Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Hal Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 4: Critique of Other Socialisms

The ideas of Marx and Engels grew out of concrete circumstances, but they also evolved and developed in response to events and in engagement with other ideas. The fourth volume of Hal Draper's epic Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution looks at "other socialisms". As such Draper's book is a study of how Marx and Engels understood other socialists and how they developed their critiques. Draper looks at several concepts in turn - Utopian socialism, State Socialism (both left and bourgeois versions) and Anarchism. It is striking how this volume uses the politics developed in the early volumes as stepping off points to critique these different socialisms. In particular Draper shows how Marx's understanding of the state is both a differentiation that highlights the problems of the other socialist models and a strategic discussion. As Draper writes about Marx's critique of Anarchism:

Anarchists often repeated Marxist formulations (or approximations) that the state was the "executive committee" of the ruling class, and so forth, but the content of their state theory was just the reverse of Marx's. Their insistence that the abolition of the state had to be the firs tact of the revolution was the product of pure dogma, simply an unhistorical view of the relation between the state and social order. Many socialists (including Marx and Engels, as we have seen) had struggled with this question in the early days of the movement, so it had always been a well-known view before it became hardened into anarchist theory.

But this mistaken approach led the Anarchists into dead-ends and in some cases, led them into reactionary alliances. Draper notes that in 1877, "Engels emphasized how the anarchists' political abstentionism had reduced them even in Italy to a tiny sect" precisely because the logic of their position on the state was to abstain from immediately struggle in favour of a point in the future when they would abolish the state and everything would be sorted out. 
While the book does discuss other socialisms, much of the book focuses on Anarchism and in particular the debates and struggles between Marxists and the followers of Bakunin's "reformist politics" in the First International. Draper follows his usual model of exploring ideas in depth, backing up arguments with copious and rigorous quotes from the works of Marx, Engels and their contempories. It is quite a shock them to see his expose of Bakunin's ideas and Bakunin's activity. In particular there is an unpleasant, but completely necessary, discussion of Bakunin's antisemitism which makes for difficult reading. Draper shows how this arises out of Bakunin's complete lack of concrete politics and his dismissal of the masses as the agent of social change. Time and space precludes a detailed discussion of Bakunin's failed politics and how it essentially becomes a utopian movement of top down change.

All this life, Bakunin sought a shortcuts to effective power: by convincing a suitable czar, emperor, king or other autocrat to declare the People's Revolution from above, and impose the Rule of Anarchy (or Whatever) through the convenience of an already established despotism.

If any young anarchists are reading this and find it a difficult pill to swallow it is worth them digging out the source material from Draper on Bakunin's secret societies, hidden within secret societies, which postulate rule by an enlightened despot or individual rather than a society governed from below by the "associated producers".

Crucially though, Draper returns to the question of the state. He points out that the end game for Marx was, of course, a society without classes and without the state (the state is an instrument of class rule and the disappearance of classes would lead to the disappearance, dying out, or withering away of the state). In this Marx was the same as the best of the anarchists, and indeed Draper quotes from the International's circular of 1872, "all socialists see anarchy as the following programme". Draper continues though:

This revelation assumes ignorance of the real history of antistatism in the socialist movement, that is, of the fact that anarchism developed out of a reservoir of antistatism, but that antistatism is not congruent with anarchism. 

Marxism as a concrete framework for understanding the world and changing it, sees the workers' state as a transitional stage (a subject discussed in detail in Draper's third volume) toward a stateless and classless society. The abstract approach of many anarchists towards the state and their abstention from the movement, was for Marx, a limitation and a utopianism. 

But this utopianism wasn't restricted just to the anarchist movement. In a fascinating chapter Draper looks at the case of the French General Boulanger, a reactionary "protofascist" whom, in the late 1880s, received brief, mass support from the lower-classes and drew a number of socialists towards him, who were "looking to take a free ride into power on the coattails of the populat demagogue". Draper shows how Engels engaged in a fight against this, as one of the advocates of this sorry politics was Marx's son-in-law, Paul Lafargue. Lafargue essential wanted to hide his principles to avoid cutting himself off from the masses, "To combat Boulangism, Boulanger should not be attacked" said Lafargue. In response Engels asserted the importance of the "formation of a party separate from and opposed to all bourgeois parties". He emphasised that there are no short cuts to workers' power.

