Ambiguities in some of Marx’s writings are partly to blame for the confusion, as examined for example by Macdonald Daly in his introduction to the anthology Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Literature and Art. In the passage from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy cited before, Daly writes, Marx “reiterates a central idea in varied phrasing in a manner typical of someone intent on persuading a reader of a novel notion (for Hegelians a heretical notion).” He points out that the passage offers three alternative verbs to describe the relationship between base and superstructure — ‘give rise to’, ‘conditions’ and ‘determines’, depending upon the translation — each of which implies a different sort of relationship. He concludes:
Depending on the chosen inflections, then, the passage can be used to imply either: (1) a strongly deterministic theory in which art is seen as being wholly preordained by the economic context within which is it produced or consumed — in fact is virtually reducible to it — and thus plays a negligible role in ‘real’ historical processes; or (2) a theory in which, although ultimately dependent on and influenced by economic forces, art has a variable freedom (or ‘relative autonomy’) from the economic system within which it arises...
From what we know about Marx’s method and other writings, interpretation (1) seems highly uncharacteristic, and indeed, as Daly also concludes, Marx’s position was not that material conditions determine everything in an ‘inevitable’ way.
An example is the supposed inevitable victory of the proletariat over capitalism. Contrary to the claims of his enemies, Marx did not believe that social change was literally ‘inevitable’. The section of the Communist Manifesto that uses the word  does so in a rhetorical gesture which must be understood in the context of his weightier works. Although society can advance to the point where productive forces make huge social advances possible, success or failure depends upon the class struggle — that is, it is politics that is decisive. Nothing is inevitable; only praxis makes change. It could even happen that an asteroid destroys the world before the proletariat can be victorious — where is your ‘inevitability’ then? Such catastrophic changes have happened before in the Earth’s history, as in the Permian extinction or ‘Great Dying’ that wiped out 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of land species about 250 million years ago, or the more famous extinction 65 million years ago that obliterated the dinosaurs. We are hardly immune from such developments.
The correct position with respect to base and superstructure was made explicit by Engels, who made it his duty to try and clarify such questions after Marx’s death. Engels expressed regret, in an 1890 letter to Joseph Bloch, that
Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-á-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction.
In the same letter he explained:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.
This could not be clearer. Art cannot be reduced to a superstructural ‘reflection’ of the economic system, any more than it can be reduced to the personal ‘vision’ of individual artists. If such a crudely determinist perspective were correct, then every culture existing under the same general conditions would produce identical art. In reality, we see enormous variations between cultures even when their economies are very similar, because there are many other influences at work. Each society builds up its own set of beliefs, its own history, its own precedents of style, influenced by its particular environment; it throws up too its own aesthetic ideas, which will sometimes resemble those of other societies, or borrow from them, or be imposed upon by them, and will sometimes contradict them.
Marxism may appear rigidly deterministic if we reify history into separate components — economics, law, politics, etc — and take economics as the main factor. But the breakup of history into rigid ‘subject areas’ was a bourgeois creation, and is contrary to the method of Marxism because it is non-dialectical. The Marxist approach is far more rich and flexible.
The idea that our consciousness is heavily conditioned by our environment raises the question of to what extent we enjoy free will. Are our actions determined for us?
It is only possible to rob us of free will if we adopt a mechanical version of Marxism. Marx answered the question thus:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past .
Marx believed that human beings created themselves by producing to meet their needs, through their active engagement with the material world — to borrow from Childe, ‘man makes himself’. Important as the mode of production is, history is ultimately made by human beings, but acting within conditions shaped by that mode of production. The issue was summed up by Paul Blackledge:
Given that the distinguishing characteristic of human production, according to Marx, was that it was a form of ‘purposeful activity’, it makes little sense to contrast productive-force determinism with free action. Rather, because we exercise free will within determinate material contexts, it is much better to follow Hegel in conceiving determination and freedom as two sides of the same coin: ‘freedom is the appreciation of necessity’, as Engels put it.
What productive forces do is define the parameters of what is possible for human will within a particular historical context that is constantly being redefined by human action — within that context there is a dialectical relationship between freedom and necessity. The task of historians is to seek to understand that relationship.
The relative autonomy of art
The various parts of the superstructure — art, religion, law, politics and so on — are not only conditioned by the economic base, but by each other, and from this they draw a relative autonomy. This is especially true of art.
