Naville was born in 1903 in Paris, to a family of Swiss Protestant bankers.
Surrealist from its earliest times
He was co-editor with Benjamin Péret for the three first numbers of La Révolution Surréaliste, founded the Bureau de Recherches Surréalistes (1924) and participated in surrealist activities with André Breton before eventually opposing Surrealism because of his political divergences from the emerging Surrealist orthodoxy.
In 1926, Naville joined the French Communist Party (PCF), for which he managed the publication Clarté. He was part of a delegation which visited Leon Trotsky in Moscow in 1927. He returned convinced by Trotsky's arguments and was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 for deviationism. From this point onwards he participated in the life of the French Trotskyist extreme left and notably its publications. However, he became less and less convinced by Trotsky's position and broke with the group in 1939. He then organised attempts to create a Marxist left, devoid of Communist and Trotskyist trappings, whose publication was called Revue Internationale.
Initially passing through the PSU, Naville continued to search for a modern left in the PSG, then the UGS, before taking part in the re-establishment of the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU) under the Fifth Republic. He remained loyal to this party in spite of his opposition to the "realists" (Gilles Martinet, Michel Rocard) and showed total rejection of François Mitterrand.
Psycho-sociology of work
Appointed director of research at the CNRS in 1947, he worked with Georges Friedmann at the Centre d'études sociologiques, dedicating his work to the psychosociology of work and the study of automation, industrial society, the psychology of comportment, and the strategists and theoreticians of the war, notably Carl von Clausewitz. He supervised the French translation and publication of the Complete Works of von Clausewitz.
The laboratory of research in social sciences and management at the University of Évry Val d'Essonne bears his name.
- Les Reines de la main gauche, 1924
- La Révolution et les Intellectuels, 1926
- Les Jacobins noirs (Toussaint-Louverture et la Révolution de Saint-Domingue) with Cyril Lionel Robert James
- La Guerre du Viêt-Nam, 1949
- Le Nouveau Léviathan, 1957–1975
- Trotsky Vivant, 1962
- Autogestion et Planification, 1980
- De la Guerre, translated from Carl Von Clausewitz with Denise Naville and Camille Rougeron
- La Psychologie, science du comportement, 1942
- Psychologie, marxisme, matérialisme, 1948
- La Chine Future, 1952
- La Vie de Travail et ses Problèmes, 1954
- Essai sur la Qualification du Travail, 1956
- Le Traité de Sociologie du Travail, 1961–1962
- L'État entrepreneur: le cas de la régie Renault with Jean-Pierre Bardou, Philippe Brachet and Catherine Lévy, 1971
- Sociologie d'Aujourd'hui, 1981
- Memoirs (Le Temps du surréel, 1977)
- Des sociologies face à Pierre Naville ou l'archipel des savoirs – Centre Pierre Naville
- Les logiques de la découverte et celles de l'action par Pierre Rolle in: Pierre Naville, la passion de la connaissance – Michel Eliard, Presses universitaires de Toulouse-le-Mirail, 1996