discovering in my country several
parties could exist at the same time. Since I was a clever boy, I immediately realized so many parties could not be born overnight, and so they must have existed for some time as clandestine organizations.
The message on the front celebrated the end of the dictatorship and the return of freedom: freedom of speech, of press, of political association. These words, “freedom,” “dictatorship,” “liberty,” – I now read them for the first time in my life. I was reborn as a free Western man by virtue of these new words. We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again.
Eternal-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Eternal-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world.
Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.”
Freedom and liberation are an unending task.
Let me finish with a poem by Franco Fortini:
Sulla spalletta del ponte
Le teste degli impiccati
Nell’acqua della fonte
La bava degli impiccati.
Sul lastrico del mercato
Le unghie dei fucilati
Sull’erba secca del prato
I denti dei fucilati.
Mordere l’aria mordere i sassi
La nostra carne non è più d’uomini
Mordere l’aria mordere i sassi
Il nostro cuore non è più d’uomini.
Ma noi s’è letto negli occhi dei morti
E sulla terra faremo libertà
Ma l’hanno stretta i pugni dei morti
La giustizia che si farà.
On the bridge’s parapet
The heads of the hanged
In the flowing rivulet
The spittle of the hanged.
On the cobbles in the market-places
The fingernails of those lined up and shot
On the dry grass in the open spaces
The broken teeth of those lined up and shot.
Biting the air, biting the stones
Our flesh is no longer human
Biting the air, biting the stones
Our hearts are no longer human.
But we have read into the eyes of the dead
And shall bring freedom on the earth
But clenched tight in the fists of the dead
Lies the justice to be served.
(poem translated by Stephen Sartarelli)