Book Review: Making Mondragon

By Tim Armstrong and originally published in thesocialistentrepreneur

makingmondragonIf I had to recommend just one book on worker-ownership, Making Mondragon by William and Kathleen Whyte would be at the top of my list. The Mondragón cooperatives in the Basque Country in Northern Spain are the most successful group of worker-owned businesses in the world.

In 2015, the Mondragón corporation employed a total of 74,335 workers world-wide and had a gross annual turnover of 11.37 billion euros.¹ Making Mondragon was first published in 1988, and then revised in 1991, and covers the early history of the group, from its genesis in the 1950s, led by “that red priest” (p. 29), the radical cleric Father José María Arizmendiarrieta, through a period of unprecedented growth in the 1960s and 1970s, and then continuing on through the challenges of the Spanish recession in the 1980’s.

While still very successful, the Mondragón group of cooperatives have faced a number of significant new challenges in the 25 years since Making Mondragon was last updated, and one could argue that this book is now very out of date, but in reality, I don’t think that that matters too much. As a social history of the early years of the cooperative group, this book covers the period of Mondragón history that would be of most interest to readers of this blog. The Mondragón cooperatives are responsible for modernizing the cooperative model, taking the basic Rochdale principles and elaborating on them to create a mature form of workplace democracy that can successfully compete with capitalist multinational corporations in the 21st century. Making Mondragon covers all of that early modernizing process.

As an introduction to worker-ownership, Making Mondragon is both informative and profoundly inspiring. There is plenty of practical detail about the design of the early cooperatives that will be useful to new socialist entrepreneurs, but it is William and Kathleen Whyte’s readable account of the origins and growth of the Mondragón group that puts Making Mondragon at the top of my list of favourite books about worker ownership. At the same time, this is a rigorous history. While the authors celebrate the successes of the Mondragón cooperatives, they also openly examine the controversies, contradictions, and setbacks the worker owners faced as their cooperative movement grew.

The idea of founding a worker-owned business is certainly daunting, but the story that the Whytes tell in Making Mondragon demonstrates that with smart collective effort, we can create organizations that not only survive, but that grow and diversify. Successful Mondragón cooperatives can now be found in almost every sector of the Spanish economy: in banking, manufacturing, high-tech, service, retail, and agriculture. In this book, the Whytes describe a group of collectives that serve as a real-world example of how a thoroughly democratic economy might be built. Both practical and inspirational, Making Mondragon is far-and-away the best book on worker-ownership I have read so far.

White, William Foote and Kathleen King Whyte (1991) Making Mondragon: The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.

¹  Mondragon Corporation (2016) Press Release for the 2015 Annual Report. [Accessed 27/2/2017].

Permission to republish granted by the author.

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