Upon his return to Poland, Gierek became active in the PZPR. From 1949 to 1954 he was a secretary of the Provincial Committee of the PZPR in Katowice. In 1954 he became a member of the PZPR's Central Committee.
During 1956–1970 Gierek continued his rise in the party, holding a series of increasingly important posts. Following workers' riots in December 1970, he was appointed head of the PZPR and the Polish state.
As Poland's premier, Gierek tried to change the political and economic systems instituted by his predecessor, Władysław Gomułka. Economically, Gierek tried to emulate a Western model that emphasized increased consumption of consumer goods. To cover the cost of his program, he borrowed enormous sums of money from West European countries and private banks. By the mid-1970s, however, the Polish economy had overheated. Capital investments ebbed, leaving myriad factory projects incomplete, while consumer products became scarce. As a result, the government introduced price increases and limited consumption.
Diplomatically, Gierek sought to act as a bridge between the Soviet Union and the West. He initiated and refereed (on Moscow's directives) talks among the Soviets, Americans, French, and Germans. For a time, he had been center stage in détente, which by the mid-1970s had eased Cold War tensions and slowed the arms race. Gierek was also among the politicians who signed the Helsinki Accords, guaranteeing international human rights.
In 1976, consumer price increases precipitated strikes, riots, and demonstrations throughout Poland. They were brutally quashed, and many demonstrators were heavily fined or imprisoned. The signing of the Helsinki Accords and the 1976 riots led to the formation and growth of a strong underground opposition movement. Although Gierek tried to control the opposition, he was never completely successful.
In the summer of 1980 Poland again witnessed widespread unrest after a series of price increases. The turmoil gave rise to the independent trade union Solidarity. Gierek's policies were blamed for the latest crisis, and in September 1980 he was forced to resign. In 1981 he was expelled from the party, forcing him from politics and public life. Thereafter, he retired; however, after the momentous changes of 1989 he initiated a campaign intended to prove that his economic and political policies were misjudged. Gierek died in Warsaw on 29 July 2001.
Paczkowski, Andrzej. The Spring Will Be Ours: Poland and the Poles from Occupation to Freedom. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.