Failure to recognise this has led vulgar Marxists into some seriously flawed assertions. For example, the important Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, praised by Trotsky as a “convinced, passionate and brilliant crusader” for dialectical materialism , went into a theoretical decline after 1905, and this decline was very visible in his 1912 pamphlet Art and Society. Plekhanov drew a ‘vulgar’ parallel between the waning capitalism of the period and a supposed waning of art, leading him into absurd attacks on modern art. Art and Society was highly influential, not least in the Soviet Union where it was held up by Stalinists as theoretical justification for their doctrine of ‘decadence’. Today it serves merely as a warning against mechanical interpretations of Marxism.
There is no work of art that does not have an ideological content, but art is less purely ideological than economics or politics. It exists in a highly complex dialectical relationship with other aspects of ideology, influencing them and being influenced in turn. Marxist critics are interested in these relationships and — because the point of Marxism is to change the world — what role art plays in helping to change the capitalist economic base to a socialist one. (This, after all, is the whole point of a revolution.) Society provides art with its raw material, with its range of possibilities. But art is not dictated to by economic conditions. If it was, it could in our society only reflect capitalist ideology. In fact, because it has strong relations with many different strands of the superstructure — such as philosophy, religion and psychology, not to mention the artist’s own idiosyncratic experience — and because many of these strands will be in contradiction, art is able to assert a degree of independence. As Marx wrote in the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society; nor do they therefore to the material substructure.
If this were not so, it is unlikely that classics from times profoundly different to our own, such as The Odyssey or the prints of feudal Japan, would be able to enthrall us. Once it was removed from the society that determined it, art would retain very little meaning.
Brecht believed that art was able to reproduce what life was like in certain conditions, thereby recreating experience instead of analysing it or being enslaved by it. This confrontational quality has caused art a lot of trouble. St Petersburg audiences booed the Rite of Spring, Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were banned, and Hitler burned books, because art is able to remind us that there are different ways to live. Art is both infused with ideology and able, through its relative autonomy, to distance itself from it and expose it.
The superstructure changes the base
There is another important dialectic working against crude determinism: as the base influences the superstructure, so too the superstructure influences the base. It is through the ideological forms thrown up within the superstructure that humans realise the possibility of changing the mode of production, and build the revolutions which transform the base into a new form. For this reason, art, although it cannot by itself cause revolutionary change, can be part of a process towards change. Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of 1784, The Oath of the Horatii, may be taken as an example: a starkly original piece of republican and revolutionary propaganda. The French Revolution was not, and could not be, caused by a painting, but works like this contributed to some small degree — impossible to measure precisely — to creating the atmosphere of revolutionary commitment that prepared the way for the overthrow of Louis XVI.
Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii. Larger image here.
A revolution takes place when the productive forces of a society outgrow the existing political structures. After a series of quantitative changes, new social forces bring about a new quality — a new mode of production. Only the conscious intervention of human beings can change the base — it is politics, a part of the superstructure, that is decisive — and this change is not inevitable. The superstructure, rather than being a passive reflection of the base, is in fact the battleground upon which different classes and ideologies compete.
Crude determinism is not, then, supported by the writings of Marx and Engels. Our task is rather to try and comprehend the totality of relationships in all their dialectical richness. This is a tremendous task, and one that even the best Marxist will struggle to be equal to, but we cannot escape the actual conditions of life.
 Ed. Baxandall and Morawski, Karl Marx and Frederick [sic] Engels on Literature and Art. Originally published in 1973, this essential anthology of Marx and Engels’ writings on art was reissued and re-edited with Daly’s introduction in 2006.
 Marx and Engels, Chapter 1, ‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’ from Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).
 Engels, Letter to Joseph Bloch (written 1890). Engels expresses the same regret in a letter to Franz Mehring of 1893, in which he makes his important remark that “all action is mediated by thought”.
 Ibid. An attempt is sometimes made to separate the views of Marx and Engels on this and other questions, but Engels’ point derives from a dialectical perspective fundamental to Marx’s philosophy.
 Marx, chapter one of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).
 Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (2006).
 Trotsky, A Note on Plekhanov (1922).
 This does not mean that Marxists insist upon art having a tendentious or propaganda content. Where such content exists, it has to emerge as an organic part of the outlook of the artists themselves.
 Marx, from the closing section of the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1857). This work was part of Marx’s Grundrisse, to which the quote is therefore sometimes attributed.