Over a late night vodkatini or two, East Europeans in and out of the European Union still sometimes ask each other what went wrong. The increasingly obvious instability of the liberal market order they signed up to in the early 1990s is one thing, and perhaps not wholly unexpected. After all, that is what they had always been told about capitalism; but it doesn't seem so important when you consider that even with the ups and downs there are goods in the shops. Then there is the class of sharp-suited plutocrats who emerged triumphant out of the wreck of the old economy. But when you set the sleaze and opportunism against the privileges of the old nomenklatura, is it really so different?
But what about the aggression? Two major wars and many minor ones in the last few years, and - with Kurdistan, Gaza, Kenya and now Kosovo again - no sign of the universal pacification a benign capitalist order is supposed to bring: no "end of history", to use Fukuyama's phrase. And then there is the coarse materialism. OK, a little funky advertising hurts no one, can even be creative. But isn't the commercialisation of everything just too insistent, too all-pervasive, too - well too morally sterile?
And there is the deeper question of what happened to the high ideals of the early socialist period. How could so much talk of human liberation have ended in so little - rather like the great 1920 Tatlin Tower designs, currently on show among the Russian paintings at the Royal Academy and intended to house the Comintern but, like socialism itself, never built.
One interesting theory developed by the Slovenian critic Slavoj Žižek concerns the relation between the party and the working class. In anarcho-syndicalism the working class directly makes history, with little need for state or party. In early Marxism the party is merely the formal means whereby the working class emancipates humanity. Then with Lenin it becomes the repository of a codified Marxist theory, informing the practice of the popular workers' and soldiers' soviets, but also still to some extent learning from their experience. It is only with Stalin that the party acquires its final infallibility, so much so that loyal members who found they had unwittingly strayed from its line were only too ready to denounce themselves as traitors.
But isn't there a lesson for us in Britain too? Here we had a pragmatic working class party that engaged in dialogue with its base. But here too an infallible theory has gripped the party leadership and made it dismissive of all dissent, which must by definition be hostile, and party democracy has shrivelled in the cold blast of doctrine.
The paradox is, of course, that the theory in question isn't Marxism, it is neo-liberal market dogma. You only have to look at the contortions the Labour leadership went to to avoid uttering the word "nationalization" as regards Northern Rock to see how deeply it is in thrall to ideology, while the escalating attacks on civil liberties warn us all to watch our step. Late at night over a couple of drinks, people here too sometimes ask each other what went wrong.