Michael Hardt, professor of literature and a pre-eminent Marxist scholar, has directed the Marxism and Society certificate program at Duke for several years. At the same time, his career has generated controversy from some who consider him a radical academic—he was named on a recent Professor Watchlist, which seeks to document college professors who "promote leftist propaganda" and is produced by the conservative nonprofit organization Turning Point USA. The Chronicle spoke with Hardt about his work on Marxist thought and his response to the criticism. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Chronicle: Could you explain exactly what Marxist theory entails?

Michael Hardt: In a most basic way, Marxism is in all of its forms a critical understanding of capitalism. By critical, I don't mean always an outright rejection of capitalism. Marx's own work definitely recognizes the accomplishments of the capitalist era, and then tries to understand how something different and better could be built out of that. That's at least one strain of Marxism, but all strains can be used to have a critical understanding of capitalist society. Not just economics—of profit, of wage labor—but also the social condition from it, the commodification of different parts of the world. Marxism seems to me relevant as long as capital is relevant.

TC: How does current American democracy deviate from your concept of it through Marxist theory?

MH: Marx was thrilled about the Paris Commune. In 1871, the citizens of Paris took over the government and exiled the rulers, and one of the things Marx was excited about was that they formed a new government, democratic in ways other governments haven't been. They had done away with this [system of] every four years choosing who to rule over you from a limited selection of candidates in the ruling class, candidates you didn't want. Instead they set up a system with very local representatives who were revocable at short intervals. 

In order to think more about democracy, rather than propose some utopian blueprint, it might be better and more realistic, even if a little frustrating at times, to follow tendencies in social and political movements. I would try to read many of the most inspiring social movements today as a demand for a fuller democracy. I would read Black Lives Matter in that way—an end of white supremacist institutions and activities, including in the actions of police, prison and courts. That's one arm of a movement toward a fuller democracy in the U.S. I find another in Occupy and another in the protests at Standing Rock.  You can create a network or a web of these movements and their demands and aspirations, and construct them together as a kind of vector leading toward fuller democracy. 

TC: What sparked your interest in studying Marxist philosophy?

MH: Here's a purely personal, anecdotal version of this. After I graduated from college, I was involved with something called the Sanctuary Movement, which involved bringing refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala into the U.S. illegally, as a way of helping people in the U.S. understand the civil wars at the time and the U.S.'s role in them. I, with my partner at the time, had moved to Mexico City to help people come north, and there I was introduced to [the work of] the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. I was intrigued by how the theoretical focus fit for the people I knew then with an activist project.

It seemed to me at the time—this was the early 1980s—that the U.S. activist groups I had been involved in were what I considered anti-theory and anti-intellectual in a lot of ways. Through these Central Americans, who were very interested in theory and its relationship to what they were doing, I found a way my intellectual interests and my practical interests could go together. 

TC: How did the Marxism and Society certificate get started?

MH: Duke has long been known internationally as a center of Marxist thought. It's not always advertised that way, but it definitely is, and that's partly based on the faculty. I inherited the certificate program and the core course, which I've taught most years I've been at Duke. They were already in existence, so I can't tell you when they were constructed, but it was over 23 years ago.

The certificate program, which I've transformed a bit, is not really about Marxism directly. The electives are constructed around either theoretical approaches that have a contiguous and sometimes antagonistic relationship to Marxism, like feminist theory, critical race theory or queer theory, that can have alliance with and can conflict with Marxist theory. That's what I encourage in the certificate, the possible relations and limitations of Marxist theory in relation to feminist struggles, struggles relating to sexuality or race struggles. 

TC: What did you mean by Duke being 'a center of Marxist thought'?

MH: Certainly a mainstay of that for a long time is Frederic Jameson's presence on the faculty.  He is the most renowned American Marxist. He's an important global figure, so that's partly it. But also among many faculty and graduate students there is a strong relationship to Marxism even when [they] don't work explicitly or simply on Marxist theory. I think that's one thing Duke has to be proud of. 

TC: What would you say to an employer about the value of this certificate on a student's resume?

MH: Certainly with graduate programs in humanities and the social sciences, because Duke has such a reputation with Marxism, that designation has an immediate value. With regards to employers, I could imagine it can show an independence of thinking. I'm not sure if your application to Goldman Sachs would be enhanced or not by this, but there are many companies that value creative and original thought. It's not going to win you favors on Wall Street.

TC: You've been criticized in the past—including on a recent Professor Watchlist—for being too radically on the left or perhaps indoctrinating students in Marxist ideology. How do you respond to such critics?

MH: About five years ago, I was on West Campus just as classes were ending, and the Dean asked me what I was doing for the summer, and I said I was going to the G8 meetings in Japan, and he was delighted and proud that Duke had someone inside the G8 meetings. I said I was actually going to be one of the protestors outside the meetings, and he said, well, that was great, too. I respected that—that there wasn't an ideological test. That Duke takes pride in the accomplishments of faculty and students across the political spectrum.

There is an important thing to say, that students should not be expected to agree with the authors they read or the professors they learn from. I feel like my intention for myself is that there isn't indoctrination in that sense. That indoctrination term often gets tossed around like a red herring or a false element of fear—I don't think students are indoctrinated in classes at Duke. They can study capitalist economics in an economics department and still feel critical of it, and they can study feminist theory in the women's studies department and still be critical of it. 

Myself too. I provide a perspective for students to engage with critically.