Émigrés from the Soviet Union have been reporting for at least the last generation now that virtually nobody in that country truly believed in Marxism-Leninism any longer, and that this was nowhere more true than in the Soviet elite, which continued to mouth Marxist slogans out of sheer cynicism. The corruption and decadence of the late Brezhnev-era Soviet state seemed to matter little, however, for as long as the state itself refused to throw into question any of the fundamental principles underlying Soviet society, the system was capable of functioning adequately out of sheer inertia and could even muster some dynamism in the realm of foreign and defense policy. Marxism-Leninism was like a magical incantation which, however absurd and devoid of meaning, was the only common basis on which the elite could agree to rule Soviet society ...Fukuyama was hardly the only intellectual in the '89-'91 period to make a point about the ideological disappearance of Marxism-Leninism. In fact, everyone from Latour to Badiou to Eagleton identifies those years with that event. This should not be surprising; after all, the Cold War, which had provided reliable political coordinates for almost half a century, had just ended. The intellectuals were just jumping on the bandwagon. And surely something important was happening: the people on the television were chanting, standing on tanks, pulling down statues. It must have been some kind of watershed.
The Soviet Union could in no way be described as a liberal or democratic country now, nor do I think that it is terribly likely that perestroika will succeed such that the label will be thinkable any time in the near future. But at the end of history it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society. And in this respect I believe that something very important has happened in the Soviet Union in the past few years: the criticisms of the Soviet system sanctioned by Gorbachev have been so thorough and devastating that there is very little chance of going back to either Stalinism or Brezhnevism in any simple way. Gorbachev has finally permitted people to say what they had privately understood for many years, namely, that the magical incantations of Marxism-Leninism were nonsense, that Soviet socialism was not superior to the West in any respect but was in fact a monumental failure. The conservative opposition in the USSR, consisting both of simple workers afraid of unemployment and inflation and of party officials fearful of losing their jobs and privileges, is outspoken and may be strong enough to force Gorbachev's ouster in the next few years. But what both groups desire is tradition, order, and authority; they manifest no deep commitment to Marxism-Leninism, except insofar as they have invested much of their own lives in it. For authority to be restored in the Soviet Union after Gorbachev's demolition work, it must be on the basis of some new and vigorous ideology which has not yet appeared on the horizon.
- Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?"
On the other hand, as Fukuyama points out, nothing really happened. If the Soviet Union's ideological purpose was to "represent an alternative" to liberal democracy--as many writers put it--the link between representation and represented had become attenuated indeed. The claim of the USSR to alone speak for Marx had already begun to collapse when news of Stalinist repression had started splintering the mainstream European Communist Parties. After 1968 the Situationist critique of the Cold War powers as variations on a spectacular capitalist theme became mainstream. The Soviet Union in the minds of the radicals was not even meaningfully socialist, still less a communist utopia.
By all accounts, 1989 should have produced as little agitation among the intellectuals as the death of the last Stuart claimant to the English throne did among subversives in nineteenth-century Britain. Bolshevism was already as obsolete as Jacobitism had been. And yet we were told, and still are, that something important had happened. Perhaps "New World Order" was an exaggeration, but Marxism as a fetish began sliding precipitously into disrepute. Now even Badiou and Jameson are coy about their sympathies. Just as notably, the greatest economic crisis since the Depression did nothing for Marxism's fortunes--as good a test as any for the relevance of a system of thought.
So what was 1989 really? It was an excuse. In taking Marxism's grotesquely misshapen Dutch uncle for the real thing, the intellectuals killed it off themselves, as they had been secretly meaning to do for a while. The announcements were a sort of speech act, a collective promise to bury the subject once and for all. The attacks levied against Fukuyama only prove the point: his mistake was in being from the Right and thus apparently gloating, not in actually being wrong. The Soviet Union, in the end, was a lamb sacrificed on the altar to expiate much more threatening sins.
But the illusion that the collapse of Marxism had been brought about by a real-world event continues to be necessary. After all, if the Marxist star had gone out quietly of its own accord, it would have been impossible not to look for a reason for its disappearance. And if no such reason could have been found, the remaining explanation would have had to confront the reality that Marxism and everything else was just a fad, no more inherently capable of satisfying the Eleventh Thesis than any other--and how could the intellos take themselves seriously after that?