Welsh Keywords: Cymdeithasiaeth

From Planet 219

This is the fifteenth contribution to our Welsh Keywords series – inspired by Raymond Williams’ Keywords – which offers contemporary perspectives on contested meanings of words in Welsh and how these shifting meanings continue to shape our society.

Cymdeithasiaeth, the Welsh word for Socialism, is almost as elusive as the Co-operative Commonwealth that generations of socialists have dreamt of creating. Its English equivalent, broadly denoting an anti-capitalist ideology based around the common ownership of land and property, emerged in the early 19th century. A response to the increasingly intense exploitation of man by man under industrialisation, the word became associated in Britain with the communitarian ideas of Robert Owen. It wasn’t until the last decades of the 19th century, though, that a Welsh word was created to describe what was by then an increasingly influential ideology. Even then cymdeithasiaeth struggled to find general usage in the Welsh language. Despite the efforts of propagandists to popularise the term in the 1890s and early 1900s, by the time Socialism had become a true power in the world its Welsh-speaking advocates and detractors alike most often used the imported term sosialaeth.

The infrequent use of a distinctly Welsh term for Socialism, particularly after the Great War, contrasts sharply with the huge impact that Socialism had upon Welsh society in the 20th century. It also belies the influence that Wales had upon the socialist movement in Britain and beyond. Robert Owen, ‘the Father of British Socialism’, was famously a Welshman, while the post-war Labour governments – rightly considered as the high water mark of Socialism in British politics (to date, at least) – were deeply enriched by Welsh influence. The efforts of Aneurin Bevan and Jim Griffiths, both products of the socialist culture of inter-war south Wales, ensured that this influence was manifested in the form of the National Health Service and Welfare State – monuments to a distinctively Welsh communitarian mindset that remain tenaciously entrenched in the British psyche, despite the best efforts of their enemies over three decades to undermine them. Not even the Welsh-speaking Griffiths, though, used the word cymdeithasiaeth to describe his beliefs in his native language.

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