21 January 2023

In memoriam: Simon Clarke (26/3/1946 – 27/12/2022), his Marxism and contribution to the political economy of labour

Gregoris Ioannou*

Simon Clarke was both a scholar of social theory and Marxian thought with deep knowledge of the classic texts and an empirical sociologist analysing contemporary labour relations. He was a political economy scholar whose analysis traversed the macro, meso, and micro levels, situating employment within institutions, labour markets and class relations connecting dynamics operative in local, national, and international settings. He used with ease both quantitative and qualitative methodologies and was able to follow, critique and contribute to both the fields of economic and social sciences which he conceived as an integrated whole. Clarke was a scholar that could situate the object of his study in the broader intellectual universe, that could contextualise knowledge in history, and identify the origins, boundaries and limits of sciences and disciplines, theories, and schools of thought. A committed Marxist always, but neither of the ‘one-dimensional’ and dogmatic type, nor swayed by the post-Marxist intellectual fashions that sprang out in different times during the era of left-wing retreat in which he lived his academic life. 

Simon Clarke, who had an economics background, begun his career as a sociologist through the critique of structuralism, that was a mainstream trend in the 1970s. He subsequently engaged in a thorough study of classical political economy tracing the roots and development of modern economics and sociology as a discipline. In his 1982 book Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology, he offered an overview of the intellectual foundations of political economy, liberal social theory and Marxian thought situating modern sociology in its wider historical trajectory. He illustrated the role of ‘marginalism’ in defining and shaping modern economics and critiqued its reductionism and narrow scope, weak conceptual basis and irrational outcomes, and its naturalisation of capitalist social relations. Clarke argued that modern sociology was able to become an autonomous discipline because it could “study forms of social action that could not be comprehended by economics: it could embrace all those phenomena that could not be reduced by the dogma of self-interest” (1982: 230). Yet, modern sociology, as established on its Weberian basis, rests on the same ‘social liberal’ ideological foundations as marginalist economics and implicitly accepts key presuppositions of marginalism, such as the ‘abstract individual as the starting point’ and the ‘separation of economy and society’ which itself shapes the character and imposes limits on what sociology is and what it can do. 

Clarke argued that it is Marxian thought that can move beyond the bounds of modern sociology as it can build on Marx’s devastating critique of the conceptual foundations of liberal social theory and offer a comprehensive and integrated understanding of social relations through the theories of alienated labour, the value form, and commodity fetishism.  Yet Marxism, at least in its orthodox version, failed to realise this potential because it neutralised the critical power of Marxian thought by “assimilating it to the political economy and the materialist conception of history” (1982: 238). Orthodox Marxist economism narrowed down the theory of value into a measurement of exploitation, neglected the constitutive role of labour and consequently alienation and commodity fetishism, conceptualising socialism as a ‘mere change in property relations’ and was thus ultimately unable to sufficiently challenge marginalism. Right-wing revisionist Marxism accepted the marginalist critique of the labour theory of value and sought thus improvements within capitalism while Lenin and, subsequently, Soviet Marxism in the context of the failure of international revolution, sought to ground Marxist philosophy of history and political economy into a ‘science’ that was essentially a canonised ‘eternal truth’ insulated from the need of empirical evaluation. 

Lukacs and, later, Western Marxism and the school of critical theory attempted to bring alienation and commodity fetishism back into the centre, but the notion of ‘reification’ they developed was essentially based on Simmel’s inversion of means and ends, and Weber’s conflict between instrumental and value rationality respectively, rather than Marx’s notion of ‘alienated labour’, and were thus unable to bring a breakthrough. Clarke insisted that the way beyond the antinomies of modern sociology, seeking to reconcile the subjective rationality of capitalism with its objective irrationality by abstracting the concept of the individual and the concept of reason, was Marx’s theory of alienated labour. And that “the contradictions of capitalism do not derive from the contradiction between one form of reason and another, whether between formal and substantive rationality, or between capitalist and proletarian reason, but from the contradictions inherent in the irrationality of alienated forms of social production.” (1982: 252). If Marx was naïve in his optimism “that socialism would inevitably arise out of the spontaneous development of the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production”, Clarke concludes, “the tragedy of Marxism, in both its Leninist and its Western variants, was that it abandoned Marx’s faith in the ability of the working class to achieve its own emancipation” (1982: 255). 

Clarke applied the perspective he developed in the study of 19th and 20th Century history. In 1988, he published Keynesianism, Monetarism and the Crisis of the State in which he elaborated further the theoretical framework he built connecting political economy frameworks such as liberalism, Keynesianism and monetarism with concrete historical developments such as the economic depressions and crises, the formation of the national state and the international system of states, the major wars and revolutions, post war reconstruction and the Marshall Plan, industrial relations and welfare regimes. This was also the time of the Conference of Socialist Economists which evolved into the journal Capital and Class. Clarke contributed substantially to the debates on the Marxist theory of state and the utilisation of Marxian tools to the analysis of the changing environment in the last quarter of the 20th Century. “Monetarism like all state ideologies that have preceded it, is a fundamentally contradictory ideology” but it is also “the ideological expression of fundamental changes in the form of the state, that have reflected, and reinforced, the massive political defeat of the working class” (1988: 353). The divisions within the working class were exploited and exacerbated by capital and the state, which gradually reimposed ‘the rule of money’ and while the political form of the post-war Keynesian class-collaboration settlement survived, its substance did not, rendering it effectively ‘an empty shell’. 

