As anyone who is familar with George Orwell’s Animal Farm is aware, Orwell’s book is an allegory for Communist Russia under Stalin. And it is well known that this allegory was a criticism of Stalin’s Communist regime. Indeed, it was for this reason it was withheld from publishing during the second World War, since the United States and Soviet Russia were allies at the time. Simplistic interpretations will use this to argue that Orwell was criticising Socialism in general. A mere Wikipedia search will reveal that Orwell self-identified as a Democratic Socialist, so such claims are quite odd. However, illuminating a specific detail in the book can demonstrate that the criticism by Orwell is that Soviet Russia demonstrated a form of Capitalism instead of Socialism.
The economic system I believe Orwell is criticizing, although he may not have used the term, is State Capitalism. Marxist Economist Richard D Wolff in Democracy at Work: A cure for Captialism (2012) compares State Capitalism to Private Capitalism, where he says:
“In what can be called “private capitalism,” the employers are private citizens who hold no position within the state apparatus and operate with relatively minimal interventions by the state. In what we can call “state capitalism,” the employers are officials within the state apparatus.”
The reason why these are both forms of Capitalism has to do with who has control over the means of production (the physical things that allow the production of goods and services). A Capitalist economic structure is where the means of production are owned by individuals. Whereas, a Socialist economic structure is where the means of production are owned collectively. Under Capitalism, an individual owns the business but the workers do not. The individual business owner has control over what is produced in the business, how it is produced, who it is produced by, who it produced for, and so on. The workers have no control over these decisions. Hence Wolff’s use of the term ‘Democracy at Work’ in his book title. Under a Socialist economic structure, the workers own the business collectively, hence all share control over the business decisions.
Wolff himself uses Soviet Russia as an example of State Capitalism. He does so because similar to Private Capitalism, the State makes all the decisions regarding what is produced, how it is produced, who it produced by and who it is produced. And since Soviet Russia was a dictatorship, the workers and the rest of the public had no control or say over these decisions. It is for these reasons that Communist China is also better described as State Capitalist.
Returning to Orwell’s Animal Farm, the ending makes such a suggestion. The book ends with the pigs under Napoleon (who represents Stalin) becoming unrecognisable from the human farmers that were overthrown at the beginning. The principle of ‘all animals are created equal’ was changed to ‘all animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. And the sheep who used to chant ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ were trained to chant ‘four legs good, two legs better’. The suggestion is that Animal Farm, Stalin’s Soviet Union, no longer resembled Socialism but Capitalism. This because the pigs took the place of the human owners. Thus the rest of the animals, the working class, were no better off than when they started.
This why I believe appealing to Animal Farm as a thought experiment is useful to explain the concept of State Capitalism. It is also useful to demonstrate how dictatorships in Russia and China do not represent Socialism. This is important because a common tactic of opponents of Socialism is to accuse any of its defenders who might protest “but that is not real Socialism” of committing the ‘no true scotsman….’. In the face of such accusations, it is helpful to have a clear distinction to demonstrate how such countries lack the necessary conditions to call themselves Socialist.
I highly recommend Richard Wolff’ Democracy at Work: A cure for Capitalism. And of course Animal Farm for those who have yet to read it.