Xekinima does not as a rule enter controversies with other organisations of the kind that follows below. However, there are exceptions, particularly so when a victim of sexual harassment claims the right to speak out. What follows is a letter by Tasya R. who was harassed at the January 2020 founding Congress of the ISA. She left the ISA soon after the Congress because of the way in which her case was handled.
Needless to say that if the leadership of the ISA would like to send us a response to the criticisms raised by comrade Tasya then we will of course publish it, giving it equal prominence.
At the 12th World Congress of the Committee for a Workers’ International / International Socialist Alternative (CWI / ISA), which was held in January and February 2020 in Belgium, I faced sexual harassment by SM, one of the leaders of the South African section.
Events in ISA are held approximately according to the following scenario (at a congress, conference or summer school): after the end of the official part, a bar is organized, where all those present can drink alcohol and chat. As for an activist who for the first time saw with my own eyes socialists from different countries of the world, it was very interesting for me to communicate with them, including SΜ. When the bar was about to close, SΜ invited me to take a walk, and I agreed. We walked, and I asked him about South Africa, about the work of the section and its leadership, because I was very interested in his political experience. However, SΜ was drunk, all his conversations boiled down to flirting: two or three times he asked permission to kiss me, tried to take my hand – it was unpleasant for me. I was strained by such persistence, I refused to kiss, said that I had a partner, and suggested we call it a night. After wishing SΜ good night, I was about to leave, but he suddenly grabbed me and kissed me on my mouth. I broke the kiss and quickly ran to my room.
In the morning of the next day, I told my Russian comrades Dennis R. (now he is a member of the ISA International Committee) and Leonid K. Dennis R. turned to Rob J. (now he is a member of the ISA International Executive), and a limited circle of members of the CWI Provisional Committee began to consider the situation (this committee provided provisional leadership of the organization pending the formation of permanent leading bodies). After 2 days, Dennis, Leonid, Rob and myself were invited to a closed discussion. In addition to the four of us, international leaders Eric B. (Belgium) and Liv Sh. (Sweden) took part in the discussion. For a long time Liv was responsible for the development of the South African section, so she knew SM well.
What struck me was how this meeting was strikingly different from all other discussions. As a part of CWI / ISA culture, any discussion is moderated: in order to speak, you need to raise your hand, and a moderator shall put you on the list of speakers. You cannot interrupt, and priority in contributions is given to those who have not spoken before. However, there was no such moderation in discussions with international leaders.
I was badly surprised that there were no other women in the discussion besides Liv and me. Moreover, it turned out at the meeting that Eric, Liv and Rob did not inform the comrades from the Women’s Bureau about the incident, although their participation in the discussion would be extremely useful.
Of course international leaders told me that terrible things had happened to me and that they would be very attentive to this situation. But in fact, they tried to assure me: no additional action is needed. My concern was especially caused by Rob’s words “it’s your word against his word.”
It was evident that Eric, Liv and Rob were very frightened when I announced my wish to speak at the congress and tell them about what had happened, and Dennis and Leonid supported me. Therefore, international leaders used manipulative techniques: they said that SM played an important role in the party building in South Africa. So, if the entire organization becomes aware of his behavior, then the section in South Africa will fall apart. In fact, I was told: “Be quiet, otherwise you will be guilty of the split!”
I felt guilty that I agreed by myself to take a walk in the evening with SM and my behavior allegedly ruined the development of the South African section. I had a panic attack: I was shaking, I was out of breath. During the discussion itself, when I burst into tears, only the Russian comrades proposed to suspend the discussion, it did not even occur to the international leaders to take care of my condition. An hour later, I had to call my therapist who explained to me that it was not my fault what SM had done. I did not feel any support from the international leadership. Even though they tried to say some “correct” words at first, their whole attitude towards me can only be described by the term “victim blaming”.
As I found out later, the next day Leonid accidentally discovered the name of SM in the list of proposed members of the International Committee. That is, the leadership not only knew that he was being proposed to the international leadership, but they also kept silent about this at the meeting. As Leonid said, he told Dennis about it, and together they demanded to remove SM with a public explanation of the reason.
Thanks to the persistence of Dennis and Leonid, the international leadership conducted an additional investigation: the members of the South African section who were present at the congress were asked whether they had encountered sexual harassment from SM, or at least heard about such cases. It turned out there were at least two more similar cases. After some time, we were invited to the second discussion, where there were 6 people who were at the first discussion, as well as Sonja G. (Austria) who was responsible for the development of the East and Central European sections. At this meeting, Eric B. announced that SM would not be included in any international leadership body, but asked us not to tell the delegates of the congress about what happened. Instead, Eric promised, the future International Executive will report to the Executive Committees of the sections on what happened.