The chapter on Boulanger is fascinating and I had not been aware of the arguments, but it forms a useful summary of the approach of Marx and Engels to concrete problems and the use of their method. Draper's discussion is a very readable account and deserves study. He concludes the section, and the book:

To our ears, Engels' discussions regarding Boulanger have a bitter echo; they reverberate with many of the themes that crippled the socialist and Communist movements before Hitler's conquest of power. The political letters written by Engels on this now obscure episode in the life of the [French] Third Republic - an episode dim in the history books, and letters which few have paid attention to - are more germane to the tragic history of socialism in our day than several tons of marxological works.

It's a fine summary that demonstrates the importance of Hal Draper's own work and this magnificent series in particular.

Related Reviews

Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 1: State & Bureaucracy
Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 2: The Politics of Social Classes

Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 3: The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat'

Friday, May 27, 2022

Chris Hadfield - The Apollo Murders

***Spoilers***

Sometimes it's better to start a review by coming right out with your own opinion. This is certainly one of those cases. This is a terrible novel. Rather fascinatingly it is terrible on a number of levels. Firstly there's the technical level. The author, Chris Hadfield, is an remarkably experienced astronaut. This means he has a detailed knowledge of everything to do with space science - from orbits to living in space. He also knows a lot about the history of Apollo. Tragically for the reader Hadfield feels the need to tell us, in great detail, all about these things. From going to the toilet, to the experience of launch. It all helps to pack out 460 pages and the reader's feeling of being overwhelmed.

Hadfield is one of those novelists who likes to tell the reader things - makes of watches, types of aircraft, technical detail. If you like being drowned in such info, you'll love this book.

The second terrible thing about this book is the plot. There are some holes that would easily allow a Saturn V rocket to launch through it (the Saturn V rocket was 363 feet tall, launched 13 times and took 24 people to the moon BTW). The plot holes exist to hold together a completely creaky tale of the Cold War in space, set around a fictional military only mission to the moon Apollo 18. In this timeline, an extra Saturn V is taking another crew to the moon and they are going to intercept the Soviets who are doing BAD THINGS. 

The Apollo crew, who have had a last minute personnel change due to an accident to one of the spacemen, has to disable a Soviet spy satellite. A little stop-off before they go to the moon. One of the Soviets kills an American and GETS ON THE APOLLO just as it heads to the moon. Its so ridiculous it made me laugh out loud. 

This means there's KGB, Whitehouse and Kremlin talks, a typically square jawed US astronaut (who just happens to actually be Russian) and a female Soviet crewmember. In possibly the most ridiculous bit of the novel, the US decide to allow the Soviet to land on the moon, in borrowed kit, without training and that's just because the US has to find out what a Soviet rover is doing. The characters are wooden, the women in particular are one dimensional and the Soviet characters are clichés. 

If my summary sounds implausible, that's because it is utterly unbelievable. You can't suspend disbelief for this one, and I only read it to the end because I figured it was a great cosmic joke. Really, there are better novels about Apollo 18 out there (the whole concept is a cliché by now anyway). I remember really enjoying James Michener's Space, for instance. Unless you're obsessed with Chris Hadfield's work, I really wouldn't bother with this one.


Monday, May 23, 2022

Chinedu Chukwudinma - A Rebel's Guide to Walter Rodney

Today Walter Rodney is perhaps best known for his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. But as Chinedu Chukwudinma shows in the latest of the Rebel's Guide series, Rodney's importance is much greater than that single work. Rodney was assassinated for his revolutionary activity at the tragically youthful age of 38. Yet in those years he developed into an important historian, Marxist revolutionary, journalist and activist. His ideas remain crucially relevant today and it is excellent to learn that his work is receiving a revival in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter.

