THERE ARE UGLY reminders in the '90s of "The Black Decade" of the '30s. There are dark 60th anniversaries ahead -- the end of the old Gold Standard, and the great slump of world trade, the slide of Eastern Europe into tin-pot dictatorship, the failure of a disarmament conference and the spread of famine in Russia and the Ukraine.
Are we in for another, milder, version of "The Black Decade"?
Certainly not, for the 1930s circumstances were uniquely dreadful, everything bedeviled by memories of 1914 to 1918, and by revolutionaries Red, Brown and Black.
Nowadays, international cooperation, at least, seems reasonably safe, and no one believes in armed revolution anymore. There will be limits, therefore, both to political and economic troubles: At worst, we shall go back to another, much-less-noticed, anniversary: the final bout of "the Great Depression," in 1891, when banks crashed and commodity producers went bankrupt.
The world has seen, at least in the West and Japan, an extraordinary run of good years, with even lame ducks such as Britain up and running. But prosperity, in the words of Clement Juglar, student of business cycles and 19th century sage, "is the only cause of depression."
Painful adjustments to changing realities will have to be made. Both in politics and in economic matters, there will be what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction."
The greatest single element here will be the collapse of communism. The Soviet Union will have an exceedingly hard winter.
However, you cannot rebel in a Russian winter, if only for the simple reason that you slip and break limbs if you walk excitedly upon uncleared icy snow. Revolutions happen when it is about to get very cold or when the thaw releases discontents.
The discontents are already clear: successive issues of Pravda reveal bread lines; an energy reserve that is down to 3 percent of a year's supply, with winter ahead; strikes in the Ukraine, including the Donbass Mines; and a surreal little picture of brigades of alcoholics being compulsorily put to work on the potato harvest -- there being, otherwise, a likelihood that Russia would have had none.
In 1991 these discontents will produce upheaval after upheaval. The western commentators who said that communism would explode at its very center, Moscow, have been proved right.
Creative destruction in the communist world is not going to be an easy business, since the whole thing had the reverse of a Midas touch: taking gold and turning it into dust. The sheer amount of human misery among the 280 million people of the Soviet empire will exceed anything in the Middle East, though journalists will find the latter easier to describe.
In the Arab world populations are small and most of the problems are based on an excess of faith -- in a culture, a religion or race. In the disintegrating Soviet Union, however, there is no faith, only despair.
Hence Mikhail Gorbachev's endless equivocation about reform. Next year, chaos, the greatest revolutionary, will overtake the notion that organized reform from the center is a possibility at all.
It will not be a happy year for Eastern Europe. Hungary, with sufficient informal experience of liberalism in the 1980s and under-the-blanket deals with the West, will probably be the least troubled, and the Czechs with their long tradition of enterprise, far less inflation than other countries, no debt to speak of, and a capital city that everyone wants to see, have sufficient strength to withstand their flower-power government.
But other countries will see convulsions. Mainly, the outcome of these will be healthy: There is not go-ing to be any rerun of fascism, corseted generals on white horses and the like. But convulsions there will be. Yugoslavia will probably split up, and "Europe" will probably have to do something to restore decency in Romania, especially for its 2 million-strong Hungarian minority.
Will "Europe" be capable of such action? Not if it spends 1991 pursuing notions of political grandeur. Ideas of a united "Europe," speaking with one voice and strutting on the world stage as if a single superpower, will not flourish in next year's starker climate.
The Germans will be too preoccupied, queasily digesting East Germany, to bother much about Brussels. The D-mark will weaken, the German trade surplus will fall, and there will be a further disagreeable little number, in the form of the roughly $50 billion that has been semi-secretly promised to the Russians as part of the package to permit union.
Two great powers will feel the financial pinch. The American budgetary and deficit problems must be tackled, painfully for gasoline-users, smokers and drinkers, who need to pay higher taxes; painfully, probably, also for better-off Americans, whose income taxes will rise.
In Japan, the problem of integration with world trade will criss-cross with those of a surreally inflated property market: There will be crashes, and political scandals, as the country adjusts to its new role in world affairs.
Voices will be heard to the effect that maybe there was something to be said for planned economies, after all. Lenin's own corpse may very well be given a Christian burial in Novodevichy Cemetery; or it may even be dumped in the river Moskva by an irate mob, as once happened to the corpse of Pope Pius IX at the hands of a Roman mob, in the river Tiber. But his soul, or at least his ghost, will go marching on.
Not a good year, but one with some consolation for those who think that smugness is the world's greatest danger.
NORMAN STONE is a professor of modern history at the University of Oxford.