Should we miss Red Yugoslavia? 

May 2024

The word  “unprecedented” in a headline always makes me grimace. Our fast-paced, click-obsessed mass media shirks historicity in the face of heat and hyperbole. Myopia reigns. One has to investigate to discover if precedent in fact exists. Even if the answer is no, even if the superlative was warranted, one has nonetheless been prompted to take a peek into an overlooked chapter. Intellectual shabbiness gives the gift of an education. The grimace is succeeded by a smile.  

Such was the case when, earlier this year, the French bicameral parliament took the historic decision to enshrine the right to abortion in its constitution. It was, according to many news reports typed with itching fingers, unprecedented. Mathilde Panot, the left-wing MP who had helped accomplish the feat, herself lauded France as “the first country in the world to constitutionally guarantee abortion.” 

They were all correct, both technically and substantially. France is now the first and only country whose constitution explicitly provides for abortion. The new constitution reads: “the freedom of women to have recourse to an abortion… is guaranteed.” 

But there was a significant precedent which most American coverage overlooked, at least at first, perhaps because that precedent no longer exists. In 1974, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had all but guaranteed the right to abortion, even though it stopped short of using the word. Article 191 of the Yugoslav constitution affirmed: “A person is free to decide on having children. This right can be limited only for the reasons of health protection.”

Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, was among the few officials who did recognize and credit the Yugoslavian precedent in connection with France’s step forward. She was, after all, born and raised in Yugoslav Sarajevo. Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat went even further than Mijatović: “Fifty years later, it’s the West that is catching up with the East” he declared.

Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s in an orgy of brutal violence. Six states now makeup the space it once occupied. But as Mijatović and Horvat attest, its memory lives in the hearts of many of its former citizens. Yugo-Nostalgia dominates its former territory.  

French feminists don’t seem to have noted the Yugoslav precedent, but their success jolted the memory of their sisters in the Balkans. Tanja Ignjatovic, director of the Autonomous Women’s Center in Belgrade, noted: “France’s decision reminded us that we had that right in the 1974 constitution, which means exactly 50 years before France.” Today, though, that right is imperiled. 

The Serbian constitution retains a similar formulation and protection. But elsewhere in former Yugoslavia the right to an abortion is not assured. In 2003 doctors in Catholic-majority Croatia were granted permission to refuse to perform an abortion. As a result women often can’t secure abortions at home and travel to Slovenia for the operation. An active anti-choice campaign called Za Zivot (‘For Life’), led by the imaginatively named Muzveni Budite (‘Be Masculine’), stigmatizes the choice. 

And so, though the authoritarian and communist Yugoslavia guaranteed abortion rights half a century ago, today they are endangered in some of the liberal democracies that replaced it. In nearby Poland, current conditions are similarly painful. That country first legalized abortion in cases of rape and threat to maternal health in 1932, becoming the first European country outside the Soviet Union to do so. In 1956, the communist regime expanded abortion rights extensively, allowing it for women who reported “harsh living conditions” which effectively meant anybody who chose to invoke this. Women from some democratic countries such as Sweden famously traveled to Poland for abortion. But after the fall of communism and emergence of democracy in Poland, abortion access has been significantly tightened. Today it is illegal except for cases of rape, incest or serious threat to a mother’s life. In 2020, abortion in cases of fetuses with congenital defects was also banned. 


This is not a defense of Cold War Nostalgia, but deductions must be made nonetheless. We must be grateful for the triumph of liberal democracy. But we must also complicate our neat conception of the arc of history and of the state socialist experiments of the twentieth century. It is true that liberalism and democracy enshrine the rights of individuals. It is also true that, in certain cases, some socialist countries were better prepared to honor certain of those rights – in practice if not in theory.

It behooves us to probe our collective memories. Why doesn’t the historic guarantee of abortion which the 1974 Yugoslav constitution secured loom larger in global history? 

Should we, like so many of its former citizens, value the memory of that fallen regime?


Yugoslav feminists had pushed for abortion rights since the 1930s but legalization wasn’t granted until 1952, in the early years of communist Yugoslavia. 

 1952 was an important year for Yugoslavia: a basis was laid for a form of communism quite different from the one which tormented Stalin’s Soviet Union. By that time, the Iron Curtain firmly dividing Europe and Moscow had already imposed its one-party authoritarian model of socialism on the Eastern European countries liberated by the Red Army from the Nazis. But things were different in Yugoslavia where partisans, led by communist leader Josip Broz Tito, had fought the Nazis independent of the Red Army and were thus free from the Georgian tyrant’s grip. In 1948, Yugoslavia denounced Stalin and broke with Moscow.  

Yugoslav Marxists such as Milovan Djilas developed a fierce critique of the Soviet Union. A democratic socialist, he insisted Moscow’s collectivist bureaucratic system was a caricature of socialism. Yugoslavia became home to many socialist experiments. Djilas and his comrades were part of a vibrant network of debate and collaboration with socialists around the world who opposed Moscow’s authoritarianism: Sweden’s ruling social democrats, dissident communists of the Trotskyist tradition, emerging mass socialist parties and/or governments in India, Burma, Indonesia, Japan, Israel, and elsewhere.  

