WASHINGTON — Too bad the coup, the final flaring of a political faith now nearly extinguished, did not end with the plotters fleeing Russia by train from St. Petersburg's Finland Station, where Lenin arrived in 1917. The plotters were (in Lenin's phrase) useful idiots. Because of what they did, Mikhail Gorbachev cannot again be what he was, a retrograde force temporizing with a bankrupt system and retarding the advance toward democratization and economic rationality.
Mr. Gorbachev now has the prominence of a ship's figurehead. Boris Yeltsin is on the ship's bridge.
Tanks are so telegenic, scant attention was paid to the plotters' initial proclamation. The detested word ''communism'' did not appear; but communism's faintly flickering spirit did: ''The chaotic spontaneous slide toward a market provoked an explosion of egoism.'' Eroticism, too, drew the plotters' denunciation of ''the propaganda of sex'' and ''glaring immorality.''
The plotters hoped to rally popular support by saying: ''Whereas only yesterday a Soviet person finding himself abroad felt himself a worthy citizen of an influential and respected state, now he is often a second-rate foreigner.'' For almost all Soviet citizens, finding food, not finding themselves abroad, is the problem.
Capitalism, according to Marxism, is the transitional stage from feudalism to socialism. Under Mr. Gorbachev, socialism has taken society back toward feudalism. The Wall Street Journal says many Soviet manufacturers no longer accept rubles, preferring to barter products. ''This,'' says one, ''is how it was in feudal times.''
A manager of a state farm needs filters for machinery, but the manufacturer demands a car, not the nearly worthless currency, as payment. ''I could trade vegetables with a nearby factory that makes chinaware, then trade that for a car and then trade the car for the filters, but it's all very unpleasant.'' And unproductive.
Think about it. A regime responsible for one-sixth of the Earth's land mass has only a ghost of a currency. While the Soviet Union slides into a primitive barter system, what does Mr. Gorbachev do? When Mr. Yeltsin, Russia's elected president, recently banished Communist apparatchiks from their traditional posts in workplaces, Mr. Gorbachev, who holds no office by direct election, vowed implacable resistance to the order.
Mr. Gorbachev has made clear that he seeks only change that is compatible with the party's primacy. His barren strategy is to try to improve the centralized command economy with commands from the center.
But the center, Moscow, can no longer preen as the Vatican City of an entity, the Soviet Union, defined by a political faith. So Moscow must revert to being the capital of a sovereign nation, Russia.
The workers of the world, said Marx, have no fatherland. But Soviet citizens have, the plotters insisted, a ''motherland.'' The plotters' proclamation began: ''Compatriots, citizens of the Soviet Union, we are addressing you at the grave, critical hour for the destinies of motherland and our peoples. A great mortal danger has come to loom large over our great motherland.'' The proclamation uses ''motherland'' 10 more times in trying to portray the Soviet Union as what the plotters called ''a single family of fraternal peoples.''
But ''Soviet nationalism'' is an oxymoron. The Soviet Union's existence requires the suppression of all real nationalisms within it.
The most powerful idea of the modern age is that of culturally distinct people finding fulfillment in nationhood, often the revival of ancient nations. Nations are stirring all over the Soviet Union.
The coup occurred on the eve of, and may have been intended to prevent, the signing of the new union ''treaty.'' Think about that. The Soviet Union's constituent republics are to have between them a treaty relationship, the sort that usually obtains between sovereign nations. The treaty-as-constitution contains provisions that are, to anyone familiar with American history, promises of disintegrative disputes.
A constitutional court will mediate disputes between the national government and the republics. While appealing to the court, the republics can suspend national laws they consider contrary to the treaty while appealing to the court. This resembles the ''doctrine of interposition'' and the theory of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions authored in 1798 by Madison and Jefferson respectively. They argued that states could declare null and void laws they considered unconstitutional.
Furthermore, under the union treaty the Soviet republics can conduct their own diplomatic and commercial relations with other countries. Finally, the republics retain the right to secede. This is a recipe for an association much looser than that of the Articles of Confederation that proved so problematic in America 1781-1789. Americans eventually chose more centralization, but Americans felt American.
Soviet constitutional disputes will occur between republics -- nations, really -- defined in large measure by mutual animosities. And the national government's sovereignty will be so severely attenuated that the new arrangement will make probable what U.S. interests make desirable: the end of the Soviet Union.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.