Simon Clarke on Crisis Theory

July 23, 2009

I’m reading Simon Clarke’s Marx’s Theory of Crisis, which is, I’d imagine, not without flaws, but which I’m finding very lucid and helpful as intellectual history. Like any good intellectual history, it’s also a history by proxy of historical movements and tragedies. A sample: [The whole thing can be downloaded from Clarke’s homepage here.]

For Luxemburg imperialism and militarism provided the markets required to sustain capitalism, but in the 1920s the possibility that rising wages and/or rising state expenditure might provide a renewed spur to accumulation was considered, raising the possibility that social democratic class collaboration might provide a basis for the stabilisation of capitalism, a possibility for which Keynes provided new theoretical foundations in the 1930s. There were obviously very close affinities between Keynesian and Luxemburgist underconsumptionism, the principal differences between Marxist and Keynesian underconsumptionism being not theoretical but political.

The dominant Marxist response to Keynes was to recognise that Keynesian reformism could in principle resolve the problem of underconsumption, but to argue that it was unrealistic to expect such reforms to be realisable under capitalism, since capitalists would resist attempts to expand consumption at the expense of profits, while no capitalist state could be expected to implement a Keynesian programme which put social need above profit. In the post-war period Keynesianism was adopted by the Western Communist Parties as the basis for a ‘democratic road to socialism’ through a political alliance between reformists and revolutionaries in which the balance of forces would shift in favour of the latter as, in the face of the inevitable crisis, capitalists resisted the attempt to bring the accumulation of capital under democratic social control.

Scepticism of the political practicality of Keynesian reformism persisted on the Left well into the 1950s, as the momentum of the post-war boom was sustained by the exceptional circumstances of reconstruction, re-armament and the development of new mass production industries. However, as the boom persisted, underconsumptionist theories of secular stagnation and inevitable crisis appeared less and less convincing, while the claim that Keynesian reformism was in some way anti-capitalist appeared increasingly hollow. Underconsumptionism was now turned on its head, to explain the persistence of the boom as the result of Keynesian policies of public expenditure and fiscal regulation, the socialist character of the analyses lying in their identification of the class basis of such policies, with their emphasis on unproductive waste and military expenditure, rather than meeting basic human needs… Thus Marxist underconsumptionism was gradually assimilated to a left Keynesianism, the differences between the two being primarily rhetorical rather than theoretical.

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2 Responses to “Simon Clarke on Crisis Theory”


  1. I’m reading this book right now. It’s pretty good. Do you know of any more recent writings by clarke on crisis theory?

  2. duncan Says:

    Hi kapitalism – I’m afraid the crisis book is the only thing by Clarke I’ve read. I think a lot of his work is on labour markets and labour relations – and he’s done a ton of work on Russia, some of it in Russian. But I haven’t checked any of it out. His Warwick website, here, has a lot of material listed, but the CV there is ten years out of date, so I’m assuming the page hasn’t been updated in a while. Looking at his list of articles there seem to be a fair few dealing with crisis – but I guess they may have been incorporated into the book.

    Two books that look particularly interesting to me from his publications list are
    Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology (1982)
    and
    Keynesianism, Monetarism and the Crisis of the State (1988)
    I’m noting them here so I remember to try to come back to them eventually.

    But basically – I dunno what else by Clarke might be interesting on crisis. I should google around and see if he’s been writing anything after the recent credit crunch – but no time now, I’ve got to run!


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