He was born in Tours, Indre-et-Loire and studied in Paris where he befriended fellow student Jean-Paul Sartre at the Lycée Henri IV. He became a member of the French Communist Party, and much of his writing reflects his political beliefs, although he resigned from the party upon hearing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. He died in the Battle of Dunkirk, fighting against the German army in World War II.
His works include the novels Antoine Bloye (1933), Le Cheval de Troie [The Trojan Horse] and La Conspiration [The Conspiracy] (1938), as well as the essays "Les Chiens de garde" ["The Watchdogs"] (1932) and "Aden Arabie" (1931), which introduced him to a new audience when it was republished in 1960 with a foreword by Sartre. In particular, the opening sentence "I was twenty, I won't let anyone say those are the best years of your life" (J’avais vingt ans. Je ne laisserai personne dire que c’est le plus bel âge de la vie.) became one of the most influential slogans of student protest during May '68.
Nizan was born to a middle-class family, his father having worked in rail prior to the First World War. Nizan's father's course through the bureaucracy of French industry would later form the basis of Antoine Bloye, and serve as a significant point of development for Nizan's understanding of social alienation. After finishing his studies, and after a trip to Algeria which Nizan would draw upon for his first novella, Aden Arabie, Nizan entered into a number of miscellaneous jobs around the Communist Party of France (PCF), writing for its journal prominently and even, at one point, running a party bookshop in Paris. Nizan later took up a professorship teaching literature, during which time he took on a reputation among students as an affable and relaxed professor, sometimes even offering his students cigarettes during class. As a teacher, he was reticent about his own perspective on Marxist theory, instead encouraging his students to arrive independently at their own conclusions. Through this period, up to the onset of WWII, Nizan penned all of his major works, including "The Watchdogs", an expose on materialist philosophy, and the novels Antoine Bloye and The Conspiracy.
In 1939, however, news of the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union forced Nizan to abandon the French Communist Party. Given his active participation in the anti-fascist movement, as well as his commitment to the republican cause of the Spanish Civil War, Nizan could not accept the party's rapid shift against the popular front. Soon thereafter, Nizan enlisted to fight in the French army with the onset of World War II, and was killed in the opening phases of the Nazi occupation.
Nizan's politics took a number of sporadic turns throughout the course of his life, with Sartre noting that Nizan in his youth had vacillated between fascist and communist sympathies, attracted to both extremes of the political spectrum. Nizan also approached the priesthood as a young man, but soon turned away from that decision. Eventually, Nizan settled on membership in the Communist Party of France, under whose auspices Nizan's public life as an author began. Within the party, Nizan wrote extensively for official communist publications and had his works sold in party bookstores, although his most celebrated work today is his fiction. In his various novels, Nizan explores modern alienation, as well as the situation of the radical petit-bourgeois milieu caught between contending class forces. While Nizan was a loyal adherent to the policies of the PCF, his writings anticipate elements of postwar radical existentialism, leaving the contemporary reader with an ambiguous image of Nizan's political standing.
- Emmanuel Todd, his grandson
- Paul Nizan, Aden, Arabie, MR Press, 1968.
- Paul Nizan, The Conspiracy, Verso Books, 2012.
- Lawrence D. Kritzman (ed.), The Columbia History Of Twentieth-Century French Thought, Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 62.
- Daniel Singer, Prelude to revolution: France in May 1968, South End Press, 2002, pp. 106, 110.
- Freccero, Nizan? siamo in grande primavera, Ansa, June 20, 2012.
- Sartre, Paul (1960). Preface to Aden Arabie.
- Nizan, Paul. "Marxist Internet Archive". various, from 1929 to 1938. Retrieved 29 June 2013.