Chukwudinma argues that it is Rodney's revolutionary activity that must be rescued. He points out that he is well known for How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and his historical work, but "fewer still remember the revolutionary struggle he led before his death in Guyana". Rodney's own political trajectory is fascinating. He was born during the Second World War in Guyana, his parents an activist part of the nationalist People's Progressive Party "attracted to the PPP's anti-colonial rhetoric". A brilliant student Rodney arrived in London in 1963 where he was immediately confronted with racism at SOAS. He found the British left dogmatic and sectarian, but personally developed in a study group led by the Marxist CLR James. Returning to Africa, and then going back to work in the West Indies, Rodney quickly became associated with radical groups and activism. His expulsion from Jamaica by the government was the spark for "Rodney Riots" in the summer of 1968, when hundreds chanted "Black Power". The important of these riots, "went beyond demands for [Rodney's] reinstatement. It lay in the poverty and political exclusion of Jamaicans and the rise of black consciousness among the young". Chukwudinma charts how Rodney's engagement with local radicals and anti-colonial activists saw him develop his ideas further. He writes:

In Jamaica, Rodney criticised the ruling class for flaunting the myth of a harmonious multiracial Jamaican society. He despised its national motto - "Out of Many, One People"-for obscuring the fact that a small multiracial elite ruled over an African majority. For Rodney, the elite feared above all the prospect of Jamaicans organising politically around their African identity. Therefore, many of his speeches [at the time] emphasised the need for blacks to reconnect with their African heritage". 

Within all of this Rodney was grappling with the question of the agency for revolutionary change. He admired Che Guevara's writing on guerrilla struggles, but was sceptical about its potential for Jamaica. He "celebrated" workers' strikes but saw the working class as "only one of the revolutionary classes". It was a wider engagement with African nationalist and anti-colonial movements that developed Rodney's thinking on this crucial political question. Back in Tanzania Rodney believed that "peasant Ujamaa villages" formed an alternative. These cooperative farms were created and supported by the state and were an attempt to break out of the limits imposed by the production of cash crops for western markets. Rodney argued these sort of cooperatives could form "the basis of a socialist society that avoided capitalism", if they were modernised and helped from without. Essentially he was arguing that Tanzania could make a socialist transformation without workers' revolution.

But the experience of the Tanzanian state and its failure to drive forward to socialism. Instead the state essentially forced the cooperatives to do their bidding, driving up production in the interests of the capitalist economy. Rodney saw in this echoes of the Stalinist regimes. Instead Rodney began to see the growing working class as an alternative, recognising in in rank and file strikes the real power of workers and their ability to stop the profits of capitalism. As Chukwudinma says, Rodney understood that the Tanzanian working class "was small but its strategic position in the economy gave it great power". 

Returning to Guyana in the mid 1970s Rodney flourished as a radical thinker and revolutionary. He began a "transformation into a full-time organiser of the working people." Chukwudinma tells the crucial story of the Guyana rebellion of 1979 and the role of Walter Rodney. It is worth emphasising the importance of this period, which will be almost unknown to most western activists. Yet Chukwudinma draws out lessons of general importance to socialists everywhere, as well as exploring the specific political questions for post-colonial Africa. Rodney helped made the Working Peoples' Alliance, into a mass organisation committed to workers' self-emancipation. Rodney wrote, "The revolution is made by ordinary people, not by angels, it's made by people from all walks of life, and more particularly by the working class who are in the majority."

The state murder of Walter Rodney arose out of the threat he posed to the capitalist class. In the aftermath the WPA gradually broke with revolutionary socialism in favour of electoralism. There's no doubt that this process was made easier by the loss of Rodney.

While I've focused here on Rodney's development as a revolutionary thinker, it must be made clear that Chukwudinma's book is a brilliant exposition of Rodney's theoretical thinking. There's an excellent chapter on his most famous work on the underdevelopment of Africa, as well as a detailed exploration of Rodney's thoughts on the close links between capitalism, colonialism and the construction of racism. Rodney's theoretical development on this arose from his detailed study of African history. As Chukwudinma explains:

Racism between Guyanese African and Indian workers was not a matter of natural prejudice or cultural difference. In fact, this divide originated in the colonial planation society which brought Africans as slaves and then Indians as indentured workers. As a Marxist, Rodney regarded racism in Guyana as the consequence of the white planter class's divide and rule strategy to control labour after the abolition of slavery in 1838. He gained that insight from his analysis of Guyanese history, whereby he recognised the material conditions for the existence of racism under capitalism.

