The ISA debate on socialist feminism, May 2021 – the minority positions

The International Committee (IC) of the ISA discussed at its meeting of May 5 and 6, a “Code of Conduct” against harassment, which was voted for by the majority. The IC minority voted for an alternative document, titled “Policy against Harassment” produced and signed by five female comrades: Athina K. from Cyprus, Ecehan B. from Turkey, Marina K. from Belgium, Viki L. from Spain and Eleni M. from Greece. The positions of the minority follow below. The document voted by the majority can be read here: International Socialist Alternative – Harassment Policy & Code of Conduct

Policy Against Harassment

By Athina K (Cyprus), Marina K (Belgium), Viki L (Spanish State), Ecehan B (Turkey), Eleni M (Greece)

Introductory note

The following amendment to the draft Code of Conduct is using the initial draft CoC as a basis, and incorporates a number of points from the initial contribution we submitted to the IC, points from Tiphaine’s letter and comments made by comrades in the relevant discussion at the women’s conference (April 10-11).  The discussion at the conference and the different oral and written contributions made, included many interesting points, and showed in a clear way the need to have the code discussed in the organization, so that all the members will have the opportunity to participate in this discussion and contribute. Through this process, the leadership should reformulate the draft code taking into account the points made by comrades. The final decision of course should be taken by the coming Congress. 

We fully agree with the comments made in the course of the women’s conference, suggesting that we should avoid moralism and the creation of a behavior police – we had made a similar point in our initial written contribution. Therefore, we propose to remove from the original draft all parts that would sound or could be interpreted as paternalistic and/or moralistic. 

As most of the comrades in the women’s conference agreed, in order to avoid/prevent harassment in our organization we need a process of education on gendered and other forms of oppression. This should be, and objectively is, an ongoing process and has to be incorporated in the everyday work of the sections and the International. 

It should therefore not be a matter of instructing or indicating to comrades to get educated, nor is it a matter of a set of detailed rules and conditions which members of our organizations have to agree with when joining – this in itself negates the idea of an educative process. 

We have removed the extended section on the examples/list of harassment. As the discussion in the women’s conference showed, there are many attitudes that can be considered as harassment, and this is related to the different conditions and cultures in each country. We include however some broad types and examples of harassment that women and LGBTQ+ people can experience in the context of capitalism explaining that we have to fight against these phenomena in all countries and irrespective of cultural differences, not only in society but also inside the organization. 

Having said this, cultural differences can be important. As we explained in our initial written contribution in certain cultures an unwelcome hug or/and kiss on the cheeks for example is just unwelcome and could not be identified as harassment – this is related to the fact that in the respective countries it is a very common form or greeting. 

We also have to be able to distinguish between a bad habit (a joke, a nickname, use of specific terms) and cases when this becomes an abusive attitude, harassment etc. which is when such a behavior is repeated, despite protest and/or explanation. 

Therefore, instead of making a list of kinds of harassment (which can never be exhaustive anyway) we believe it is better that whenever a comrade feels harassed, she/he/they should come forward and her/his/their complaint is examined, even if a similar case is not included in the list. In order for this to be possible we need to develop the respective culture in our organisations, where comrades feel their complaint will be taken up seriously and they will get the support they need. 

The key issue in what we are discussing is consent. It is impossible to understand harassment without making the issue of consent central in our approach.

At the same time, we also want to create an internal culture in which comrades that may have shown a discriminatory behavior are helped to overcome this behavior, to understand why this behavior was wrong, take the responsibility for it and be willing to work on oneself. In our opinion, a list of prohibited behaviors does not help in this direction. 

We also propose to remove the part mentioning that 

“the basis for a leadership body taking action at the conclusion of an investigation…(is) the best interests of the organization moving forward”. 

As Tiphaine correctly explained in her contribution at the women’s conference, the leadership of the French section and the IS of the CWI defended a sexual abuser in the French section, who was at the time the general secretary of the section, using the argument that this was in the “interests of the organization”. This was of course scandalous.

At the same time, if an investigation finds the comrade accused innocent, then we should defend this, even if there is criticism towards our organization from other organizations, the media etc. i.e, even if the truth does not necessarily serve, at least in the short term, the interests of the organization. 

We want an organization that will not tolerate harassment and assault, and will not tolerate having in its ranks a harasser or sexual abuser, including in the leading bodies. 

