When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, a twenty-one-year-old theology student named José Maria Arrizmendi-Arrieta interrupted his studies to join the Basque forces of the Spanish Republic. Three years later, the Republic was on the verge of defeat at the hands of Francisco Franco's Fascists, who had taken José Maria prisoner and listed him for execution. But by a lucky--or providential--error, his name was passed over and he survived. After his release he resumed studies and just before Christmas of 1940 he was ordained a priest.
Proud of his ancient race, Don José Maria shared fully in the Basque traits of tenacity, hard work, self-reliance and community loyalty. However, when the new priest took up his duties as pastor of Mondragon soon after ordination, the optimism Basques had felt before the war had turned to dust. Franco's German allies had rained destruction on the sacred Basque city of Guernica. A number of leading priests had been executed. More than 2,000 teachers and 118 university professors were in exile. The Vatican gave Franco the right to propose and veto candidates for appointment as bishops. The Basque language was suppressed, although it survived in small mountain villages. Poverty, unemployment and despair were rampant.
Don José Maria spent the first fifteen years of his priestly life in conventional pastoral work, but with a heavy emphasis on formation of youth. Distressed by continuing unemployment and the erosion of community through outmigration of the young, he set up a technical trade school and organized student study groups to discuss world problems. For Don José Maria, ideas had to be tested by action in the real world. The consuming passion of his life became understanding the real world to change it for the better.
His pragmatic philosophy was influenced by his involvement with the Young Christian Worker movement, with its motto of "See, judge and act." While he valued the principles of the church's social teaching, he found it too general and abstract to be useful in practice. He also became critical of the personalist thinker Emmanuel Mounier who, without testing the idea in the real world, said that a humanistic cooperative business complex could succeed only in a noncapitalist society. At Mondragon, he was instrumental in building an extraordinary alternative economic and social order that proved Mounier wrong.
In the mid-1950s, five of Don José Maria's students whom he had assisted through engineering school came back to Mondragon determined to help their region survive. Don José Maria gladly became their mentor and for the next twenty years, until his death in 1976, their collaboration gave plenty of scope for the interplay of thought and action he so cherished.
In 1956, the team of five set up a stove factory. To raise money for the project they established their own bank and asked Basques to use it so that their savings could support local industry. Don José Maria explained that the big national banks from Madrid would certainly take Basque money but would not see it as their mission to invest in the local economy. If the Basques wanted to develop manufacturing and keep their youth at home, they should bank at the Caja Laboral Popular: savings not suitcases.
In the Mondragon system, profits go to the worker-owners and to community purposes such as the social fund and the capital fund. This last is vital because every successful enterprise thus contributes capital for new projects. Another principle requires every new enterprise to remain part of the economic whole, which now includes not only businesses but also the bank, a university and a research centre. The trade school developed into a polytechnical institute with emphasis on high-tech training. Aware that Hitler's superior technology had won the war for Franco, Don José Maria was convinced that whoever controlled the best technology would decide the future. When technology makes workers in one enterprise redundant, they can transfer to another. In 1995 the Mondragon complex had more than $10 billion in assets and more than 28,000 workers.
For Don José Maria, economics was not merely number-crunching but a way of living together in society, a way that put Gospel values into the marketplace and factory. His open support for a new and reformed social order drew fire from his fellow clergy, many of whom were content with passivity towards economic problems. At a meeting where they charged him with worldliness, he pointedly asked, "If the Gospel does not apply to the economy, then to what does it apply?" Because he acted in the world he had, not an ideal or fantasized one, Don José Maria effected change.
© 1997 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld