Sometimes we look at the People’s Republic of China and think, “Come on, they can’t be communist any more – half of them are overweight!” So why shouldn’t the Catholic Church make peace with their rulers? What’s wrong with inviting them to help pick a few bishops?

Well, I’m sorry to report that ideas do matter to those who believe in them and the Chinese elite are still communists at heart. You need to take communism seriously to see it.

I’ve just finished a couple of smashing biographies of Russian reds. Victor Sebestyen’s Lenin the Dictator argues that Lenin’s brand of communism, which is essentially what Beijing practises today, was and is a conspiracy.

In theory, said Karl Marx, socialism would be built by the proletariat out of the ashes of capitalism. But Russia at the turn of the last century hadn’t even finished feudalism: hence, no capitalism, no proletariat and no socialism for the foreseeable future. So, Lenin had to jump the gun by announcing that even if the Russian masses were, ahem, “unready” to take power for themselves, the revolution could still be pulled off by a band of professional agitators. Indeed, the revolution of October 1917 wasn’t a revolution at all. It was a coup d’etat.

Lenin was interested primarily in power. He recognised that socialism would be a long struggle and he was happy to tag from left to right if that’s what it took to stay on top.

First, he tried to run the new Soviet economy by command from the Kremlin. When that went belly-up, he introduced a form of state capitalism called the New Economic Policy – and it’s the NEP to which China’s approach today is often compared, with its mix of open markets, foreign investment and a powerful central government. In the sense that the Chinese communists have acknowledged they also need to have a bit of capitalism before they can build socialism, they are, like Lenin, both flexible and loyal to Marx’s original ideas about how history is supposed to work.

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