This includes every member. Comrades in the leadership bodies are not immune from the phenomena discussed as we are all born and brought up in the capitalist system. We agree of course that the organisation will be harmed more (and sometimes immensely more) if the accused is a leading comrade and, therefore, we stress that she/he/they should not be treated differently.

We agree and stress that we want the sections to provide structures and procedures by which such complaints, of harassment, sexual assault etc, can be treated in a way that develops the understanding of the members. It should also bring the party and its members together in providing justice for the victims. 

In order to provide justice for the victims (and the organization as a whole) we need as factual accounts as possible. Not of course the type of facts and pieces of evidence that a bourgeois court would demand, but factual accounts that would enable us to conclude an objective investigation. 

In some cases, the investigations will be inconclusive. In those cases, we believe that we should avoid conforming to the spirit of identity politics and name the complainant as a victim because she/he/they reported it and the accused as perpetrator. 

We firmly believe that we need to adopt very clear procedures when handling harassment and assault. There must be clear procedures that will create trust and confidence in the victims or witnesses of harassment, enabling them to come forward. 

Last but not least we would like to note that due to lack of time the first part of the amended document that follows, which provides context and political analysis, is much shorter than we would like and than what is actually needed for such a type of document. We are not international full-timers and most of the undersigned are not full-timers at all (in our sections) and have to combine the work to amend this document with the duties in our sections, our jobs, family duties etc.

Policy Against Harassment

Part 01: Political framework against oppression

Part 02: A party for all

Part 03: Changing habits is an ongoing process – Preventing Harassment

Part 04: The leading bodies

Part 05: Defining Harassment 

Part 06: Procedures for Addressing Harassment

Part 07: Addressing harassment complaints in the International

Part 01: Political framework against oppression

International Socialist Alternative (ISA) is committed to the struggle of the working class and all the oppressed for socialist change by overthrowing capitalism as a system, and all the injustices, inequalities, forms of oppression and exploitation that this system perpetuates.

The capitalist system is using sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, nationalism and religious sectarianism, even “identity politics”, to divide the working class and the oppressed layers of society. 

Even though women have gained, through their struggles, significant liberties and rights, they are still treated and regarded as inferior to men in society and very often, in their personal/sexual relationships, they are even considered as a man’s “property”. The gender pay gap, gendered roles, the objectification of their bodies and gender violence are only some expressions of women’s oppression.  

Similar oppression is experienced by LGBTQ+ people. Sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identities outside the capitalist rigid gender norms are labeled as “unnatural” or “sick”. A discriminatory, phobic and aggressive attitude is cultivated towards the LGBTQ+ people, which is used to further divide the working class.

Racism, nationalism and religious sectarianism are used by the capitalist system systematically and continuously in the same way, often leading to violent clashes, armed conflict and war. 

At the same time, the capitalist system, promotes individualism, competition and antagonisms as basic principles of life. This is supposedly not only how capitalist economy works, but it is presented as the way nature, including human nature works. Hence solidarity, collectivity, respect to others, etc are not only hindered but are directly or indirectly portrayed as unrealistic in essence, even as a weakness. These basic capitalist “principles of life” are reflected in varying degrees not only in social but also in personal and intimate relations.  

The expression of all kinds of oppression may take different forms, be it jokes and perpetuation of stereotypes through epithets, slurs, body shaming, gestures or graphic material that denigrates or shows hostility towards an individual, threats, intimidation or hostile acts and assault, sexual assault or physical and sexual violence. 

Oppression and discrimination are in many cases normalized in society and even become a habit (Trotsky, Habit and Custom 1923, Problems of Everyday Life). In fighting for the building of a socialist society, we are fighting to also form and create new “habits” that will cut across such capitalist social relations. 

The working class can only liberate itself when it fights for the liberation of all humankind. We reject and fight against all forms of oppression and strive for maximum workers’ unity. The root of all oppression is the capitalist system, therefore in our transitional programme we connect the struggle against all forms of oppression to the struggle against capitalism. 

We intervene and participate in all existing struggles against oppression, or initiate campaigns against oppression where needed and urge our members to strive for the leadership of these struggles on the basis of our socialist programme. 

Part 02: A party for all

This document should be read in conjunction with other documents that the International and the national sections have produced, on fighting the different forms of oppression and the system that bears and perpetuates them. 

