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I know that proper nouns should be capitalized, but I'm not sure if "communists" would be considered a proper noun in this sentence:

"They were Communists." (or "They were communists"?)

Are there cases where one or the other would be preferable? What is the rationale for this?

  • They were communists is more appropriate. – user3382203 Mar 9 '17 at 7:16
  • Thanks. I'm studying "First They Came" (a poem) and I need to know if the capitalization of "Socialists" and "Communists" is actually significant or not. – SAM Mar 9 '17 at 7:19
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    The name of a political party and its members are usually capitalized; the philosophy is usually not. The author of the poem capitalizes Communist, Socialist, Trade Unionist. Thus, Democratic Party, Democrat, democracy. The socialist movement in Great Britain. A person whose parents were members of the Communist Party is called a red-diaper baby, and his parents are/were Communists. I disagree that one is more "appropriate" than the other. If I were writing about the poem, I'd follow the author's capitalization. – Xanne Mar 9 '17 at 7:37
  • To amplify @Xanne's point: one may be a socialist (holding the values of socialism) without being a Socialist (a member of a Socialist party.) However, due to the peculiar history of the Communist Party/ies, I'm not sure one can be a communist without being a Communist. – MT_Head Mar 9 '17 at 7:42
  • But one can certainly be a Communist without being a communist (perhaps if one is living in a Communist state). – TimLymington Mar 9 '17 at 10:25
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"Communist" is a proper noun when it refers to an organized group, the whole or part. When "communist" refers to a general philosophy, it is not a proper noun.
This will probably be a useful guide:Writing Explained
Example:

Erik was a Communist only in name. At heart he was a democratic socialist, but the Communist Party was the only political organization allowed.

And

Reg was a pariah in the Labour Party due to his communist opinions.

If dealing with political identities other than "communist", the same principles apply. The only major concern is the need to capitalize any identity derived from a proper noun.

He is not a communist, he is a Peronista.

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