For Karl Marx, socialism was about self-emancipation. Unlike capitalism, where a rich elite rule, socialism would mean power for the vast majority of people – the working class.
But the “socialist” states declared in Eastern Europe after the Second World War were nothing of the kind.
There were no working class revolutions. These states had simply been occupied by the Russian army at the close of the war.
As Russia entered a Cold War with the US and the West, it spread regimes modeled on the Soviet Union – where, as the old joke went, there were no longer any soviets or any unions.
These were vicious one-party states run by a ruling class which monopolised economic, political and military power.
There was not a plethora of multinational corporations as there were in the West. Rather the economy was run as a state-owned corporation. This system was not socialism – it was state capitalism.
People were brutally exploited in economies where competition with the West – especially in the arms race – always took priority over food, clothing and the other basics people needed.
The unions were phoney state-run operations, and strikes were illegal.
These regimes employed racism against minorities, used antisemitism when needed, made homosexuality punishable by being thrown in a camp and urged women to “breed for socialism”, outlawing abortion.
They were the exact opposite of Marx’s vision of emancipation and workers’ control.
There were working class revolts against the regimes, beginning in 1953 in East Berlin, reaching full scale revolution in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
But on each occasion Russia sent in its tanks to suppress the revolts.
The most sustained challenge was in Poland, where strikes and riots culminated in the mass strikes of 1980–81.
The state capitalist economies were never isolated from what was happening in the rest of the world economy. Their final crisis was similar to the one affecting much of Asia, Africa and Latin America in the 1980s.
During the great global recessions of 1974-5 and 1980-1 the Eastern European economies were caught in a debt trap, unable to pay off their debts and crippled by interest charges.
It was all too much and led to an eventual economic collapse.
It was that crisis that created the space for the workers’ movements that ultimately brought down the Stalinist regimes.