We fight against division, discrimination, oppression, and injustice in society. We could not have a different approach and practice in the relations inside the organization. Our comrades come from all oppressed sections of society and we must consciously fight in our ranks against all remnants of prejudice and oppression we have inadvertently inherited from the system we live in, around gender and rigid gender norms, sexual orientation, body norms, race, nationality etc. Therefore, we implement in our organization the same principles we adopt when fighting oppression and division in society. 

We are fighting for a society where freedom, equality, real solidarity and camaraderie, generosity and respect, the best human values, are the basic values. We aim at these values taking a central position in the internal life of the organization and in the relations between comrades. 

ISA is building a united revolutionary party with roots in the diverse working class, which fully develops the talents of all its members, encourages them to overcome any lack of confidence they may have, and fosters cooperation in our day-to-day work. 

Part 03: Changing habits is an ongoing process – Preventing Harassment

Our sections dedicate time and resources to consciously develop the understanding of all our members on issues of oppression and discrimination through regular discussion in the leading bodies, branches and international meetings, and through active involvement in activities, campaigns and struggles against discrimination and oppression.

Several sections of the ISA, like the Irish, the Greek and the Belgian, as well as the International, have produced some excellent material, that should be used as a basis for this educational process. 

Classic socialist texts eg from Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and socialist feminist texts from Klara Zetkin or Alexandra Kollontai, can be used alongside, other material originating from our organisation and tradition.  A selection of current socialist feminist literature would also be extremely useful in the process of continuous education of our organisations.

Alongside these materials, we urge our comrades to produce additional material on the issue of oppression incorporating updates, new approaches and views (taking especially into account the approaches and views of the younger generations) current public discussions and debates, etc. 

All comrades must strive to understand the root causes of oppression and prejudice, how to resolve them on a systemic level, and how these systemic prejudices have conditioned our own attitudes. 

When, women’s and LGBTQ+ oppression and struggles for rights are an essential part of our members’ political development, our comrades have more confidence to deal with sexism in our organization, to intervene if something seems wrong and speak up. 

In an organization that does not tolerate sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination and prejudice, women and members of the oppressed groups are encouraged to develop their political capacities and become cadres in our organisations and in the movement, and to participate in the leadership of our sections and the struggles that take place. 

We create women, LGBTQ+ and other caucuses in order to help this process. 

We create a culture in which comrades that may have expressed a discriminatory behavior are helped, in order to overcome this behavior, to understand why this behavior was wrong, take the responsibility and work on oneself. 

These tasks of preventing harassment are, and always must be, ongoing. This active political struggle should be reinforced by every section having a clear approach to harassment, with discussions in every level of the organization on our policy and procedures, so that comrades understand that internally, it’s incumbent on them to act on the basis of our politics and program. 

Part 04: Leading bodies 

Leading bodies are elected on their political merits, taking into account their ability to exemplify revolutionary socialist politics both in public and inside the organization. They are elected on the basis of their experience in the struggles, by building the organisation, by gaining the confidence of comrades. (from Tiphaine’s contribution). They are elected and revokable at any stage if they do not play the role they are assigned to by the membership. Members elected in the leadership of the party or within the wider workers’ movement must demonstrate an even higher level of comradely behavior, and rejection of any kind of discrimination and abuse. This includes understanding and practicing respect and consent in their private/personal relationships. Furthermore, no comrade’s role can be prioritized over their behavior in instances of harassment or abuse. 

Creating an atmosphere in which all comrades feel confident to participate in the organisation on an equal basis is a responsibility of all comrades, but primarily this is the responsibility of comrades in the leadership of the sections and the International. They have the additional task to cultivate this atmosphere, be attuned to the interactions within the organisation and consciously intervene to promote an atmosphere of comradely behavior, ensuring amicable relations amongst members. In doing so, leading comrades also help maintain an inclusive and respectful environment that is welcoming and accessible to a diverse range of people. They should do this without resorting to patronizing methods or pointing the finger at any comrade.

Even in times when a debate is developing within our ranks, the comrades in the leadership of the organisation should strive to maintain a comradely approach, preventing bullying, intimidation and other forms of oppression. Debates must take place in a non-polarizing, comradely, calm, and friendly atmosphere – this is the only way to avoid a toxic atmosphere that can lead to splits, which we have so often experienced in the past on an international level but also in national sections. 

Part 05: Defining Harassment 

As explained above, no kind of harassment will be tolerated by the ISA. Our sections aim to make sure every member feels at ease and safe in the party, stimulating them to come forward with complaints on discriminatory behavior in the party when such behavior occurs. The sections should provide structures and procedures by which such complaints can be treated in a way that develops the understanding of the members and brings the party and its members forward, together with providing justice for victims (which is at the same time justice for the organisation as a whole). 

