How did a Communist Party leader, imprisoned under Mussolini, come to engage with Immanuel Kant, one of the most important German “idealist” philosophers? Gramsci, in his prison notebooks, examined a thought by Hegel, who had pointed out that Kant (1724-1804) had given philosophical form to the demands of the French revolutionaries – liberty, equality, fraternity. Marx had written in 1842 that Kant’s philosophy must rightly be regarded as the “German theory of the French Revolution.” Kant is better known for heavy-handed philosophical constructions such as the thing-in-itself and the categorical imperative. In his “Prison Notebooks,” Gramsci pursued a track that runs counter to all of Marxism-Leninism, better Stalinist philosophy. He conceived of Marx’s philosophy as a reform, a reworking of Hegelianism. Hegel, however, is inconceivable without his great predecessor Kant. Consequently, Gramsci saw in Kant’s philosophy the first annual ring of a new philosophy, that is, as the beginning of the Kant-Hegel-Marx line of philosophical development. Gramsci recognized in Kant the theoretician of that form of state which first emerged in the course of the French Revolution and today characterizes the global world of states: The democratic republic with political freedom and universal suffrage.

Why is a study of Kant and the foundations of the democratic republic important today? Because the last decade has seen a dramatic struggle for the democratic republic around the world, expressed in two opposing movements.

Over the past decade, political forces have been elected to office in democratic states in various nations, threatening democracy from within: Orban in Hungary in 2010, Erdogan in Turkey in 2014, Modi in India in 2014, Donald Trump in the U.S. in 2016, Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018. All 5 politicians are pursuing nationalistic policies against international cooperation externally and undermining democratic achievements in their respective nations internally. On top of that, Orban, Modi and the now voted out Trump have been agitating against refugees and using restrictive measures against people in need. Trump and Bolzonaro deny the climate crisis as well as the threat of the Covid 19 pandemic. All 5 government leaders rely significantly on certain religious milieus in their countries. A transition to fascist forms of rule cannot be ruled out. In February 2021, a military coup took place in Myanmar. The coup served the purpose of annulling the results of the November 2020 elections. The military’s representatives had performed very poorly in those elections. The coup, the bloody suppression of the opposition, and also the preceding persecution and expulsion of the Rohingya Muslim minority show how fragile the process of democratization can be.

The opposing movement began in 2011 with the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, the attempt to implement democracy and political freedom in the Arab states failed, with the exception of Tunisia. But even after the Arab Spring, almost not a month went by without hundreds of thousands of people in some nation around the world protesting against a repressive regime and demanding a democratic republic. In the past 12 months, these protests demanding “regime change” took place primarily in Sudan, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Belarus, and Thailand. In addition, there have been Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the U.S. and around the world, which at their core also call for a democratic republic, and one in which structural racism no longer exists.

Kant’s reason-law variant of the Enlightenment is unique in the history of philosophy. It is still so relevant today because, without religious and natural law additions, it justified the necessity of the democratic republic with the reason of all people. Its epistemology, its ethics and its philosophy of history are based on a central ability that is common to all human beings: the ability to use reason. According to Kant, and subsequently also in Hegel, reason forms the creative core of our intellectual activity, our world of thoughts, in which ideas arise. It enables us to transcend our previous thinking, to think new purposes, goals, relations and to invent means for their realization. It is expressed in the modern bourgeois sciences, in political self-determination in the democratic republic and in our everyday life, in our thinking and in our language.

Gramsci had the 300-year struggle of modern science against the dogmas of the Catholic Church begin in the “Prison Notebooks” during the Italian Renaissance. In particular, scientists in the Renaissance began to question the Roman Catholic Church’s scientific view of the world, in which the sun revolved around the earth. Kant, himself a scientist in the field of cosmology, was at the end of this development. He refuted all the proofs of the existence of God that were common at the time and outlined an epistemology based on reason and the doctrine of the concept. In times of the corona pandemic and the global climate crisis, we must rely more than ever on the sciences – or rather on the consensus reached in the sciences worldwide. Kant’s theory of the democratic republic is based on a central premise: the citizens of the republic must mutually recognize each other as rational beings. Reason is necessary to design laws in the democratic republic that regulate a being-ought. These laws determine the social norms and relations into the future. In making the laws, all ideas and opinions must be heard in a free debate and everyone participates with a voice in the democratic process. Humanity, according to Kant, should live under laws of its own making. More on this topic and on the ethical core of the democratic republic – the categorical imperative – in the book “Gramsci’s Plan – Kant and the Enlightenment”. Kant defended the 1st French Republic from 1792 to 1794 because it conformed to the principles he outlined. Fifty years later, Marx called democracy the solved riddle of all constitutions. In Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks,” Kant’s “German theory of the French Revolution” (Marx) becomes the basis for his theory of bourgeois hegemony in modern enlightened societies. Kant’s philosophical justification of the democratic republic is still the most appropriate today to ground the civil and human rights proclaimed before the French National Assembly in 1789, to provide society with a form of political development in which everyone has a voice and in which dissent is permanently enshrined as a principle of cognition.