Poland's Communist Party voted tonight to expel its former leader, Edward Gierek, together with several other of the country's most powerful politicians during the past decade.

A closed session of the emergency party congress decided to impose the highest punishment possible on Gierek, marking the first time a former party chief has been stripped of his membership. Gierek already had been forced to resign as party leader following massive workers' strikes last year.

Congress sources said there was little opposition to the expulsion resolution, with Gierek and his associates personally blamed for policies that caused last August's labor unrest and the subsequent political and economic crisis. The congress overrode earlier attempts by the present leadership to proceed more cautiously against Gierek, who has been a party member for more than 40 years.

Deputy Priemier Mieczyslaw Rakowski, only hours before the move against Gierek, had accused the outgoing Politburo and Central Committee of indecisiveness and "lurching from crisis to crisis," risking the trust of the nation by leaving reformist initiative to the independent Solidarity trade union federation.

Rakowski's speech won thunderous applause, an indication of the mood among delegates that led to Gierek's expulsion a short time later. It came against a background of bruising procedural disputes over how to elect a new leader. The issue was resolved when the congress decided to vote by secret ballot only after electing a Central Committee, depriving First Secretary Stanislaw Kania of a swift endorsement for his leadership during the six critical months since he took over.

A 55-year-old magazine editor and deputy premier in charge of negotiations with Solidarity, Rakowski has been mentioned as an outside candidate for party leader should Kania fail to be reelected. A more likely contender, also from the reformist wing of the party, is the Gdansk party chief, Tadeusz Fiszbach, who is popular among the rank and file.

"We have to elect a leadership which will be courageous and able to regain the trust of the people," Rakowski said. "We can Defeat the enemies of socialism not by words, but by stripping them of the initiative . . . If we act wisely, instead of being the sick man of Europe, Poland can emerge as an inspiration for socialism."

Despite Kania's failure to win immediate endorsement from the delegates, he is rated a good chance of being reelected. But his backing among the 1,955 delegates at the meeting is not nearly as solid as originally believed, and he could face significant opposition.

After a generally lukewarm response to Kania's restrained keynote address yesterday, it was left to Rakowski to give a dose of inspiration to the congress. In a speech that attracted much greater applause then any other yet heard, he said the party had to shake loose its apathy and become "the most courageous force in the country."

The only alternative to reform is a "bloodbath" and an unrestrained conflict between authorities and people that would mean the end of Poland, he added.

Rakowski accused party conservatives -- whom he described as "not numerous but strategically placed" -- of blocking reforms. He said they exploited the psychological fear of change by dubbing any attempts at reform "concessions" to antisocialist forces.

Expelled from the party along with Gierek were a former premier, Edward Babiuch; former propaganda chief Jerzy Lukaszewicz, and three other former Politburo members. They were jointly accused of responsibility for Poland's political and economic crisis.

The present leadership had earlier hoped to conclude an investigation into Gierek's responsibility for the crisis before the start of the congress. But rank-and-file delegates insisted that the agenda of the meeting be expanded to cover this point.

Despite the talk of reform, there also were some other jarring chords. Some delegates called for a tougher line with Solidarity. The Czechoslovak representative, Politburo member Antonin Kapek, warned of what happened in his country in 1968 when attempts were made to give socialism "a human face."

Kapek said Czechoslovak Communists had been grateful for the criticism of the Polish Party during the 1968 reform movement that ended in a Soviet-led invasion. Similarly, he said, the Polish Communist Party should now pay heed to the advice of its socialist friends.

The most obvious hard-line candidate seeking Kania's job is Tadeusz Grabski, who led an unsuccessful attempt last month to depose him following a critical Soviet letter to the Polish leadership. While his supporters are apparently well organized, he is generally seen as having little chance.