A crucial element of this is an atmosphere in which members feel confident to immediately speak up, and where their requests to desist a harassing behavior respected. Yet the responsibility for rejecting harassment does not fall only on comrades who are faced with such behavior. We must establish and reinforce a norm where others will feel responsible to immediately intervene when they witness harassment or offensive discriminatory conduct, even when they are not the recipients of the conduct or don’t feel deeply offended themselves. 

Harassment is an act imposed on a person without her/his/their consent. Consent occurs when one person voluntarily and freely agrees to the proposal(s) or desires of another. Affirmative consent has to be given by both parts in any relationship and at any stage of the encounter, either through clear, verbal communication or nonverbal cues or gestures. It involves communication and the active participation of people involved. Consent can be revoked at any moment. In some conditions, some individuals are unable to give consent, when for example a person may be unconscious, or intoxicated. When there is doubt of whether consent is given, then the encounter has to stop immediately. In any case, consent should be respected at any stage of the interaction.

There are many forms of harassment, but some of the most common ones include verbal, physical, visual and sexual harassment.

Whether incidents of harassment between ISA members occur during formal events of the organization or outside of them, the same standards and approach to resolving the conflicts apply. 

Whether incidents of harassment occur between ISA members or between ISA members and non-members, these will be investigated and treated with the same sensitivity, attention and urgency. 

We reject the impunity of sexual violence and harassment by bourgeois society and the way police and justice systems treat these issues, victim blaming and protection of the powerful. 

There can be no privileges for leading comrades: discriminatory behavior must be responded to, regardless of the role comrades are playing in the organization and the duties they have been assigned. 

Part 06: Procedures for Addressing Harassment

1. Every member has the right to bring forward a harassment grievance against another member or members. No member is endowed with more or less rights than any other member including members elected to leading positions. 

2. The complaint can be reported to: individual comrades that the complainant has confidence in, a branch, a leading body or directly to a body elected for such a purpose, depending on whom the complainant feels more confident in and safe to approach and the level of discretion she/he/they is comfortable with. Comrades not directly affected may also contact leading bodies and bodies elected for such a purpose. While we encourage members to report any complaint as soon as possible, there is no time limit to report abuse or harassment, and the period separating a complaint from the time of the incident is not relevant to assess the merits of the said complaint. 

3. Depending on the size of a section, investigating bodies such as National Control Commissions should be elected by the Congress of the section. The number of members of the NCC in each section should be big enough (possibly around 10) to be able to alternate the comrades that will deal with incidents. Members of the NCC should always be independent of the leadership bodies. If there is a conflict of interest to any of the comrades of the NCC (or ICC), either because of proximity to the complainant or the accused, they should not be part of the investigation. 

4. When an incident of harassment or assault is reported, the NCC shall convene and designate a minimum number of 3 of their members to investigate the complaint. 

5. Complaints must be promptly and thoroughly investigated. Investigations should not be rushed. However, we must always take under consideration that the late announcement of the investigation’s findings leaves serious marks on both sides, especially the victim of violence. 

6. Any member accused of harassment, denigrating conduct or insulting behavior has the right to a fair and impartial investigation of said conduct and an investigation which will be carried out with no presumed outcome and in an open-minded manner. 

7. All information disclosed in the course of an investigation will remain confidential, except as necessary to conduct the investigation and take any remedial action. Decisions about how to proceed, what information to disclose and to whom, and other sensitive questions will be made in the closest possible dialogue and agreement with the individual making the complaint, as well as the accused. 

8. A sanction should not be pronounced before the end of the investigation. (proposed by Tiphaine)

9. During the investigation, interim measures may be taken, to protect the complainant, and to reassure them that until the end of the investigation they can continue their participation in the life of the organization. This may involve advising the accused, without prejudice, not to attend events where the complainant may be present.

10. Final decisions will not be made until all sides to a case have been heard, and the investigation is complete.

11. During the investigation confidentiality and sensitivity are essential for all parties involved in this process. For comrades to have confidence to come forward with instances of harassment or abuse, they must be able to reasonably expect that personal details, will not be disclosed without their consent.

12. In any investigation the central priority is to establish the truth of what actually took place. Having said this, we need to always keep in mind that in some cases the investigation will be inconclusive. In those cases, we should avoid falling into the trap of identity politics and name the accused as a perpetrator, because an accusation has been made against her/him/them.