In 1994, Clarke published Marx’s Theory of Crisis, probably his most famous book, translated subsequently in several languages and signalling his consolidation as an internationally known Marxist theorist. In this ‘magnum opus’ monograph, he articulates a Marxian framework for the understanding of capitalist crises as a normal phase in the process of capital accumulation. Clarke argued that, while disproportionality, under-consumption and the falling rate of profit are relevant in determining the vulnerability of capitalism to crisis, “the underlying cause of all crises remains the fundamental contradiction on which the capitalist mode of production is based, the contradiction between the production of things and the production of value, and the subordination of the former to the latter” (1994: 195). The periodic over-production crises indicate the objective limits of the capitalist mode of production but cannot on their own destroy capitalism. The destruction of existing products and productive forces, the capture of new markets and over-exploitation of old markets, removes obstacles and allows the development of the forces of production, but only for opening the way for bigger, longer, and more destructive crises ahead. The ‘limits of capitalism’ however do not make the abolition of capitalism inevitable. The tendency of repeated accumulation crises constitutes the ‘weapon’ with which ‘the bourgeoisie will bring their own death’ – we should never forget however that as Marx-Engels said in the Communist Manifesto it is the organised proletariat that ‘holds this weapon’. 

By the early 1990s, Clarke was an established academic, still working with some like-minded scholars at the University of Warwick, at a time when ‘labour studies and industrial relations’ were beginning to be pushed out of Sociology Departments into Business Schools and be fashioned as ‘Employment Relations and Human Resource Management’. It was then that he begun a fruitful collaboration with a group of young Russian scholars who were studying the impact of the collapse of the USSR, happening at the time, on the labour field and industry of Russia. This major empirical research project led to the establishment of the Institute for Comparative Labour Relations (ISITO) and resulted in numerous collaborative publications throughout the 1990s accounting for the weak workers’ movement in Russia, the changes in industrial enterprises, labour relations and the shifting forms of industrial conflict, the restructuring of employment and the formation of a labour market, household strategies of survival and finally the development of capitalism in Russia.    

The research on labour relations in Russia, which subsequently expanded to also cover China and Vietnam, attempted to engage in debate labour economics and sociology with their different methodologies and diverging bodies of evidence. Although constrained by what data could be made available, the project employed both quantitative and qualitative methods (multivariate analysis and ethnographic case study reports) and accumulated over time a vast body of data. By the late 1990s, Russia had a relatively developed labour market with high labour mobility and a high degree of wage flexibility. These attributes co-existed with poor job creation and persisting wage inequality and thus contrasted with the orthodox economists’ belief that wage and employment decisions are determined by the interaction between supply and demand in the external labour market. It was the interaction of social groups with conflicting interests (such as senior and middle management) that ultimately shaped wages and employment outcomes. There was thus nothing unique with Russia, Clarke argued as “the conflicts which permeate the post-Soviet enterprise can equally be found in any capitalist firm. The difference is simply that in Russia the economists’ theories have been tested to the limit and beyond” (1999: 12).

The resounding failure of the imposition of deregulation and labour market flexibility, resulting in the suffering of the Russian people was the basic lesson of the outcomes of neoliberal shock doctrine. While substantial residues of Soviet institutions, Soviet culture and Soviet practices remained even in the most capitalist of contemporary Russian enterprises, Clarke did not see these as producing a distinctive feature in the developing Russian capitalism. More important, in his view, was the relative absence of class conflict, which could not be explained by a Russian culture of fatalism or other ideological factors. This he concluded was a result of the “incomplete subsumption of labour under capital” which diffuses class conflicts “through the structure of management appearing primarily in divisions within the management apparatus rather than in a direct confrontation between capital and labour” (2007: 242).

Simon Clarke’s contribution to Marxian thought and labour studies has been immense. As a social theorist, he set an example of how to analyse specific issues and themes without losing sight of the bigger picture and of how to examine abstract ideas holistically and in relation to their concrete historical contexts. As a Marxist, he taught us how to disentangle ideology from science, how to understand both the proximity but also the distance between politics and knowledge and how to use Marxian tools to understand the contemporary world. As a labour studies scholar, he demonstrated how systematic and meticulous empirical research can feed back into theory, how employment relations are at the heart of political economy and how class struggle retains its centrality even when it is suppressed, defused, or deformed. Simon Clarke will be remembered by his numerous students and his work will continue to guide those who study the workings of capitalism, the politics of class and the making of history.   



Clarke, S. (1982) Marx, Marginalism, and Modern Sociology, Macmillan

Clarke, S. (1988) Keynesianism, Monetarism and the Crisis of the State, Edward Elgar

Clarke, S. (1994) Marx’s Theory of Crisis, Macmillan

Clarke, S. (1999) The Formation of a Labour Market in Russia, Edward Elgar

Clarke, S. (2007) The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Routledge

A complete list including refereed articles can be found on Simon Clarke’s publications page:

*Gregoris Ioannou is currently a Lecturer of Employment Relations and HRM at the Centre for Decent Work, University of Sheffield Management School and was one of the last PhD students of Simon Clarke.