Having begun this book knowing little of Walter Rodney's life and work, I finished it wanting to know a great deal more about this important revolutionary thinker and activist. Chinedu Chukwudinma's book is an excellent addition to the brilliant Rebel's Guide series and I heartedly recommend it to activists who are fighting the legacy of colonialism, racism and capitalism today.

Related Reviews

Rodney - The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World
Newsinger - A Rebel's Guide to Orwell
Prasad - A Rebel's Guide to Martin Luther King
Hamilton - A Rebel's Guide to Malcolm X
Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly
Brown - A Rebel's Guide to Eleanor Marx
Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Orr - Sexism and the System; A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Alastair Reynolds - Slow Bullets

Slow Bullets opens with a vast interstellar conflict, but quickly focuses down on a small group. Scur, a conscript, is hoping to survive to the end of the war - which seems to be imminent, but she suddenly finds herself the prisoner of a notorious war criminal. After torture she's left for dead... and wakes up on a massive interstellar transport vessel. Waking up it appears that something is very wrong- Scur doesn't know why she's on the ship and the ship itself seems to be malfunctioning.

As Scur tries to work out what is happening, the rest of the sleepers on the ship wake up and factions form. It becomes clear that they've travelled a long way in time and space and something's happened to humanity.

This short novella is a bit of a locked room mystery. The reader works out along with Scur what has happened - its quite a revelation. But Scur's motivation is very personal and one of the fun things about the book is that the way she uses the shipboard factions to manipulate things in her own interests.

It is not the best of Reynold's stories, and quite separate to the larger Revelation Space series. But its a decent enough read and fans of Reynold's galaxy spanning books will enjoy this narrowing down of perspective.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Riley Black - The Last Days of the Dinosaurs

The odd thing about dinosaurs is that they are defined by their absence. As children we learn about these enormous creatures that no longer exists, and perhaps our fascination with them stems from their extinction. Like mythical dragons they do not exist, but at the same time dinosaurs are not dragons - they did once roam the Earth, and then they were gone. 

But the strange thing is that while dinosaurs are known by extinction, we discuss the actual extinction very little. What usually matters for enthusiasts is dinosaur life. Museums don't have dioramas depicting mass death - we see replica dinosaur standing in landscapes. But the manner of extinction does matter, not least because we are living through an era of extinction ourselves. So Riley Black's book is unique because it looks precisely at the end of the dinosaurs - the moment of transition from Cretaceous to Paleocene. What exactly happened when that asteroid hit? 

While this is a book seeped in science Black tells the story as a narrative. She begins with a typical dinosaur diorama in Hell's Creek (now in Montana) reconstructed from fossil evidence. In an opening chapter we follow a Triceratops which dies of old age, and see how scavenging animals wait patiently for a Tyrannosaurus rex to break open the tough armoured hide so they can feast too. It is a scene drawn from Black's own experiences in Yellowstone Park watching birds wait for a grizzly to open up a dead bison. 

Each chapter tells similar stories, introducing the reader to a variety of dinosaurs and animals, following them through the extinction, then exploring what Hell Creek looked like a day, a month, a year, one thousand years and one hundred thousand years after impact. It is a sobering read. I was struck by how quickly extinction took place - most of the dinosaurs on Earth were dead in the 24 hours after impact, killed by a infra-red pulse that raised temperatures so high that they simply could not survive. I was also struck by how lucky humans are - the evolutionary space created by the extinction gave mammals the space to evolve. But had events taken slight different turns - asteroid impact at a slightly different angle - dinosaurs might have survived. Or indeed the impact been so great that only bacteria survived and life began, so to speak, again. We would not be here.

It is a grim story, that Black tells well. In parts it is a horror story, "there is no dawn on the first day of the Paleocene" writes Black. We can imagine the suffering and pain that billions of creatures felt in the previous 24 hours, and we can imagine just how difficult life will be for the survivors. This is not the gradual dying off of previous "extinctions" or even that accelerated extinction that we're seeing today. This was a light going out.