13. The investigation should aim to be as factual as possible. Investigations need to carefully balance out the evidence provided. We do not demand or expect the type of facts and pieces of evidence demanded in a bourgeois court. We also take into account that, especially in allegations of sexual harassment and assault, one is faced with a situation where it is the word of one person against the other’s – at least during the narrow framework of the incident reported.  

14. The investigation has to be careful not in any way to discredit survivors of harassment and abuse or fall to victim blaming. 

15. The starting position of the investigation is to protect the interests of the complainant, while at the same time care must be taken to be fair to the accused. The accused has full rights to be heard, to defend themselves and to appeal to the ICC itself and/or to other leading bodies. Appeals must be taken very seriously and new investigations carefully conducted.  

16. After an investigation is concluded in a section, the NCC informs the EC/NC and the members directly affected, the complainant and the accused. 

17. Members must be free to raise concerns without fear of reprisal. Retaliation for reporting harassment, or perceived harassment, for making complaints of harassment, or participating in any investigation of incidents of harassment, or perceived harassment, is not acceptable and cannot be tolerated.

18. Disciplinary action should be proportional to the act/behavior that is established following an investigation. This may range from educational measures/discussions to disciplinary action starting from a reprimand up to and including temporary suspension or even expulsion. 

19. Measures should be discussed and proposed also for the welfare of the complainant like counseling, psychological or other support.  

20. Any decisions are subject to the appeals process as per the democratic structures of the organization. An appeal shall be addressed to the EC/NC and/or the NCC 

21. After the end of the investigation and the pronunciation of disciplinary action, especially when this will include suspension or expulsion of the accused, and even more if she/he/they are a comrade in the leading bodies, a wider dissemination of information for the procedure should follow. A report on the investigation and its conclusion, deducting of course the sensitive and descriptive details, has to be circulated to the membership. This has to be done in collaboration with the complainant. The membership cannot feel it is left in the dark. On the contrary, a revolutionary organization must be transparent and accountable to the members on all levels. 

Part 07: Addressing complaints in the international 

The general responsibility for handling cases of harassment is with the elected day-to-day leadership of each section (often called national Executive Committees). These must inform the NCCs which will conduct the investigation and the NCs which will decide on the relevant measures based on the outcome of the investigation and the report of the NCC. 

There are however instances when the International Control Commission (ICC) and international leadership bodies will become involved in cases of harassment. 

1. The ICC is an independent body elected by the congress; it should be treated as such. The same should be the case with National Control Commissions. The ICC should not comprise of either IC members or full timers employed by the ISA. The ICC should be comprised of a panel of comrades to enable it to function in the different parts of the world.

2. The ICC should convene when a case is reported, either by the IE and IC or by a section or by any comrade that regards that their case can be dealt in a better way. Individual members of sections can appeal to the ICC only after they have appealed to the corresponding national structures. The ICC should convene when a case is reported and decide which of the comrades will deal with the specific case. The comrades dealing with each case should be no less than three each time. If a case is particularly complicated a bigger number should be involved. 

3. The ICC can ask for the help of other comrades from the international or the respective section on specific issues or procedures if they think that this will help the investigation. However, the comrades consulted will not be part of the investigation team, will not be involved in the writing of the report and will not become at any point a temporary informally integral part of the ICC. 

4. All comrades should be willing to collaborate in an investigation. If there is a conflict of interest to any of the comrades of the ICC, either because of proximity to the complainant or the accused, they should not be part of the investigation.  

5. The ICC will conduct an investigation through interviews, visits, and other means necessary. 

6. During the investigation confidentiality of the complainant and accused should be secured. No information may be disclosed without the consent of both.

7. During the investigation and in collaboration with the section/branch, measures will be taken so that, as far as possible, both the complainant and the accused can participate in the life of the party, until the investigation reaches its conclusion. 

8. The ICC will seek to reach a consensus/agreement or, failing this, a majority decision. If there are different views they should be presented as such, i.e., there should be a majority and minority report on the investigation

9. The result of the investigation and the recommendation of the ICC regarding the courses of action will be submitted to the IE and the IC and the leadership of the respective section, as well as the parties involved (complainant and accused). 

10. Any member subjected to disciplinary action is entitled to appeal to the body that took the decision. If the appeal is rejected, it can be filed to a higher body, up to the Congress. 

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