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 (1966–69) (BA) (Honours thesis 1969, "George Orwell: Socialist Pamphleteer") and the University of Oxford (BPhil). He joined La Trobe University in Melbourne in its early years, and remained there until retirement in 2012. He is Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow and Convenor of The Ideas & Society Program at La Trobe.
He is married to journalist and social philosopher Anne Manne.
Robert Manne's interests are broad, and include 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.
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. 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). He 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.
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.". 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.
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.
- Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (1999).
- In 2005 he was voted Australia’s leading public intellectual in a survey conducted by The Sydney Morning Herald.
- Festschrift volume: Tavan Gwenda (ed.). 2013. State of the Nation: Essays for Robert Manne. Melbourne: Black Inc.
- Shortlisted for the Melbourne Prize for Literature, 2012.
- API Top Australian Public Intellectuals (number 1)
- Manne R. 1983. The New Conservatism in Australia. Oxford University Press.
- Manne, R. 1987. The Petrov Affair: Politics and Espionage. ISBN 0-08-034425-9
- Manne, R. 1989. Agent of influence: The life and times of Wilfred Burchett. Mackenzie Institute for the Study of Terrorism, Revolution and Propaganda.
- Manne, R. and J. Carroll (ed). 1992. Shutdown: The Failure of Economic Rationalism and How to Rescue Australia. Melbourne: Text Inc. ISBN 1-86372-008-1
- Manne, R. 1994. The Shadow of 1917: Cold War Conflict in Australia. Text Pub. Co. ISBN 1-875847-03-0
- Manne, R. 1996. The Culture of Forgetting: Helen Demidenko and the Holocaust. Melbourne: Text Inc. ISBN 1-875847-26-X
- Manne, R. 1996. In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right. Self published.
- Manne, R. 1998. The Way We Live Now: Controversies of the 90's. Melbourne: Text Publishing.
- Manne, R. (ed.). 1999. The Australian Century: Political Struggle in the Building of a Nation. Melbourne: Text Publishing. ISBN 1-875847-21-9
- Manne, R. 2001. The barren years: John Howard and Australian political culture. Melbourne: Text Publishing.
- Manne, R. (ed.). 2003. Whitewash. On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Melbourne: Black Inc. Agenda. ISBN 0-9750769-0-6
- Manne, R. (ed.). 2004. The Howard Years. Melbourne: Black Inc. / Schwartz Publishing
- Manne, R. (ed.) 2005. Do Not Disturb: Is the Media Failing Australia? Schwartz Publishing. ISBN 0-9750769-4-9
- Manne, R 2005. Left, Right, Left: Political Essays 1977-2005. Schwartz Publishing. ISBN 1-86395-142-3
- Manne, R and Beilharz, P. (eds). 2006. Reflected Light: La Trobe Essays. Black Inc., Melbourne.
- Manne, R (ed.) 2009. W.E.H. Stanner, The Dreaming and Other Essays. Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne.
- Manne, R (ed.) 2008. Dear Mr Rudd: Ideas for a Better Australia. Black Inc, Melbourne.
- Manne, R and D. McKnight (eds.) 2010, Goodbye to All That? On the Failure of Neo-Liberalism and the Urgency of Change. Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne.
- Manne, R 2011. Making Trouble: Essays Against the New Australian Complacency. Melbourne: Black Inc.
- Manne, R., and C.Feik (eds.) 2012. The Words that Made Australia: How a Nation Came to Know Itself. Black Inc., Melbourne.
- Manne, R. (ed.) 2013. The Best Australian Essays 2013. Melbourne: Black, Inc.
- Manne, R. (ed.) 2014. The Best Australian Essays 2014. Melbourne: Black, Inc.
- 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).
- [dead link]
- Overington, Caroline; Romei, Stephen (19 August 2011). "Robert Manne of The Monthly no longer". The Australian.
- Manne's profile at La Trobe University
- Articles by Manne at The Monthly
- Articles by Manne at The Guardian