While Black's book did make me draw connections with today, oddly they weren't just about extinction. What I was repeatedly struck by was the way their descriptions of dinosaur ecology made me think about ecological relationships today. Black makes you think what a herd of massive dinosaurs does to the environment around them as they stomp through:

When ever-hungry Edmontosaurus and Ankylosaurus mowed down plants with their mouths, they shaped what would become of the forest. Young, juicy plants were always the best delicacy, so these dinosaurs often cropped off young plants before the could take hold. These megaherbivores kept the meadows and open ground clear, just as Triceratops did when they'd rub their horns against trees to the point of toppling some over. Soil  was packed, seeds were scattered ,carcasses were left behind to nourish the soil... And vast quantities of dung... Dinosaurs did not merely inhabit the world as if it were a ready-made diorama. Dinosaurs literally made the world their own.

What is true of dinosaurs is also true of the world today. Species make their own nature, shape their own ecology which in turn shapes them. Similarly, Black shows how evolution fits the context in which it takes place. There is no preordained path, rather "each evolutionary happenstance opened up new possibilities, biodiversity generating itself through interaction". Not all the animals that survived made it. Not all the lineages developed and not all the ecological niches were filled.

While fresh, readable and packed with information this is a book that is rooted in contemporary science. I read each "narrative" chapter and then the corresponding section of the appendix where Black tells us precisely what bit of science backs up the descriptions they've made, and indeed the places were they've had to extrapolate or make educated guesses. I suggest that if you read it you do likewise.

This remarkably accessible book is well worth a read. Riley Black's Last Days of the Dinosaurs is very likely to be my science book of the year, and I hope that others grab hold of it. While the central events of the story are 66 million years ago, the connections I made were very contemporary. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Kolbert - The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Gould - Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History
Fortey - Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind
Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution

Ward - The Call of Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared
Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds
Maddox - Reading the Rocks
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Hal Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 3: The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat'

The third volume of Hal Draper's work on Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution is a different beast to the first two. Those were broad, but detailed works, taking up Marx's big themes - classes and the state - and showing how Marx's ideas developed and were applied differently at various points in his life. Book three starts from a specific, but important, concept of Marx's and explores how it was understood, how it was attacked and what it really meant. In other words this book is different because it moves from the broad picture to a zoom in on a very narrow aspect of Marx and Engels' thought.

The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' is a phrase that is oft repeated and usually misunderstood. Frequently in fact it is deliberately misunderstood, guided in part by some on the left who have been keen to misuse it. Draper identifies fifteen loci or occurrences of the phrase in the works of Marx and Engels. Of these, only eight were specific usages by Marx, and several of those were in works not intended for publication. Draper notes two distinct periods of the phrase's usage - the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions and during and following the Paris Commune of 1871.

The timing is important because they correspond with Marx and Engels thinking through the revolutionary process and the sort of change that could bring in a socialist society. If readers haven't read the first two volumes they will miss some key insights that underpin Draper's argument. In particular the concept of a workers' state as a transition to a stateless Communism. 

Draper quotes Engels on this very point:

in order to arrive at this [disappearance of the state - Draper] and the other, far more important ends of the social revolution of the future, the proletarian class will first have to possess itself of the organised political force of the State and with this aid stamp out the resistance of the Capitalist class and re-organise society. This is stated already in the Communist Manifesto.

The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' then is Marx and Engels term for this period when the newly triumphant workers' state uses its power to defend itself from attackers. Lenin famously used these concepts in State and Revolution on the eve of the workers' seizure of power in Russia in 1917 to understand the process the movement was embarking upon. Even in Marx and Engels' time the lessons of counter-revolution were obvious, hence the timing of their use of the phrase. Russia after 1917 also demonstrates to a new generation that the capitalists will waste little energy in trying to destroy any fledgling workers' power.

So why does the phrase Dictatorship of the Proletariat get such hostility? Clearly it is because of the modern meaning of dictatorship. Though it is also clear that the nature of Stalinist Russia and the Eastern bloc after 1945 have helped create the idea that socialism is synonymous with dictatorship, or single person rule. Draper begins then, with an overview of how the meaning of dictatorship has changed. He shows how, in language that would have been familiar to Marx and Engels, in ancient times dictatorship meant a brief, transitory period. He quotes R.M. MacIver (not a Marxist) who explained that: 

The original Marxist doctrine of the 'dictatorship of the people' [sic] had in it something akin to the Roman idea. It was to be a temporary and exceptional form of government to prepare the way for the inauguration of a new dictatorless - in fact, stateless - order.