I agreed to this because I trusted the international leadership and thought that they would keep their promise.
Shortly before the end of the congress, a third discussion was organized, where SM apologized for his behavior and announced that he would leave not only the international leadership, but also the leadership of the South African section, and possibly leave the organization. I urged him not to do this: despite his mistakes of a political and personal character, I did not want him to put an end to his political activism. I thought that he was quite worthy to remain a member of the CWI / ISA if, thanks to political discussion, he would reconsider his view on socialist feminism and, perhaps, in the future, would again enter the international leadership.
Soon after this discussion, SM was removed from the list. On the last day of the congress, when a member of the Provisional Committee Per-Åke V. (Sweden) read out the final voting list, he did not mention the removal of SM from the list at all – one could notice how different versions of the voting list were only if they carefully, name by name, checked them.
After 3 months, I started asking the members of the Russian EC: had the international leadership informed them about what had happened at the World Congress? What measures did it recommend to take? All answered these questions to me that the executive committee had not received any message from the international leadership. Some members of the executive committee were not even aware of what I was talking about.
When I officially applied to the Russian executive committee, Rob J., a member of it, replied: “Oh, sorry, I thought I informed the EC about this.” Apparently, the message was supposed to be only oral, the international leadership did not prepare any written document. It has not proposed any measures to improve the safety of ISA members, especially women.
The only thing Rob said the International Executive did was report the situation to the International Committee. When I urged the Executive Committee to approach the international leading bodies with a request for clarification of the position on what happened at the World Congress, Rob said that this would be a violation of the principles of democratic centralism.
In May 2020, Leonid K. left the ISA. He explained this for two reasons: his disagreement with how the international leadership resolved the situation at the World Congress, and the persecution that the leadership of the Russian section organized against him. And even then I rushed to defend the organization: I publicly declared that I was satisfied with the examination of the situation at the World Congress. I believed that the executive committees of the sections would still be told about the incident and that there was no need to leave the organization because of someone’s forgetfulness. In addition, I was a completely inexperienced political activist and assumed that I might not understand something.
However, in June 2020, I left the ISA. At that time, I was poorly able to explain the reasons for my departure: I suffered from depression for three months, which, among other things, was caused by the unhealthy political climate in the organization. The situation was complicated by the fact that at first the members of the Russian EC told me that I would travel to the World Congress at the expense of the International, but then they demanded to reimburse them expenses for plane tickets and accommodation in Belgium. And I, who had a very small salary even by Russian standards, had to pay off this debt for several months, denying myself what was most necessary.
Only now, more than a year later, I learned from some former members of the ISA International Committee that they had not received any message from the International Executive about what happened at the World Congress. Moreover, even the members of the International Executive do not remember that this situation was discussed within it. And that’s not to mention the fact that the executive committees apparently received no report on the incident.
ISA members could be content with only rumors and corridor talks about the incident, and international leaders took advantage of this. They spread the rumor that I allegedly demanded the expulsion of SM from the organization, and then I decided not to spread information about what happened by myself.
So Eric B., Liv S., Sonja G., and Rob J. have decided that, to paraphrase Orwell, all international leaders are equal, but some leaders are more equal than others. They do not keep their promises, lie to your face, and value the integrity of the organization above socialism, democracy, feminism and the safety of their members.
Thanks to the fact that I spoke with some former ISA members from other countries, I learned that now in May 2021 the International Socialist Alternative has adopted the so-called “code of conduct”, which explicitly states that when investigating cases of sexual harassment, you need to be guided “on the basis of the best interests of the organization.” This formulation angered me to the depths of my soul: after all, it was precisely the international leaders who acted in the “interests of the organization”; they did not solve the case of my sexual harassment, but silenced it. And the fact that those members of the organization who dared to disagree with the text of the “code of conduct” were accused of sexism, is nothing more than hypocrisy.
I have no confidence in the leadership of this international organization. I do not believe that ISA’s position on the principles of democratic centralism and socialist feminism is correct. Moreover, being a member of the International Socialist Alternative did not make me feel safe as regards my physical and mental health. I dont believe that ISA has any procedure to safeguard the physical and mental health especially of women victims of sexual harassment.
That is why I left the International Socialist Alternative and call on all its members who are reading this statement of mine to do the same and take part in building of the new international socialist organization, where a normal democratic discussion is being conducted, problems are solved, and not hushed up, where the authority of international leaders is not imposed. Only such an organization is capable of fighting for a socialist transformation of the world!