The cluster perturbation theory (CPT) is one of the simplest but systematic quantum cluster approaches to lattice models of strongly correlated electrons with local interactions. By treating the inter-cluster potential, in addition to the interactions, as a perturbation, it is shown that the CPT can be reformulated as an all-order re-summation of diagrams within standard weak-coupling perturbation theory where vertex corrections are neglected. This reformulation is shown to allow for a straightforward generalization of the CPT to the general non-equilibrium case using contour-ordered Green's functions. Solving the resulting generalized CPT equation on the discretized Keldysh-Matsubara time contour, the transient dynamics of an essentially arbitrary initial pure or mixed state can be traced. In this way, the time-dependent expectation values of one-particle observables can be obtained within an approximation that neglects spatial correlations beyond the extension of the reference cluster. The necessary computational effort is very moderate. A detailed discussion and simple test calculations are presented to demonstrate the strengths and the shortcomings of the proposed approach. The non-equilibrium CPT is systematic and is controlled in principle by the inverse cluster size. It interpolates between the non-interacting and the atomic or decoupled-cluster limit which are recovered exactly and is found to predict the correct dynamics at very short times in a general non-trivial case. The effects of initial-state correlations on the subsequent dynamics and the necessity to extend the Keldysh contour by the imaginary Matsubara branch are analyzed carefully and demonstrated numerically. It is furthermore shown that the approach can describe the dissipation of spin and charge to an uncorrelated bath with an essentially arbitrary number of degrees of freedom.Comment: 14 pages, 9 figure
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