Born in Melbourne, Manne's earliest political consciousness was formed by the fact that his parents were Jewish refugees from Europe and his grandparents were victims of the Holocaust. He was educated at the University of Melbourne (BA) and the University of Oxford (BPhil) during the 1960s and 1970s. His university teaching focuses on twentieth-century European politics (including the Holocaust), Communism, and Australian politics, and he has undertaken research in areas such as censorship, anti-semitism, asylum seekers and mandatory detention, Australia's involvement in the Iraq war, the Stolen Generations, and the "history wars" of the 1990s.
He is married to journalist and social philosopher Anne Manne.
Robert Manne taught a number of classes at La Trobe University at Bundoora in suburban Melbourne. These included Australian Political Culture, Politics in the Twentieth Century, and The Holocaust as a Problem for the Social Sciences. He also supervised postgraduate students in the areas of Australian Political Culture and European politics in the twentieth century. His research included funded projcts on Aboriginal Child Removal Policies in 1999-2000, and in 2003-2005, the ARC Linkage Grant: Refugee Repatriation Policies. His recent academic research work investigates "The Question of Repatriation of Refugees from Australia", and "The Australian Media and the Invasion of Iraq".
Manne's allegiances within the Australian political scene have moved from left to right, then back to left again; he titled a compendium of his political essays Left, Right, Left. Between 1989 and 1997 Manne edited the conservative magazine Quadrant, resigning when his editorial policies diverged from the views of the magazine's management committee. Since Manne had been appointed to the position of editor on the strength of his previous anti-Communist publications and his reputation as a conservative, there was widespread anger among some people associated with Quadrant during his editorship that he was trying to push the magazine to the left. Since leaving the magazine he has published various attacks on it and upon his predecessors, Peter Coleman and Roger Sandall, and successors, P. P. McGuinness and Keith Windshuttle as editors. In 1996 he published a widely discussed and cited book, The Culture of Forgetting, which explored the controversy surrounding Helen Demidenko's 1994 Miles Franklin Award winning novel about the Holocaust, The Hand that Signed the Paper.
Robert Manne edited the 2003 anthology, Whitewash. On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History, as a rebuttal to Keith Windschuttle's claims disputing there was widespread genocide against Indigenous Australians and the existence of a widespread guerrilla warfare against British settlement. Contributors included well known researcher into the frontier conflict, Professor Henry A. Reynolds, and Professor Lyndall Ryan, whose book The Aboriginal Tasmanians is one of the main targets of Windschuttle’s work. Among Manne's other books are The New Conservatism in Australia (1982), In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right (2001), and Do Not Disturb (2005). Other current professional involvements from Manne include being the Chair of the Australian Book Review, a board member of The Brisbane Institute, and a member of the board of the Stolen Generations Taskforce in Victoria.
Manne was the Chairman of the Editorial Board of The Monthly, a national magazine of politics, society and the arts, from February 2006 until he resigned on August 18, 2011 "in order to focus on his writing, including a new blog to be published on The Monthly's website."  His blog, entitled Left, Right, Left, had its first post on September 12. Manne's departure as chairman resulted in the editorial board's dissolution, with Monthly editor Ben Naparstek announcing, "We're not going to have one any more."
Over the years, a range of political, economic, philosophical, and academic figures have been influential on Manne, from across the political spectrum. These have included Primo Levi, Václav Havel, George Orwell, Richard Pipes, Sven Lindqvist, Friedrich Hayek, Eric Hobsbawm, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Stiglitz.
- The Petrov Affair: Politics and Espionage (1987) ISBN 0-08-034425-9
- Shutdown: The Failure of Economic Rationalism and How to Rescue Australia (1992)(ed) ISBN 1-86372-008-1
- The Shadow of 1917: Cold War Conflict in Australia (1994) ISBN 1-875847-03-0
- The Culture of Forgetting: Helen Demidenko and the Holocaust (1996) ISBN 1-875847-26-X
- The Australian Century: Political Struggle in the Building of a Nation (1999) (ed) ISBN 1-875847-21-9
- Whitewash. On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History, (2003) (ed) ISBN 0-9750769-0-6
- Do Not Disturb: Is the Media Failing Australia? (2005) (ed) ISBN 0-9750769-4-9
- Left, Right, Left: Political Essays 1977-2005 (2005) ISBN 1-86395-142-3
- Manne, R and Beilharz, P (eds), 2006, Reflected Light: La Trobe Essays, Black Inc., Melbourne.
- Manne, R 2009, W.E.H. Stanner, The Dreaming and Other Essays, (edited & introduced), Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne.
- Manne, R (ed.) 2008, Dear Mr Rudd: Ideas for a Better Australia, Black Inc, Melbourne.
- Manne, R and David McKnight (eds.) 2010, Goodbye to All That? On the Failure of Neo-Liberalism and the Urgency of Change, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne.
- Making Trouble: Essays Against the New Australian Complacency, Black Inc., (2011)
- Manne, R., and C.Feik (eds.) 2012. The Words that Made Australia: How a Nation Came to Know Itself. Black Inc., Melbourne.
- QE01 In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right (2001) ISBN 978-1-86395-107-4
- QE13 Sending Them Home: Refugees and the New Politics of Indifference (2003) ISBN 978-1-86395-141-8 - With David Corlett
- QE43 Bad News: Murdoch's Australian and the Shaping of the Nation (2011) ISBN 978-1-86395-544-7
- Manne, Robert (March 2006). "Little America: How John Howard has Changed Australia". The Monthly (10). Retrieved 3 April 2014.
- Manne, Robert (March 2009). "Neo-Liberal Meltdown: The Response to the Prime Minister's Essay". The Monthly (43): 20–26. Retrieved 13 May 2009.
- Manne, Robert (March 2011). "The Cypherpunk Revolutionary: Julian Assange". The Monthly (65). Retrieved 3 April 2014.
- Manne, Robert (August 2012). "A Dark Victory: How vested interests defeated climate science". The Monthly (81). Retrieved 3 April 2014.
- Manne, Robert (November 2013). "Why Rupert Murdoch can't be Stopped: The political empire of the News Corp chairman". The Monthly (95). Retrieved 3 April 2014.
- "Life and death on the slippery slope". Quadrant 39 (7-8): 2–3. (Jul-Aug 1995).
- Manne's profile at La Trobe University
- Articles by Manne at The Monthly
- Articles by Manne at The Guardian