Very good article, Michael. The points you raised were extremely important to consider, and your assessment of the history of mythologizing and idealizing the past was spot on.
However, as a genuine socialist, I take umbrage with your statement that Marxism--at least the genuine, original definition by the two men who crafted it--is in any way "messianic."
First, a little bit about how Marxian ideology was formed and the principles that it rests upon is in order.
Genuine Marxists support a view of history known as the materialist conception of historical development, and it's grounded in logical science. Based on our studies of the few remaining "primitive" societies living in remote regions of the world today, it's quite likely that for a very long time in the early days of humanity's existence on this planet there were no class divisions in the human tribes of the time. Any official positions of authority in these early tribal mini-societies were likely ceremonial to a large extent, and though these "wise" individuals were listened to by their fellow tribesmen they didn't hold economic or political power over others in the tribe in the same sense as the ruling classes we know today do.
Economic equality existed in a general sense in these ancient tribes, since the primitive level of productive capacity that existed at the time didn't allow for the production of a surplus of goods that would allow a true ruling class as we understand the concept today to emerge. Cooperation among everyone in these tribes was essential for survival and had nothing to do with superior ethics.
But do Marxists believe these early primitive tribal societies were some type of paradise that we yearn to return to today? Not on your life.
Day to day life was extremely harsh and difficult for everyone in these early tribes. Though there was a general degree of economic equality, it was an equality of poverty. And since genuine Marxism believes in using modern industrial technology to eliminate poverty from the face of the Earth, we certainly wouldn't idealize a past where poverty was universal, and where it existed at a level far worse than that which is suffered by almost everyone on Earth today even in the poorest Third World nations. We see those early days of humanity as exactly that--an early age, not some type of golden age.
Once production advanced to the point where it was possible to produce a sizable surplus of goods for a small minority of people in society, that is when the first class-divided societies as we are familiar with the concept today emerged. But the purpose of this essay is not to give a detailed history of the development of economic systems based on class divisions, but simply to make it clear that genuine Marxism as contemplated by Marx and Engels is not messianic. Thus, I won't go into the historical development of economic systems based on class divisions any further but move on to my main point.
I will now respond to a few of Michael's quotes (which will be in bold face) to further make my point that genuine Marxism (as opposed to all the state capitalists and "social democrats" who have co-opted the term for themselves) is not messianic.
The ideas of natural rights and popular sovereignty are, if anything, more fundamental to American political culture than the idea of political or religious golden ages in an idealized past.
Marxists believe that economic equality is a natural right, an idea which members of the working class are brought up to abhore and to consider a form of despotism and they are therefore taught to believe that the very concept of a system of economic freedom and equality to be anti-American. This is because we are heavily indoctrinated throughout our education to believe that economic rights are defined as the inherent "right" for the small wealthy members of the owning/capitalist class to have as much wealth--and therefore as much power and privilege over the majority working class--as they can accumulate. Members of the working class are further conditioned to view the small number of powerful and privileged capitalists with awe and admiration, and to look to them for "leadership," rather than as economic parasites who are the beneficiaries of a system that is now totally archaic due to advances in modern technology that were not present when the current system was first established.
Hence, Marxist principles are truly progressive ideas and mark a form of progress that the members of the working class who today consider themselves to fit the latter political label will quite possibly embrace in the future, once they get over their hope that the current system can somehow be tamed or reined in so that it will somehow be made to work in the best interests of everyone in society and not just a privileged few.
Perhaps the most important point of Marxist ideology is that unlike humanity's likely primitive past, the modern technology that has rapidly progressed since the Industrial Revolution of the last few decades of the 19th century now gives us the productive capacity to produce an abundance for everyone, not just a small handful of society. Hence, it's now technologically possible to create a new system where the global population shares an equality of abundance.
As you can see, Marxists do not idealize the past and ignore how harsh it was to live under the primitive level of productive capacity that was a fact of life for everyone who lived back then. Instead, we look to the future for the establishment of a better world order and both social and economic progress, which is exactly what Michael tells his fellow progressives that they need to do in his article.
The history of basing civil rights on natural rights is one of improvement over time, not one of decline.
The above statement is the essence of Marxist ideology. Hence, my hope that the progressives of the present become the (genuine) socialists of the future. And believe me, Obama is no socialist by a long shot. He is instead a "centrist," who gives lip service to progressive ideals in his speeches but in actuality is as married to the present economic world order as any Republican.
The abolition of slavery by the 13th Amendment and the nationalization of civil rights by the 14th improved the U.S. Constitution, and Franklin Roosevelt's notion of economic rights marks a further advance.
Regarding the first half of Michael's above sentence, the Constitution was indeed a gain for civilization that exemplified progress for humanity. And I will point out that Article V of the Constitution was written by the Founders in acknowledgment of the fact that the present system may not be the best system forever. They recognized that changes in society may occur that they could not conceive of in their native time period (e.g., the Industrial Revolution and huge corporate empires), and that in time the present system may have to be scrapped in favor of another that was more progressive.
As for the second part of Michael's above quote, FDR did indeed believe in economic rights, and his New Deal did mark progress for society in the form of a kinder and gentler iteration of capitalism. However, Marxists will argue that as progressive as FDR's economic policies were, they were ultimately intended to stave off fundamental change in the economic order, not initiate it. This is, of course, contrary to what the neocons always claim. Marxist economic ideology is an expansion of FDR's idea of economic rights to its logical conclusion, something that virtually no politician today would consider doing.
But tomorrow may be another story...
Likewise, the idea of popular sovereignty, though it dates back to John Locke in the 17th century, need not inspire reactionary reverence for existing institutions, much less a desire to restore an alleged golden age. On the contrary, the sovereign people have the right to remake their political and social order every generation or two, in order to achieve their perennial goals in changing conditions.
Marxists argue against an extreme reverence for the existing economic order, and this includes its many institutions that are designed to preserve it rather than allow for fundamental change. And we fully support what Michael described above, which is moving ahead with progress that matches changing conditions in technology. Michael may not have intended it, but he just described the ideological basis of Marxism in the proverbial nutshell.
At the high level of public philosophy, the debate between the tea party right and progressives boils down to this: Do we think that fidelity to our predecessors means mindlessly doing what they did in their own time, even though times have changed? Or do we think that we should act as they would act, if they lived in the 21st century and had learned from everything that has happened in America and the world in the past 200 years?
Good point. So, I ask you...if the Founders were around today, would they support capitalism in the 21st century as they did in the late 18th century once they saw the level of economic and social progress that modern technology makes possible? And for anyone who insists that the Founders intended for capitalism to exist in some form or other for the rest of eternity, and that we are somehow betraying what the Founders established if we switch to a truly socialist economic system in the future, I once again advise you to read Article V of the Constitution.
I would expect the neocons--and any Republican, for that matter--to bastardize Marxism and its principles since they explicitely support the interests of the small wealthy owning class, which is to maintain a system where they not only retain their privileged status in society, but can keep increasing this level of privilege exponentially. But when I see progressives and anyone who considers themselves on the Left doing the same thing, I am forced to roll my eyes incredulously.