In November 1952, the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia changed the party’s name to League of Communists of Yugoslavia and turned it into a federation of communist parties, each belonging to one ethno-nationally defined constituent republic. The new constitution affirmed “personal freedom and rights of men.” The prized unit of Yugoslav socialism was its self-managed system of factories. This system reinvigorated the cherished tradition of workers’ councils and empowered workers in their workplaces. It also allowed for a form of market socialism in contradistinction to the rigid central planning of the USSR. The country registered impressive rates of annual economic growth for years. 

Yugoslavia would never become a political democracy nor did it escape the scourge of one-party rule. Like other authoritarian socialists, comrade Tito lacked democratic legitimacy and ruled as president until his death in May 1980 at the age of 87.

His contempt for democracy was no secret. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Tito gradually made peace with the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, an alliance that would prove steadfast. In 1956 communist Hungary attempted to emancipate itself from Soviet tutelage and embark upon a more democratic conception of socialism. In retaliation Soviet tanks invaded and drenched the country in blood. Horrified communists from Edinburgh to Tehran denounced Moscow. Some left their parties in disgust. But Tito pledged fealty to Khrushchev. When the United Nations voted to condemn the Soviet invasion, Belgrade abstained. An enraged Djilas condemned the move and affirmed his continuing support for the Hungarian revolutionaries. Even though he had been seen as the most likely successor to Tito and had previously served as speaker of the Yugoslav parliament, he was purged and sentenced to prison. Hungarian dissident communists had looked up to Yugoslavia so much that, following the Soviet invasion, their leader Imre Nagy took asylum in the Yugoslav embassy in Budapest. He had to be lured out, taken to Romania and executed there in 1958. Tito’s support for the repressive Hungarian Revolution, and his purging of Djilas, attest to the brutality of his regime. 

Yet Tito failed to extinguish the spirit of democratic socialism in Yugoslavia. Although he made amends with the Soviet Union, he never went as far as abolishing the self-management system or joining the Warsaw Pact. Yugoslavia maintained its links with anti-colonial movements and nascent post-colonial governments in Asia and Africa. In 1961, Belgrade would host the founding meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. 

This international orientation makes clear Yugoslavia did not indulge in the excesses of Stalinist xenophobia. Its famously red passport was among the most useful in the world. By the 1970s, it would offer visa-free access to more than 100 countries, including almost all European countries on either sides of the Iron Curtain as well as the countries of the Non-Aligned movement, from Egypt and Ghana to India and Cyprus. Yugoslav citizens were thus amongst the most well-connected Europeans. In 1976, sixteen million border crossings were made in a country of twenty million people. National flag carrier Jat Airways flew directly to cities around the world: from Karachi to Madrid, from Damascus to Sydney. Despite Belgrade’s close ties to Egypt and its lack of diplomatic relations with Israel after 1967, it even flew to Tel Aviv. 

Despite Djilas’s suppression, the Yugoslav Marxist intellectual scene remained robust in contrast to the repressive states of the Warsaw Pact. The journal Praxis gave rise to an eponymous circle of Marxist humanists who met every year on the gorgeous island of Korcula in the Adriatic. Praxis’ storied summer school, which started in Dubrovnik in 1963 and moved to Korcula the year after, assembled a sparkling assortment of left-wing intellectuals: Henri Lefebvre from France, Jurgen Habermas from German, Herbert Marcuse from the United States and Shlomo Avineri from Israel. While male intellectuals dominate the legend Praxis left behind, many female scholars were also involved with the journal. Some of them would go on to become leading feminist intellectuals of Yugoslavia – Rada Iveković and Nadežda Cačinovič come to mind. 

Not far from Korcula, the annual Pula Film Festival which had started in 1954 flourished in 60s and 70s. Cinephiles attended to set their eyes on Yugoslavia’s astonishing new cinema, nicknamed the Crni val (Black Wave). These films were seminal in both content and style. Take for instance Dusan Makavejev’s W.R: Mysteries of Organism (1971) a film about Austrian-American psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. This was no ordinary biopic. Mixing documentary footage and clips from Yugoslav and Soviet films, it is a dark, serious interrogation of sexuality under communism. Other Yugoslav filmmakers were popular in the West. Aleksander Petrović was nominated for the Oscars two years in a row, in 1967 and 1968, for Three and I Even Met Happy Gypsies. The latter won the Grand Prix at Cannes. The country also excelled in other cultural realms  – the great Yugoslav singer Tereza Kesovija was selected by Grace Kelly to represent Monaco at Eurovision in 1966, and represented Yugoslavia there in 1972, and the celebrated performance artist Marina Abramović was Yugoslav before she was Serbian.  

But we all know how the story ended. 

Makavejev’s masterpiece was banned for 16 years after initial screenings. Petrovic was expelled from the Belgrade Film Academy in 1973. Praxis and the Korcula school were shut down in 1975. The terrifying secret police, UDBA, harassed dissidents in the country and even assassinated a few who had managed to escape. Long before the system collapsed in the late 1980s most workers had ceased attending the workers’ councils. The self-management system which had inspired such hope yielded mass unemployment. The country sagged beneath twenty billion dollars in foreign debt and, most crucially, widening inequality between the more developed republics of the north and those in the south foreshadowed the eventual disintegration of the country.  

Mixed results is the best we can hope for in this imperfect world. Disappointment is never unprecedented, but neither is the human appetite for dignity. For a brief period, Yugoslavia fostered and fed that appetite. It deserves to be honored for that – and we deserve to learn from it.


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