The Long, Complicated History of the “14 Defining Characteristics of Fascism.”
The origin, history, and criticism of Laurence W. Britt’s widely-shared list.
The 14 Defining Characteristics of Fascism
I first encountered Laurence W. Britt’s “14 Defining Characteristics of Fascism” while searching for definitions of fascism leading up to the 2016 presidential elections. At the time, I didn’t know much about fascism other than it was an authoritarian ideology that described the German and Italian regimes during World War II. As I began learning more about fascism, I became curious about the origins of Britt’s list. My subsequent investigation took some surprising turns.
The first version of Britt’s list was published in an article titled “Fascism, Anyone?” in the Spring, 2003 issue of Free Inquiry, a secular humanist magazine, and appeared on their website in April of 2003. Free Inquiry describes the article as “the most reprinted — and most pirated — article in the magazine’s history.” This original version has the correct spelling of Britt’s name (“Laurence,” instead of “Lawrence,” as it appears elsewhere) and describes him as “a retired international businessperson, writer, and commentator.” The list is preceded by five paragraphs of expository text.
Almost immediately, versions of Britt’s list began appearing, both modified and unmodified, on other websites. The list mutated while being passed around on email lists and published on websites. Below, I discuss the earliest examples I could find of the two most common versions of the list.
Use by the Right
Just a month after its publication in Free Inquiry, an altered version of Britt’s list appeared on a site called rense.com. This is the first version that I ever saw online. The expository text preceding the list has been removed. Britt’s first name has been misspelled as “Lawrence,” and he’s been granted the title of “Dr.” The explanatory text appearing after each of the fourteen items has also been reworded. For example, this is the original:
1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. From the prominent displays of flags and bunting to the ubiquitous lapel pins, the fervor to show patriotic nationalism, both on the part of the regime itself and of citizens caught up in its frenzy, was always obvious. Catchy slogans, pride in the military, and demands for unity were common themes in expressing this nationalism. It was usually coupled with a suspicion of things foreign that often bordered on xenophobia.
And the corresponding text in rense.com’s version:
1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism — Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.
It’s unknown who originally rewrote the explanatory text for each of the characteristics.
What I didn’t know at the time is that rense.com is run by Jeff Rense, a right-wing talk radio host. His program used to be broadcast on AM radio and later on satellite radio, but is now limited to being streamed on his website. He is accused of promoting antisemitic views by both the ADL and the SPLC, and has given a platform to a number of racist extremists like Don Black and David Duke. His website is teeming with conspiracy theories, including everything from 9/11 denialism to UFOs and more. His show has hosted conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and David Icke.
Why would a right-wing radio host share a list of characteristics of fascism? There are a couple of possible answers.
First, extremists on the far-right and far-left share at least one ideological characteristic: they’re both anti-establishment. People on both the far-right and the far-left have used the list to “prove” that whatever administration was in power was “fascist.” Looking at usage over the years, I’ve seen people use this list to condemn every administration from Reagan’s to the current administration, including Presidents Clinton and Obama.
Second, many people on the political right believe, incorrectly, that fascism is a left-wing ideology. They will often point to the word “socialist” in the Nazi’s “National Socialist German Workers’ Party” as evidence to that effect. This belief is ahistorical, as fascism is undeniably an extreme right-wing ideology.
Rense evidently wasn’t the first person to lift Britt’s list from Free Inquiry. He credits the article to both Free Inquiry and to a defunct website called LibertyForum.com.
LibertyForum.com is a website that ran from 2000 to 2008. It’s been archived for posterity at archive.org. I was unable to find the archived version of Britt’s list on archive.org, but if Rense is correct that he got the list from there, it must have published between April and May of 2003. It’s unclear whether LibertyForum took the list directly from Free Inquiry or an intermediate source, and is also unclear whether LibertyForum, rense.com, or another party made the modifications to the list.
Like rense.com, LibertyForum.com was full of conspiracy theories, antisemitism, and anti-government rantings. The users of LibertyForum were to the political right of the very conservative George W. Bush administration.
Turnabout is Fair Play: Use by the Left
At the time of this writing, the top google search result for “14 defining characteristics of fascism” results in a version of the list on ratical.com, evidently published in June of 2003, about a month after its publication on rense.org. This version retains the misspelling of Britt’s first name and his “Dr.” title, and changes his profession to “political scientist.” It otherwise appears identical to the content on rense.org.
ratical.com credits both Free Inquiry magazine and a defunct website called hippy.com for the list. However, the hippy.com webpage cited by ratical.com (available on archive.org) bares no resemblance to Britt’s list. I have no explanation for this. It may simply be a misattribution, or perhaps ratical.com didn’t want to disclose the true source.
As for ratical.com itself, its content has a left-wing orientation, but shares the conspiracy bent with both rense.com.
Off the Internet, Onto Paper
Britt’s list made it into a number of books, sometimes as the original list, sometimes as one of the modified versions.
The original version appears in at least four books. The entire article appears unedited in “Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy,” by Donald Lazare. An interesting version appears in “The Third Resource: A Universal Ideology of Economics,” by Istvan S. Tuba and Robert T. Uda. It contains the original list from Britt’s article, but refers to Britt as “Dr. Lawrence [sic] Britt, a political scientist” which comes from the modified versions.