Of course, the nuances of this are immaterial to those who want to paint socialism as a top down, dictatorial repressive regime. It is also immaterial to those who to argue that societies like these stood in the tradition of Marx and Engels, when exactly the opposite was true. 

Draper then takes us through a detailed examination of everyone who has critiqued Marx and Engels on these points, and to emphasis his point, he critiques those that Marx opposed but was lumped together with. In particular he shows how Marx was repeatedly tarred by with the brush of the French socialist Louis Blanqui, whose revolutionary strategy emphasised action by small groups of heroic individuals substituting for the masses. Draper shows how Marx's politics were exactly the opposite of Blanqui, and indeed demonstrates conclusively that Marx had no contact with him, and could not be said to have been influenced, or worked in a secret organisation with Blanqui. Casual readers may well find themselves frustrated by these sections as Draper deploys his encyclopaedic knowledge of Marx's life and work to prove an accusation false. Indeed its a similar method to the earlier books were Draper proved some aspect of Marx's theoretical work. But here it feels abstract and over the top.

I lauded the first two volumes of Hal Draper's Marx's Theory of Revolution. I am less enthused by this volume because it focuses on an important aspect of Marx's thought, but is too focused on the minutiae. The sections, for instance, on the Paris Commune are excellent and it would have been more useful and illustrative to have expanded these. As usual though the book sparks with Draper's wit and knowledge and there is much to be had. But reader beware this is very much a book in a series, those jumping in at volume III will find themselves rudderless and unprepared.


Related Reviews

Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 1: State & Bureaucracy
Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 2: The Politics of Social Classes

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Marco Polo - The Travels

Marco Polo's Travels wasn't actually the book I expected. It isn't the travel account I'd expected it to be, rather its a description of people and places. Nor do you find out much about what happened to Marco Polo himself, beyond a brief overview at the start and some potted references. However, despite the repetition ("the people here are all idolaters, using paper money and subject to the Great Khan") and the comments that mark it out as an oral account ("you must know..."), as well as the nagging suspicion that Marco Polo didn't actually go to all these places (his description of a Giraffe is unlike any I've ever seen) there is a lot here of interest.

Firstly, particularly in the sections on what we would now call the Middle East and China, there are some fascinating accounts of different cultural norms. Polo is particularly interested in religion-noting about almost every place he visits how many people are Muslim, Jewish, Christian or "idolaters". He notes the tensions and conflicts between the faiths, which usually seem to arise from the ruler's personal interests. But he also notes that some places are remarkably tolerant when compared to modern times.

The Tartars do not care what god is worshipped in their territories. So long as all their subjects are loyal and obedient to the Khan and accordingly pay the tribute... you may do as you please about your soul. They object to your speaking ill of their souls or intermeddling with their practices. But concerning God and your own soul do what you will, whether you be Jew or page, Saracen or Christian, who live among the Tartars. 

Also of interest are Polo's comments on marriage in the different cultures he visits. On occasion, I suspect Polo is simply writing for an audience with salacious interests. In the province of Pem, he tells us, "when a woman's husband leaves her to go on a journey of more than twenty days, then, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband... and the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way". While he clearly exaggerates at times, its also clear that many local rulers take hundreds of wives. Polo never says what the women think of this, and glosses over how they are treated - though is clear women are often simply taken from their families and communities by a local lord for sex.

Its difficult to know what to conclude about The Travels. Is it a travelogue? If so its clearly untrue, exaggerated or unclear in places. Nor is it history, though some of it clearly can be attested to by other records. It perhaps is of greatest interest to those looking for what's there in passing, rather than detailed accounts - the general treatment by Polo of relations between men and women, his lack of racism - while faithfully recording the colour of peoples' skin and his clear desire to tell his readers (and listeners) all the marvellous things he has seen. 

My edition is a 1982 Penguin, based on a 1958 translation by R.E.Latham. It would benefit perhaps, from a more modern translation, and a more detailed commentary.