The modified version appears in at least seven books, including “The Nazi Hydra in America,” by Glen Yeadon, and “Malice in Wonderland: the Bush Junta from 2000 to Present” by D. L. Joy. Yeadon appears to have sourced his list from ratical.com or a derivative, while Joy appears to have sourced his from rense.com or a derivative.
Whenever Britt’s list is published in a forum that allows comment, it inevitably generates debate and criticism.
A common criticism is that meeting a list of characteristics shared by members of a group doesn’t imply membership in that group. For example, all of the players in the 2018–2019 starting lineup for the Golden State Warriors’ share the following characteristics: over six feet tall, have at least a 30-inch vertical leap, under 40 years old, earn over $2 million a year, and have facial hair. Not many people in the US meet that criteria, but LeBron James does, and he’s not in the Golden State Warriors’ starting lineup.
Another criticism of using the list to diagnose fascism is that each of the criteria is subjective. For example, how do you measure “obsession with national security” or “disdain for the importance of human rights?” There’s no generally agreed upon objective measure.
Some point out that many of the characteristics may just be characteristics of governments in general, not just fascist ones. “Rampant cronyism and corruption” are evident throughout the world.
Some criticisms are flawed, due to the tendency to see fascist governments as unchanging monoliths, rather than complex systems that changed over time. Some of the characteristics may apply at one point in time, but not another. Some of the characteristics may have applied to certain parts of the government or certain key figures, but not others. There’s a fair amount of nuance required when assessing the nature of a government.
Some of the criticism are relevant if we’re going to use the list as a way of diagnosing an administration as fascist. But Britt’s intention wasn’t to create a list in order to diagnose fascist governments. Rather, he intended to create a list of characteristics that defunct fascist governments shared.
Umberto Eco Makes an Appearance
The fact that you can’t diagnose a fascist government from a list of characteristic didn’t stop philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco from compiling his own list. Predating Britt’s list, Eco wrote an essay in 1995 for the New York Review of Books titled “Ur-Fascism.” In it, he provides his own list of features of fascist movements. Britt claimed to have read a number of books on fascism, so it’s possible, even likely, that he was aware of Eco’s essay. Coincidentally, Eco’s list also had 14 items, which I’ll abbreviate here:
1. The Cult of Tradition.
2. Rejection of Modernism.
3. Action for Action’s Sake.
4. Disagreement is Treason.
5. Fear of Difference.
6. Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class.
7. Obsession with a plot.
8. Followers Must Feel Humiliated by the Ostentatious Wealth and Force of Their Enemies.
9. Pacifism is Trafficking with the Enemy Because Life is Permanent Warfare.
10. Contempt for the Weak.
11. Everyone is Educated to be a Hero.
13. Selective Populism.
14. Ur-Fascism Speaks Newspeak.
Eco’s essay is interesting and worth reading. His list is good, but is no better than Britt’s in terms of diagnosing a movement, it’s simply a list of features compiled by looking backward.
In His Own Words
It turns out that in 2004, Laurence Britt gave an interview to his local newspaper about his essay. In it, he discusses how several of the characteristics from his list applied to the United States at the time of the interview during the George W. Bush administration. Britt goes over each of the points in detail and whether or not he saw parallels in the US at the time.
At the end of the interview, Britt concludes that the US is not a fascist state, but at the time there are warning signs and disturbing trends.
So, What is Fascism?
It’s fair to say that literally nobody knows. Descriptions and criticisms of fascism have existed since immediately after its birth in 1919. Hundreds, if not thousands, of books and papers about fascism have been written over the years, and there are still scholars involved in comparative fascist studies. Our understanding of what fascism is continues to evolve over time.
In his book “Fascism,” Robert Griffin discusses the history of the understanding fascism as an ideology. He describes numerous attempts to describe fascism, including the Marxist theory that understands fascism as the ruling class’s response to an impending revolution by the workers, and the liberal academic method of creating lists of features similar to Britt’s and Eco’s. Griffin advocates for a method of understanding fascism empathetically by turning to contemporary writings of the fascists themselves to understand what they believed fascism to be.
Based on that empathetic approach, the definition that Griffin determines that:
Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic [relating to rebirth] form of populist ultra-nationalism.
That’s certainly a mouthful, but his perspective is that a definition is better than a list of characteristics.
Is the Current Administration Fascist?
The short answer is “no.” The motto “Make American Great Again” does invoke a sense of a mythic American past and call for rebirth. However, Robert Griffin says that it doesn’t rise to the level of calling for an overthrow of democratic systems required of fascism.
But does it matter?
Whether we describe the current administration as “fascist,” “right-wing populist,” “white nationalist,” or some other term is irrelevant. What is relevant is that innocent people are suffering, and in some cases dying, as a result of the current administration’s policies.
Succinctly describing the current administration might not be a possibility until we have the benefit of hindsight. In the meantime, it’s the duty of all Americans to remain vigilant, and to continue to fight for democracy.